Most Americans know Benedict Arnold as the traitor. Many may know him as the general who helped win at the battle of Saratoga. Fewer know his exploits as general leading an expedition to seize Quebec City in 1775. And, unless one is a reader of Naval History’s October 2020 issue, you probably don’t know Arnold, the naval officer.
The British saw 104 mile long Lake Champlain as the highway into upstate New York and the Hudson River. British generals believed that if they controlled the lake and the river, they could cleave Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island from the other rebellious colonies and subjugate them. Then they could take on the Mid-Atlantic colonies – Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia before pacifying Georgia, North and South Carolina.
The Americans saw Lake Champlain as the gateway to taking Canada. A two pronged invasion in the summer of 1775 via Lake Champlain Continental Army General Richard Montgomery took Montreal. He then moved up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City where he met Arnold’s force that had marched north through the Maine woods from the Atlantic coast. The small British garrison in Quebec City under Major General Guy Carleton, disease (smallpox) and Mother Nature (Canadian winter) combined to defeat the Americans.
Arnold led the battered remnants back to Fort Ticonderoga. As they retreated and endured the bitter cold, they burned any boats they did not use.
Carleton planned to invade New York with a 13,000 man army, about a third of which were German mercenaries. Boats were designed and partially built before they were transported to Montreal and then down the Richelieu River to St. Johns where 600 shipwrights brought from England assembled Carleton’s fleet.
At the southern end of the lake, Arnold was also busy building a fleet. Other than wood to build the ships, he was short of everything – money, cannon, powder and most important, ship wrights. Yet, he used his knowledge of ships gained before the revolution to build a small fleet suited to the men under his command who were mostly soldiers, not experienced sailors. This dictated his ship design, training and tactics.
By the fall of 1776, the British started south. If he couldn’t defeat the British, Arnold’s had to delay their invasion until the following spring.
The running fight known as the Battle of Valcour Island took place on Lake Champlain. Arnold’s “navy” was heavily outnumbered and out gunned as they fought a delaying action. As their boats were disabled, they were beached and burned.
In one sense, the British were victorious. Arnold’s navy was no more but the Continental Army still held Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of the lake which meant the British couldn’t pass. Rather than attempting a winter siege, Carleton decided to wait until the spring of 1777 to attack Fort Ticonderoga and invade New York.
During the winter, the British appointed Major General John Burgoyne, not Carleton was selected to lead the invasion of New York in the spring of 1777 that culminated in his defeat at Saratoga in October 1777.
Except for Saratoga, Arnold’s role in all three campaigns has been often overlooked and overshadowed by his treason. His leadership, energy and tactical acumen made him one of the most effective generals in the Continental Army. What started him down to the road to treason was the lack of recognition and his unhappiness that General Gates was given the credit for winning at Saratoga when in fact, Arnold’s initiative and leadership carried the day.