Battle of Valcour Island

Photo by Michael Kleen

A roadside sign marks this little-known naval battle on Lake Champlain, which delayed the British advance for months and allowed American colonists time to rebuild their forces and eventually win the Battle of Saratoga.

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The Battle of Valcour Island was fought on October 11, 1776 between American naval forces commanded by Benedict Arnold and British naval forces commanded by General Guy Carleton in Lake Champlain near Valcour Island, New York during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was a tactical British victory, but delayed their overall military campaign until spring.

Roads in Northern New York were too primitive in the eighteenth century to move large numbers of troops and supplies by land, so control of Lake Champlain was key to gaining access to the Hudson Valley. Controlling this corridor was key to the British plan for linking their forces in Canada with those in New York City, severing New England from the rest of the colonies.

The Americans cobbled together 16 vessels to oppose a naval invasion. Benedict Arnold had experience as a ship captain, so he was put in charge of the American fleet. In August 1776, he sailed to the northern end of the lake, where he encountered a much larger British fleet. On September 30, he retreated to Valcour Island with 15 ships, while one left to be resupplied. On October 11, a British fleet of 5 ships and 22 gunboats appeared north of the island and sailed south to cut off the American’s retreat.

The battle began around 12:30pm and raged into the evening. Only a third of the British ships were engaged, but they out-gunned the American fleet and inflicted heavy damage. Arnold and his remaining ships slipped south under cover of darkness, but several ships had to be abandoned and burned to avoid capture. In total, Arnold lost 11 ships, 80 killed or wounded, and 120 captured. The British lost three gunboats and 40 sailors killed or wounded.

Although the American fleet was virtually destroyed, their fierce resistance convinced General Carleton to retreat to his home base for winter and postpone the planned invasion until the spring. This invasion ultimately ended in British defeat and surrender of General John Burgoyne after the Battles of Saratoga in 1777.

Fought between Great Britain and her Thirteen American Colonies from 1775 to 1883, the Revolutionary War led to a Declaration of Independence and the formation of the United States of America in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies won their independence, at the cost of an estimated 158,000 British, American, French, German, Spanish, and American Indian lives. It was a dynamic and surprisingly international conflict.

Today, U.S. Route 9 runs north and south along this part of Lake Champlain, but aside from the nearby Plattsburgh International Airport and a few homes and businesses, this area hasn’t changed much. Valcour Island, now Valcour Island Primitive Area, has been left almost exactly as it was at the time of the battle. Standing at the Peru Boat Launch, you can see Valcour Lighthouse across the lake on Bluff Point, which would have marked the northern limit of American ships. Valcour Bay was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Surprisingly little has been done to mark the site of one of the first naval battles of the Revolutionary War. An informational sign was erected in 2011 on U.S. Route 9 north of Lapham Mills Road at 44°36’19.4″N 73°26’26.6″W. Roadside parking is available at your own risk (not even a dirt pull-off). There are marinas where you can park and gaze out over the water where the battle took place.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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