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National Historic Landmark VALCOUR BAY
New York

Location: 7 miles south of Plattsburgh, between Valcour Island and west shore of Lake Champlain, Clinton County.

Ownership and Administration (1961). State of New York.

Significance. Benedict Arnold's daring fleet action off Valcour Island on October 11, 1776, had a far-reaching effect on the outcome of the War of Independence. Although the American force was defeated, its very presence on the lake and its stubborn fight proved to be a strategic victory by delaying the British invasion of the northern Colonies in 1776. By the time the lake had been cleared of American vessels the British commander concluded that the season was too far advanced to carry out his projected movement toward Albany. The invasion did not resume until the following year, by which time the Americans were better able to meet and repulse it. This they did at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolution. Alfred T. Mahan, the naval historian, wrote: "That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold." [47]

Not until early fall of 1776, was Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, British commander in Canada, ready to cooperate with Howe in New York by moving down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River on Albany. By early October, Carleton's fleet was built and ready for action—29 vessels, mostly gunboats carrying a single gun, against the American fleet of 16 vessels—3 taken from the enemy and others hurriedly built on the lake.

Between Valcour Island and the west shore of Lake Champlain is a sound about three-quarters of a mile wide. Midway on the island a high bluff juts into the sound, dividing it into a north and a south bay. On the day of battle, October 11, 1776, Arnold's fleet—15 vessels were present—lay anchored in line across the bay south of the bluff, concealed from the enemy fleet approaching from the north. Carleton's vessels sailed down the eastern side of Valcour Island and were south of it before the crewmen caught sight of Arnold's fleet. Carleton had to attack against the wind, a decided disadvantage in the age of sail. Closing to short range, the opposing battlelines hammered each other from about 11 a.m. until dusk. One of the two American ships lost that day was the Gundelo Philadelphia, which sank about an hour after the battle. This vessel, recovered from the lake bottom in 1935, is described on pp. 85-86.

The end of the day found Arnold's surviving vessels heavily damaged and low on ammunition. Further fighting was out of the question. The British line still lay between Valcour and escape to the south, but in darkness and a providential fog the survivors of the fight slipped past the left flank of the enemy line. In the next 2 days, Carleton's pursuing vessels knocked out ship after ship, and Arnold burned some to keep them from enemy hands. Arnold and other survivors of the action eluded capture, but when the final score was counted it was discovered that of the ships engaged at Valcour only 4 had reached safety. The American Fleet on Lake Champlain was destroyed, but its work had been done. The invasion from Canada had been halted for 1 crucial year.

Present Appearance (1961). Valcour Island is about 2 miles long from north to south and approximately 1-1/4 miles wide. It is rocky, high, and wooded, and, as seen from the west shore of Lake Champlain, it probably looks much as it did when it sheltered Arnold's makeshift fleet. The sound or bay between the island and the west shore of the lake is three-quarters of a mile wide. Although the shore of Lake Champlain has been built up to some extent, and Valcour Island is the property of several private owners, the island and, more importantly, the bay where the fighting took place have suffered little loss of integrity as landmarks of the War for Independence. No effort has been made to preserve or interpret the scene of the battle, and the only marking is a small monument on the mainland about 5 miles south of Plattsburgh, in view of the island. This was erected in 1928 by the State Education Department and the Saranac Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. [48]

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Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005