Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

Rebellion Comes to the Champlain Valley

After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 the yoke of British rule seemed increasingly heavy to the self-reliant and restive British colonists in North America. The colonists viewed the increased taxes, perceived limitations of rights, and trade duties levied by their absentee government as tyranny, while the British government considered growing colonial resistance a movement that required vigorous suppression. The leaders of the growing American rebellion grew more vocal in their advocacy of human rights and liberty. The colonies first unified to condemn the Stamp Act of 1765, but they reacted even more quickly to the passage of the Coercive [“Repressive” or “Intolerable”] Acts in 1774, which Parliament had instituted in response to the Boston Tea Party. As King George III informed Prime Minister Lord North in September 1774, “the die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph….We must not retreat; by coolness and remitted pursuit of the measures that have been adopted I trust they will submit.” The king’s confident wish did not come true.

On the evening of April 18, 1775, the inevitable finally occurred when British troops marched out of Boston to seize patriot supplies in nearby Concord, Massachusetts. The next morning, shots were fired in neighboring Lexington, Massachusetts that left eight Americans dead on the town green. Further volleys were exchanged at Concord, and American militiamen hotly pursued the British force on its retreat to Boston. By nightfall of April 19, patriot militias had taken up arms in the call for resistance and encircled British-held Boston. The British attempt to discourage the “rude rabble without plan” with a display of force had instead led to open conflict. 

From the outset, rebel leaders knew that they must expel the besieged British garrison in Boston, but such an undertaking was impossible without heavy artillery. Such weaponry was at that time completely unavailable to colonial militias. However, cannon were known to be in ample supply at the weakly-manned British forts at both Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain. The Americans immediately devised plans to seize the guns and bring them to Boston.

Once again Lake Champlain became a critical strategic arena. If the Americans could capture the lake’s forts, they would gain not only cannons but also control of the lake. They would then command the most direct invasion route to British Canada. On the other hand, if the British maintained their presence on Lake Champlain, then geography would favor their endeavors, allowing them to divide New England and the remaining colonies and conquer them piecemeal (Figure 0﷓7).

Challenge to British Rule

On May 10, 1775, three weeks after the engagements at Lexington and Concord, the Americans undertook their first offensive action against the British on Lake Champlain.

Early in May 1775, Connecticut authorized Ethan Allen and two hundred Green Mountain Boys to attack Fort Ticonderoga and capture its cannon for the siege of Boston. Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point were both lightly garrisoned and in severe disrepair. On the eve of the planned attack, Benedict Arnold arrived with a colonel’s commission and orders from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, bent on the same mission. After a heated dispute between the two leaders to determine who was in charge of the attacking party, Arnold and Allen finally agreed to share the command. In the early-morning hours of May 10, they entered the fort “side by side” with a force of 81 and took the sleeping garrison by surprise.

FPO Profile of the schooner Liberty (from “God Bless Our Arms” courtesy of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum).

Along with Fort Ticonderoga, Allen and Arnold quickly captured the fort at Crown Point in May 1775. At the southern end of the lake, the Loyalist settlement of Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall), New York, fell to the Americans as well. At Skenesborough, the Americans seized Philip Skene’s schooner Katherine, the first vessel to be captured in the war and the first designated warship of the rebellious colonies. In his journal, Lieutenant Eleazar Oswald noted the event: “We set sail from Skenesborough in a schooner belonging to Major Philip Skene, which we christened Liberty.”

Arnold immediately assumed command of Libertywhen the schooner arrived at Ticonderoga and embarked for St. Johns, Canada, at the northern end of the lake. There he surprised and captured the “King’s sloop” Betsy. Arnold renamed the sloop Enterprise and confidently reported, “At present, we are Masters of the Lake.” Thus, just over a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, American forces on Lake Champlain were in complete control of a water highway that led directly into the heart of Quebec. To capitalize on their strategic advantage, the Americans made immediate plans to invade Canada.

The colonial leaders decided on a two-pronged assault on Canada, mistakenly expecting Canadians to gladly join the Americans in their cause. One army would move north through the wilderness of Maine and Quebec and the second through the Champlain Valley, once again assigning Lake Champlain a key role as a highway for invasion. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, Schuyler’s second-in-command, was chosen to lead the army north into Canada through the Champlain Valley, while Benedict Arnold took the second army. The capture of St. Jean on route to Montreal took two months, much longer than anticipated, but the victory yielded two prize vessels, the schooner Royal Savage and a row galley that was later re-rigged as a schooner and called Revenge. After taking St. Jean, the Americans ran the two gondolas Hancock and Schuyler over the rapids at Chambly and followed the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. With bad weather, little Canadian support, diminishing supplies, little hard money, and diminishing enlistments, the rebel colonial army attacked the city of Quebec during a raging snowstorm with disastrous results. The American army’s attempt to take Quebec was defeated, forcing the men to spend the winter outside the city’s walls. The weakened American force camped outside Quebec throughout the harsh northern winter. Despite famine and disease, they maintained the siege of the city. Reinforcements from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut marched hundreds of miles north along frozen Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, but they were too few and too late to save the American effort.

