Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery (2010)
Benedict Arnold's life to that point featured periods of hard work and achievements that were interrupted by outbursts of temper . . . politics and subtlety were not among his strengths. Arnold saw the Revolutionary War as a chance to wipe out the negativity that had surrounded the Arnold family name in New Haven, CT, and to soar above those that dared to judge him . . . in short, Benedict Arnold sought immortality.
Arnold stated that the British fleet must be stopped in Lake Champlain, and to do so meant building an American fleet. Arnold proposed building boats that would be smaller than the British ships, and with fewer guns, but more maneuverable. Since no general really knew what to do, Schuyler gave Arnold command of the American fleet on Lake Champlain; the other generals were glad to have Arnold have the responsibility, since he would have to take the blame when the fleet was crushed by the British. Arnold was given the title of "Commander of the Lakes", and as he started to build America's first fleet of ships, news of the Declaration of Independence reached their location in Upstate New York.
While trying to build the fleet (pictured: a drawing depicting the construction of one of the ships in Arnold's fleet), Arnold had to defend himself in a military inquiry. In Canada, the supplies he arranged for the retreating troops from Quebec were not properly guarded, and Arnold had dressed-down the officer in charge in front of others. That officer then spread false rumors that Arnold had obtained the supplies by stealing them Montreal. Arnold had to spend a week defending himself in court rather than building the fleet; Arnold refused to apologize to the judges for his behavior, and even challenged all of the judges to individual duels. Frightened, the court asked Gates to have Arnold placed under arrest; Gates couldn't spare Arnold, and he subsequently dissolved the panel of inquiry. General Gates actually stood up for Arnold in this situation, but he never forgot that Arnold went over his head to Schuyler.
The Battle of Valcour Island started on 11 October 1776. Arnold arranged his fleet of 15 small ships in an arc, hiding in the narrow channel between Valcour Island and the main shore of Lake Champlain. Arnold prepared his 800 men on 15 ships to engage 34 British ships of various sizes that had at least 700 men. Arnold hoped that the British fleet would sail past his position, and when they spotted the American fleet, the British would need to turn around. At that point, the wind would be against them in order to get to the channel were the American fleet was located . . . that was the moment that Arnold wanted to attack. But, if the wind changed direction, the American fleet would be floating in a death trap.
General Carleton was shaken; this wasn't the battle he had envisioned. The battle raged all afternoon, and as the sun started to set, the superior British firepower began to dominate. The British set in for the night, blocking the American fleet in the channel, and were content to wait until the next morning to finish off the stubborn smaller fleet. Arnold had three options: first, he could stay and fight, which was madness. Second, he could surrender, but to Arnold that wasn't an option worth even considering. So it would be the third option; the British had left a small gap between their line of ships and the shore. Arnold knew the area well, and he knew the gap had water deep enough for his ships to navigate their way through . . . Arnold's plan was for a "Midnight Escape".
The British fleet caught up with Arnold's ships at noon on 12 October 1776; the American fleet was rowing for their lives as the British fired, and hit some of the American vessels. Again, Arnold's knowledge of the lake paid off in that he knew he was approaching a shallow rocky bay where the British couldn't follow. Arnold headed into the shallow bay, and ordered his men out of the boats on to the shore, carrying the wounded and setting the fleet on fire. The fire reached the powder kegs on each ship, and there were many explosions, which shielded the men as they made their escape on land. Arnold and his men were still ten miles from the fort at Crown Point, but they reached the fort that night . . . and found out that the army had abandoned the fort and had retreated to Fort Ticonderoga.
Carleton decided that he had enough for one season, and while claiming two victories, he had failed to drive off the Americans from Lake Champlain. The British would have to start all over the next year; if the British had forced the Americans from the lake, and had moved down the Hudson to join the huge British force in NYC, the Revolutionary War would most likely have ended. General Gates and the Americans under his command at Fort Ticonderoga watched the British fleet disappear in the distance . . . Arnold's little navy was destroyed, but that tiny fleet had kept the American Revolution alive.