Information

Benedict Arnold fights valiantly at Valcour Island


On October 11, 1776, a British fleet under Sir Guy Carleton defeats 15 American gunboats under the command of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, in what is now Clinton County, New York.

Although nearly all of Arnold’s ships were destroyed, it took more than two days for the British to subdue the Patriot naval force, delaying Carleton’s campaign and giving the Patriot ground forces adequate time to prepare a crucial defense of New York.

One year earlier, during the Patriots’ unsuccessful campaign to take Canada, Carleton, the royal governor general of Canada, had managed to escape Patriot General Richard Montgomery’s early successful attacks during the summer and autumn. He snuck into Quebec City, organized 1,800 men for the city’s defense, and prepared to wait out the Patriot siege. The Patriots, facing a deadline as their troops’ enlistments expired at the end of the year, fired arrows over the city walls on December 7. The arrows carried letters demanding Carleton’s surrender. When Carleton did not acquiesce, the Americans began a bombardment of the city with Montgomery’s cannon on December 8. They then attempted a disastrous failed assault on December 31, in which Montgomery was killed and Arnold seriously wounded. The action around Valcour Island was the final stage of Carleton’s effort to drive Arnold from Canada, once and for all.

Arnold was considered a Patriot hero for his bravery in the siege of Quebec, and earlier during the Patriot capture of Fort Ticonderoga, New York, on May 10, 1775. Arnold, however, did not feel that he had received sufficient accolades for his efforts, and, while serving as commander of West Point in 1780, agreed to surrender the important Hudson River fort to the British for a bribe of £20,000. The plot was discovered after British spy John Andre was captured while carrying incriminating papers, forcing Arnold to flee to British protection. He then joined the British in their fight against the country that he had once so valiantly served.

Arnold died in London in 1801. To Americans, his name is still synonymous with the word “traitor.”

READ MORE: Why Did Benedict Arnold Betray America?


On This Day in History -October 11, 1776

On this day in history, October 11, 1776, the Battle of Valcour Island begins. This was one of the first important naval engagements of the American Revolution, pitting American Brigadier General Benedict Arnold against British Captain Thomas Pringle.

The American campaign to capture Quebec in the fall of 1775 had gone disastrously. General Richard Montgomery was killed at the Battle of Quebec, while his second in command, Benedict Arnold, was seriously injured. Arnold continued a siege of Quebec City after the battle, but the Americans were eventually forced to withdraw. Arnold brought up the rear of the American forces, making a last stand at Fort St. Jean's, where he burned the fort and any ships he could not use, in order to deny the British from using them. Arnold then sailed down Lake Champlain to Fort Crown Point where the Americans were preparing for a British invasion.

Back at Fort St. Jean's, Canadian Governor and General Guy Carleton had no way of getting his troops further south since Arnold had destroyed all the ships. He was forced to build a fleet over the summer, many of which were made from pre-fabricated parts imported from Europe. Meanwhile, the Americans began enhancing their own fleet, bringing in hundreds of shipbuilders to Skenesboro since there weren't many shipbuilders in upper New York.

Benedict Arnold oversaw the construction of several ships that brought the entire fleet to 15. Arnold sailed north to reconnoiter British activities in September, coming close enough to St. Jean's to be fired upon. By the end of September, Arnold knew the British would be launching soon, so he headed south to Valcour Island, an ideal spot to engage the British.

The island had a narrow channel between itself and the mainland that would prevent the British from fully engaging the American fleet, which was significantly outnumbered and outgunned. On the morning of October 11th, the British passed Valcour Island, not realizing the fleet was hiding behind it. Two American ships came out, gave fight and lured the British ships back toward the rest of the fleet.

In fighting that lasted all day, most of the American ships were damaged and the gunboat Philadelphia sank. One American ship was beached on the island and boarded. During the night, Arnold managed to sail the fleet south in the dark and head for refuge. Captain Pringle was furious that his enemy had escaped and began a search. Over the next two days, the damaged fleet headed south, losing most of the remaining ships along the way. Some sunk, one was captured and several were scuttled to prevent the British from capturing them. Only 4 of the original 15 ships made it back to Crown Point.

Arnold's remaining soldiers made their way overland to Crown Point, where Arnold burned the fort down and retreated to Fort Ticonderoga. The British landed there on the 14th, but within a few weeks withdrew back to Canada because of the onset of winter.

Though the Battle of Valcour Island was lost, Arnold is usually credited with preventing a successful invasion from the north during 1776. The British troops knew that keeping supply lines open back to Quebec would be very difficult in the harsh New York winter, so they withdrew to try again the following year. When British General John Burgoyne brought the invasion the next year, it failed because the Americans had the entire winter and spring to gather masses of troops and supplies in preparation. When Burgoyne surrendered his army at Saratoga the next year, it was a major turning point in the war and the victory extended all the way back to the loss at the Battle of Valcour Island .


The Two Faces of Benedict Arnold

Colonel Benedict Arnold who commanded the Provincial Troops sent against Quebec, through the wilderness of Canada and was wounded in that city, under General Montgomery. London. Published as the Act directs 26 March 1776 by Thos. Hart.

Yet Arnold was also our quintessential traitor. He did more than switch sides at a critical point in the war. He attempted, through deceit and subterfuge, to betray the American’s most strategic fort to the enemy. He then led British troops against his former comrades and burned the city of New London to the ground before decamping to England.

For two centuries historians struggled to make sense of this paradox. They simply could not accept, as a historian put it in 1913, “that we owe the salvation of our country at a critical juncture to one of the blackest traitors in history.” They fell back on the notion that Arnold had always had the soul of a blackguard, but had kept it hidden. From the beginning he had been motivated by self-interest and love of money. Even his childhood, the stories went, held clues to his lack of moral fiber.