Retreat from Canada

The Americans stubbornly maintained their siege of Quebec throughout the winter of 1775-1776, but Carleton knew that English assistance would arrive as soon as the St. Lawrence River was clear of ice. In May 1776, a British convoy from Europe reached Quebec, carrying 10,000 British regulars and German mercenary troops. Their arrival triggered a hasty and disorganized American retreat from Canada. They stopped at Ile-aux-Noix in the Richelieu River to regroup, but it was a desperate scene. Three thousand ailing soldiers camped on the island, and at least 15 to 20 perished every day for want of medical supplies.

Realizing that they had no hope of defending the island, the remaining colonial troops evacuated Ile-aux-Noix and retreated to Crown Point. Encamped at the ruins of the fort, the remnants of the American (Continental) Northern Army had better access to supplies, but the ravages of disease continued.

While the American army lay at Ile-aux-Noix and Crown Point, the British forces rested at St. John’s waiting for orders to invade. The King’s troops knew of the deplorable condition of the American army, but they elected not to take advantage of the situation. For the moment, the Americans’ four little ships captured in 1775 blocked the British advance. The French and Indian War had demonstrated that whoever controlled the waters of Lake Champlain controlled the Champlain Valley. Despite the condition of their army, in July 1776 the Americans had vessels sailing the waters while the British had no fleet available. Until the British could gain naval supremacy on Lake Champlain, their army could not advance unprotected.

The Americans: Building a Fleet from a Forest

I know of no better method than to secure the important posts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and by building a number of armed vessels to command the lakes, otherwise the forces now in Canada will be brought down upon us as quick as possible, having nothing to oppose them… They will doubtless try to construct some armed vessels and then endeavor to penetrate the country toward New York. (Brigadier General John Sullivan to George Washington, June 24, 1776)

The Americans had captured and armed four vessels in 1775: LibertyEnterpriseRoyal Savage, and Revenge. This small fleet gave the Americans the upper hand on Lake Champlain and prevented the British army from advancing south. Throughout the summer of 1776, American and British forces at opposite ends of the lake worked furiously to assemble naval squadrons.

FPO View of the saw mill at Fort Anne.

The southern lake town of Skenesborough was chosen for the construction of the American vessels, and, an ironworks to supply the shipyard. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced one small galley constructed from timbers captured at St. Johns, eight new 54ft (16.5m) gondolas (or gunboats), and four 72ft (22m) row galleys. Each completed hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga where it was out fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By early October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels.

The American Fleet

We are as well prepared for the enemy as our circumstances will allow. They will never have it in their power to surprise us. The men are daily trained in the exercise of their guns. If powder was plenty, I would wish to have them fire at a mark with their great guns often. At present, we cannot afford it.

Benedict Arnold to General Horatio Gates, September 21, 1776

By the autumn of 1776, the American navy on Lake Champlain was a combined fleet of captured and newly built ships. Under the command of General Benedict Arnold, the fleet was manned by volunteers and troops drafted from the Northern Army. Arnold, who had sought troops with some maritime experience, was not very pleased with his recruits. He wrote to General Horatio Gates, Commander of the Northern Department, “We have a wretched motley crew in the fleet, the marines the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them ever wet with salt water.” Experienced sea officers, not tempted by the potential riches of privateering, were sent from the New England colonies to command the ship.

The British Fleet

When the British fleet arrived at the basin below Quebec in May 1776, it brought troops to reinforce Montreal and also signaled the end of any American invasion of Canada. Thus began a British counter-thrust into the colonies. The British anticipated that their 1776 campaign might take place “on the lakes,” and therefore sent prefabricated parts of gunboats from England to Quebec. British General Guy Carleton selected the outpost at St. John’s as the center of the British shipbuilding effort.

The British fleet on Lake Champlain was constructed for two purposes: to overcome the American fleet then patrolling the lake, and to escort and protect the army that was preparing to invade the colonies. The larger vessels were manned by Royal Navy officers and seamen from the St. Lawrence naval and transport ships, and the gunboats were manned by British and Hessian artillerymen. These professional forces were far superior to the untrained novices aboard the American fleet. Captain Pringle commanded from the deck of Maria, and General Carleton accompanied him on the same vessel.

