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Battle of Valcour Island

The Battle of Valcour Island was a naval engagement fought on October 11, 1776, in a narrow strait in Lake Champlain between the New York mainland and Valcour Island. It is generally regarded as the first naval battle fought by the United States Navy. Although the outcome of the battle was the destruction of most the American ships, the overall campaign delayed the British attempt to cut the colonies in half by a year and eventually led to the British military disaster at Saratoga in 1777.

The strategic situation was such that in order to attack the colonists in the Hudson River Valley, it was necessary for the British to first engage the colonial strongholds at Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. This required them to move troops and supplies 150 kilometers from the St. Lawrence Valley. Since the roads varied from impassable to nonexistent, the supplies had to be moved by water over Lake Champlain. The handful of small ships on the lake were all in colonial hands; even though they were lightly armed, they would have made transport of troops and stores impossible for the British. The two sides therefore set about building fleets at St Jean in Quebec and at the other end of the lake in Skenesborough (now Whitehall, New York). The British had adequate supplies, skilled workmen, and prefabricated ships transported from England. They even disassembled a 180-ton warship and reassembled it on the lake. All told, the British fleet (30 vessels) had roughly twice as many ships and twice the firepower of the Americans' 16 vessels.

The American commander General Benedict Arnold came from a seafaring Connecticut family. He shrewdly chose to force the British to attack his inferior forces in a narrow, rocky body of water where the British fleet would have difficulty bringing its superior firepower to bear (and where the inferior seamanship of his unskilled sailors would have a minimal effect.) Nonetheless the battle was not going well for the Americans when the sun set. Arnold managed to sneak his fleet past (and through) the British fleet during the night and attempted to run for the cover of the shore batteries situated at the American-held forts at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the Americans were caught short of their goal. Arnold drove his ships ashore in the shallow water of Buttonmold Bay where the heavier British ships could not follow. The ships were then stripped of guns, powder and everything else of use. Arnold's men retreated to Crown Point on foot.

Although the British had cleared the lake of American ships, snow was already falling as Arnold and his men set out for Crown Point. The British commander Guy Carleton had no choice but to defer the attacks on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga until 1777.