This Day in History: Benedict Arnold & the first USS Enterprise

On this day in 1775, Benedict Arnold sets his sights on Fort St. John’s, near the Canadian border. He would soon launch an attack on the garrison. Better yet, he would seize the largest British warship on Lake Champlain—all without firing a single shot! That ship would become the first of many American ships to bear the name Enterprise.

That Arnold really was something else before he turned traitor, wasn’t he?

Roughly one week earlier, Benedict Arnold had reluctantly partnered with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. The two men captured Fort Ticonderoga in New York, along with its cannon and other military supplies. They did it in less than 10 minutes! The next day, Americans captured nearby Crown Point.

In other words, Americans had worked to obtain control of the forts at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Yet Arnold was sure that it wasn’t enough. The British still controlled Fort St. John’s, about 120 miles to the north. They also had possession of the largest warship in the area: the British sloop HMS George. Arnold felt that the British still had the upper hand. He simply couldn’t bear to sit around doing nothing about it.

Fortunately, at about that time, a member of his Foot Guard arrived at Ticonderoga with a captured schooner, Katherine. Arnold renamed the ship Liberty. “We immediately fixed her with four carriage, and six-swivel guns,” he wrote. He and his men departed for Fort St. John’s. They arrived within 30 miles of the fort late on May 17. Arnold dispatched a quick scouting expedition. The attack would come the next morning.

Arnold later reported on the ease with which he and his men “surprised and took a sergeant and his party of 12 men” at the garrison on the morning of May 18. Fortunately, the Captain of the fort had left for Montreal, and Arnold had arrived before his return. The Captain was expected back soon! He would have more men and supplies with which the British expected to attack and recapture Ticonderoga. It seemed to Arnold “a mere interposition of Providence that we arrived in so fortunate an hour.”

After capturing the garrison, Arnold and his men headed toward the warship George. They awoke the crew and took the ship without firing a shot. They loaded her up with supplies and cannon, then destroyed several other boats in the area so the British would not be able to pursue them.

“Just at the completion of our business,” one of Arnold’s men later wrote, “a fine gale arose from the North; we directly hoisted sail, and returned in triumph.”

“We are masters of the Lake,” Arnold soon reported, “and of that I make no doubt as I am determined to arm the sloop and schooner immediately.”

Arnold renamed the ship Enterprise.

P.S. The picture is an artist’s conception of the latest in a long string of U.S. ships to bear the name “Enterprise.” This particular ship will be the 9th ship and the 3rd aircraft carrier to bear the name. Construction of the ship is expected to begin soon.