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The Battle of Lake Champlain


1/6 Introduction: Weak Against the Strong


The Battle of Lake Champlain is a jewel to contemplate. It is a battle of the weak against the strong, the farmer against the professional soldier. This battle shows what a small, untrained group of men can do to a large, trained navy, during the heat of combat. It portrays a kind father trying to be gentle to a rebellious child, and what that child can do. Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander, could have annihilated the rebels in the lakes area many times but did not. As Carleton slowly built his fleet for the coming campaign season, he allowed Benedict Arnold, the commander of the rebels, to do the same. Arnold was able to accomplish this only after persuading Congress not to abandon New York north of Albany. At this point, the morale of the rebels was so low that Carleton could have easily invaded and cut New England from the rest of the colonies, but he didn’t.



On the 11th, Arnold disregarded the orders of Horatio Gates, the rebel commander of the Northern department, which included “not ‘assume wanton risk’ nor to ‘make a display’ of his power.” [2]. It was originally Gates’ plan to keep the fleet for defensive and offensive measures in the future. Arnold, however, was unable to resist the temptation of using the fleet he built to fight the British. Royal Savage and Enterprise were sent as decoys to lure British to the main body of the American fleet. The day was clear and the wind was out of the North. Lady Maria was at the lead of the British fleet. Had Carleton sent out reconnoitres, the British could have known exactly where the rebels were hiding. Lady Maria passed Valcour Island at full sail, and completely missed the rebel fleet hiding in the strait between the island and the mainland. Indians in league with the British began a musket fire at the rebels from the Island, but were out of effective range. Arnold had four hours to arrange his fleet as the British tried desperately to turn around and face the rebel fleet, but they hadn’t expected to meet the Americans so soon and the wind was against them. Due to Chief of Operations Capt. Pringle’s mismanagement, the smaller boats got into range before the bigger boats. However, a few British bateaux and the Carleton were able to conquer the wind and moved (without orders) towards the enemy fleet.



2/6 The Battle begins


As the tension mounted, the rebel fleet sent out the Congress (Arnold’s flagship), Royal Savage, and two other gondolas. Carleton ran through the British line and dropped anchor. A broadside was initiated by the Carleton and the battle was begun at 11:00. According to a contemporary London Gazette, the Carleton was commanded by Lt. Dacres, who after the battle, would win recognition from Sir Guy Carleton and Capt. Pringle for his bravery upon engaging five rebel ships at once and refusing to retreat (against orders) until the General’s own representative came aboard with orders to desist. Dacres was severely wounded during the first broadside by the rebel galleys, and was assisted to his cabin. When Dacres reached his quarters, he found the first mate (Mr. Brown), having the remains of a mangled arm being amputated by the ship’s doctor. With Dacres and Brown wounded, teenager Edward Pellew, the youngest officer on the ship, was quickly forced to learn to be a captain. The Carleton was being riddled by the rebel barrage. At least half the crew was wounded, and there was two foot of water in the hold. Finally the flagship Lady Maria signalled the Carleton get out of range. The Carleton tried to acknowledge the return to line signal, but a fouled jib prevented the ship from turning. Recklessly exposing himself to the American’s grape shot and rifle fire, Pellew climbed the rigging and freed the jib. Pellew went down to the bobstays to pass a hawser to Isis and to a boat from the Blonde so these two ships could tow the Carleton out of range of the rebels cannonade. Carleton badly riddled from the fire of Royal Savage, Congress, Enterprise, and the other gondola. These ships would come into range of the Carleton, fire, and then fall back to the lines to reload. The finest of their ragtag fleet, the Royal Savage, turned upstream but was delayed due to poor seamanship. Such a chance could not be passed up, so Inflexible broad sided her. The crew, in a panic, rammed the ship into the South end of Valcour Island. Lt. Longcraft, commanding the Loyal Convert, didn’t want to see such a prize go to waste and seized the grounded Royal Savage. Longcraft was able to capture twenty of the crew members who didn’t bolt, and was able to turn the Royal Savage’s guns on the rebel fleet. Longcraft signalled to Pringle for support in capturing the Royal Savage but was ignored. After losing half of his boarding party, Longcraft realized that Pringle wasn’t going to send help. He therefore abandoned the Royal Savage.