Battle of Valcour Island

The two fleets met on the western side of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776. The American fleet, commanded by Arnold, consisted of eight gondolas, three row galleys, two schooners, one sloop, one cutter and bateaux. The vessels in the British fleet were not only larger with better sailing characteristics, but they were also crewed by professional sailors under the command of skilled naval officers.

Arnold picked the location for the battle. Lying about halfway between Crown Point and St. John’s, Valcour Island provided the American fleet with both a natural defensive position and relief from the increasingly blustery autumn weather. Arnold’s vessels sheltered to the west of the island, knowing that the British fleet would sail past on the east side. The Americans were both outgunned and outmanned in seamanship, and they hoped that the British vessels would have difficulty beating back against the wind after spotting the American line at anchor.

On the morning of October 11, the British ships sailed past the southern end of Valcour Island, then turned north against the wind. For the next several hours the British and American vessels engaged in an intense battle. Fortunately for the outmatched Americans, most of the large British vessels were unable to work far enough against the wind to engage them. Instead, the bulk of the fighting that day was undertaken by British gunboats that rowed within musket range of the American line. Both sides sustained significant casualties, and the American schooner Royal Savage, one of Arnold’s largest vessels, ran aground on the southwestern corner of Valcour Island.

The battle halted at nightfall, and one hour after the fighting stopped the gunboat Philadelphia sank from damage suffered in the exchange of cannon fire. At dusk, Arnold called a council of war, and the American officers agreed to attempt an escape by rowing past the British line. The British burned Royal Savage which provided a distraction on the eastern side of the inlet and the American fleet rowed south to safety along the New York shoreline with oars muffled and a shrouded light in each vessel’s stern. Remarkably, the fleet passed the British undetected, and by morning they reached Schuyler Island and halted to stop their leaks and mend their sails. Arnold had abandoned two weakened gunboats, Spitfire and Jersey, during the flight.

FPO Contemporary British map of the Battle of Valcour Island (Faden 1776).

As Arnold and his fleet recovered at Schuyler Island, the sun rose over a British fleet that expected to complete a rapid and decisive victory. They were mortified to discover that the Americans had slipped past their blockade and they hastily set off in pursuit. As the British moved south, they overtook and captured the abandoned gunboat Jersey, while Spitfire had already sunk.

The weary American crews, struggling against a southerly wind, rowed for their lives. On the morning of October 13, near Split Rock Mountain, the fresh British fleet caught up with the vessels that were straggling at the end of the American line. The British surrounded the row galley Washington, which was forced to surrender after taking several broadsides. The British pressed on in a running gun battle that threatened the row galley Congress and four lagging gunboats. Arnold, who was commanding Congress, ordered his men to run the five vessels aground in Ferris Bay, near Panton, Vermont. He and his marines ascended the bank and blew up the ships with their flags still flying to deny them to the British. Arnold, the ships’ crews, and the local residents of Panton narrowly escaped overland to Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.

The British were now in firm control of the waterway, while the Americans counted themselves fortunate still to have six ships afloat, four of which had participated in the fighting. Now relying on land fortifications at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, the Americans anticipated an imminent attack and called on the militia to confront the British army. The British, however, could not immediately follow up on their naval successes, since contrary lake winds prevented a rapid advance. When the winds finally cooperated and the British disembarked in sight of the fortifications, they realized that a long siege was in order. Facing the prompt onset of winter, Carleton decided that the campaign season of 1776 was at an end. With surprise and relief, the Americans learned in early November that the British had abandoned Crown Point and returned to Canada for the winter.

During the winter of 1776-1777, the Americans reduced their garrisons on Lake Champlain from nearly 13,000 to 2,500 men. Lieutenant Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin, a Massachusetts engineer, was entrusted with further strengthening the fortifications before the spring offensive. On the Vermont shore the Americans had carved a large-scale fortification out of a 300-acre (121.5 hectares) peninsula jutting northwards into the lake. Named Mount Independence, it featured a water battery, protective batteries, and a picket fort atop its highest height. Baldwin’s troops lacked sufficient food and supplies for winter, but they used the ice as a platform to construct a massive “Great Bridge” across the lake, linking Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.

In the spring of 1777, 8,000 British troops under the command of General John Burgoyne began the invasion of the Champlain Valley. They reached Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in late June, and at once began to haul cannon to the top of nearby, undefended, Mount Defiance, which overlooked the American fortifications. Burgoyne had discovered the Achilles Heel of the two forts. The Americans under General Arthur St. Clair had no choice but to evacuate their positions in the middle of the night on July 5 and 6.

