Our Invasion of Canada Failed, But It Changed British Strategy
To get to Crown Point after being defeated, Generals Arnold and Sullivan followed the Richelieu River that starts at the Northern end of Lake Champlain and empties in the St. Lawrence River. During the retreat, the Continental Army either commandeered or burned boats for their own use. Without shipping to haul his cannon and supplies, British Army Burgoyne’s Redcoats had to carry them on their backs or on horses which slowed their pursuit.
The 2,000 men of the Continental Army that arrived at Crown Point had suffered through disease, privation, hunger, and exposure. It was far from an effective fighting force and was held together during the transit by Arnold’s and Sullivan’s leadership.
General Horatio Gates was sent by the Continental Congress to command what would ultimately be a 10,000-strong army. He left 300 men to defend the fort at Crown Point and kept the rest to defend Ticonderoga.
Once at Ticonderoga, Arnold was tasked with creating a “navy” to keep the British from using the lake to move their army south. The shipbuilding was centered in the town of Skenesborough (now Whitehall, NY). See post Birthplace of the American Navy dated February 10th, 2019 – https://marcliebman.com/birthplace-of-the-american-navy/ ). Throughout the summer, both the British and the Continentals were building ships, and by October, British General Guy Carleton was ready to move south to take Fort Ticonderoga and gain complete control of Lake Champlain.
The British fleet crewed by Royal Navy sailors battled Arnold’s ships at Valcour Island on October 11th. (See post “Admiral Benedict Arnold” dated September 6th, 2020 https://marcliebman.com/admiral-benedict-arnold/ ). As a practical matter, the battle was a draw, but Arnold sailed his battered vessels first to Crown Point and then down to Ticonderoga.
Crown Point was abandoned to the British a few days later, and Carleton camped outside of Ticonderoga for two weeks before deciding to take his army back to Canada. Meanwhile, Carleton was harshly criticized by General Burgoyne for not more aggressively pursuing the Continental Army and trying to take Ticonderoga.
However, Arnold’s and Sullivan’s skillful retreat from Montreal, the Battle of Valcour Island, and the British Army’s inability to take Fort Ticonderoga had significant strategic implications. First, the British delayed their invasion from Canada until the spring of 1777 with the goal of linking up with an army moving north from New York.
Two, General Burgoyne used his influence and second-guessing about Carleton’s actions to convince Lord German (the Secretary of State for the North American Colonies) to give command of the British Army in Canada to Burgoyne. Guy Carleton resigned as Governor General of Canada. When he returned to England, his knowledge of Canada and how to successfully conduct a military campaign in New England and Northern New York went with him.
Three, the British retreat to Canada freed up men for Washington’s army to defend New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Four, many Canadians who joined the 1st and 2nd Canadian regiments stayed in the Continental Army and fought through the war’s end. However, Carleton seized the property of anyone who joined the rebellion, so after independence was won, they petitioned first the Continental Congress and then the U.S. Congress for payments promised to them during the invasion. In the end, most were granted refugee status, and their families were given land in upstate New York saved for those coming from Nova Scotia.
The delay gave the Continental Army another year to mature, and at Saratoga in late September 1777, Gates and Arnold defeated Burgoyne. Saratoga was the victory that brought the French into the war on our side.
Photo is the remains of the U.S.S. Philadelphia which fought at the Battle of Valcour Island. U.S. Government Photo
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