The American Revolution, Naval Power, and the 21st Century
Jack Kelly, Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty (St. Martin’s, 2021)
Brooklyn Heights, Saratoga, Yorktown. Many Americans know the battles of the Revolutionary War as land engagements between armies. They were fights on shore for the control of territory and populations. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson sang about them, and they dominate how many citizens think about the War for Independence. And yet, British forces saw the whole thing in a fundamentally different way.
For the British military, the American Revolution was first and foremost a maritime conflict. The British regulars and Hessian hired guns who fought the rebels had to cross an ocean. The Royal Navy was integral to nearly every element of the British effort to bring the American colonies back into the empire. For George Washington’s army to survive the disaster on Long Island, a miraculous amphibious withdrawal had to succeed under the noses of the “redcoats.” For the Americans to win at Yorktown, the French navy had to defeat the British fleet at the Battle of the Virginia Capes. And the French monarch had only been lured into an alliance because the Continental Army won the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, which had itself depended on an American strategic victory in a months-long naval campaign on Lake Champlain the year before.
Jack Kelly’s new book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty examines that pivotal campaign on a northern lake. The Americans there had to struggle — against disease, a lack of time, a dearth of resources, and a formidable foe — to halt an invasion that would have cut the colonies in two. Kelly’s book helps readers remember that the American War for Independence was a naval war. At the same time, the history of the Lake Champlain campaign raises fundamental issues that remain at the heart of American naval policy and strategy in the 21st century. From questions of fleet architecture to naval construction and strategy in a resource-constrained environment, and the interplay between shore raiding and reconnaissance and operations afloat, the challenges American naval forces face today are not that different from the challenges faced over two centuries ago.
On the Defensive at Lake Champlain
As they would in many subsequent conflicts, American military leaders thought an early and bold offensive would be relatively easy and would lead to a quick resolution of the war. In 1775, as Washington and his army besieged Boston, American forces invaded Quebec and occupied Montreal. But things did not turn out as planned. Canadians, rather than rallying to the cause of liberty, fought back alongside the British troops in the territory. By the spring of 1776, Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold and his men were fighting a gruesome scorched-earth retreat back up the Richelieu River toward Lake Champlain and American territory.
British forces did not stop to recover from their wounds and instead pursued their enemy. As Washington’s army fought its way across Long Island, was defeated, and withdrew into Manhattan, British commanders saw the chance to end the war by ordering their troops to continue pushing south. They would fight their way through upper New York, down the Hudson River, and meet up with other units of their army and navy in New York harbor, cutting off New England from the rest of the rebellion. As American units treated their wounded at Fort Ticonderoga, Gens. Philip Schuyler, Horatio Gates, and Arnold began to plan for a defensive that would culminate in a critical naval battle in the lee of Valcour Island.
The Rush to Build a Navy
As was the case with many famous naval battles, the campaign prior to the Battle of Valcour Island was even more interesting than the combat and glory in the engagement itself. Just as this was true of Horatio Nelson’s command in the Mediterranean prior to what would become his defining historical moment at Trafalgar, it was also true of Arnold and the Americans on Lake Champlain — even if Arnold’s defining moment would come years later and bring infamy instead of fame.
By the middle of June 1776, the American generals and their 5,200 troops were completely on the defensive and they realized they didn’t have much time to prepare. They faced manpower shortages and motivation issues, infrastructure and logistics problems, and a determined enemy with professional skill and the power of an empire behind them.
Northern New York was a nearly impenetrable forest with no roads and only a few footpaths cut through the dense wilderness. If a British army numbering in the thousands was going to travel south, the only way to complete the task before the winter set in was to use maritime transportation: They needed to come down the lake. To fight them off, their American adversaries needed boats and ships. Schuyler, in overall command of the American forces in the north, was an enormously successful merchant before the war who owned ships and sent them all over the world. Arnold had skippered his own ships on voyages to the West Indies. They both knew that they needed a navy on the lake to contest British command of the sea.
Building a navy, as the 21st century’s debates over budget and strategy illustrate, is never an easy endeavor. Planners need to decide what kinds of ships they want, but those desires have to be balanced against available resources. Leaders have to determine what kinds of ships can be produced with the money available and whether they can be built as quickly as conditions warrant. If not, leaders have to decide what alternatives they will settle for in order to be ready for a potential conflict. There are secondary questions to answer as well. Where will the ships be built? What infrastructure is required? Who is capable of doing the building? These are not only questions that naval and security leaders face today — they are exactly the questions that Schuyler and Arnold had to address. And they didn’t have much time.
