Before Benedict Arnold betrayed his country, he was a hero.
The Battle of Valcour Island in 1776 that brought him to prominence is far less known than those fought in Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in 1775. Arnold commanded the newly formed Colonial navy against British gunships on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Author Jack Kelly’s thrilling book, “Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty,” aims to restore Valcour – and Arnold – to the status Kelly argues they deserve.
By the summer of 1776, all but the most obdurate loyalists on the American continent knew that all-out war between Britain and the American Colonies had arrived. There had already been important confrontations, including the Continental Army’s surprising capture of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in May of 1775.
The Continental Army’s subsequent invasion of the British province of Quebec hadn’t been as successful: In the spring of 1776, its forces had been driven south in defeat. Quebec’s royal governor, Gen. Guy Carleton, wanted to take control of Lake Champlain so the British could use it to access the Hudson River – thereby allowing him to link the British forces in Quebec with those already victorious in New York. If he could accomplish that, the Colonies in the north could be cut off from those in the south, and each could be crushed in turn to extinguish the rebellion.
Lake Champlain was therefore the key, and all of Kelly’s main characters assembled there in 1776 knew it. On the British side was Carleton, a cautious, able soldier. And on the American side was Gen. Horatio Lloyd Gates, who, according to Kelly, “well understood that the line between a mob and an army is fragile, easily erased by defeat, discouragement, fear, and lack of leadership.”
As the Americans frantically raced to build a fleet at one end of Lake Champlain, two leaders stood out – and they could scarcely have been more different. Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler was in charge of the theater of war north of Albany. He was, as Kelly points out, a skilled businessman. He was tasked with shoring up an army’s shattered confidence and building a fleet fit to stand against the greatest navy the world had ever seen.
His unlikely colleague – and the star of Kelly’s book – was Arnold, commander of that new fleet. Kelly sees him as an otherworldly figure, with “a clairvoyant knack for reading a situation and reacting.” It was Arnold who inspired the frenetic shipbuilding, who drew men to the cause, and who spearheaded the plan to draw the British fleet into the shallow, narrow waters to the lee of Valcour Island, where its superior numbers and deep hulls would be impediments instead of strengths.
In the end, on Oct. 11, it hardly mattered. Even a fraction of the British force was enough to rout the Americans and send them slinking back to Fort Ticonderoga. But the British victory wasn’t complete: The Colonials had retained possession of Ticonderoga, and more importantly, as Kelly dramatizes so well, they’d displayed a scrappy battle nerve. “Carleton could not avoid the sinking feeling that a long and costly effort would be needed to subdue them,” Kelly writes. “It was what Arnold wanted his opponent to think.”
And what about Arnold? Undoubtedly, whatever good came out of the Battle of Valcour Island came from his pugnacious vitality. But four years after Valcour, he would betray his country, and his name would become synonymous with “traitor” in the American cultural vocabulary.
“Great men can be tragically flawed and still accomplish great things,” Kelly writes. “Can we honor their achievements while at the same time condemning their treachery?”
Kelly himself is sure of the answer: “An accurate view of history demands we must.”