Benedict Arnold’s Navy

McGraw Hill Softcover, 388 pages, $15.95
McGraw Hill
Softcover, 388 pages, $15.95

The weather was nasty. The British were sailing up Lake Champlain, ahead of a blustery north wind. The Americans, drenched by waves, were lying in ambush in the mile-wide channel between Valcour Island and the mainland, manning a small, hastily constructed fleet.

The British expected to sweep away the Americans so they could freely move troops up the lake to strike at Fort Ticonderoga and the northern frontier. The Americans desperately wanted to delay the British, perhaps even score a victory, so they could hold Ticonderoga.

James Nelson tells the story of the ensuing battle, which took place on Oct. 11, 1776, in Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle for Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution.

The author is well qualified to tackle this subject. He has written 14 works of fiction and non-fiction, all of which concern nautical life in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. His Bowater novels, about Civil War naval battles, won the W. Y. Boyd Award for excellence in military history. Nelson also helped build and sail replicas of ships such as Captain Bligh’s Bounty, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, and the Godspeed, one of the ships that took John Smith to Virginia.

Benedict Arnold is best known for military victories and notoriety on land. He led the invasion of Canada, played a key role in the victory at Saratoga and planned to betray the American cause by surrendering West Point to the British. But he probably was more suited to war at sea than on land. His father was a merchant and ship captain. Arnold himself was a shipowner and captain.

Benedict Arnold’s Navy takes readers through the military events of 1775 and 1776, such as the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and early naval skirmishes on Lake Champlain. Arnold is never far from the action. Many of these events are only briefly treated in other histories of the American Revolution.

Benedict Arnold slowed down the British on their way to Fort Ticonderoga.
Benedict Arnold slowed down the British on their way to Fort Ticonderoga.

The war transformed Lake Champlain. The region had been thinly populated, but when the British and Americans realized the lake’s strategic importance, they quickly established settlements. In 1776, Ticonderoga and Whitehall were as busy as ocean seaports. The woods rang with the sound of axes and shouts of carpenters as trees were cut for hulls and masts. Arnold persuaded the Continental Congress to send shipbuilders and ocean sailors to the wilderness to help build and man his fleet.

The heart of the book is the Battle of Valcour Island. The Americans initially had more ships and men on the lake than the British. By the time of the conflict, however, the British had 89 guns on 34 vessels, while the Americans had 78 on 15. Knowing the British were stronger, Arnold stationed his ships in the channel between the mainland (now occupied by suburbs south of Plattsburgh) and Valcour Island. This protected his fleet’s left flank. When the British arrived, the fighting lasted six hours. The Americans lost many ships and 60 men, three times as many as the British. Nelson eloquently describes the battle, capturing the desperate intensity, cannon fire, volcano-like clouds of smoke from cannons and ships on fire, and frantic maneuvering by both sides to get the advantage.

The lighthouse on Valcour Island
The lighthouse on Valcour Island

Despite the superior British firepower and training, the Americans fought until nightfall. Both sides expected to resume the next day, but the Americans were badly weakened. During the night, Arnold came up with a bold plan of escape and slipped away. In the end, the British did win control of Lake Champlain, but thanks to the interference of Arnold’s navy, the British lost precious time and had to delay their march on Crown Point and Ticonderoga until the next year. In the meantime, the Americans built up their army, and it proved strong enough to stop the invaders at Saratoga—a turning point in the war.