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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Arnold on Lake Champlain
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The battle of Bunker Hill was quickly followed by decided action on the part of Congress, then in session at Philadelphia. An address was made to the king and people of Great Britain, and the world was advised of the reason of the appeal to arms. "We are reduced," said they, "to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery." An army of twenty thousand men was ordered to be enlisted, and George Washington was elected commander-in-chief of all the colonial forces.

Washington, who refused any compensation for his services, soon proceeded to Cambridge, where he undertook to organize the army there present. The task was a difficult one. The militia were undisciplined, and destitute of most of the requirements of an army. But by his energy and skill, and the assistance of General Gates, the men were reduced to discipline, stores collected, and a regular siege instituted.

While this was being performed, the authority of the royal governors everywhere ended in the colonies. The only one who made any effort to retain his power was Lord Dunmore, of Virginia. He seized a quantity of the public powder and placed it on board a vessel, but was forced to pay for it by an armed body of people, led by Patrick Henry. He then retired to a man-of-war, armed some vessels, and manned them with slaves to whom he promised freedom. He attacked the provincials near Norfolk, but sustained a severe defeat. In revenge for this he soon after burned Norfolk to the ground. He then retired, and royal government ceased to exist in America.

As the capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point opened an easy gateway to Canada, it was determined to invade that province. This was done partly to anticipate the British, who appeared to design an invasion from that quarter, and partly with the belief that success would induce the Canadians to join the revolted colonies. A force under Generals Schuyler and Montgomery passed up Lake Champlain and besieged St. John's, the frontier post of Canada. During the siege, Ethan Allen, with eighty men, rashly assailed Montreal. He was defeated, captured, and sent in irons to England. Schuyler having retired through illness, Montgomery captured St. John's on November 3, and proceeded to Montreal, which surrendered on the 13th.

Meanwhile, a force of one thousand men under General Benedict Arnold was marching north through Maine. This march through the unbroken wilderness was one of extraordinary difficulty and hardship. A part of the force turned back, and it was with but six hundred exhausted and half-starved men that Arnold reached Point Levi, opposite Quebec, on November 13. Without delay he crossed the St. Lawrence, ascended the heights which Wolfe had scaled before him, and marshalled his small force on the Plains of Abraham. As the garrison could not be induced to assail him, and as his force was too small to attempt to storm the walls, he retired, and awaited the arrival of Montgomery from Montreal.

Their united forces numbered but nine hundred men, but with these, on the last day of the year, they made an early morning attack on Quebec, in the midst of a driving snow-storm. At the very beginning of the assault Montgomery, with several of his officers, fell dead before the discharge of a cannon loaded with grape. Their men retreated in disorder, and the garrison turned against Arnold, who had entered the town. He received a ball in the leg, and was, almost by compulsion, removed from the field. The contest continued for several hours, but ended in the surrender of a portion of Arnold's force, while the remainder retired.

Reinforcements being received, the siege of the city was kept up until the following May, when a British fleet ascended the St. Lawrence, and the Americans were forced to retreat. Step by step they were driven back, until obliged to evacuate Canada entirely. Carleton, the Canadian governor, soon followed, and both sides prepared to contest the possession of Lake Champlain, building ships, and sailing to meet each other on that inland sea. As this was the first naval battle ever fought between England and America, and as it was contested by the Americans with consummate skill and courage, a detailed description of it must prove of interest to readers. We select a fully-detailed narrative of the engagement from Isaac N. Arnold's "Life of Benedict Arnold."]

Sir Guy Carleton early saw the importance of obtaining naval supremacy on these waters, that he might bring the English troops to Ticonderoga, within convenient distance of Albany, looking to a junction ultimately with the king's forces from the city of New York, and thereby separating and isolating New England from the other States. These lakes and their connections formed the most practicable route by which the United States could be invaded from Canada; and both parties, in the summer of 1776, prepared vigorously to contest their control.

Carleton, the British leader, had many advantages over Gates and Arnold in the race of preparation. He had contractors and ship-builders from England, and naval stores in abundance from the fleet in the St. Lawrence and from Quebec. The English admiralty contributed liberally in material for ship-building and in naval equipments. It sent out three vessels of war fully prepared for service; more than two hundred flat-bottomed boats were built at Montreal and taken to St. John's; and the larger vessels, unable to ascend the rapids, were taken to pieces and reconstructed at the last-mentioned place. One of these, the Inflexible, was a three-masted ship, carrying twenty twelve-pound guns and ten smaller guns. About seven hundred experienced sailors, and the very best of young naval officers, were selected from the vessels of war and transports to man and command the lake fleet.

The Americans had to cut from the forest every stick of timber for the additions to their small fleet. All their naval stores and material had to be brought from tide-water and the Atlantic, over roads nearly impassable. They lacked money, skilled ship-builders, naval stores,--everything; still, they were zealous, active, hopeful, and energetic. General Arnold, having some knowledge of ships, ship-building, and navigation, was selected to superintend the construction of the fleet, and to command it when ready for service. .

