Benedict Arnold The Soldier-sailor


WAS it not a dreadful pity that Benedict Arnold should disgrace himself

forever by becoming a traitor to his country? To think of his making

himself the most despised of all Americans, when, if he had been true to

his flag, he might have been ranked among our greatest heroes. For

Arnold was one of the best and bravest fighters in Washington's army.

And he coul
fight as hard and well on water as on land, as you will

learn when you read of what he did on Lake Champlain.

I am sure all my readers must know where this lake is, and how it

stretches down in a long line from Canada far into New York State. Below

Lake Champlain extends Lake George, and not very far from that is the

Hudson River, which flows down to the City of New York.

If the British could only have held that line of water they would have

cut the colonies in two, and in that way they might soon have brought

the war to an end. This was what they tried to do in the fall of 1776,

but they did not count on Arnold and his men.

Let us tell what brought this about. General Arnold and General

Montgomery had marched through the wilderness to Quebec in the winter

before. But there they met with bitter weather and deadly disease and

death from cold and cannon. The brave Montgomery was killed, the daring

Arnold fought in vain, and in the end the invading army was forced to

march back--all that was left of it.

As the Americans went back, Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander,

followed, and made his camp at St. John's, at the north end of Lake

Champlain. The nearest American post was at Crown Point, far down

towards the foot of the lake. Not far south of this, near the head of

Lake George, was the famous old French fort Ticonderoga, which Arnold

and Ethan Allen had captured from the British the year before. I tell

you all this that you may know how the land lay. A glance at a good map

will help.

I think it very likely that some of you may have visited those beautiful

lakes, and seen the towns and villages on their shores, the handsome

dwelling on their islands, and the broad roads along their banks;

everything gay and smiling.

If you had been there in 1776 you would have seen a very different

sight. Look right or left, east or west, nothing but a wilderness of

trees would have met your eyes. As for roads, I fancy an Indian trail

would have been the best to be found. And no man that wished to keep his

scalp on his head would have thought of living on island or shore.

The only good road southward was the liquid one made by nature, and this

road Carleton decided to take. He would build a strong fleet and carry

his army down the lake, while the Indians that came with him could

paddle downward in their canoes.

At this time there was not a vessel on the lakes, but Carleton worked

hard, and soon had such a fleet as these waters had never seen. Three

of his ships were built in England in such a way that they could be

taken to pieces, carried through the wilderness to St. John's, and there

put together again. The smaller vessels were built on the spot,

soldiers, sailors, and farmers all working on them.

It was well on in October before his task was finished. Then he had a

fleet of twenty-five vessels in all, twenty of them being gunboats, but

some of them quite large. Their crews numbered a thousand men, and they

carried eighty-nine cannon.

You may well suppose that the Americans knew what was going on, and that

they did not fold their hands and wait. That is not, and never was, the

American way. If the British could build, so could the Yankees, and

Benedict Arnold was ordered to build a fleet, and to have it ready for

fighting the British when it would be needed.

Arnold had been at sea in his time and knew something of what he was

about. His men were farmers who had taken up arms for their country, but

he sent for a few shipbuilders from the coast and went to work with all

his might.

When October came he had fifteen vessels afloat. There were two

schooners and one sloop, the others being called galleys and

gondolas--no better than large rowboats, with three to six guns each.

Arnold had about as many guns as Carleton, but they were smaller, and he

had not nearly so many men to handle them. And his men were farmers

instead of sailors, and knew no more about a cannon than about a king's

crown. But the British ships were manned by picked seamen from the

warships in the St. Lawrence River, and had trained naval officers.

I fear if any of us had been in Arnold's place we would have wanted to

go home. It looked like folly for him and his men to fight the British

fleet with its skilled officers and sailors and its heavy guns. It was

like meeting a raft of logs with one of chips.

But Arnold was not a man who stopped to count the cost when fighting was

to be had. As soon as he was ready he set sail boldly up the lake, and

on the morning of October 11, 1776, he drew up his little fleet across a

narrow channel between Valcour Island and the west shore of the lake.

He knew the British would soon be down.

It was a fine, clear, cool morning, with a strong wind from the north,

just the kind of day Carleton had been waiting for. So, soon after

sunrise, his fleet came sweeping on past Valcour Island. But all the

sailors saw was a thicket of green trees, and they had got well south of

the island before they looked back and saw the American fleet.

Here was an ugly situation. It would never do to leave the Americans in

their rear. Down went the helms, round swept the sails, out came the

oars, and soon the British fleet was making a struggle against the wind

which had seemed so fair a few minutes before. So strong was the breeze

that ten o'clock had passed before they reached the channel in which the

Americans lay. Arnold came eagerly to meet them, with the Royal

Savage, his largest vessel, and three of his gondolas. One of these,

the Congress, he had made his flagship. Soon the waters of that quiet

bay rang with the roar of cannon and the shouts of fighting men, and

Arnold, having drawn the fire of the whole British fleet, was obliged to

hurry back.