General Arnold on the Congress and the other gondolas were able to make it back to the main fleet. At this point, Arnold’s fleet is composed of the 12-gun schooner Royal Savage commanded by Lt. Hawley (now grounded), a ten gun sloop Enterprise ( both of these had been captured by the rebels during an earlier attack on St. John’s the previous May along with thirteen garrison prisoners and three other gondolas), an eight gun schooner Revenge which the rebels had built at Ticonderoga; three eight-gun galleys: Trumbull, commanded by Capt. Warner, Congress, and Washington, all three of which arrived to join Arnold’s fleet around the first of October, a six gun galley Lee, two five gun gondolas: Connecticut and Spitfire, and five 3-gun gondolas: Providence, Philadelphia, commanded by Lt. Rice, Jersey, New York, and Boston. These gondolas had flat bottoms and were fitted with square sails for use in blowing weather and fitted with sweeps for calm weather. Liberty was not in the fight because it had earlier left the fleet to retrieve supplies, but it did see a little action on the night of September 7th. On this occasion, the rebel fleet was off Cumberland Head. A man on the shore called to the Liberty who cautiously responded; a shot was fired from the woods, and three of Liberty’s crew were wounded.



3/6 A Missed Opportunity


Sir Guy Carleton’s fleet was composed of the eighteen-gun, three masted (which was something new), Inflexible. Inflexible was being built in Quebec, but wanting the ship for his fleet ordered the half-built ship dismantled, transported to St. John’s and rebuilt. Just , Carleton the rebuilding of this ship occupied the British from September 2nd to September 30th. If Carleton had attacked the Lake instead of waiting for the construction of the Inflexible, he could have caught the rebels off guard and seized control of the lake, from where he had planned to later launch a land force to meet General Howe at the Hudson River and cut off the Northern colonies time the Inflexible was completed however, it was too late in the campaign . By the season to complete these plans. The rest of Carleton’s fleet was composed of the fourteen gun schooner Maria which had sailed from England, the 12-gun schooner Carleton of which Lady the key parts were brought from England in the holds of fourteen gunboats. Lt. Schanke had prepared capstans and rollers to transport these two ships to St. John’s from Chambly. Due to bad weather however, the rollers became stuck in the mud, thus blocking the supply route. After weeks of delay, Sir Guy ordered the ships dismantled and carried piecemeal to St. John’s, where they would be rebuilt. Carleton also had the 18 gun scow Thunderer, a seven gun gondola Loyal Convert (which was named the American Convert until captured by the British in June of 1774), and twenty 1-gun boats commonly referred to as bateaux. Carleton’s fleet was built in the St. Lawrence shipyards, and taken up the Richelieu River to Chambly. From there, they were broken down, carried around the rapids, and rebuilt at St. Johns.



The differences between the two fleets were important. The fact that each colonial ship had two or more different types of guns caused confusion among the loaders and decreased overall efficiency. Also, the hulls of the British ships were twice as thick (at two inches) as those of the colonial fleet. Furthermore, the British fleet was manned by 1000 men who more or less were members of the Royal Navy, Artillery and Hessian soldiers, while the 700 men of the colonial fleet were drafts from the Northern Army of which only seventy had any sea experience. Arnold reported to General Schuyler that “we have a wretched motley crew in the fleet; the marines the refuse of every regiment and the seamen few of them ever wet with salt water.” The overall morale of the rebels was low so soon after Gen. Washington was driven from New York City. Arnold had the only position from which to thwart a British invasion from Canada The building and transport of ships and wilderness transport of supplies were slowed because Gates was in the Congress complaining about Gen. Schuyler. Arnold also had some dissension in the ranks. He had General Wynkoop arrested because of a dispute over Arnold’s authority. Overall, the British force was about three times as strong as Arnold and his men. At the time however, the rebels had no idea of the British numbers or motives until they saw them.



