In the early days of the Revolutionary War, American forces had invaded Canada and scored decisive victories. The British mounted an effort to counter the American attacks and regain their grounds and take the war south into the colonies. Part of that effort involved shipping pre-fabricated parts for gunboats to Canada where some of them were used to construct a new fleet of British gunboats on Lake Champlain which runs from Canada south 163 miles into New York and Vermont. There are around 80 islands in Lake Champlain which has a maximum width of about 14 miles. One of those islands is Valcour Island, not one of the largest islands, but the site of an important British victory over an American fleet.
By September 1776, the American fleet consisted of about 17 ships (1 sloop, 1, cutter, 4 galleys and 8 gunboats. Some of the ships were captured from the British in earlier skirmishes but the majority were quickly built of green lumber with a shortage of supplies by in-experienced carpenters and blacksmiths. The crews of the American fleet consisted largely of untrained volunteers. The American fleet was under the command of General Benedict Arnold.
In the Fall of 1776, Arnold wrote to American General Horatio Gates, Commander of the Northern Department, saying:
“We have a wretched motley crew in the fleet, the marines the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them ever wet with salt water.”
“We are as well prepared for the enemy as our circumstances will allow. They will never have it in their power to surprise us. The men are daily trained in the exercise of their guns. If powder was plenty, I would wish to have them fire at a mark with their great guns often. At present, we cannot afford it.”
The British fleet consisted of 32 ships (1 ship, 2 schooners, 2 gondolas, 1 radeau, 4 longboats and 22 gunboats). They were manned by trained professional British and Hessian sailors and soldiers. British Vice-Admiral Thomas Pringle commanded the British fleet.
On this day, October 11, 1776, the Battle of Lake Champlain, also known as the Battle of Valcour Island, took place between the American and British fleets. Arnold positioned the American fleet on the west side of Valcour Island and waited for the British fleet to sail past to the east when the Americans attacked.
The autumn winds were rather blustery and several of the larger British gunboats had a difficult time maneuvering into the wind. For several hours, both fleets were engaged in fierce fighting. Some of the smaller and more maneuverable British ships manually rowed within musket range of the Americans. Casualties on both sides were high with the American Schooner Royal Savage funning aground on the corner of Valcour Island. Additionally, the American gunboat Philadelphia was sunk from cannon fire.
The fighting broke off when it got dark. Arnold called his officers together and decided to see if they could row past the British line in the dark. With muffled oars, the American fleet quietly rowed south to safety at Schuyler Island. In the escape, Arnold abandoned the gunboats Spitfire and Jersey because they had been so badly damaged during the battle. At Schuyler Island, Arnold tried to plug up the leaks in his ships caused by battle damage and the use of green lumber. The Americans also tried to mend many of their sails.
On October 12, 1776, at daybreak, the British expected to destroy the remains of the American fleet and were greatly surprised to discover that the American fleet had escaped during the night and set off in pursuit.
On October 13,1776, the British fleet caught up with the trailing American vessels. Under threat of total defeat by the British, Arnold ordered his remaining five ships to run aground in Ferris Bay, near Panton, Vermont. Arnold and the remaining Americans left their ships and retreated overland to Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.
The British fleet had successfully driven the American fleet off of Lake Champlain, beginning with the Battle of Valcour Island.
Sources for the above includes: The Battle of Valcour Island; Battle of Valcour Island; Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island; The Battle of Lake Champlain; Benedict Arnold and the Battle of Valcour Island; Rebellion Comes to the Champlain Valley;