Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Letters from the Front: The Battle of Valcour Island

"...we heard a heavy cannonading down the lake which continued for some hours, by which we knew that our Fleet was engaged with that of the Enemy..."

By the Fall of 1776, Dr. Samuel Adams, surgeon to the 2nd Continental Regiment of Artillery, found himself at Mount Independence, the major American installation next to Fort Ticonderoga. From this position, he listened to the Battle of Valcour Island unfold to the north of his position, up Lake Champlain. The engagement pitted a scratch-built American fleet, consisting mostly of flat-bottom gondola gunboats, against a squadron of British ships, including specially-designed Royal Artillery gunboats. 

The prize at stake was control of the Lake Champlain corridor. In order to strike at rebel-held upstate New York, the British needed the freedom to sail unmolested up and down the Lake. For Americans, this body of water provided a vital buffer for frontier defense. Beyond control of Lake Champlain, the Battle of Valcour Island also had significant ramifications on the American occupation of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Built by the French in the 1750s, Fort Ticonderoga was designed to defend against an attack from the south: while it had some batteries facing Lake Champlain, this was the weakest side of the fortifications. Mount Independence boasted an impressive array of earthwork defenses, which were, in fact, too impressive, since they required more men to defend than could easily be spared. 

The American victory at Valcour Island, one of the narrower points in Lake Champlain, delayed the trial of the Ticonderoga and Mount Independence defenses for a year, though it was achieved at a high price: the destruction of most of the American fleet. This battle was also a major feather in the cap of a man who is still well known to Americans today, but for very different reasons. His name was Benedict Arnold, commander of the American fleet on the Lake. For a more detailed contemporary perspective, see the full text of Dr. Adams' letter below. Our thanks go to Library volunteer Paul Davis for transcribing this letter.


Sol Feinstone Collection No. 23
Dr. Samuel Adams to Sally Adams, Mount Independence 14 October 1776                 
Transcribed by Paul Davis July 2011
                                                                                                “Mount Independence Oct: 14th 1776
            Soon after I closed my letter of yesterday we heard a heavy cannonading down the lake which continued for some hours, by which we knew that our Fleet was engaged with that of the Enemy; have since obtained the following general account, that the Enemies Fleet fell in with ours last Fryday morning that ours fought them bravely through the whole day and had rather the advantage of them Sinking two or three of their Gundaloes : but one of our Schooners having her foremast Shot away ran a shore & the people all left her & escaped. The Schooner was blowed up by the enemy – that yesterday morning they engaged again, and the enemy got the advantage of our Fleet, having the wind in their favour they got round an Island & got ahead of our vessels, several of which they have taken, Some ran on shore & was burnt by our people. The galley which Genl. Waterbury was on board is taken & it is thought he /the Genl/ is killed & upon the whole about two thirds of our fleet is destroyed. Those that escaped arrived here last night bringing off our troops from Crown –point after burning the House & Barracks there, and the enemy are now in possession of that place. Thus have we be much deceived about the strength of the enemy [pg 1]on the Lake, they having a 20 gun ship & a number of Sloops and Schooners – we expect them here in a very few days a large powerful army but our men are in good Spirits yet and we are well prepared to receive them, may the lord be on our side + then we shall have nothing to fear – With regard to the numbers killed, taken or wounded in the lake engagement can as yet get no account         
Since I Began to write have obtained another more particular account of the Fight for Which I refer you to Capt. Sumner’s letter- may we both be prepared for what is before us, I hope we shall yet see many agreeable hours together for all these troubles- Please to make my compliments agreeable to all friends – accept the kindest love to yourself from
                                                                         My Dear Sally                                                                                                                                     Your loving Husband                                                                              Saml Adams
P.S. Partner is not yet come up have had no news from him this month which gives me concern   

Mrs. Adams” 

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1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.