October 11, 2009

Battle of Valcour remembered on anniversary

Revolutionary War loss gave Americans the time to win


PLATTSBURGH — A local loss was one of the key battles that enabled the United States to win its freedom.

The Saranac Chapter of the New York State Daughters of the American Revolution held its 114th commemoration of the Battle of Valcour Sunday at Clinton Community College. The event marked the 233rd anniversary of the battle, considered a crucial piece of American history because it provided time to strengthen the revolutionary forces.

Susanne Jones, regent of the Saranac DAR chapter, said the patriots fought against superior forces in a fierce battle they knew they could not win. Although the battle was lost, it caused a delay that forced the British forces to eventually return to Canada.

"We honor those patriots who had the courage to fight for their beliefs and the sacrifice they made for our freedom," she said.

Local historian David Glenn presented an overview of the battle and its importance. He said the Revolutionary War was in its 18th month when the battle took place.

"This (Battle of Valcour) is one of the most important battles in American history," Glenn said.

The Americans had captured Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. They were able to capture some vessels and take control of Lake Champlain, then launched an attempt to capture Quebec.

That was a disaster, Glenn said, and the Americans were out of Canada entirely by June 1776. They were then forced into a defensive position as the British moved to split the colonies along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley.

The British constructed a fleet at St. Jean, while the Americans built theirs at Skenesborough, now known as Whitehall.

Benedict Arnold commanded the American fleet. He left Crown Point with 10 vessels on Aug. 24. He arrived at Windmill Point near Rouses Point Sept. 5 but was driven back and brought his 12 vessels to Valcour Island by Sept. 24.

Sir Guy Carleton, governor general of Canada, was in charge of the British fleet and army. He had 1,670 British and Hessian soldiers, 34 vessels and 89 pieces of artillery, compared to 890 soldiers and sailors and 78 guns for the Americans.

The British fleet left Point au Fer in the early morning of Oct. 11. The Americans sighted the fleet later that morning as it went past Cumberland Head, Glenn said.

They allowed the British to sail 2 to 3 miles past Valcour, then emerged from the cover of the island. The battle started at about noon and lasted until dark, probably about 5:30 p.m.

The American vessels were all heavily damaged, with many in danger of sinking. Glenn said that, while many accounts state the Americans slipped through the British line in the dark, he believes they actually went north around Valcour and then proceeded south to Schuyler Island.

In either case, the British awoke on Oct. 12 to find the Americans gone in an unknown direction.

Both sides stayed in place on Oct. 12, then the Americans set sail south. A tough south wind enabled the British to capture several vessels, but Arnold and his troops escaped by land.

Although the victory gave the British control of Lake Champlain, it was too late in the year to conduct a siege of Fort Ticonderoga. The British retreated to near Montreal by Nov. 1, where they spent the winter.

They were able to take the fort in July 1777, but the delay enabled the American Army to become strong enough to win the Battle of Saratoga in October. That led to support from France and Spain, which turned the tide of the war.

"The one thing we needed in 1776 was time," Glenn said.

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