Benedict Arnold The Soldier-sailor
A NOVEL FIGHT ON LAKE CHAMPLAIN
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
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
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
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
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.