The easy British success was short-lived. After chasing part of the fleeing American army to Skenesborough, and fighting with the American rear guard at Hubbardton, Burgoyne chose to proceed south overland through 26mi (42km) of swampy woodland. The retreating Americans destroyed supplies, felled trees, and burned bridges to slow the invaders. In August, a substantial British force in search of supplies suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bennington. Burgoyne finally encountered the American Northern Army entrenched on Bemis Heights, 20mi (32km) north of his intended destination of Albany. His first serious battle with the Americans, the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm, on September 19, further weakened British strength and morale.

On October 7, at the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm, while Gates occupied Bemis Heights, Arnold led a charge that rallied the American troops, and Burgoyne’s once-proud army suffered its final defeat. With his options waning, and his escape route to the northward cut off by flanking Americans, General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender his army. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777 is generally regarded as the turning point in the war. The collapse of the British army along the Champlain-Hudson waterway encouraged France to enter the war as an American ally. More than five years would pass before peace was concluded, but it was now obvious that the British would be unable to hold the interior of the American continent.

Battle of Lake Champlain

After the campaign of 1777, the British controlled Lake Champlain for the duration of the Revolutionary War. The British naval fleet provided transportation and support for raids into the Champlain and Mohawk valleys from 1778 to1780, and served as supply vessels for the British posts at the northern end of the lake. When the Revolution ended in 1783, the British fleet was laid up at St. John’s, except for the schooner Maria, which continued to patrol the northern end of the lake. The Americans were eager to take advantage of the water highway as a trade route; in 1790, merchants from Burlington, Vermont, were said to have purchased for commercial use two of the British schooners laid up at St. John’s.

Settlement and Commercialization (1783-1812)

From 1775 to 1791, Vermont operated as an independent republic on the eastern side of Lake Champlain, while the western side of the lake was under the jurisdiction of New York. The population of the Champlain Valley, only a few hundred in the years following the American Revolution, exploded to approximately 143,000 people by 1810. Business entrepreneurs, land speculators, and individuals yearning for a new start quickly began to move into the valley. The large stands of virgin timber were the easiest and most profitable way to make money, and the dozens of streams and rivers in the valley attracted the development of sawmills. The trees were cut into logs, milled into building materials, burned to make potash, pearl ash, and charcoal, or processed to make tar, pitch, and mineral spirits. Towns with manufacturing centers also began to develop along the lakeshore. As the population increased, the commodities heading for Canada diversified to include furs, hides, beef, pork, fish, wheat, cheese, horses, grain, pig iron, tobacco, wool, and paper.

Although some privately built merchant vessels had appeared on the lake before the Revolutionary War, commercial navigation did not begin in earnest until the 1780s, as thousands of settlers, most of them from New England and New York, moved into the Champlain Valley to exploit the region’s abundant natural resources. Rafts and small vessels including canoes, barges, scows, sloops, bateaux, whaleboats, and longboats moved much of the material due to the lack of good roads. Champlain Valley products were exchanged for cash, salt, and manufactured goods at the markets in Quebec.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States government made a determined effort to stand clear of European conflict while expanding its economic base through peaceful and honest trade without alliances. This approach worked effectively until the renewal of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, when the fledgling nation became trapped between the two unfriendly superpowers of France and England. For two years, American commerce actually benefited from the conflict, including the Champlain Valley, which continued its exports to Canada. As a neutral party to the Napoleonic Wars, America experienced enormous growth in international trade, becoming the world’s largest neutral carrier and the chief supplier of food to Europe. Both Britain and France resented America’s neutral trading, however, and a series of confrontations with both belligerent countries soon began. Provoked by the harassment, President Thomas Jefferson called for an embargo in 1807 that essentially forbade all foreign trade. The disastrous effects of the embargo for the U.S. led to the passage of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which permitted trade with all nations except Britain and France.

Champlain Valley residents depended heavily upon the trade with Canada, so most of the valley residents ignored the embargo acts and traded openly with Canada until the United States government began to rigorously enforce the laws by posting customs agents on the lake. Wharves were purposely built astride the boundary, so that Americans could unload their goods in the United States, and Canadians, out of reach of U.S. Customs, could reload the material on boats docked in Canada. Throughout the embargo and prior to the War of 1812, the Champlain Valley’s Canadian trade continued and increased dramatically despite the government’s prohibition. When the Non-Intercourse Act expired in 1810, trade was reopened with Britain and France as long as each country withdrew its restrictions on American shipping. France lifted its maritime restrictions, but Britain stalled long enough that America declared war in July of 1812.