More recent appraisals recognize that Arnold was indeed a paradoxical figure, as devoted to the patriot cause early in his military career as he was hostile to it later. Moreover, his contradictory character offers a valuable lesson in the complexity and perversity of history — and of human nature.

The details of Arnold’s betrayal are well known. Married to the daughter of a wealthy loyalist family, nursing resentments over the failure of Congress to reward his achievements, in 1780 he entered into a plot to hand over West Point to the British in return for a substantial sum of money. Only pure chance narrowly aborted the plot.

Less familiar are Arnold’s significant achievements during the first three years of the war. He displayed an uncanny ability to project authority and inspire the men he led. His intuitive grasp of military tactics and strategy rivaled that of more experienced officers.

After violence broke out at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, Arnold was one of the enthusiastic military amateurs who answered the call to arms. A successful New Haven merchant and sea captain at the time, he joined in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, an important British post on Lake Champlain, the only inland water route from British Canada into the rebellious colonies.

Patriots eager to extend their revolution decided to go further and invade Canada. Arnold volunteered to lead a small army over the trackless mountains of Maine and surprise the city of Quebec. A herculean effort brought the intrepid leader and his men to within a hair’s breadth of taking the city. Arnold received a serious leg wound during a later assault on the fortress.

When British reinforcements arrived and the American effort collapsed, Arnold organized a more orderly withdrawal. Back at Fort Ticonderoga, he helped plan a strategy to stop, or at least delay, the British juggernaut.

During the summer of 1776, the British, relying on the expertise of the Royal Navy, assembled a powerful freshwater fleet in the north. Americans, under Arnold’s guidance, hammered together a small force of gunboats in the wilderness around Lake Champlain’s southern end. The object of the arms race was to delay the enemy long enough to close out the fighting season and postpone the confrontation for another year.

The strategy worked. The British spent the entire summer building ships to assert naval dominance over the narrow, hundred-mile-long waterway. Arnold, with his small pack of gunboats, hovered around the lake’s northern end in a daring show of force.

On October 11, 1776, the British finally set sail. Arnold met them in a small bay behind Valcour Island along the lake’s western shore. The tactic, which seemed suicidal, erupted into a wild, point-blank cannon battle that ended with the patriot fleet crippled and the British ready to deliver the coup de grâce the next morning. Somehow—historians still scratch their heads over it—Arnold and his men were able to escape through the British blockade and head south on the lake during the night.

There followed a frantic race, Arnold’s men rowing open boats through a sleet storm, the British slowly catching up. It culminated in another chaotic naval battle. Although Arnold lost almost his entire fleet, he was able to save most of his men. British commanders were so stunned by the patriots’ fanatical determination that they paused, thought it over, and returned to Canada.

The following year, when a British army did descend from Canada and take Fort Ticonderoga, the American patriots were better prepared. Under the leadership of Horatio Gates, they amassed a large force of continental soldiers and militiamen at Saratoga, north of Albany. Arnold played a significant role in the two battles fought there the autumn of 1777. He led a crucial charge during the climax of the second battle and was severely wounded. It would be the last time Arnold would fight for his country.

Three years later, all of Arnold’s heroic achievements—his extraordinary devotion to the cause, his disbursement of his own money to pay his troops, his war wounds—descended into the black hole of his infamous betrayal. His name became synonymous with traitor.

Arnold’s paradoxical nature gives him new relevance in an era when many have questioned whether the members of the founding generation should be venerated or reviled. Could a leader of the Revolution be both a rich man and an advocate for an egalitarian republic? Could a slave owner promote the principle that all men are created equal? Could a man grab land from indigenous people and still contribute to forging a durable, democratic nation?

A print depicting Ethan Allen’s Capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. Not pictured is Colonel Arnold, who also helped capture the Fort.

The focus on the flaws of the founders has been a necessary and important corrective to two centuries of lionization. But Arnold’s paradoxical nature reminds us that all men and women contain contradictions. Our judgment must be proportional—honor for his achievement, condemnation for his treason.

Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all owned slaves. If that was their sole attribute, we could dismiss them as petty and culpable figures. But within each was a paradox. They created a country which overturned the subservience of citizens to monarchs, a country that moved, far too haltingly, in the direction of individual liberty, human rights, and justice.

No one is for placing a traitor on a pedestal. But if we can accept that Benedict Arnold helped us win our independence and betrayed his comrades and his country, then we can see more clearly that history is inevitably shaped by flawed and conflicted human beings.

Jack Kelly is an award-winning author and historian. His books include Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty and Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, which received the DAR History Medal. He is also the author of The Edge of Anarchy, Heaven’s Ditch, and Gunpowder and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in Nonfiction Literature. Kelly has appeared on The History Channel, National Public Radio, and C-Span. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.


October 11, 1776 Valcour Island

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, he had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time, and Congress was alarmed at its potential as a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg. Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan was captured, along with about 400 fellow patriots.

Profile of the schooner “Liberty”

Quebec was massively reinforced in the Spring of 1776, with the arrival of 10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army had been driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies. General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed almost every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775: the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge. Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake. 120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

Sawmill at Fort Anne

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.

Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy. In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns, knowing that there was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort. Nevertheless, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, that almost brought their work to a halt.

Lake Champlain: Garden island (right), Valcour Island (left)

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54′ gondolas (gunboats), and four 72′ galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, where it was fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

As the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage. The element of surprise was going to be critical. Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark, and both sides did some damage. On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each. In the end, the larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, was abandoned. The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods. Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle. Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving it for the last time, flag still flying.

The British would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it. Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter. One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, the General had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

A 1905 postcard displays the remains of Benedict Arnold’s flagship, the “Congress”.


American Revolution Podcast

Most of the summer of 1776 focused on New York City. That was where Britain sent the bulk of its troops and that’s where most of the fighting took place. As I discussed a few episodes back, Britain also sent a large contingent to Canada to secure that area. When General Johnny Burgoyne arrived with 8000 regulars in the spring, General Guy Carlton did not even wait for the entire force to arrive before he brought his forces out of Quebec and chased the Americans out of Canada entirely.

