History has not been kind to Benedict Arnold, the Manichaean figure whose name became the timeworn proxy for “traitor” in popular histories of all varieties. Little matter that serious students of the Revolutionary War appreciate the fact that the French compared Arnold with Hannibal and considered George Washington a mere technician. Nonetheless, for many years Arnold’s heroic exploits, including the march to Quebec and his victorious roles at Valcour Island and Saratoga as George Washington’s top field commander, were best known to devotees of the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts.
In the 1950s, the popular appetite for stories of espionage narrowed the focus in James Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André to Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point, its garrison, and Washington to the British. But massive U.S. government research projects in the 1960s, including the 10-volume Naval Documents of the American Revolution, opened new avenues for exploring the details of the Revolutionary War. The result was a spate of new books and media treatments of Arnold. Now comes Jack Kelly’s Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty, which succeeds admirably in connecting the reader to the daily lives and sacrifices of the defenders of the North against a terrifying if sluggish invader.
Kelly’s story begins in the days immediately after 56 revolution-minded politicians signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, when the smallpox-ravaged remnants of an American army that had failed to drive British forces out of Canada gathered at Crown Point, New York, on Lake Champlain. At the northern tip of the lake, a massive British expeditionary force was preparing for its mission: to divide and conquer the newly united American colonies. It aimed, in a coordinated offensive, to cleave radical New England from the less rebellious middle colonies, thus preventing reinforcement from the south.
The plan was for a combined naval and land-based force to dash down Lake Champlain and Lake George and then down the Hudson River to Albany, where it would link up with the main British force attacking north from New York City. The British were certain they could crush the American rebellion before the year was out.
And the British seemed to have an overwhelming advantage. In addition to 10,000 Regulars they had 2,000 German mercenaries—including 200 professional artillerymen—and 700 handpicked Royal Navy crewmen to build and man Britain’s first-ever blue-water squadron. To scout and harass the Americans, the British had assembled 4,000 Native Americans; to build roads and bridges, 4,000 French-Canadian draftees.
The Continental Army had only about 2,000 able-bodied men to face these 20,000 adversaries. Of 11,000 Americans sent to Canada, only 5,200 had survived; of these, 3,000 were too sick with smallpox to fight.
“I can scarcely imagine a more disastrous scene,” 20-year-old Colonel John Trumbull wrote in a letter to his father, the governor of Connecticut, on arriving at the American advance base camp at Crown Point. “I found not an army, but a mob, the shattered remains of twelve or fifteen battalions, ruined by sickness, fatigue and desertion and void of every idea of discipline or subordination.”
In Valcour, Kelly takes readers into an American council of war in the ruined old French fort at Crown Point on July 7. Major General Philip Schuyler, the second highest-ranking general in the Continental Army and commander of the Northern Department, presides. Horatio Gates, his most senior general, sits to his right and advocates a defensive strategy against the British. But newly promoted brigadier general Benedict Arnold, sitting at the foot of the table, is having none of it.
Arnold laid out a bold plan: quarantine the sick to keep the rest of the men healthy; then abandon Crown Point and move the effectives south to a supply base at Fort Ticonderoga and strengthen the fort with artillery. To secure naval superiority on Lake Champlain, Arnold also pressed for building a fleet of row galleys, armed gundalows, bateaux, and a frigate. His goal was to impose a season of delay on the British juggernaut.
Schuyler, a veteran logistician of the French and Indian Wars, approved Arnold’s plan. Gates, who preferred the fort to the battlefield, was to take command at Fort Ticonderoga, extend its works, and build up its supplies. He delegated command of the lake to Arnold, who was aiming to get a ship finished every week, but blocked his request to build a frigate.
In fine journalistic style, Kelly expands on a chapter on the Battle of Valcour Island in his 2014 book, Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, to craft a day-by-day account of the summerlong arms race. A former mystery writer, Kelly skillfully builds suspense for the climactic naval action of the Revolutionary War.
Kelly draws out the uncertainty of the contest until the reader is waiting as anxiously as Arnold and his men for the battle finally to be joined. He is gifted at characterization but does not presciently judge his actors before their later failures and misdeeds. Gates is not a plotter and a blunderer yet, and Arnold is the stalwart who assembled a 16-vessel fleet in 90 days and then personally aimed the cannon that stopped the British invasion from the north.
When, after losing a year and retreating to Quebec, the British commander had to explain to London what went wrong, he answered simply, “It was Arnold.” To Alfred Thayer Mahan, the eminent American naval officer and historian, there was more to it. “Save for Arnold’s flotilla, the British would have settled the business,” he wrote. “The little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose.”
And thanks to Jack Kelly’s highly readable book, we now know much more about the summer of sacrifice and struggle on Lake Champlain that saved the American Revolution.
Willard Sterne Randall, professor emeritus of history at Champlain College, is the author of 14 books, including Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), and a past recipient of MHQ’s Thomas Fleming Award for Outstanding Military History Writing.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Poetry | Ode to a Patriot
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