The Naval War of Benedict Arnold

The Naval War of Benedict Arnold

By Mike Burleson

Benedict Arnold.

The later treason of Benedict Arnold cannot disguise the fact that early in the Revolutionary War he was one of Washington’s most effective generals. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, considered by historians as the turning point in the war against Britain, Arnold as much as any other American commander deserves credit for achieving victory. A year earlier, on October 11, 1776 off Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, the young general displayed his martial talents on the sea as well.

After the disastrous American invasion of Quebec in the winter of 1775-76, General Arnold realized the British would use the Great Lakes to reconquer her rebellious colonies. He immediately began the construction of one of the strangest fleet ever seen in American waters. Four ships were of traditional schooner design, but there were also gondolas and galleys of various size and armament:: a total of 16 warships. General Guy Carleton commanded on the British side of the Lake., who upon seeing the American construction could not but respond in kind. He proceeded to build and equip a larger a more powerful fleet of 30 warships, which included schooners and gunboats, plus a powerful sailing raft, the Thunderer.

Altogether Carleton had twice the firepower of Arnold’s makeshift fleet, though this failed to deter the aggressive colonial. Sailing with part of his fleet the American took a favorable position upwind near Valcour Island. Forming the vessels in a crescent, he hoped to surprise any British attack down the Lake. Carleton was less cautious than Arnold and sailed boldly past the island. As expected the British were surprised to find the Americans formed for battle, and Arnold had been reinforced by the rest of his fleet.

Forced to sail against a northerly breeze, Carleton could only attack with part of his. These included the gunboats, which had oars as well as sail. Arnold set out in the galley Congress (10 guns), with Royal Savage (12) and 2 others to intercept. The combined and accurate firepower of the British became too much for the Americans and they withdrew to the original anchorage. Disaster struck when Royal Savage ran aground, and later was abandon by her crew.

By noon all the American vessels were engaged, but because of Arnold’s shrewd maneuver, Carleton’s best ships were kept out of most of the fight. These included the unhandy ThundererLoyal Convert (7), and the big Inflexible (18). The twenty British gunboats, with the schooner Carleton (12), kept up a merciless fire on the bold rebels, however. Carleton soon lost her cable spring: uncontrollable she was towed out of the fight.

The gunboats had suffered too, and the British decided at dusk to withdraw to renew the fight at dawn. Arnold realized his smaller force would be destroyed the next day, so in the darkness his ships slipped silently pass Carleton. Come morning the Americans were 10 miles down the Lake, and Arnold anchored his battered fleet for hasty repairs. He would get no respite from the British that day, who were in hot pursuit. The battle was renewed at Split Rock.

In Congress, Arnold fought back until his ships were in tatters. Realizing the inevitable, he ordered his depleted forces, including the galleys, run aground and abandoned. Gone were 11 of the 16 American warships he had at the start of the battle. Carleton controlled the Lakes, but his own casualties prevented any further campaigning that year. The great invasion of the south was delayed until 1777, giving the Americans precious time to prepare. All this would culminate in the decisive American victory at Saratoga.

As Alfred Thayer Mahan would state: “That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by the little navy on Lake Champlain.”

My name is Mike Burleson and I currently reside in historic Branchville, SC. Last year I completed my first book also titled “New Wars-The Transformation of Armies, Navies, and Airpower in the Digital Age”, available for purchase from As a freelancer my articles on military issues have appeared in The American Thinker, The Washington Post, Sea Classics Magazine, via,, and My blog title New Wars concerning military issues is updated daily.

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