PERU — Great Britain’s Sir Guy Carleton faced off against American Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island in the first skirmish of the Revolutionary War on Lake Champlain.
The British had 30 impressive battle ships against what has been called a “motley” band of 15 hastily constructed vessels manned by the American rebels, according to www.historiclakes.org.
If one could have been watching from shore, it would have looked like the Americans had a death wish. The odds were against them, but Arnold instructed his men that they would hide with their vessels in the bay behind Valcour Island, forming a line almost a half-mile wide.
The confident British sailed down Lake Champlain from Quebec for what they thought would be their first military engagement near Crown Point, but the American fleet peeked out from behind the island’s protective bay and enticed the British fleet to engage.
Over the course of the afternoon of Oct. 11, 1776, the British managed to sink several of Arnold’s fleet, including the Royal Savage. Many Americans lost their lives or were taken prisoner, the website says.
‘PRUDENT TO RETIRE’
At about dusk, the battle subsided. Both sides evaluated their damages and positions.
The overly confident British decided to lay low for the night and to finish off the American’s ragamuffin navy come daylight, but Arnold had other plans.
Under cover of darkness, he quietly slipped away from the enemy with his three large ships, the Trumbull, the Congress and the Washington, and drifted into history with his bravery.
His journal says: “... On Consulting with Genl Waterbury & Colonel Wiggilsworth, it was thought prudent to Retire to Crown Point, every Vessells Ammunition being Nearly three fourths spent & the Enemies greatly Superior to us in Ships & Men - at 7 oClock Colonel Wiggilsworth in the Trumbull got under Way, the Gondolas and Small Vessells followed & the Congress & Washington brought up the Rear. the Enemy did not attempt to molest us, most of the fleet is this minute came to An Anchor, the Wind is small to the So-ward, the Enemies fleet is Under way to Leward & beating up — as soon as our Leakes are Stoped, the whole fleet will make the utmost Dispatch to Crown Point, where I beg you will Send Ammunition & your further Orders for us. On the whole I think we have had a Very fortunate escape...”
When the British woke up the next morning and discovered their adversaries had pulled a fast one on them, they proceeded with fervor after Arnold.
Although he was 9 miles south of the British, he sensed he wasn’t going to make it to Crown Point. Arnold ran his ships aground or burned them, near Panton, Vt., making sure they wouldn’t be used against him, and made a desperate run across land, headed toward Ticonderoga.
▶ In his book "Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor," Vermont author Willard Sterne Randall details the Battle of Valcour Island and other heroic acts by the man who would ultimately turn against the fledgling United States of America. Look for it at your local library or buy it at amazon.com.