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Revolutionary War Gunboat Spitfire

In 1997, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Lake Survey team discovered Benedict Arnold’s 1776 gondola, intact and upright, on the bottom of Lake Champlain. Spitfire was the last unaccounted-for vessel of the Battle of Valcour Bay.

Spitfire is the sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54′ gunboats constructed in 1776 in Skenesborough (now Whitehall), NY. These vessels were built as the Americans prepared for the British advance from Canada in 1776. British and American forces met at the  Battle of Valcour Bay, October 11, 1776. Spitfire was sunk by the British and remains on the bottom of the lake, almost 250 years later.

This shipwreck is in pristine condition, with the mast still standing, and the bow gun still in place. The remarkable condition is due to the lake’s cold dark fresh waters. And the depth makes her inaccessible by recreational divers.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has constructed a replica of one of Spitfire’s sister ships, Philadelphia. The Philadelphia II is on display at the Museum.

Notice: The Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act which prohibits any disturbance or impacts to the vessel or its contents and associated debris field. Violations can result in fines of up to $100,000 per day, liability for damages, and confiscation of vessels.

Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas. Reprinted with permission.

Gunboat Identified

When the gunboat was located in 1997, the Museum termed it the “missing gunboat” because the historic sources were unclear as to which of the eight American gunboats it was. At the time, historians, including Museum Director Emeritus Art Cohn, Peter Barranco, J. Robert Maguire, and George Quintal worked together to reexamine all known sources while initiating a search for new information. The team concluded that the gunboats New Haven, Providence, and Boston all made it to Arnold’s Bay and were destroyed by Arnold to prevent their falling into British hands. The team was left to conclude that the “missing” gunboat was, by process of elimination, either Connecticut or Spitfire.

Townsend document and Drawing of Spitfire, compiled from ROV footage and verification dives.

In 1999, a new document surfaced which confirmed all the previous research and put a name on the “Missing” gunboat. The manuscript, now known as the “Townsend Document” was provided by Mr. John Townsend, a historical book dealer from Connecticut. The extraordinary document is entitled “A Return of the fleet belonging to the United States of America on Lake Champlain under the Command of Brigadier General Arnold…” dated at Ticonderoga October 22, 1776.

Mr. Townsend believed the document was acquired by his grandmother. The manuscript lists each vessel by name and each vessel’s commander and ordnance. The final column on the document is titled “The fate of the Fleet.” This column details the disposition of each of the seventeen vessels in the American naval force on Lake Champlain and concludes that the vessel Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located in 1997 is the Gunboat Spitfire.

Ongoing Research Site

Spitfire presents a tremendous opportunity for research, documentation, and public engagement around the history of the Revolutionary War on Lake Champlain and the founding of the nation. As the United States heads toward the 250th anniversary in 2026, preserving and interpreting Spitfire will be a keystone moment to tell new stories about the people, the place, and the complex stories of the beginnings of the United States.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is working in partnership with national, state, and local partners to develop a long-term research plan for this significant historic vessel location in Lake Champlain.

Spitfire is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been deemed Nationally Significant due to its role in the American Revolution. We ask the community to please respect the shipwreck and the research and management process. Please do not attempt to locate or interfere with this extremely sensitive archaeological site.

Information Source :

Sabick, C., A. Lessman, and S. McLaughlin, Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey, Volume II: 1997 Results and Volume III: 1998 Results. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2000.