But at the Quebec border, the offensive came to a halt. The British could not easily transport their navy from the St. Lawrence River onto Lake Champlain. General Benedict Arnold had built up a fleet of Continental ships on the lake. Carleton did not want to challenge Arnold’s fleet until he could do so with overwhelming force.

Battle of Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)
As I discussed back in Episode 106, Burgoyne, who had led the reinforcements from Britain to Canada, did not share Carlton’s reluctance to attack. Burgoyne grew frustrated sitting around all summer waiting for something to happen. He spent most of the summer bad mouthing his superior to everyone he knew back in London.

But if the two top British generals in Canada did not get along, that was nothing compared to the infighting on the American side. General Philip Schuyler still commanded the northern army in New York. Congress had sent General Horatio Gates to command the army in Canada. But now that the Americans in Canada had retreated back to New York, both generals spent most of the summer fighting over who was really in charge. Schuyler was the senior officer, but Gates had received an independent command.

The junior officers also continued their own infighting. General Arnold had spent most of the war making enemies of just about all the other officers he met. Over the summer, he had gotten into the tussle over the court martial of Colonel Moses Hazen, which resulted in the court seeking permission to arrest Arnold for his expression of contempt for the court.

Gates refused to allow any such arrest because, the British were going to attack any day and Arnold was their best battlefield commander. Next, Arnold had to fight to take back his command of the fleet after Schuyler had given command to Colonel Jacobus Wynkoop. That fight led to Gates again backing Arnold and arresting Wynkoop. So by the end of the summer of 1776, Arnold was once again in command of the fleet on Lake Champlain and ready to face the enemy.

British General Carleton came from the same school of leadership as General William Howe in New York: take your time, don’t do anything risky, wait until you are in a position to overwhelm the enemy so there can be only one outcome. While Howe used the late summer and fall of 1776 to nudge Washington’s army slowly out of New York, Carleton got an even later start. His fleet did not leave St. Jean until October 4. But when it did, Carleton was well prepared to defeat any Continental resistance on the lake.

The Thunderer (from JAR)
Carlton’s delay was the result of assembling a fleet of about 25 warships, either built at St. Jean or broken into pieces at Three Rivers, and then hand carried and reassembled at St. Jean. The largest, the Thunderer was more of a floating battery, about 500 feet long. Its six 12 pounder cannons alone made her the equal of any American ship on the lake, but Thunderer also had six 24 pounders as well as howitzers, meaning no other ship came close to her firepower. Because the ship was so large and unwieldy, the presumed purpose was to float down to the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga to use as part of a siege.

Carlton had other ships ready for a full scale naval battle on Lake Champlain. The Inflexible had sixteen 12 pounders and two 9 pounders. The Carleton had twelve 6 pounders and the Maria, named after Carleton’s wife had fourteen 6 pounders. They also built a gondola called the Loyal Convert with six 9 pounders and a single 24 pounder. In addition, the fleet included several smaller row ships with a single cannon mounted on the bow. At least ten of these smaller ships had been built in Britain and sent across the Atlantic as kits to be reassembled on the lake.

In addition to the twenty-five warships armed with cannon, the fleet included troop transports as well as several hundred Indian canoes. Most of the regulars remained behind, waiting until the fleet cleared the lake. But the fleet did take about one thousand regulars, as well as hundreds of Canadian militia and Indians prepared to do battle with any land forces they met along the shores.

To counter the British fleet, the Continentals had assembled and built their own fleet. The largest ships were the Royal Savage and the Enterprise, which Arnold had captured on the lake a year earlier. They also had built the Revenge, the Liberty, and the Lee. Most of these were armed with six or four pounder cannon, although the Lee had one 12 pounder. Size really mattered with these cannons since the goal was to rip large holes in the enemy ships to sink them. Larger cannon made bigger holes. They could also usually be fired from a greater distance.

The Americans put most of their heaviest guns on four large row gallies, the Trumbull, the Washington, the Congress, and the Gates, all of which had one or two 18 pounders, as well as a few 12 pounders and some smaller cannon. In battle, these could be rowed into position easier than a sailing vessel, hopefully getting in some successful shots before the enemy could get into position to return fire. The disadvantage of these gallies is that they required a lot of men to row them and were much slower in open water, meaning the enemy would have an easier time overtaking them. The Continental navy rounded out its fleet with eight smaller gunboats: the Philadelphia, the New York, the New Jersey, the Connecticut, the Providence, the New Haven, the Spitfire, and the Boston. Like the gallies, each had to be rowed. Each had at least one 9 or 12 pounder as well as a few smaller cannon.

With the superior force, better trained crews, and far more resources, Carleton felt confident he could move down Lake Champlain, encounter the American fleet at any point of their choosing, defeat them and continue on down to Fort Ticonderoga at the southern tip of the lake. He expected Arnold to confront his fleet at Cumberland point, one of the narrowest places on the lake, where the smaller Continental fleet would be at less of a disadvantage.

Map showing battle location (from Wikimedia)
Gates ordered Arnold to keep his fleet between Fort Ticonderoga and Carleton’s fleet and do his best to put up a defense. The expected outcome to be eventually falling back to Fort Ticonderoga. There, backed by the fort’s guns, they could put up a final defense against the fleet.

Arnold thought those were stupid orders, but did not bother to fight about it. Instead, he just ignored orders and implemented his own plan. He knew that Carlton was too cautious to move until the winds were in his favor, and that Carlton would not leave an enemy fleet in his rear while proceeding down to Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold wanted to lure Carlton into a fight at a point where the Americans would have the greatest advantage.