Speed and expense were the key considerations during the construction of the American squadron on Lake Champlain. At its southern end, the Americans set up their shipyard in the small village of Skenesborough. There was already some infrastructure there: a saw mill, plenty of forest nearby to fell the necessary trees, a small settlement where workers could live, and a convenient and defendable location. While Arnold dreamed of large ships — at the very least schooners that could be easily maneuvered and carry a respectable broadside of cannon — time and resources dictated another fleet architecture. The American squadron would be a mixed unit of converted merchant vessels, gondolas, and galleys. The gondolas were gunboats powered by both oars and rudimentary sailing rigs. While similar in design, the galleys were larger and had more firepower. Schuyler had carpenters and shipwrights sent north from Albany and New York City, and optimism reigned as the first three gunboats were ready for fitting out by the end of June.
Despite the optimism, challenges were continual. The skilled labor necessary to run an efficient shipyard was an important part of maritime infrastructure. The shipyard at Skenesborough was constantly short of the necessary craftsmen. In addition, local labor practices closed down the yard on Sundays for the sabbath, regardless of the looming invasion and the likelihood of the settlement’s destruction. The supplies necessary to outfit warships — rope, block and tackle, cannon, and anchors — all had to be found and purchased further south and brought north. Meanwhile, Gen. Gates worked to reinforce the defenses at Ticonderoga, which was a constant struggle against smallpox and other diseases, the poor work ethic of the militia, and the competing priorities of building defenses and drilling for combat. And despite their proclamations in support, the Continental Congress sent no money to help.
The British force, on the other hand, was a professional one made up of sailors and soldiers who had served across the empire. Their ships were broken down on the Saint Lawrence River and the parts were carried past the rapids on the Richelieu River to the British base at Saint John, where the ships were reconstructed and then sailed onto Lake Champlain. Two schooners were stripped down, lifted onto sleds, and pulled past the rapids in order to speed their reconstruction on Champlain. Professional shipwrights, as well as experienced officers to manage the work, flowed into the British base alongside the stream of supplies and armaments needed to create a large and efficient expeditionary shipyard. The arms race on the lake looked decidedly unbalanced.
Gathering Intelligence and Flexing Muscles
Arnold and the American squadron realized they would need any advantage they could get. Rather than wait to build a dominant fleet, Arnold sailed north on the lake, with the three ships that were ready, to begin gathering information. Maritime intelligence work requires much more than assessment of the enemy position and force. Arnold began taking soundings of different parts of the lake, talked to and recruited local lake mariners, and cruised the lower lake to determine the hazards and possible advantages of Lake Champlain’s maritime environment. While he collected environmental information, he also landed amphibious reconnaissance parties that moved north and collected intelligence on the opposing force. The small American units, made up of rangers, Native American allies, and local militiamen, collected information on the British shipyard’s output, measured the flow of supplies, and infamously even assassinated a British general.
Throughout the summer and into the autumn, the American squadron increased in size as ships were completed and fitted out. Arnold used multiple elements of his naval power. He sent raiding parties ashore, not to take or hold territory but instead to cause trouble for the British forces and distract them. Arnold paraded his ships at the mouth of the Richelieu, conducting drills and firing cannon to signal his strength to the enemy in an effort at deterrence. And, to a degree, it worked.
The American muscle flexing convinced British commanders that they needed to achieve overwhelming dominance, and so they kept on building ships. Besides the schooners hauled past the rapids and the swiftly assembled gunboats, British Gen. Guy Carleton ordered the construction of Thunderer, a massive radeau, or barge-like vessel, that would serve as a floating fortress. It would have an overwhelming battery of cannon, as well as supplies of gunpowder and shot to resupply the gunboats. Despite the fact that their American opponents had nothing larger than a schooner, the British squadron began building a fully rigged frigate to serve as their flagship. Christened Inflexible, the frigate ensured that the British fleet would enjoy overwhelming conventional power on the lake, but building it also added weeks to that fleet’s preparations. Kelly reports that the frigate’s completion “gave Carleton the confidence he had sought,” and the Royal Navy prepared to sail. But it was the middle of October, almost a month and a half later than if they had skipped building Inflexible.
