The story of Benedict Arnolds heroism on behalf of America, especially on Lake Champlain, is largely unknown, and its the story we want to tell here. Well leave those dark facts of his later defection and traitorous ways to historians. He gets plenty of bad press there…and deserves it too.
As the American Revolution began, Arnold volunteered to lead 1000 men up through the woods of Maine to attack British Canada by surprise, through its back door, at Quebec City (Brody, pg. 126). This journey, which is still talked about in that part of the country, proved to be a disaster for the volunteers who marched off. Half starved, frozen, and making broth by boiling their own shoe leather and cartridge boxes, they stumbled out of the wilds 50 days later…with 40% of them dead (Brody, pg. 126-127). Many believed they would have all perished were it not for Arnolds courage and leadership in those woods.
Valiant battles against overwhelming odds lay ahead through the winter in Canada, but the expedition failed. In June of 1776, Arnold, badly wounded he, led his ravaged men away from Montreal toward the North end of Lake Champlain (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?). The British were hot on his trail. He was the last American to leave Canada, having seen to the task of burning anything of value behind. Waiting in the dark, and with one boat left to carry him to safety, he heard the British soldiers march to within musket range. An ardent horse lover, he spurred his steed to the waters edge, then shot it with a single bullet to the head, removed the saddle, and pushed off in his boat.
After rowing, almost a hundred miles, his army finally found safety on July 7th near the Southern end of our lake…at Fort Amherst on Crown Point. They literally crawled into the battered fortification. A Council of War with the American officers stationed at the garrison was under way, and without so much as a bath, Arnold immediately joined in.
?As the most junior officer, he was permitted to speak first…and had much to say? (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
While fighting in Canada he had learned of the English strategy to win the war. It was powerful and compelling! London generals had decided to split the colonies in half, by sending two forces in behind and around the American land mass.
One army would push off from Montreal, and plunge down Lake Champlain, Lake George and into the Hudson River with 10,000 British regulars, 2,000 German mercenaries, 4,000 Iroquois Indians, plus 1,000 Canadian conscripts to clear their path! (Johnson, pg. 56) Twenty-five ships had been pre-constructed in England, especially designed for lake fighting, with each part numbered, then disassembled, and lashed to the decks of the Royal Fleet heading for Canada.
The second army would invade New York City, and then push up the Hudson. This force, the largest ever fielded by England, consisted of 479 warships and 34,000 soldiers (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?). The overall plan was to have the two armies meet in or near Albany on the Hudson, then, having secured a “noose” around the Americans, to pull it tight until surrender was obtained.
Arnold told his fellow officers that Americas only hope was to delay this Northern Army for there was no chance of defeating it, at least not in 1776 (Brody, pg 130). America had but a handful of small boats on the Lake and not a single navy seaman to fight on them. The situation was quite desperate.
He knew that the ever-cautious English General, Sir Guy Carleton would have to bring his troops down over Lake Champlains waters, since there were no North/South roads on the shore at that time. And, Arnold reasoned, the British, unaccustomed to lake fighting, would bring large cumbersome ships. He gambled that if he could bluff Carleton into believing that a potent American fleet was being constructed to oppose the invasion, the British would slow down to build even more ships before proceeding. Arnold hoped that this delay would run into winter, forcing Carleton to wait out the ice season back in Montreal, thus giving the Americans precious time to re-build and re-arm (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?). He asked for about 20 small lake fighters, or gondolas to prepare for this defense. They would be of his design, fast and agile, but utterly outgunned by the Royal man-o-wars.
General Washington approved the plan.
Soon shipwrights from all over New England began marching into Skenesborough, where the little Navy would be constructed (Treason of Benedict Arnold, ?Patriot Traitor?). There were shortages of everything, and in mid-summer, the program became bogged down. Arnolds boundless energy and enthusiasm pulled the process back on target, and by late September, a tiny fleet of 15 boats were forming. Arnold begged, pleaded and badgered to assemble a navy of 500 “half naked” unskilled sailors (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
As the boats came out of their cribs, with the oakum barely cured, Arnold sailed them up near the British preparation site on the Richelieu River. He fired his cannons as a boast. Sure enough, Carleton began building more ships. September passed.
By early October, Arnold was almost ready, having carefully chosen his site to defend America. He anchored his fleet off nearby Valcour Island, which is snugged up against the New York shoreline.
The forward ships of the British armada (that would soon number 624 vessels and 9000 men!) (Lincoln, pg 891) finally sailed out onto the lake on October 10th, in miserable weather. Some 28 gunboats plus Indian war canoes began the search for Arnold. That evening they pulled into “The Gut” between our North Hero Island and Grand Isle. ?The Indians, sensing battle, built huge bonfires, donned war paint and danced naked…scaring to death the newly arrived British sailors? (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
?Dawn was cold and gray, and as the twenty-man war canoes paddled out with the fleet, a sailor noted that the Indians heads would disappear behind the swells. Others noted snow on the Adirondacks. Winter would soon visit the lake? (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
By 10:30am, a ferocious battle ensued (Lincoln, pg 892). At close range, the cannons began to belch balls, bar shot and grape…it fairly screamed back and forth. Hopelessly out-gunned, Arnold stood on the exposed deck of the Congress, in the thick of the battle, personally aiming and firing the one bow cannon aboard. ?When dark mercifully arrived, the British broadsides were silenced…the attackers pulled back for the night.
By dawns early light…they planned to finish their grisly work? (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
Arnold took stock. His fleet was badly crippled, and many were dead. At a council of war on the Congress, he and his remaining commanders decided to attempt a daring escape in the night, by rowing single-file past the recuperating invaders. Each oarlock was wrapped in a shirt to muffle the sound, and as they slipped past, the Americans could hear the British carpenters talking aboard their flagship. The next morning, the English woke up to see their enemy gone!
Fighting cold headwinds and waves, Arnold led his leaking boats south toward Ft. Ticonderoga and safety (Brody, pg. 129). His wounded were lying on the decks. Little remained of Americas first Navy. ?Within hours he was forced to beach the boats, burn what was left of them, and attempt the safety of Ft.Ty by overland escape…this with the Indians in close pursuit? (Randall, ?Lake Champlain?).
Safety was obtained, and delay was achieved. With his armada and his pride damaged from the fight with Arnolds inexperienced but emboldened crews, and with snow on the way, Carleton turned back for Montreal…and winter quarters. It was perhaps one of the most fateful decisions ever made in the course of history.
By turning back for the winter, Carleton gave the Americans the one thing they needed most…time.
When the two armies met a year later at nearby Saratoga, and once again, with Arnold at the head of the charge, the Americans won. Academics agree today that this crucial victory at Saratoga turned the tide of the Revolution; which in turn, lit the lamp of Democracy; which in turn, became a beacon for the world.
Had Carleton moved decisively in the mid-summer of 1776, against puny resistance, we might still be singing God Save the Queen! (Brody, pg. 129) Though he lost his Lake Champlain Fleet, Benedict Arnold single-handedly created and implemented this far-reaching “victory” for his country.
In the summer of 1776, common people the world over lived under the lash or beneath a ruling class. Today, more than half the citizens of Earth choose those who will govern.
Benedict Arnold fought brilliantly for the American cause for six years. He was badly wounded twice. Drawing deeply into his own purse to pay expenses, he was never reimbursed for most of them, nor honored by Congress for his victories. Crestfallen and melancholy, he was approached by a smooth-spoken spy for the British. Arnold made the worst decision of his life…he switched sides. He died in England, at age 60, and was buried in a “jumbled, unmarked grave” without military honor or notice. His last years were full of misery and bitterness.