Valcour Island was a small island just off the west coast of Lake Champlain, just below Cumberland point. The point of entry from the northern part of the island into the narrow water between the island and the western shore was too full of rocks and debris for most of the large British ships to enter. Therefore, they would need to sail around the east to the southern part of the island and then tack north into Valcour Bay. Since Carlton would have waited to set sail until he had a steady northerly wind to carry him down the lake, the wind would be against him as he sailed back up into Valcour Bay to meet Arnold’s fleet.

Arnold chained his ships together in an arc inside the bay. That way, all his ships could concentrate fire on the British ships entering the bay, which they would have to do one or two at a time and against the wind. That would give Arnold’s fleet time to demolish each ship as it entered without having to face the entire British fleet at once.

The plan actually seemed to work reasonably well. As expected, Carlton waited for good weather and a favorable northerly wind before proceeding south on October 10. That night, the British fleet lay at anchor just a few miles north of Valcour Island.

There is some dispute as to what actually happened. Carlton, of course, issued a formal report after the battle. But a year later, several of his subordinate officers wrote An Open Letter to Captain Pringle published in London that greatly contradicted many of the facts as Carlton presented them, and also accused Carlton of cowardice. The three officers who filed this report were upset that Carlton had assumed command of the fleet, rather than allowing Burgoyne that honor. They were also upset that Carlton had appointed Captain Thomas Pringle as fleet commander over the three of them who had seniority. Therefore their anti-Carlton bias might have been as strong as Carleton’s bias to paint a picture that put himself in the best possible light.

American ships at Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)
Carlton said he had no idea that the American fleet was in Valcour Bay. He fully expected to find them at Cumberland point. When he did not, he continued to sail south taking advantage of a strong northerly wind that morning, sailing past Valcour Island and down the lake. The report by the dissenting officers said that he did know about the American fleet. While Carleton had sidelined Burgoyne on Lake Champlain, Burgoyne had sent light infantry down the coast of the lake looking for the enemy. They reported back that they spotted the fleet near Valcour Island on October 9. The Open Letter said that Carlton knew about this and refused to act on the intelligence.

The truth is likely that there was some report of the enemy in the area two days earlier. But Carlton, after not finding the enemy where he expected, simply assumed they were in full retreat down the lake as fast as they could go. There is no evidence that Carlton received intelligence specifically showing the enemy’s exact position behind Valcour Island. So Carleton let every ship sail at full speed in down the lake.

The Inflexible and Thunderer were far down the lake past the Island when Arnold began to fear that the fleet might just sail past him entirely. This might have been a good thing since then Arnold could have come down on the British fleet from the rear, taking out the troop transports before the warships could turn around and defend them. But Arnold wanted the fleet to attack him in Valcour Bay. By late morning, as the fleet was moving south, Arnold ordered the Royal Savage and three of the row gallies to move south toward an intercept with the British fleet.

Guy Carleton (from Wikimedia)
As soon as the British spotted his ships, Arnold ordered them to turn around and return to the line. He had gotten the attention of the British fleet and knew they would sail into his defensive lines now. But while the row gallies could return to the American lines, the Royal Savage had trouble tacking against the wind. The inexperienced crew was unable to get back to the lines as British gunboats surrounded and bombarded her, taking out most of her sails. The British Inflexible soon came within range and used its heavy artillery to destroy the hull and rigging. Soon the Royal Savage crashed into the coast of Valcour Island where the surviving crew abandoned ship and escaped into the island. Some made their way back to the fleet, others would be captured by Indians who Carlton deployed on the island later that day.

A British boarding party was able to capture the Royal Savage and began using the cannon on the stranded ship to fire on the American fleet. But the Americans soon focused their fire and forced the British to abandon the sinking ship. Instead, they burned it down to its water line later that evening. Although Arnold had not been aboard the ship that day, he did have his personal property and papers aboard ship, the loss of which would come to haunt him later.

The Royal Savage went down quickly in early fighting, giving hope to the British that this would be an easy fight. The first British gunboats sailed into Valcour Bay along with the Carleton, and that is the ship Carleton, not to be confused with the Maria, where General Carleton was aboard. As the ship Carleton entered Arnold’s trap, all the American ships concentrated their fire. The Carleton’s commander, a young Lieutenant named James Dacres took a hit in the head and was knocked unconscious. At first the crew thought he had been killed, and were about to throw his body overboard, as was customary at the time. Fortunately for Dacres, an alert midshipman named Edward Pellew, realized Dacres was still alive and prevented him from being thrown overboard. Years later, both Dacres and Pellew would become British admirals fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Pellew is known better by his later title, Admiral Lord Exmouth.

The Royal Savage (from JAR)
The Carlton was in danger of sinking or being captured. With its rigging shot away, it could not even sail away from battle. Midshipman Pellew had to climb into the rigging and while under fire, kick at a sail to get it to unfurl properly. With the assistance of British gunboats, the Carlton eventually retreated from the line of fire and escaped with heavy damage.

Overall, Arnold’s plan was working well. The British fleet could not attack him en masse. His American gunners, despite little experience, effectively hit the few ships that made it into the bay. The British Thunderer and Loyal Convert were too far downwind to make it back in time for battle at all that day. The large square rigged Inflexible was not able to get into the Bay where it could effectively fire on the Americans.

With the Carlton out of commission, that left only the Maria and the smaller British gunships. The Maria was not the largest ship in the fleet, but it was one of the fastest, and had the fleet commander Captain Pringle and General Carlton aboard. As the Maria approached the bay, an American cannonball passed over the deck nearly taking off Carlton’s head. Reportedly, Carlton simply turned to a colleague, Dr. Knox, standing next to him and also almost killed by the same ball, and asked him “Well doctor, how do you like a sea battle?” But that shot was enough for Captain Pringle to order the ship to pull back and drop anchor, where the commanders could observe the fight from a safe distance. This later resulted in charges of cowardice against Pringle.