An American Ambush and Its Strategic Impact
The Battle of Valcour Island was not the battle the Royal Navy officers and their army counterparts had prepared for. They wanted a traditional fight, which they expected to happen in open water and to involve conventional tactics. But, Arnold knew that his ragged squadron of gunboats could never win that way.
With Inflexible and Thunderer at the center, the British fleet set sail down the lake. The American squadron had tucked themselves in the narrow channel behind Valcour Island, and Arnold anchored his ships all the way across the channel in a fixed and defensive plan. When combat came, the result was a day-long, brutal, shocking, and blood-filled battle in which the Americans fought the Royal Navy to a standstill. The British frigate and radeau were never even able to join the fray. Arnold had exploited his intelligence on Champlain’s maritime environment and that, combined with a bit of luck, meant the big ships would have to sail upwind into the shallows to engage in the fight. It was far too dangerous for British officers to attempt that with such valuable vessels. Instead, the fighting was gunboat against gunboat, as British sailors and soldiers divided their work between rowing their small combatants against the wind and working their guns. Arnold’s men, safely at anchor, could focus on firing their main batteries.
After fighting the global maritime hegemon to a draw, in the dark of night, the American ships weighed anchor and slipped past the overwhelming enemy squadron to escape further south. Arnold dragged out the fight as long as possible, making the British fleet chase down the American ships individually or in small groups. As the enemy approached, the Americans more often sank or burned their own ships rather than surrender them to the opposing side.
In the end, only a handful of American ships survived. The British force won the battle on Lake Champlain — tactically — and had established their command of the lake. But, snow was already falling. The bitter cold of Vermont’s winter was setting in. And, while Arnold suffered a tactical defeat, his correspondence throughout the previous summer suggests that he knew in advance that would happen. He and Gates had kept their eyes on the strategic outcome of the campaign. Their plan had been to drag out the British efforts for so long that winter set in and Carleton would be unable to bring his army, crammed in their slow open transport boats, down the lake to lay siege to Ticonderoga. And that was exactly what occurred. Despite his moment of advantage, Carleton made the conservative choice and backed down. He withdrew back to the northern end of the lake and began preparing to resume the invasion the following year.
That extra year gave American forces time to prepare as well. In 1777, at Saratoga, the reinforced and ready American army defeated the British invasion force. Saratoga was a victory of the greatest strategic importance because King Louis XVI took it as sufficient proof of American ability that the Franco-American alliance followed soon after.
Kelly’s narrative of the campaign of 1776 covers a lot of ground, and it is laid on a keel of excellent research in original sources. A public historian and author of several popular histories about early America, including the award-winning Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, he is adept at blending deep historical research with a genuinely engaging story. The details of the shipyard work, the spread of disease and overcoming the scourge of smallpox, and the constant political and financial difficulties of leading an army in the early American wilderness are all rendered with close detail. Laudably, Kelly does not overlook the Native American element of the story either, while remaining focused on the British and revolutionary forces who were, in reality, deep in the native nations’ territory.
Naval warfare is a terrible and terrifying experience. Often portrayed as machine against machine, instead it is decidedly human and Kelly brings out the tragedy, fear, and horror of maritime combat. While he occasionally takes some artistic license in his descriptions — there are no whale skeletons littering Champlain’s fresh water depths after all — his portrayal of the battle itself is both accurate and as fast-paced as the best naval fiction.
The Enduring Relevance of the Lake Champlain Campaign
In the early 21st century, naval affairs is a core part of the brewing competition between global and regional powers. Strategic and policy debates include questions of fleet size and strength and the uses of the Marine Corps in reconnaissance and raiding operations. At the same time, the world grapples with the challenges of disease, and American policymakers and citizens wrestle with the financial expenses of military and naval power. Each one of these contemporary challenges was also faced during the summer and early autumn of 1776. Kelly’s book is a well-researched, fast-paced, and engaging read that illuminates some of the many examples that 21st-century strategists can consider in their search for wisdom and insights.
BJ Armstrong is a contributing editor with War on the Rocks and holds a Ph.D. in war studies from King’s College London. He teaches naval and maritime history at the U.S. Naval Academy and his fourth book, Developing the Naval Mind, coauthored with John Freymann, is forthcoming in November. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Defense, or any other agency.