4/6 A Heated Battle


By 12:30, according to Arnold’s personal account, the battle was getting quite heated. The British ships, those that were able to due to the wind, closed in and “continued a very hot fire with round and grape shot.” Typically, round shot skipped over the water and buried itself in the hull or cut away at the oars, while grape shot flew threw the air in deadly squalls. When under fire, the soldiers first heard the sound of the guns, and then “spongers, loaders, rammers leaped upon their pieces, showered by spray and rocked by close misses.” The guns that produced these blasts gave off a tremendous amount of smoke and noise, causing the deafening blasts to quickly darken the immediate area. The Congress itself was attacked by two of the British schooners and a ship which was packing eighteen pound guns. During the battle the Congress was hulled, or rammed, twelve times, and seven shots which were below the water level, but the men would just patch up the holes and keep fighting. By one o’ clock, the Philadelphia was careening over. Capt. George Pausch, in command of the Hessian units of the British Navy noted in a diary that she (the Philadelphia) “began to careen over to one side, but in spite of this, continued her fire.” Shortly afterward the Philadelphia, commanded by Capt. Grant, had sunk to the bottom of the lake. The rebels, however, gave as good as they got. Capt. Pausch relates an incidence in his diary that tells of a cannonball hit the powder magazine of Lt. Dufais’ ship, almost killing all of his men. Pausch tells that a bateau, commanded by Lt. Smith of Artillery, took on board nine men while Pausch himself was took on the remainder forty-eight men, which caused his own ship to be dangerously close to sinking. The casualties from Lt. Dufais’ ship included a cannonier named Rossemer, who was shot; a sailor who lost his leg from the same ball that killed Rossemer; a drummer named Pillant and the ship’s pilot were also both killed in the blast. The battle thus continued until about five o’ clock, when the Carleton and the other British ships found that if they retreated to seven hundred yards, the gunboats having spent their ammunition, they would be out of the range of the rebel’s grape shot, which without the support of the main British fleet, outclassed those of the British. According to James Hadden of the Royal Artillery, “little more than 1/3 of the British fleet” was engaged on the eleventh.



Therefore the British regrouped out of range and lined the ships across the lake in order to prevent the rebel fleet from escaping during the night. After dark on the 11th, Indians set fire to the Royal Savage. Also after dark, the weather took a change for the worse. This was fortunate for the rebels, because the addition of the cover of a storm added to the cover of night enabled Arnold, along with General Waterbury and Colonel Wigglesworth (whom Arnold considered “judicious, honest men and good soldiers,” nor would “do nothing without consulting [them]” to formulate a plan. This plan involved slipping the ships one after another, through a gap in the British blockade. Because Pringle had lined his fleet one mile from the west shore to beyond Garden Island, he unwittingly left a large hole for Arnold’s fleet. Trumbull led the escape during the night of the 11th by hugging the western shore. The hooded lanterns used as signals on each rebel ship were not noticed by the British. A testament to Arnold’s bravery is that the Congress brought up the rear, which is the most dangerous position because there wasn’t another ship “watching his back.” A 220 year old legend of the battle tells that the British bombarded a rock early on the 12th because it looked like a rebel ship in the early morning light. Today that rock is still referred to as “Carleton’s Prize.” By the time the British discovered the rebels’ escape, made repairs, and gave chase on the 13th, twenty-four hours had slipped by due to either “Pringle’s inertia” or “Carleton’s procrastination.”



5/6 A Narrow Escape


Due to a favourable wind, the rebel fleet had sailed ten miles to Schuyler’s Island by the morning of the twelfth. The Americans spent three-quarters of their ammunition on the eleventh. The crew of the Congress had many holes to repair after being hulled and taking shots below the water line the day before. Furthermore, the main mast was damaged in two places and the yard mast was damaged in one place. General Waterbury’s ship the Washington, (Capt. Thatcher of the Washington died from wounds received on the eleventh, Hawley of the Royal Savage took over) had also been hulled several times and needed a new main mast. All of Watebury’s officers were killed on the eleventh. The New York had lost all of its officers during the action on the eleventh. Two gondolas were purposely sunk because of the damage they sustained. By two o’ clock, the rebels caught a fresh breeze to take them to Crown Point. Washington fell behind because of shortened sails due to a patched mast, and was taking on water. By evening however, the rebels were getting a detrimental wind out of the South and the British were getting a fortunate breeze from the Northeast. Thus the distance closed between the pursuer and the pursued.



After the British fleet came in site of the rebels early on the 13th, it took seven hours to catch up and reach striking distance. The British had a good wind until after spotted the rebel fleet on the thirteenth, therefore when it [the wind] died, the crews were fresh for rowing. On the other hand, the rebels had to row almost since leaving Schuyler’s Island on the twelfth. At noon, the Maria, the Carleton, and the Inflexible caught up with the colonial fleet at Split Rock. The fierce battle that followed was short-lived compared to that of the eleventh. The Congress and the Washington defended the rear while the rest of the fleet tried to make their escape. The Washington was attacked by the Maria and the Inflexible. General Waterbury continued to fight as his officers and crew fell around him. By the time the crew of the Washington was taken prisoner at 12:30, Waterbury was the only officer alive on the deck. After the defeat of the Washington, the Maria and the Inflexible turned their guns on the Congress, who was trading blows with the Carleton. Arnold’s first mate, Mr. Frost, was killed. He and three others of the crew were given a hasty burial at sea during the heat of battle. Supplies were so low that the surgeon cut up his own coat to stuff the gaping wounds of the injured. The Congress kept up the fight against the three British ships for two more hours with broadside cannonades and hulling, the smoke thick and the guns roaring, but in the end the Congress and four other gondolas were fired and the crews ran into thick forest. These men didn’t stop until they arrived at Crown Point at four a.m. on the fourteenth. By time Arnold had reached Crown Point, he and his men had been without sleep for three days. The Lee was blown up by her own crew, who then fled, and the Jersey was captured. Only the Enterprise, Revenge, Trumbull and a gondola escaped to Ticonderoga. The British could have destroyed the remainder of the fleet at Ticonderoga, but instead the rebels were allowed to escape. After the rebels fled Ticonderoga, the British moved in and stayed one month, but did nothing. Overall, there were only about twenty casualties on the thirteenth (there were forty on the eleventh). The British fared better on this occasion, there losses being “less than forty” over the course of the three days.