He was constantly going to and fro, urging on the work, making requisition for mechanics, for seamen, for naval stores, for ordnance, for everything necessary to build, equip, arm, and man his little fleet. But no degree of energy and activity could enable him to equal the armament which Sir Guy Carleton could bring from the St. Lawrence to the theatre of conflict. . On the Ist of October, Arnold, writing to Gates, complains that the sea-men have not been sent, and hopes he shall be excused " if with five hundred men, half naked," he should not be able to beat the enemy in their overwhelming numbers and complete preparation. He sends for shot, musket-balls, buckshot, grenades, clothing, and "one hundred sea-men,--no landlubbers."

Gates replies on the 3d, and sends what he can, but says, "What is not to be had, you and the princes of the earth must go unprovided with.". .

Gates gave to Arnold careful instructions, and, among other directions, said, "Should the enemy come up the lake and attempt to force their way through the pass you are stationed to defend, in that case you will act with such cool, determined valor as will give them reason to repent of their temerity."

The time at which the desperate struggle for supremacy between the fleet of Arnold and that of Sir Guy Carleton approached, Schuyler, Gates, Washington,-- all were conscious of the great superiority of the British. All were anxious, but each indulged hope, arising mainly from the desperate valor of Arnold. Knowing his inferiority in ships, in weight of metal, and in men, Arnold avoided the possibility of an encounter on the open lake, where he might have been flanked or surrounded, by anchoring his fleet in a line between Valcour Island and the western shore. In this position, the rear being unapproachable, and his line extending across the channel, he could be attacked in front only. This was the first time an American fought a British fleet. .

The British fleet consisted of the Inflexible, a large, three-masted ship, two schooners, the Lady Mary and the Carleton, a floating battery called the Thunderer, twenty gun-boats, besides long-boats and transports. "They had," says Bancroft, " more than twice his [Arnold's] weight of metal, and twice as many fighting-vessels, and skilled sea-men and officers against landsmen." As has been stated, the British armed vessels were manned by about seven hundred selected seamen and well-trained gunners. Captain Pringle, of the British navy, commanded, but Carleton was himself on board, and among the many young officers was Edward Pellew, afterwards distinguished as Admiral Viscount Exmouth. This fleet carried ninetythree guns, some of them of heavy calibre. The fleet of Arnold consisted of three schooners, two sloops, three galleys, and eight gondolas, carrying in all seventy guns.

Early on the morning of the 11th of October, the guardboats, stationed as sentinels, gave notice that the British fleet was approaching, and it soon appeared off Cumberland Head, moving before a fair wind up the lake. Carleton came on, conscious of his greatly superior strength, with his battle-flags proudly flying, and when the fleet of Arnold was discovered, moored in the passage behind Valcour Island, Captain Pringle expressed his belief that they would not encounter much resistance, and he anticipated an easy victory; but Carleton, remembering Quebec, knew that Arnold would fight to desperation. As the enemy approached, the Americans made ready to receive them. As they advanced around the southern point of Valcour Island and attempted to beat up towards the channel in which the Americans had formed their line of battle, the large ships fell behind. Arnold, who rarely waited to be attacked, determined to take advantage of the wind and attack the smaller vessels, which were in advance, before the large ones could beat up to their assistance. With the schooner Royal Savage, and three galleys, he went to meet the British, and opened a rapid fire, but was gradually pushed back by superior force, and attempting to return to the line, in beating back, the Royal Savage, with its inexperienced crew, went aground and was abandoned,--Arnold losing his baggage and all his papers, but the men were saved.

At half-past twelve, the British having brought all their gun-boats and schooners within musket-shot of the American line, the action became general, and from the shore of the mainland to the island the hostile fleets fired at close range. Arnold, in the Congress galley, to which he had gone after abandoning the Royal Savage, anchored in the hottest part of the fire, and here, with obstinate determination, he held his position against all odds till five o'clock in the afternoon, when the enemy retired. During this long afternoon, a terrific cannonade of round- and grapeshot was continually kept up, and a constant blaze of rifles by a large body of Indians in the covers of the forest on the shores of the island and the mainland. But, as Arnold had taken the precaution to protect his men and his ships by fascines attached to the sides of the vessels, the rifles did little execution. So terrific was the cannonade that the roar of the heavy guns is said to have been heard at Crown Point. The Congress and the Washington galleys received the most injury. Arnold, in the former, which was armed with two eighteen-pounders, two twelves, and two sixes, fought with desperate heroism. In the absence of experienced gunners, he pointed most of the pieces him-self, passing rapidly from gun to gun, and firing as fast as they could be loaded. The vessel received seven shots between wind and water, was hulled twelve times, the mainmast was wounded in two places, the rigging cut to pieces; yet, in this condition, and with dead and wounded all around him, he refused to yield or retreat, but hour after hour, for five hours, cheered on his men by word and example, until, as night approached, the British withdrew, retiring from an enemy commanded by a man who would never know that he was beat, and who would rather go down with flags flying than surrender.

The Washington galley was nearly as badly shattered as the Congress, the first lieutenant killed, and the captain and master wounded. The New York lost all her officers except her captain. The Philadelphia was hulled in so many places that she sunk one hour after the engagement. The whole number of killed and wounded was about eighty.