Carlton ordered his Indians to land on Valcour Island and along the New York coast as well. From there, the Indians fired on the American ships with muskets. The fire was mostly distracting for a few ships closest to shore. Arnold had prepared for such an eventuality by building wooden breastworks on the ships to shield the men from musket fire.

A few Indians attempted to row out to the ships and board them. But effective use of swivel guns quickly dissuaded them from those attempts. Mostly the Indians on shore prevented the Americans from any attempts to abandon ship and make their way overland back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Battle at Valcour Island (from British Battles)
Throughout the day, both the enemy and his own men observed General Arnold in the thick of the fighting, moving from cannon to cannon to direct fire.

By late in the day, the Inflexible finally got itself within range of the American ships. With its superior firepower, it did some damage, but also took considerable fire from the Americans. Before long, dusk ended the fighting, after about seven hours of battle. Many of the American ships were running out of ammunition, as were many of the smaller British gunships.

Overall Arnold’s plan worked well. He had forced the British to attack him with only a few ships at a time, and against the wind. But Carlton’s advantage in numbers of ships, men, guns, and ammunition made it virtually impossible that the Americans would destroy or capture the British fleet entirely.

When the second day began, Arnold would no longer have the element of surprise. He remained trapped in Valcour Bay. Escape to the north was impossible given the rocks and impediments. Even if the American fleet could get through to the north, it would still be trapped between the British fleet and the British rear where 7000 British regulars were there to meet them. Carlton’s fleet blocked a southern escape. Hundreds of Indians patrolled the forests on both Valcour Island and the mainland, preventing Arnold from simply scuttling his ships and attempting an escape overland.

To the British, and probably to most American officers, it looked like Arnold’s choices the following morning were surrender, burn the ships and surrender, or fight it out as the British fleet crushed the Americans. Any of these results would be reasonable. Arnold’s fleet has served its purpose. It had delayed the British attack on Fort Ticonderoga for nearly the entire 1776 fighting season. If the British captured the fleet, it would mean a few hundred prisoners, about the same as when the British captured Montgomery and Arnold’s attack force at Quebec nine months earlier. It was an acceptable sacrifice for keeping 12,000 British and allies from taking the Hudson Valley and linking up with British forces in New York City that year.

Despite his position though, Arnold was not ready to surrender yet. That night, at a council of war, he revealed his plan to escape from the British fleet.

Next Week, Arnold attempts to escape from the British fleet.

Previous Episode 109: Great fire of NY & Hanging Nathan Hale



Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give. Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.
Thanks,
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber. This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges. Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project. Thanks again!

Barbieri, Michael "The Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 2, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/battle-valcour-island

Barbieri, Michael "The Fate of the Royal Savage" Journal of the American Revolution, May 2, 2014:
https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/05/the-fate-of-the-royal-savage

Gadue, Michael "The Thunderer, British Floating Gun Battery on Lake Champlain" Journal of the American Revolution, April 4, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/04/the-thunderer-british-floating-gun-battery-on-lake-champlain

Gadue, Michael "The Liberty, First American Warship Among Many Firsts" Journal of the American Revolution, June 10, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/06/the-liberty-first-american-warship-among-many-firsts

Pippenger, C.E. "Recently Discovered Letters Shed New Light on the Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 11, 2016: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/10/recently-discovered-letters-shed-new-light- battle-valcour-island

Seelinger, Matthew Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island, 2014: https://armyhistory.org/buying-time-the-battle-of-valcour-island

Hubbard, Timothy W. "Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero" American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 17, Issue 6, Oct. 1966: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/battle-valcour-island-benedict-arnold-hero

C-Span: author James Arnold discusses his book, Benedict Arnold’s Navy (2006): https://www.c-span.org/video/?193388-1/benedict-arnolds-navy

Benedict Arnold's Legacy: Tales from Lake Champlain, Center for Research on Vermont (2016): https://archive.org/details/Benedict_Arnold_s_Legacy_-_Tales_from_Lake_Champlain

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 6, Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.


Then Again: Benedict Arnold’s strategic retreat from the Battle of Valcour Island

Vermont artist Ernie Haas depicted an incident from the Battle of Valcour Island in his painting “Cannon Exploding Aboard Gunboat New York, October 17, 1776.” Courtesy of Ernie Haas and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”

The men had little idea what to expect. Most of them were new to the sea, having been drawn only recently from the ranks of civilians and soldiers. And their commanders had kept them largely in the dark about what they would be facing – a much larger, better-trained and better-armed squadron, which just happened to be from the world’s most fearsome navy.

These sailors, numbering probably about 500 (though some accounts say 800), were under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold. This was October 1776, years before his betrayal of the American cause, when he was still one of the would-be country’s most audacious and skilled military leaders.

Get all of VTDigger's daily news.

You'll never miss a story with our daily headlines in your inbox.

During that summer of ’76, as the Declaration of Independence was being hammered out hundreds of miles to the south in Philadelphia, Arnold and these men were assigned to deprive the British control of Lake Champlain. The waterway was vital to the British war plan, and thus key to America’s defenses. The British intended to sail large numbers of troops down the lake. They would seize the twin forts at Ticonderoga on the New York shore and Mount Independence, directly across from it on the Vermont side. They would then rendezvous with British forces near Albany, thus isolating New England from the rest of the former colonies.

Arnold’s orders were to amass a small group of gunboats and pit them against the world’s preeminent naval power. The very idea reeks of hubris, something the supremely confident Arnold had in no short supply. Still, he had doubts about his men: “We have a wretched motley crew in the fleet, the marines (are) the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them ever wet with salt water,” he wrote his commanding officer.

Much of the American Navy, which consisted of little more than a dozen, hastily constructed gunboats, was stationed with Arnold off Isle LaMotte, at the north end of the lake. They were there to harry British forces venturing south.

