Revolutionary War Gunboat Spitfire

In 1997 the 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 Island.

Spitfire is the sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54′ gunboats constructed in 1776 in Skenesborough (now Whitehall), NY. These vessels were created in haste as the Americans prepared for the British advance from Canada in 1776. The two opponents clashed in the Battle of Valcour Island, October 11, 1776. Spitfire was sunk by the British, and still remains on the bottom of the Lake, over 225 years later.

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

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has constructed a replica of one of Spitfire’s sister ships, Philadelphia, accessible to the public at the Basin Harbor facility.

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 we termed it the “missing gunboat” because the historic sources were unclear as to which of the eight American gunboats it was. This spurred a research effort in which LCMM director Art Cohn brought together historians Peter Barranco, J. Robert Maguire and George Quintal, who worked to exhaustively reexamine all known sources while initiating a search for new information. The team’s efforts produced results and examination of new historical documents allowed the conclusion that the gunboats New Haven, Providence and Boston all made it to Arnold’s Bay and were destroyed by Arnold to prevent their falling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. That left us to conclude that the “missing” gunboat, by process of elimination, was 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, each vessel’s commander and ordnance, and concludes with a column, “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 LCMM located in 1997 is the Gunboat Spitfire.

Gunboat Designated American Treasure

The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Benedict Arnold’s last Revolutionary War gunboat as an official project of the Presidential program Save America’s Treasures.

Save America’s Treasures is a White House Millennium Council initiative created by President and Mrs. Clinton as part of the National Millennium Commemoration and established by Executive Order 13072 on February 2, 1998. It is a national effort to protect “America’s threatened cultural treasures…including significant documents, works of art, maps, journals, and historic structures that document and illuminate the history and culture of the United States.” Dedicated to the celebration and preservation of America’s priceless historic legacy, Save America’s Treasures works to recognize and rescue the enduring symbols of American tradition that define us as a nation.

Hillary Rodham Clinton best summarized the critical role of Save America’s Treasures: “By giving our own gifts to the future, we can make sure that when the new millennium finally comes, we won’t just be celebrating a new year, we’ll be celebrating the enduring strength of our democracy, the renewal of our sense of citizenship, and the full flowering of the American mind and spirit.” The Millennium Committee to Save America’s Treasures is led by Honorary Chair Hillary Rodham Clinton with co-chairs Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Millennium Committee, established to provide guidance and expertise to this historic effort, consists of private individuals, representatives from corporations and foundations, and experts in the fields of architecture, historic preservation, art, science, and conservation.

Spitfire is a National Historic Landmark and a Public Trust. 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.