Never has there been exhibited a more striking illustration of Arnold's wonderful power of leadership and ability to inspire his men with heroic bravery, and power to make militia fight with unflinching courage, than on this occasion.

As darkness fell over the scene of this terrible conflict, the British commander posted his fleet across the channel through which Arnold must pass to effect his escape, with the expectation that in the morning, with his greatly superior force, he would capture the whole American flotilla. Arnold, however, determined to make an effort to escape, and, if he failed, to destroy his ships, land his men, and fight his way through the Indians to Crown Point. . It was a hazy night, and a fair wind had sprung up from the north, and so, each vessel, putting out every light except a single signal-lantern in the stern, to guide the ship that followed, attempted to pass through the British lines.

As the darkness of the misty night gathered over the waters, the first vessel started, and in breathless silence one by one the whole flotilla glided through, between the hostile vessels,--Arnold in the Congress, bringing up the rear, and, as usual, the last to leave, as he was ever the first to reach, the post of danger. They were undiscovered. It was skilfully, gallantly, admirably done; and now, with a fresh breeze, the crippled vessels bore away as rapidly as possible up the lake. Using all possible expedition, the fleet reached Schuyler's Island, some twelve miles from the scene of the battle; and here they were compelled to lay to, and stop the leaks in their vessels and repair damages. .

Two of the gondolas were so badly injured that they had to be abandoned and sunk. In the afternoon the remainder of the crippled flotilla again got under way; but the wind gradually ceased, and soon a breeze sprung up from the south, retarding their advance, so that very little progress could be made by beating and rowing. The next morning, as the fog rose and the sun came out, the whole British fleet, with every sail set, was seen crowding down upon them. The crippled Congress, with Arnold on board, the Washington, and some gondolas, were in the rear. All the others, with every inch of canvas spread, and urged to the utmost, were flying towards Crown Point. It was but a short time, however, before the enemy came up and opened fire on the Congress, the Washington, and the gondolas. After receiving a few broadsides, the Washington struck her colors; but Arnold had no thought of surrender. He determined with the Congress and the crippled gondolas to fight the whole fleet of the enemy, and so retard their advance that the remainder of his vessels might make good their escape,-- to sacrifice himself, if necessary, to their safety. He received the whole fire of the hostile fleet. A ship mounting twelve eighteen-pound guns, a schooner of fourteen six-pounders, and another of twelve sixes, two under her stern and one on her broadside, poured their concentrated fire of round and grape-shot into the already disabled Congress. These vessels kept up an incessant fire for four hours upon this one ship, which Arnold returned as best he could. Thus the English fleet was delayed, and the remainder of his own were making good their escape. The Congress was so disabled she could not fly, and Arnold would not surrender. Her sails, rigging, and hull were shattered and torn to fragments; the lieutenant killed; the crew, many of them, killed and wounded. Still her stern commander had no thought of striking his flag, and continued the contest, until still other vessels of the enemy arrived, and he found himself surrounded with seven sail, each pouring in upon the hapless Congress broadside after broadside; and still, in the openings of the enemy's sails, and of the smoke of their guns, which thickly enveloped him, his flag could be seen still flying.

His ship was now a complete wreck, and as he could fight no more, he managed to break through the vessels which surrounded him, and ran the Congress and the gondolas into a small creek; and, ordering the marines to leap overboard and wade ashore with their small-arms, he then set fire to the ship and the gondolas, and, protected from the approach of small boats by the muskets of the marines, he lingered until the fire had extended too far to be extinguished, and then, his flag still flying, and ordering all his men ashore, he himself the last to leave, leaped from the bowsprit to the beach, and both he and his men, escaping an Indian ambuscade by taking an unusual route, arrived in safety at Crown Point, and passed on to Ticonderoga. Where has there been a braver fight? Well may the sober Mr. Sparks, roused by the magnetism of such conduct, exclaim, "There are few instances on record of more deliberate courage and gallantry than were displayed by him from beginning to end of this action." . .

"Such were the skill, bravery, and obstinate resistance of Arnold and his men against a vastly superior force: the event was hailed as ominous of great achievements when such fearful odds did not exist." [Lossing.]

"General Arnold covered himself with glory, and his example appears to have been nobly followed by most of his officers and men. Even the enemy did justice to the resolution and skill with which the American flotilla was managed, the disparity of force rendering victory out of the question from the first. The manner in which the Congress was fought until she had covered the retreat of the galleys, and the stubborn resolution with which she was defended until destroyed, converted the disasters of this part of the day into a species of triumph." [Cooper's Naval History.]

[The above article displays to a certain extent the special pleading of an ardent advocate of General Arnold; yet that the battle was fought with striking bravery, and that Arnold was a man of unusual boldness and intrepidity, is undeniable. Had he been of smaller calibre his subsequent treason would have been of less importance. This action took place after the period fixed for the conclusion of the present volume, but, as it is a direct outcome of the preceding invasion of Canada, we give it here, as a fitting close to that episode. The control of Lake Champlain, gained by it to the British, opened the way to events which were among the most important of the whole war.]

Isaac N. Arnold

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