When it was reported in the summer of 1997 that the wreck of a Revolutionary War vessel had been discovered at the bottom of Lake Champlain, most newspaper accounts included some information about the battle in which she was lost – the Battle of Valcour –and how Benedict Arnold, in command of the remains of the New American Navy, eluded the British fleet and sailed up Lake Champlain toward Fort Ticonderoga.
To quote from the article in the New York Times, “Oars muffled with greased rags, his men rowed between blockading British vessels.” This account of Arnold’s retreat has been accepted by almost every historian I have read, even those whose common sense tells them to question it. “Incredibly, no alarm was raised by the watchers,” writes one. Incredible indeed.
“Is there a shadow of probability, that a squadron of hostile vessels would have effected undiscovered a transit through a victorious fleet, guarded by an organized and vigilant foe? Such a movement would have been a moral and physical impossibility.” Thus writes Winslow C. Watson, the nineteenth century historian of Essex County, in an essay for a magazine which I found by chance in a second-hand bookstore.
Watson took issue with the received version of events and offered in its place one that he believed to be the true account of Arnold’s escape.
The source of Watson’s account was his own father, Elkanah Watson. Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1758, the elder Watson had been apprenticed to the Providence ship owner, John Brown. Most of the officers who took part in the Battle of Valcour had been recruited from the commercial fleets of New England, and Elkanah Watson had heard stories of the battle from them. Later in life he was an intimate of George Clinton, New York’s wartime governor, and General Philip Schuyler. At the time of the battle, Schuyler was in command of the Northern Department of the continental army, and may be presumed to have known a thing or two about battles in northern New York. “I often listened to Father’s conversations with those, whose years enabled them to recur to scenes of revolution, and among those other reminiscences I recall their discussion of the circumstances of Arnold’s escape,” Winslow Watson wrote.
Here, according to Winslow Watson, is the true sequence of events. “Arnold withdrew to a cove, connected with the strait, and the British, by occupying the upper (or southern) entrance, were interposing between him and the refuge at the South he proposed to reach. The northern gate to the strait was unimpeded, and through that, it is my entire conviction, Arnold effected his escape.”
In other words, rather than sailing through the British fleet (which was arrayed in two lines, forming an impenetrable barrier), Arnold dropped back, edging his way north between Valcour Island and the mainland, and then, with the island separating the two fleets, headed south.
A local legend indirectly corroborates Watson’s version. East of Valcour Island, near the Vermont shore, lies an island known as ‘Carleton’s Prize.’ The British, reportedly, mistook it for an American Vessel, and launched a heavy bombardment against it before realizing that it was a rock and not a ship. The island, of course, is far to the north of the southern outlet through which modern historians believe Arnold escaped.
Watson has a theory to explain why the inaccurate version passed into history. Arnold himself, he says, never claimed that he slipped through the enemy fleet. Rather, “the idea was derived from a letter to John Hancock, written by General Waterbury, the second in command, in evident haste… the gallant subordinate writes: ‘we went through them entirely undiscovered .’ We may conceive, that in framing the letter, the mind of General Waterbury contemplated the result and not the specific means by which it was accomplished.”
About the rest of the story, there is, on the whole, agreement. Once the British realized that the American flotilla had escaped, Arnold was pursued up the lake. Of the fifteen ships Arnold had at the start of the Battle of Valcour, only a few reached Crown Point safely. The historians also agree that the battle was an element in Britain’s decision to postpone the invasion of New York for a year, just enough time, perhaps, for the Americans to assemble the political and military strength that defeated General Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Russell Bellico, the author of Sails and Steam in the Mountains, Chronicles of Lake George, Chronicles of Lake Champlain, and our foremost authority on things having to do with the history of Lake Champlain and Lake George, is aware of Winslow Watson’s version of events at the Battle of Valcour. He finds the revisionist version unpersuasive.
Here’s his response to my rendition of Watson’s story.
“Winslow Watson was a fine nineteenth century regional historian who added a great deal to the heritage of the lake valleys. However, many original accounts were not available to him when he wrote his magazine article in 1881. Today there is sufficient evidence from both American and British sources to indicate that Arnold’s fleet followed the New York shoreline and passed the British fleet in the dark. Thirteen days after the Battle of Valcour Island, Brigadier General David Waterbury, Arnold’s second-in-command, made the path of retreat very clear n his long letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress: ‘We immediately held council to secure a retreat through their fleet, to get to Crown Point, which was done with so much secrecy that we went through them entirely undiscovered.’
“Similarly, Pascal Charles Joseph DeAngelis, a young sailor aboard the American galley Trumbull, noted “that night we ran through the British fleet.” Ensign John Enys, serving on the British radeau Thunderer, suggested that the deployment of the British fleet “in a Semicircle round the mouth of it (Valcour Bay), in Such Manner that it might well be thought they could not have escaped, which however they did in the course of the night by passing between us and the shore unperceived by anyone.”
“British officers later criticized the British naval commander, Thomas Pringle, for mooring the British fleet “at least one mile from the western shore” which allowed the Americans to retreat unnoticed.
“Although Winslow C. Watson’s speculation on the retreat of Benedict Arnold’s fleet is interesting, the actual story may be more fascinating.”
I regret that Russ finds Watson’s version unpersuasive. It is true that Elkanah Watson, as readers of his memoirs can attest, is not the most reliable witness to the events of his time. He has, for instance, a propensity to exaggerate his own importance and the degree of his intimacy with great men. Still, I like to think of him, sitting in the library of his mansion in Port Kent, gazing out across Lake Champlain, entertaining his company with the tale of Benedict Arnold’s retreat from Valcour, and boasting that he alone among the living knows the true story. History, however well documented, is still gossip.
Illustrations: 19th century woodcuts of Elkanah Watson, Benedict Arnold, an American vessel at the Battle of Valcour and Valcour Island, from private collections. The Battle of Valcour, courtesy of Russell Bellico.