Benedict Arnold was one of America’s most competent military leaders at the start of the Revolution. Wikimedia Commons

Arnold’s spies and scouts reported that the British were hauling large ships down the Richelieu River. When they reached Lake Champlain, he knew, the odds were long against the American fleet surviving. The British flotilla was made up of three dozen vessels, including four large ships. Among them were the flagship Inflexible, with three tiers of sails, and an even larger ketch, the Thunderer, which, in addition to six 12-pound guns and a siege howitzer, carried six 24-pounders. Arnold didn’t have a single gun that large. The British also had two dozen gunboats and scores of canoes, carrying perhaps 1,000 Native Americans warriors.

Against this seasoned armada, whose guns could throw twice as many pounds of metal with each broadside as his fleet, Arnold realized he had to use his only advantage, his superior knowledge of the lake. He ordered his ships to sail into Valcour Bay, between Valcour Island and the New York shore, just south of current-day Plattsburgh.

The location had tactical advantages for the Americans. The forested island would conceal the American gunboats, which meant that the British would likely be past the bay’s mouth before spotting them. That would mean the British would have to tack north into the wind to engage in battle. The tricky maneuver, upwind and into a narrow bay, meant the British ships couldn’t attack en masse, Arnold reasoned.

Arnold anchored his fleet of 15 vessels – including a pair of two-masted schooners, eight gondolas, three galleys, a sloop and a cutter – in a crescent formation to allow them to catch the British in a crossfire. The vessels were anchored in such a way that their crews could quickly move them from a broadside firing position to one in which their bows presented themselves to the enemy, making a smaller target.

The British sailed south on Oct. 11. Sir Guy Carleton, royal governor of Quebec, had taken command despite his inexperience. He expected to find the Americans in Cumberland Bay, closer to Plattsburgh, or else fleeing to Ticonderoga. (A year later, three of his top officers would take the extraordinary step of writing to the London Gazette, claiming that Carleton had intelligence that the Americans were in Valcour Bay. If he heard such reports, he dismissed them.) He sailed his forces toward Cumberland Bay and was surprised not to find the Americans.

Continuing south in search of Arnold’s fleet, the British were in a tattered formation, strung out for miles. At about 9 o’clock that morning, after passing the mouth of Valcour Bay, they spotted five American vessels – a schooner and sloop and three row galleys – on the open lake and pursued them. Arnold may have sent the vessels out as bait. The British struggled to sail against the north wind, as Arnold had anticipated. The galleys and the sloop had no trouble making it back to their spots in the crescent. The schooner, the Royal Savage, however, ran aground near Valcour Island and had to be abandoned under heavy fire.

The narrow channel meant the British had to rely heavily on their gunboats, which were nimbler craft. The larger ships had to remain at a distance, limiting their effectiveness. The Thunderer, for all its firepower, proved difficult to sail, and played no part in the action.

For seven hours, the battle raged on. The Americans had no chance at victory. As dusk fell, Carleton pulled back his ships to rest and finish the job the next morning. Arnold gathered his captains to assess damages. They had lost the Royal Savage. A second boat, the Philadelphia, was leaking badly and would soon sink. Several other vessels were badly damaged, but still seaworthy. In all, the Americans had lost about 60 men. Many others were wounded. Worst, they had fired three-quarters of their gunpowder. Continuing the fight was not a reasonable option.

That night, Carleton had left his nearest vessel a mile from the shore. Arnold saw an opportunity. He could have retreated north, between Valcour Island and the mainland, but chose a more daring course. He and his men would slip past the anchored British fleet and race south to the safety of the American forts.

An 18th century diagram of the Battle of Valcour Island. Wikimedia Commons

Arnold ordered the surviving vessels to sail and row with muffled oars. To keep in formation, the men rigged small lanterns to shine on a patch of white chalked on each vessel’s stern. The light would only be visible from about 50 feet. A fog had settled, further obscuring the flotilla. With the British distracted by the noise of their carpenters making repairs and the light from the still-burning Royal Savage, the Americans made their way south along the shore.

At daybreak, the British were stunned to find Valcour Bay deserted. They eventually spotted the fleeing Americans and gave chase. As the British gained on them, Arnold considered making another stand along the west shore, but ultimately decided their best chance was flight. He ordered his fleet to make for the American-held fort at Crown Point, on the New York shore north of Ticonderoga. One of his ships, the Washington, was leaking badly. Overtaken by the Inflexible, the Washington surrendered. The British took 106 prisoners.

Four American vessels managed to slip away and eventually made it all the way to Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold wasn’t so lucky. Several British ships chased his ship, the Congress, and four American gunboats. “They kept up an incessant fire on us for about five hours,” he later reported. Out of ammunition and with nearly half his crew dead or wounded, Arnold realized he couldn’t reach Crown Point, still 10 miles to the south. Rather than surrender, he ordered the vessels into Ferris Bay (now named Arnold’s Bay) on the east shore. He knew it was too shallow for the larger British ships to follow.

On Arnold’s orders, the Americans grounded their vessels and set them ablaze as British boarding parties rowed closer and long-range cannon shots rained down. Men quickly pulled the wounded from the vessels. In his haste, an American gunner ignored the pleas of a Lt. Goldsmith, who had been injured through the thigh. When the boat’s powder magazine exploded, Goldsmith’s body was blasted into the air. Arnold was furious and “threatened to run the gunner through on the spot,” a witness recalled.

Arnold and his men retreated overland, staying near the shore, then were met by boats and ferried to the New York side. They reached Crown Point barely ahead of the British. Arnold ordered the fort burned. They marched on to Ticonderoga, reaching it on Oct. 15.

Five days later, Carleton visited his troops encamped at Crown Point. Snow covered their tents and the distant Adirondacks. His men had crushed Arnold’s navy, but he was in no mood to tackle the next, more formidable, obstacles. Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence were braced for an attack, with 13,000 soldiers defending them. Judging that his men lacked time to build proper winter quarters, Carleton pulled his troops north to the comforts of their Canadian bases.

