1776 Gunboat Philadelphia II
The gunboat Philadelphia II was replanked and relaunched in 2007, and is better than ever! She's docked at LCMM's North Harbor, and available for boarding during our museum hours. She is available for private functions, group tours, school programming, and public visitation. Call (802) 475-2022 for more information and to reserve your time slot.
Every year we use Philadelphia II as part of our Living History weekend, called Rabble in Arms. She plays a large role in exploring the lives of those that were embroiled in the American Revolution.
Brief History of Revolutionary War Gunboats
The American Revolution was in its infancy when the Continental Congress gave orders "to build, with all expedition, as many gallies and armed vessels as ... shall be sufficient to make us indisputably masters of the lakes Champlain and George." (Journal of the Continental Congress, June 17, 1776 in Clark, Morgan, and Crawford, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 5:589.) American leaders were concerned about British forces to the north. All parties understood that control of the lakes meant control of routes of attack and retreat; the corridor that included the Richelieu River, Lakes Champlain and George, and the Hudson River was the most direct and easiest route between the cities of Quebec and New York.
Control of the lake meant getting weapons onto the water as quickly as possibly. As a result, Skenesborough (now Whitehall, NY) became the "Birthplace of the American Navy" in the summer of 1776. General Philip Schuyler chose this location for its two sawmills and an iron forge, its ease of defense, as well as access to the vast timber resources of the Adirondacks. The fleet construction itself was under the direction of Benedict Arnold, whose previous success as a merchant ship owner and master made him the ideal candidate.
Construction began that summer at a slow pace. Carpenters, riggers were reluctant to leave their lucrative businesses on the coast. Finally lured by higher wages, and despite the heat, mosquitoes, black flies, and long days, these craftsmen completed eight 54-foot gondolas, including Philadelphia, and four 72-foot galleys in just over two months.
The gondola was known by many other names: gundalow, gun'low, gondela, gundaloa, gundeloe, gunlo, or simply gunboat. The gunboat was a flat-bottomed rowing craft with square sails that enabled them to sail before the wind. The hulls were fitted out at Fort Ticonderoga. Across the lake at Mount Independence, they were moored at the foot of a shoreside cliff; spars and guns were lowered from the top of the cliff into position on board.
Philadelphia carried three carriage guns, one 12-pounder, and two 9-pounders, and eight swivel guns. She had a single mast with a square-rigged mainsail and topsail. Her crew of 44 was captained by 25-year-old Benjamin Rue, from Pennsylvania. With little experience in boat handling and none in naval combat, Rue's men typified the troops described to Major General Horatio Gates, as "a wretched motley crew".
This fledgling fleet spent the majority of their time that late summer and early fall of 1776 patrolling the lake in anticipation of the completion of the British fleet in Canada. Finally, on October 11, 1776, the British were carried southwards on a north wind. Arnold's fleet was moored in a protected bay between Valcour Island and the New York shore in anticipation. The British did not enter the Valcour Island passage from the north, but instead ran south to the east of Valcour Island, which meant that to engage the Americans, the British would have to sail into the wind, putting them at a disadvantage.
Despite this initial advantage, the British fleet was much more powerful than the Americans. At the end of the 6-hour battle, the schooner Royal Savage had been captured and burned, and the gunboat Philadelphia sunk. Other vessels sustained damage, and sixty men were killed or wounded. The British decided to wait until morning to finish off this rebel fleet, which proved to be a poor decision. During the night, the cunning Benedict Arnold led his fleet in an escape, rowing silently right under the noses of the British.
The next two days were spent in repair and retreat. Arnold abandoned two badly damaged gunboats, Jersey and Providence. When the British caught up to the remainder of the American fleet, they captured the galley Washington. Finally the Americans beached five of their ships, the galley Congress, and the gunboats New Haven, Boston, Connecticut, and New York, and retreated on land to Fort Ticonderoga.
Public intrigue was piqued the moment of the destruction of Arnold's fleet. Artifacts and vessel remains had been recovered during the years since the war. During the summer of 1935, Colonel Lorenzo F. Hagglund, an experienced salvage engineer from new York, located the Philadelphia with a sweep chain, midway between Valcour Island and the New York shore. She was lying upright in 60 feet of water, her mast still standing, its top barely 15 feet beneath the surface. Hagglund describes his dives:
We are now approaching the blunt bow. Just above the mud line there is a hole in her side through the outer planking, a shattered rib and the inner planking; it measures about 10 x 12 inches. Just forward of this hold the starboard anchor stands in the mud under a cathead. The stock, made of two pieces of oak pined together, is now worn thin, but the remainder of the anchor, made of wrought iron, is so well preserved that in places the hammer marks can still be seen. It carries the number 320. A little forward of the cathead is what appears to be a white hole above the wearing strake. It is a lead-lined hawse pipe and the wear of the anchor rope is clearly visible.
We have arrived at the bow. In place of a bowsprit, we find a cannon with a peculiarly shaped object fixed in the muzzle. This object, now covered thickly with rust, is a bar shot. The bow gun crew had not completed the loading the their gun, and as the Philadelphia went down bow first, this bar shot slid forward and half out of the muzzle, where, as one end dropped, its own leverage clamped it in position. The carriage of this gun is full forward on its slide.
Unfortunately, the recovery of Philadelphia is not a study in careful nautical archaeology. However, Hagglund's skill as a salvage engineer meant that the vessel was raised intact. He assumed financial responsibility for the vessel, and put her on a barge to tour the lake. After Hagglund's death, Philadelphia was donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where she is on display to this day.
There are many wonderful resources written about the American Revolution in the Champlain Valley. We list but a few here:
Lundeberg, Philip K. The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776. Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1995.
Bratten, John R. The Gondola Philadelphia and the Battle of Lake Champlain. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 2002.
Building the Replica
Gunboat Philadelphia II
- Length Overall: 53 feet 2 inches
- Beam: 15 feet 2 inches
- Draft: 23 inches, fully loaded
- Depth of Midship, bottom to rail 4 feet
- Displacement: 29 tons, fully loaded
- Sail Plan: Topsail and Mainsail
- Armament: One 12-pounder, two 9-pounders, eight swivel guns
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum began construction of a replica of the Philadelphia in May 1989. To save time, LCMM boatbuilders used modern power tools in conjunction with traditional hand tools, but a period-correct blacksmith shop was built to forge the ironwork, including nearly 9000 nails. Both natural and synthetic fibers for the rigging and sails were used. Whereas natural line is period correct, in some instances synthetic line was chosen both for safety, durability, and availability of sizes.
Ash rigging blocks with lignum vitae sheaves were made as per the original (lignum vitae is a tropical wood), along with a dozen ash oars, each 21 feet long. Several weeks were spent caulking the hull planks and with cotton and oakum. Boatbuilder John Gritter remarked, "Over and over again we were impressed by the extraordinary accomplishment of the men who had gone before us."
Philadelphia II was launched on August 18, 1991, and the following year embarked on her Inaugural Tour. This 12-week outreach program brought her to many port of call on Lake Champlain, including Whitehall, NY, and Valcour Island, inviting visitors aboard to share her stories. In 1993, she traveled north into Canadian waters, illustrating our shared history.
Writes Captain Roger Taylor of his experience, "We could well imagine the exhaustion of Arnold's seamen, as they worked to make slow and painful progress against the southerly wind on October 12th and 13th, desperately trying to keep ahead of the pursuing British. Sailing the Philadelphia II with a fair wind was a treat. She made her three or four knots easily (and majestically), but four was about maximum. How Captain Rue and his men must have prayed for a fair wind!"