Stories from the Lake: The Revolution

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(Host) On Mondays this month, we’re probing the depths of change that occurred upon Samuel de Champlain’s arrival 400 years ago…to the lake he named after himself. Today, VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb continues our series with a look at the role of the Lake Champlain region during the American Revolution.

(Mitch) By 1775, hostilities between Britain and rebel colonists in New England were ramping up, culminating in the famous battle at Lexington and Concord in April.

(Chris Fox) "I think after Lexington and Concord occurred it was realized that they’ve, the Americans, kind of crossed a boundary where it wasn’t going to be easy to go back."

(Mitch) That’s Chris Fox, curator at Fort Ticonderoga. He says after those battles the colonists turned their attention north– to outposts on the shores of Lake Champlain:

(Fox) "It was known that there were a lot of canon at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. And there was interest in seizing control of the cannon and gun powder and related, military stores here in the event that war was going to escalate fairly soon. So Benedict Arnold received the order to go to Ticonderoga and seize these supplies."

(Mitch) But Ethan Allen was also making plans to attack the fort with his militia–the Green Mountain Boys. After a night of planning and debate over who should be in charge, Arnold eventually led the assault on Ticonderoga, with Vermont’s best-known historical figure at his side. It was an invasion, says Chris Fox, which turned out to be comically easy:

(Fox) "In the early morning hours of May 10th, 1775 a group of a 83 or so Vermont Green Mountain Boys, Benedict Arnold and a few other folks crossed the lake surprised a lone guard out in front of the gate here.  The guard tried to send off a signal by firing his gun, but it misfired so he ended up having to run into the parade group where we’re standing and had to wake everyone up by yelling."

(Mitch) The British were caught completely off guard. The Fort’s commander was given just enough time to change out of his pajamas before emerging from his barracks…and he surrendered on the spot. The taking of the Fort may have been easy, but says Fox, it was also significant:

(Fox) "The fort provided the very young American army badly needed supplies in the form or cannons, armor and some gun powder. I suspect up to this point the cannon captured here and at Crown Point represented the bulk of what the American army had for artillery at that time"

(Mitch) The rebel army knew Lake Champlain would again be a route for the British to come south from Canada. Benedict Arnold was sent to Skeneseborogh, now knows as Whitehall, New York at the southern part of the lake. He was charged with speeding-up the construction of a naval fleet. Meanwhile, Fort Ticonderoga’s cannons were sent to Boston, and a new fortification named Mount Independence went under construction in Orwell. Elsa Gilbertson  directs the historical site:

(Gilbertson) "That was the largest or one of the largest fortifications that the American forces built during the American Revolution and they made brilliant use of the topography, it’s very rugged there with cliffs and very difficult to get onto and around and they built a very sophisticated three level defensive system."

(Mitch) At the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh, school kids are given a tour of the 54-foot long gunboat ‘Philadelphia.’ The ship is a replica of one of the vessels Arnold built and commanded that engaged the British during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. 

Arnold had a daunting task: to hold off an invasion of the colonies by the world’s most powerful Navy. To make matters worse, he was badly outnumbered.  Maritime Museum director Art Cohn says after a five hour battle, and with night falling fast, Arnold came up with a way to escape:

(Cohn) "Benedict Arnold was a very creative field commander and he literally in one of the most extraordinary events of the war, was able to take his big sweeps, these big oars, wrap them with rags, grease them and put a shrouded light in the stern of each vessel, and then he rowed those 13 boats single file, passed a blockade of British gun boats that had been set up to stop him from doing just that and he pulled it off."

(Mitch) That initial escape, says Cohn, then led to a breathtaking chase as the rebels headed for the safety of Mount Independence and its big gun emplacements:

(Cohn) 30:20 that would protect their fleet and it was really just now a race could they get there before the British caught them, interestingly where we’re sitting here is where the second engagement happened on October 13th, by Split Rock Mountain which is this vast unspoiled vista that we see from the deck of this boat, the British caught up with Arnold, and began the second engagement"

(Mitch) Arnold realized he was trapped, but he still had one trick left up his sleeve. In what’s now know as ‘Arnold’s Bay’ in Panton, he distracted the British with an explosion of fire by sacrificing his five remaining gunboats:

(Cohn) "He ran them ashore, he blew them up with the flags still flying in defiance of the British, the British tacked back and forth in the mouth of the bay, firing on Arnold, and yet Arnold and his men were able to escape back overland with his men to fight again."

(Mitch) The colonists may have appeared to be on the run, but their new fortifications would again frustrate the British and delay their plans. Now the pursuing British fleet would be wedged in between–and vulnerable–to attack from both Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence. Elsa Gilbertson says Arnold’s Lake battles at Valcour Island succeeded in delaying the British long enough that by the time they finally reached Mt. Independence, they didn’t like what they saw:

(Gilbertson) "By then it was late October and they saw that the place was just swarming with soldiers and bristling with cannon and they thought maybe it would be better if they went back to Canada for the winter. They stopped the British and bought the American army a winter so that the war and the northern campaign wouldn’t get going again until the next summer."

(Mitch) The British did come back the next year under General John Burgoyne. After a difficult winter at Mount Independence, rebel troops received orders to evacuate the fort. But the British caught up with them at Hubbardton, the only Revolutionary War battle fought entirely in Vermont. The rebels were defeated, but the British lost a great number of men, and were forced to tend to their casualties. The revolution then headed south out of the Champlain Valley to Bennington, where Burgoyne suffered defeat in August.  

The colonies were on the precipice of Independence, thanks in no small part to the fortifications and battles waged along Lake Champlain.

I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

Listen later today during All Things Considered as VPR’s Neal Charnoff picks up the story with a look at important figures in the Revolutionary War. And join us next week, as we explore a new era of lake commerce and yet another conflict with the British in the War of 1812.

Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, professor of history at Champlain College.  

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