6/6 The End of One Battle, the Start of Another


The battle didn’t end there for Sir Guy Carleton. From the Jersey and the Washington, Sir Guy had about 110 prisoners. With these he practiced a psychological warfare in enlightened ways. Specific examples include moments when he would praise the rebel’s bravery to his officers while they (the prisoners) were present. He also ordered his surgeon to “to treat the wounded as they were” British soldiers. This was a good tactic on Carleton’s part, because when the prisoners were later released at Ticonderoga, one could easily tell that the they were having second thoughts about the fight for independence. In fact, Colonel Trumbull’s opinion was that “the kindness with which they had been treated ...appeared to me to have made a very dangerous impression.” As a countermeasure to this, General Gates ordered the newly freed to move on to Skeensbourough. As the rebels waited for the final blow to fall, the invasion of America sputtered out because of Carleton’s philosophy of kindliness instead military vigor through tempering warfare with mercy” and Pringle’s blunders. In fact, Lt. Starke(Lady Maria), Lt. Longcraft (Loyal Convert), and Lt. Schanke (Inflexible) wrote in a letter to Capt. Pringle “that in preparing and fitting out the fleet and also in the operation afterward, no officer or other person employed therein had so small a share as yourself.” Starke, Longcraft, and Schanke accused Pringle of not making an attack plan, of not giving orders after the battle was joined, permitting the rebels to escape, and of cowardice in delay of pursuit.



Thus was the battle of Lake Champlain. The rebels were defeated, but the inexperienced colonials had thwarted an invasion from Canada which might have hastened the end of the Revolution in favour of the British. Arnold’s bravery coupled with Carleton’s reluctance to fight a decisive battle forced the British to abandon the lakes and withdraw to Canada to wait out the coming brutal Winter of 1776.





  1. Piers Mackesy . The War for America 1775-1783,1964, p82-95.
  2. Harrison Bird . Navies in the Mountains: The Battles on the Waters of Lake Champlain and Lake George, 1609-1814, 1962, p207.
  3. Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p198,207; Frederick Van de Water . Lake Champlain and Lake George, 1946, p195; Charles Lincoln, Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775-1788,1906, p1198.
  4. John R Spears, The History of Our Navy from its Origin to Present Day 1775-1897. 1897, p92-5; Lincoln, Naval Records, p1198,1258,1272; Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p200,202-203.
  5. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p89; Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p198,205,217; Frederick Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, 1946, p166,191,194.
  6. Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George,p191; Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p187-91; Spears, The History of Our Navy, p87-91.
  7. Hill, Ralph. Lake Champlain: Key to Liberty. 1976, p100.
  8. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p91,98-99; Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p192; Edgar S. MaClay, History of the Navy, vol 1, 1910, p58;John Spears, A History of the U.S Navy, 1908, p9; Hill, Key to Liberty, p100.
  9. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p99.
  10. Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p196.
  11. Lincoln, Naval Records, 1259.
  12. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p95,99-100,104;Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p197; Lincoln, Naval Records, 1259-61.
  13. Lincoln, Naval Records, p1197.
  14. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p100,103; Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p195,197-198.
  15. Spears, The History of Our Navy, p100,103; Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p197; Hill, Key to Liberty,103; MaClay, History , p56; Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p207,210.
  16. Bird, Navies in the Mountains, p211-212; Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p198-199; MaClay, History , p57-58; James F Cooper, . The History of the Navy of the United States of America Vol 1, 1839, p139; Lincoln, Naval Records, p1275.
  17. Lincoln, Naval Records, p1261.
  18. Lincoln, Naval Records, p1262.
  19. Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p 201.
  20. Van de Water, Lake Champlain and Lake George, p 202.
  21. Lincoln, Naval Records, p1261-1262.




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