In doing so he met with a serious loss. The Royal Savage, pierced by a

dozen balls, ran ashore on the island. As she could not be got off, the

crew set her on fire and escaped to the woods. They might better have

leaped into the lake, for the woods were full of Indians whom Carleton

had sent ashore; and to be a prisoner to Indians in those days was a

terrible fate.

When he got back to his fleet, Arnold formed his line to meet the

British, who came steadily on until within musket shot. Then a furious

battle began, broadside meeting broadside, grape-shot and round-shot

hurtling through the air, the thick smoke of the conflict drifting into

the woodland, while from the forest came back flame and bullets as the

Indians fought for their British friends.

Arnold, on the deck of the Congress, led in the thickest of the fight,

handling his fleet as if he had been an admiral born, cheering the men

at the guns, aiming and firing a gun at intervals himself, and not

yielding a foot to the foe. Now and then a gun was fired at the Indians,

forcing them to skip nimbly behind the trees.

For six long hours the battle kept up at close quarters. This is what

Arnold says about it in few words: "At half-past twelve the engagement

became general and very warm. Some of the enemy's ships and all their

gondolas beat and rowed up within musket shot of us. They continued a

very hot fire with round and grape-shot until five o'clock, when they

thought proper to retire to about six or seven hundred yards distance,

and continued the fire till dark."

Hot as their fire was, they must have found that of the Americans

hotter, for they went back out of range of the Yankee guns, but kept

within range of their own.

Arnold's vessels were in a bad plight. Several of them were as full of

holes as a pepper bottle, and one sank soon after the fight ended. But

two of the British gunboats had been sunk and one blown up. The worst

for the Americans was that nearly all their powder was gone. They could

not fight an hour more.

Perilous as was the situation, Admiral Arnold was equal to it. The night

came on dark and stormy, with a hard gale from the north. This was just

what he wanted. Up came the anchors and away went the boats, one after

the other in a long line, each showing a light to the vessel that

followed, but hiding it from British eyes. In this way they slipped

unseen through the British line, Arnold in the Congress taking the

post of danger in the rear.

When morning dawned the British lookouts gazed for the American fleet,

it was nowhere to be seen. It had vanished in the night and now was ten

miles down the lake, where it was drawn up near shore for repairs.

Two of the gondolas proved to be past mending, and were sunk. The others

were patched up until they could be kept afloat without too much

pumping, and the fleet started on, hoping to gain the shelter of Crown

Point or Ticonderoga. The wind had changed to the south, and they had to

take to their oars. This kept them back, but it gave the British quite

as much trouble. That day passed away and the next day, Friday, dawned

before the pursuers came in sight. And now a chase began with oar and

sail, and continued till noon, when Crown Point was still some leagues

away. By this time the British cannon balls began to reach the American

boats, and the tired rowers were forced to turn to their guns and


Never did sea-hero fight more gallantly than did the soldier Arnold that

day. The first British broadside ruined the gondola Washington and

forced it to surrender. But Arnold in the little Congress drew up

beside the Inflexible, a 300-ton ship with eighteen 12-pounder cannon,

and fought the ship with his little gunboat as if they had been of equal

strength. Inspired by his example, the other boats fought as bravely.

Not until a third of his men were dead and his boat a mere wreck did he

give up the fight. But not to surrender--no such thought came into his

mind. By his order the galleys were run ashore in a creek nearby and

there set on fire. With the three guns of the shattered Congress he

covered their retreat until their crews were safe on shore.

Then, reckless of the British shot, he ran the Congress ashore also

and stood guard at her stern while the crew set her on fire. The men by

his orders sought the shore, but Arnold stood by his flag to the last,

not leaving until the flames had such hold that he was sure no Briton's

hand could strike his flag. It would float until it went up in flames.

Then he sprang into the water, waded ashore, and joined his men, who

greeted him with cheers.

The savages were swarming in the woods, eager for scalps, but Arnold was

not troubled by fear of them. Forming his men into order, he marched

them through the woods, and before night reached safety at Crown Point.

Thus ended one of the noblest fights the inland waters of America ever

saw. The British were victors, though at a heavy cost. Arnold had fought

until his fleet was annihilated; and not in vain. Carleton sailed back

to St. John's and made his way to Canada. He had seen enough of Yankee

pluck. Thus Arnold, though defeated, gained by his valor the fruit of

victory, for the British gave up their plan of holding the lake.