Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Forgotten Battle of Diamond Island on Lake George

General Lincoln by Charles Wilson PealeToday it’s a State-owned island – a day use area for picnics – but Diamond Island witnessed a horrific bombardment by gun boats manned by Patriots during the American Revolution.  The fight occurred during British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign to capture Albany. Initially, Burgoyne’s 9,000 man army had successfully captured Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in July.

When Burgoyne’s progress stalled near Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall, NY), his supplies were quickly eaten up by his extended campaign. Since his large army could not easily live off the land, except for shooting an occasional deer or bear, or boiling up a captured rattlesnake or turtle, the 54-year old general established a long supply line back to Canada. It was anchored by Fort George at the southern end of Lake George and by Fort Ticonderoga at the northern end. Between the two forts, a supply depot, guarded by two companies of the 47th Regiment of Foot under Captain Thomas Aubrey was fixed on Diamond Island.

By mid-September, the British army had crossed the Hudson River near present-day Schuylerville. Earlier in the campaign, Major General Philip Schuyler had the foresight to propose keeping some militia in “the Grants” (present-day Vermont) on Burgoyne’s flank, ready to capitalize on any mistake made by the British general.

Eyeing an advantage, Major General Horatio Gates (who had succeeded Schuyler) ordered Major General Benjamin Lincoln with nearly 2,000 New England militiamen to operate against Burgoyne’s rear.

Lincoln decided to divide his force into three commands of about 500 men each. Colonel Benjamin Woodbridge’s forces were sent to capture Skenesbourgh. Colonel Samuel Johnson marched his men to Mount Independence where he engaged some Germans guarding that position. The third Patriot command, about 500 men under Colonel John Brown, was ordered to attack the British outer fortifications at Fort Ticonderoga.

Brown’s surprise attack was flawless. Beginning at dawn on September 18th, they captured the Lake George landing outpost and the block house at the saw mill. Over a hundred American prisoners fell into his hands, plus nearly 300 of the enemy.

Lacking siege artillery, Brown sought to bluff his way into the fort. Under a flag of truce he demanded the fort’s immediate surrender. His opponent’s response was gutsy. Brigadier General Henry Powell calmly assured the 33-year old colonel that, “The garrison entrusted to my care I shall defend to the last.” After only four days, Brown abandoned his siege and headed for his next target – Diamond Island.

The flotilla consisted of a sloop mounting three guns, two gun boats with one cannon each and seventeen bateaux, in all carrying 420 officers and men.

Brown was determined to attack Diamond Island at dawn on September 23rd, but a storm forced him ashore for the night. With swells lapping over the gunwales of his bateaux, Brown sought shelter at Sabbath Day Point. In gusty weather the American armada set out again on September 24th for Diamond Island.

Fairchild Powder HornBy about 9 am Brown’s fleet reached the island. His plan was simple. The captured sloop with three guns sailed in choppy water at the center of the flotilla, flanked on either side by the gunboats. These three boats fired on the north end of the island. The remaining bateaux circled the island waiting for a chance to launch a landing.

That opportunity never came. Captain Aubrey, a veteran of Bunker Hill, and his two companies, perhaps 80 men altogether with six cannon, had been warned the Americans were coming and were well prepared. In the 36 hours before Brown’s arrival, the British regulars had thrown up breastworks and positioned some heavy guns Burgoyne had left behind. The Redcoats used this surplus artillery with skill and effect.

As Brown later reported, there was “hot fire” from both sides, but the enemy’s accuracy hulled the sloop “between wind and water.” One can imagine the difficulty the inexperienced western Massachusetts militiamen-turned-sailors must have been up against, their crafts heaving in the rough water, as they tried to get a well aimed shot at the Redcoat defenses. The British, on the other hand, had the advantage of stationary positions from which to cannonade the enemy.

18th century Map of Lake George and Warren Washington CountiesAfter a nearly continuous two hour bombardment of Diamond Island, Brown was forced to give up the fight. The hot, unceasing firing caused two of his guns to burst. The water-soaked decks of the boats were spattered with blood and guts. The colonel’s sloop was so badly damaged it had to be towed from the action by one of the other boats.

Brown’s little fleet limped to the east side of Lake George, landing in Van Wormer’s (Warner) Bay, according to one veteran’s pension account. His blackened and bruised troops had suffered two men killed, two mortally wounded and several others with minor injuries. Brown later claimed he burned his boats and all the baggage that could not be carried away, before heading over an old Indian trail to Skenesborough.

The British saw things differently. The commander at Fort George, Lieutenant George Irwine reported to Burgoyne about the attack on Diamond Island. Irwine claimed Captain Aubrey’s men pursed the retreating Americans, recapturing an abandoned gun boat with its cannon intact and “a good quantity of ammunition. There was not a man killed or hurt during the whole action of his Majesty’s Troops,” he added.

Burgoyne probably found little solace in the British victory on Lake George. Less than a month later, he was forced to surrender to Gates on October 17, 1777.

How much Brown’s actions at Ticonderoga and Diamond Island affected Burgoyne’s thinking is difficult to assess. The general himself, however, referenced the fight at Diamond Island in detail when he wrote a lengthy defense of his actions to Lord George Germain, British Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Today Diamond Island sits amid the crystal clear blue waters of Lake George. Without signage to explain the battle site, it is impossible for visitors to recall in their mind’s eye the ear-numbing blasts of cannon shot, screaming orders, and the painful cries of bloodied Patriots that once pierced the air above this little piece of land on September 24, 1777.

Editors Note: A Peace Obelisk, made of stone from nearby Prospect Mountain and listing some of the many military expeditions which passed Diamond Island, including the Battle of Diamond Island, was installed at the north end of Diamond Island by Edward H. Shepard and Spencer and Katrina Trask.

Illustrations, from above: Portrait of Major General Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Wilson Peale; the powder horn of Robert Fairchild showing a sloop, made at Lake George in August 1756 (courtesy Fort Ticonderoga); and a portion of an 18th cenutry map showing the fortifications along the Lake George and Lake Champlain corridors.

A longer version of this article appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Patriots of the American Revolution magazine.

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Bruce Venter

Dr. Bruce M. Venter is president of America’s History, LLC, a tour and conference company best known for its annual conference on the American Revolution. He is the author of The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action that Saved America. Bruce is also 1st vice president of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond and frequently lectures on the Revolutionary War, including at Fort Ticonderoga’s American Revolution Seminar. He is also known for his character portrayals of General John Burgoyne and Charles Earl Cornwallis. His forthcoming book, Kill Jeff Davis: Union Raid on Richmond will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2016.




2 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

    Great story! Thanks!

  2. M.P. Heller says:

    Diamond Island is a great place for a day outing. Snorkeling in the shallows on the east side of the island will allow you to see many quartz crystals that give the island it’s name. Deeper dives at the historic sites south of the island reveal 18th century war ships in a well preserved underwater ‘museum’.

    Be sure to pick up your day use permit from the ranger station on Long Island before you go.

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