The British would have to wait until the following year to continue their movement south. When they returned, they would face a much better prepared Continental Army and an enflamed and well-armed citizenry, which would ultimately defeat them at Saratoga.

A depiction of the Battle of Valcour Island by an unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons

Correction: The photo captions of the two paintings of the battle were switched in an earlier version of this article.


Subscriber-Only Content

Subscribe to Naval History magazine to gain access to this article and a host of other fascinating articles and stories that keep our maritime history and heritage alive. Subscribers receive this valuable benefit and so much more.

If you are a Subscriber, please log in to gain access, and thank you for your Subscription.

1. Philip Schuyler. “Resolves of a Council of War Held at Crown Point,” in William James Morgan, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970), 961.

2. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, Limited, 1913), 7, 14.

3. John A. Barton, “The Battle of Valcour Island,” History Today 9, no. 12 (1959): 794–95 John R. Bratten, The Gondola Philadelphia and the Battle of Lake Champlain (College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2002), 58.

4. James L. Nelson, Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain But Won the American Revolution (Camden, NJ: McGraw Hill, 2006), 7.

5. Barton, “The Battle of Valcour Island,” 793.

7. “A List of the Navy of the United States of America on Lake Champlain Aug. 7th, 1776,” in Naval Documents, vol. 6, 96–98.

9. “Captain Charles Douglas to Philip Stephens,” in Naval Documents, vol. 6, 1344–45 Bratten, The Gondola Philadelphia, 58 Barton, 796.

18. “Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to Major General Philip Schuyler,” in Naval Documents, vol. 6, 1275 Nelson, 316.

21. John P. Milsop, “A Strife of Pygmies: The Battle of Valcour Island,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 14, no. 2 (2002): 86–90.

22. Milsop, “A Strife of Pygmies,” 94.

23. Brendan Morrissey, Saratoga: Turning Point of a Revolution (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 32.

25. Bratten, 72 “Gen Horatio Gates to Gen Benedict Arnold,” in Naval Documents, vol. 6, 1237 James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 288.


Episode Two: “Betrayed”

As three British armies move to converge on Albany, New York from the North, West and South, Arnold uses a clever deceit to turn back back the British offensive moving from the West along the Mohawk valley. Next he fights the British invaders from the North to a standstill at the first battle of Saratoga.

Following his battlefield victory Arnold becomes embroiled in a bitter dispute with his commanding officer General Gates who takes all the credit for the success. This is the culmination of a long simmering rivalry and one of several disputes Arnold has had with other officers and civilian leaders of the revolution. Early life experiences shaped Arnold’s personality into a volatile mix of principled ideals, heightened sensitivity to perceived insults and a short temper. Despite being repeatedly passed over for promotion and unfairly accused he remained committed to the cause — sacrificing his own blood and treasure.

The second battle of Saratoga begins and the Americans falter. Disobeying orders Arnold rallies the troops and leads them to victory. But he is grievously wounded. Again General Gates takes all the credit for the stunning British defeat. As he recuperates Arnold begins to lose faith in the cause. His injury Leaves him crippled and unable to lead in battle, so George Washington assigns him a desk job: Military Governor of Philadelphia.

A British occupation of the city had just ended leaving in its wake a deeply divided community. Radical patriots were eager to punish loyalists who had supported the occupiers and Quakers who, in neutrality, had acquiesced. As governor of the whole population Arnold endeavors to protect the lives and property of the loyalists and Quakers. This offends the sensibilities of the radical patriots who also take issue with his marriage to a young Philadelphia socialite, Peggy Shippen. She had come of age during the time women of her class socialized with the British officer corps and she continued to correspond with some of them at their new post in New York City. His marriage into a Quaker family, coupled with business deals he had with some merchants who may have collaborated with the enemy occupiers further enrages the radical patriots.

Arnold’s old rivals and personal enemies came back to haunt him. Finally the radical patriots persuade George Washington to publicly reprimand Arnold on trumped up allegations. For Arnold this is the final straw. He feels betrayed. He comes to believe that America would be better off as a British colony than under the Leadership of the Patriots.

Arnold requests a transfer from Philadelphia to the command post of the Hudson River fort at West Point. He begins corresponding with his wife’s contacts on the British side and arranges for a British takeover of West Point and possible capture of George Washington himself. The pint is foiled when his co-conspirator is captured with incriminating evidence. Arnold barely eluded capture himself. Washington and the other leaders must vilify Arnold so others dare not follow his lead back to British loyalty.


Benedict Arnold fights valiantly at Valcour Island - HISTORY

Location: 7 miles south of Plattsburgh, between Valcour Island and west shore of Lake Champlain, Clinton County.

Ownership and Administration (1961). State of New York.

Significance. Benedict Arnold's daring fleet action off Valcour Island on October 11, 1776, had a far-reaching effect on the outcome of the War of Independence. Although the American force was defeated, its very presence on the lake and its stubborn fight proved to be a strategic victory by delaying the British invasion of the northern Colonies in 1776. By the time the lake had been cleared of American vessels the British commander concluded that the season was too far advanced to carry out his projected movement toward Albany. The invasion did not resume until the following year, by which time the Americans were better able to meet and repulse it. This they did at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolution. Alfred T. Mahan, the naval historian, wrote: "That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold." [47]

Not until early fall of 1776, was Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, British commander in Canada, ready to cooperate with Howe in New York by moving down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River on Albany. By early October, Carleton's fleet was built and ready for action㬙 vessels, mostly gunboats carrying a single gun, against the American fleet of 16 vesselsש taken from the enemy and others hurriedly built on the lake.

