Birthplace of the American Navy

Last week, driving through a town in upstate I saw a sign in Whitehall, NY, that says, “Welcome to the Birthplace of the U.S. Navy….” Huh!!!

Research followed, so here’s the story. The “official” date for the birth of the United States Navy is October 13, 1775. On September 2nd, 1775, Washington sent a letter to James Broughton to take command of a schooner called the Hannah along with a list of missions he wanted him to accomplish. Hmmmm….

The plot gets thicker. In June 1775, Georgia formed its own navy and started building ships to defend its coast and venture out to sea to take prizes. Technically, this predates the “official” formation of the Continental Navy.

Shortly after the fighting started at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress decided to invade Canada and take control of the St. Lawrence River at Quebec. From a military perspective, the strategy was sound because if it succeeded, it would prevent the British from using the town as a base to launch and attack down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. For a fledgling Army, this was an ambitious plan that failed even though the army captured Montreal but did not capture Quebec City. Nor did the French Canadians rise up against the British as hoped. Defeated, Arnold’s strategy shifted from invasion to keeping the British from taking the forts along the lake.

The Vermont/New York border was then and is still today rugged, heavily wooded, and mountainous. Back then, roads were primitive, if they existed at all and the most efficient route was via boat up and down the 120-mile long Lake Champlain. Both sides knew control of the lake was critical because the New York/Vermont border was then and is still today, rugged, heavily wooded and mountainous.

The Brits who brought prefabricated ships from the U.K. to the northern most navigable portion of the Richelieu River in St. Jean, Quebec. Near the southern tip of Lake Champlain’s South Bay, the Americans under the command of Philip Schuyler and Benedict Arnold (he didn’t turn traitor until the late summer of 1780) were busily building a small fleet of their own in a town called Skenesboro (later renamed Whitehall after the war) to support the invasion. Two hundred shipwrights were imported from because shipbuilding skills were not common in upstate NY or Vermont.

On October 11th, 1776, the two “fleets” met at Valcour Bay in Lake Champlain and the Americans had fewer ships (15 to the Royal Navy’s 29), were outgunned but not necessarily outfought. The surviving ships retreated to what is now known as Arnold’s Bay where they were burned. The British took the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga and control of the lake thus setting the stage for the Burgoyne’s invasion that ended in his defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777.

The Battle of Valcour Island was the Continental Navy’s first “fleet” action and in 1960, the New York State Legislature passed a bill signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller declaring Whitehall, NY as the “Birthplace of the U.S. Navy.” Now you know!

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