This Day in History: Benedict Arnold & the Battle of Valcour Island
On this day in 1776, Benedict Arnold burns his fleet of American ships, preventing them from being captured by the British. He and his men flee to safety.
Mere days earlier, Arnold had learned that a large British fleet was in Lake Champlain, headed his way. Arnold was outmanned and outgunned, so he hid his small fleet behind Valcour Island. The British fleet didn’t notice him at first, giving the Americans an advantage. In the battle that followed, the Americans fought hard, but they still found themselves cornered in a channel by the island at the end of the day.
The British retired for the night, thinking they would finish off Arnold in the morning.
That didn’t work out so well! Arnold knew the waters well and escaped across a shallow path in the middle of the night. The British awoke the next morning to a surprising sight: The Americans were gone! (See October 11 post.)
Arnold had a single goal: He wanted to get his men to the safety of Crown Point. Once there, the American fort could protect him and his men. He had a head start, but his ships were badly damaged. Some of them were leaking pretty badly and a few had to be scuttled on the 12th.
The British ships began to catch up.
The British fleet finally caught up to Arnold around noon on October 13. The Americans were rowing hard to escape, but the British were again taking shots at the battered little fleet. Many of the ships were finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. One ship, Washington, was forced to surrender.
Arnold steered the rest of his existing fleet toward a bay that was too shallow for the larger British warships. The Americans purposefully crashed their ships, then set them afire.
Did I forget to mention that the ships had all been bearing the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag? Those yellow flags could be seen flapping above the flames as the ships were consumed by fire. Arnold’s men took off overland, still working to get to Crown Point. They finally stumbled into the fort late that evening, only to discover that it had been abandoned.
Tired, weary, and wounded, Arnold’s men continued on for a few extra miles. They finally arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in the wee hours of the morning on October 14.
They’d made it. And yet Arnold still expected the British to attack the fort.
Amazingly, that attack never came! The British hovered around the outside of the fort, but the British commander was leery of starting a new campaign so late in the year. Winter was coming, and he finally decided to retreat.
Arnold may have lost the Battle of Valcour Island, but he’d gained a larger objective: The British fleet would not be coming down the Hudson River toward George Washington. They’d have to begin anew in the spring.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (2016)
Paul David Nelson, General Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester: Soldier-Statesman of Early British Canada (2000)
Steve Sheinkin, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010)
Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor (1990)