Between Valcour Island and the west shore of Lake Champlain is a sound about three-quarters of a mile wide. Midway on the island a high bluff juts into the sound, dividing it into a north and a south bay. On the day of battle, October 11, 1776, Arnold's fleet㬋 vessels were present—lay anchored in line across the bay south of the bluff, concealed from the enemy fleet approaching from the north. Carleton's vessels sailed down the eastern side of Valcour Island and were south of it before the crewmen caught sight of Arnold's fleet. Carleton had to attack against the wind, a decided disadvantage in the age of sail. Closing to short range, the opposing battlelines hammered each other from about 11 a.m. until dusk. One of the two American ships lost that day was the Gundelo Philadelphia, which sank about an hour after the battle. This vessel, recovered from the lake bottom in 1935, is described on pp. 85-86.

The end of the day found Arnold's surviving vessels heavily damaged and low on ammunition. Further fighting was out of the question. The British line still lay between Valcour and escape to the south, but in darkness and a providential fog the survivors of the fight slipped past the left flank of the enemy line. In the next 2 days, Carleton's pursuing vessels knocked out ship after ship, and Arnold burned some to keep them from enemy hands. Arnold and other survivors of the action eluded capture, but when the final score was counted it was discovered that of the ships engaged at Valcour only 4 had reached safety. The American Fleet on Lake Champlain was destroyed, but its work had been done. The invasion from Canada had been halted for 1 crucial year.

Present Appearance (1961). Valcour Island is about 2 miles long from north to south and approximately 1-1/4 miles wide. It is rocky, high, and wooded, and, as seen from the west shore of Lake Champlain, it probably looks much as it did when it sheltered Arnold's makeshift fleet. The sound or bay between the island and the west shore of the lake is three-quarters of a mile wide. Although the shore of Lake Champlain has been built up to some extent, and Valcour Island is the property of several private owners, the island and, more importantly, the bay where the fighting took place have suffered little loss of integrity as landmarks of the War for Independence. No effort has been made to preserve or interpret the scene of the battle, and the only marking is a small monument on the mainland about 5 miles south of Plattsburgh, in view of the island. This was erected in 1928 by the State Education Department and the Saranac Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. [48]


The Army once considered putting the A-10’s BRRRRT! on a tank

Posted On January 28, 2019 18:41:39

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, popularly known as the Warthog, was originally designed as a “tank-killer”. In fact, the entire aircraft was essentially built around a 30 mm rotary cannon, known as the GAU-8 Avenger, a fearsome name for a gun capable of spitting out depleted uranium shells the size of soda bottles designed to shred heavy Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers into mental confetti.

While the Avenger’s primary use has been as the A-10’s main weapon, seeing combat action from the Persian Gulf War onward, the US Army once considered making this cannon its own by mounting it on the very thing it was created to destroy: tanks.

General Electric’s concept of the M247 Sergeant York, complete with a shortened version of the Avenger (General Electric)

In the late 1970s, the US Army began looking to replace their aging force of self-propelled anti-aircraft guns with newer, more effective systems that could do a similar job with even more lethality and effectiveness than ever before. The result of this search for new air defense artillery would be fielded alongside the Army’s newest and fighting vehicles — namely the M1 Abrams main battle tank and the M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, as part of the service’s vision for the future.

A competition under the Division Air Defense name was thus created.

The goal of the DIVAD program was to design, build and field a self-propelled air defense gun system, able to engage and shoot down low-flying enemy aircraft with controlled bursts of shells from a cannon mounted on a turret. The system would be manned by a small crew, aided by a radar tracking system that would pick up targets and “slave” the gun to them before firing. In concept, the DIVAD vehicle could go anywhere, dig in and wait for enemy aircraft to appear, then shoot them down quickly.

One of the various participants in the competition, according to Jane’s Weapon Systems 1988-1989, was General Electric, fresh from designing the GAU-8 Avenger for what would be the Air Force’s next air support attack jet – the A-10 Warthog. General Electric had the bright idea to take a modified version of the Avenger and place it in a turret, configured to hold its weight while moving the cannon around quickly to track and hit new targets as they appeared.

The GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling gun next to a VW Type 1. Removing an installed GAU-8 from an A-10 requires first installing a jack under the aircraft’s tail to prevent it from tipping, as the cannon makes up most of the aircraft’s forward weight. (US Air Force photo)

The turret, in turn, would be mated to the chassis of an M48 Patton main battle tank as per program requirements, giving it mobility. Able to spit out shells at a rate of 3900 rounds per minute at an effective range of 4000 feet, the Avenger would’ve been a major threat to the safety of any aircraft in the vicinity, sighted through its radar.

However, General Electric’s entry, referred to as the Air Defense Turret, didn’t advance during the DIVAD program. Instead, Ford and General Dynamics were given prototype production contracts to build their designs for testing, with Ford ultimately winning the competition. Known as the M247 Sergeant York, Ford’s anti-aircraft gun system was much more conventional, significantly lighter and apparently somewhat cheaper to build than the Avenger cannon concept.

However, it under-performed severely, much to the embarrassment of its parent company and the Army.

The DIVAD program soon proved to be an abject failure, with nothing to show for pouring millions into the project and the Sergeant York prototypes. The M247 couldn’t adequately track target drones with its radars, even when the drones were made to hover nearly stationary.

In 1985, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger finally put the program out of its misery, noting that missiles were the future of air defense.

The Avenger cannon nevertheless does serve in a somewhat similar role today, functioning as the core of the Goalkeeper Close-In Weapon System, found on a number of modern warships around the world. Goalkeeper is designed to engage surface-skimming missiles aimed at naval vessels and obliterate them by putting up a “wall of steel” – essentially a massive scattered burst of shells which will hopefully strike and detonate the missile a safe distance away from the ship.

Still, one can’t help but wonder just how incredibly awesome mounting a 30mm Gatling cannon to a tank could have been, had the Army chosen to pursue General Electric’s idea instead of Ford’s.


Watch the video: The Battle of Valcour Island: Lake Champlain, 1776 - Animated Map (November 2021).