In June 1776, a small band of determined American patriots sat in a Philadelphia coffeehouse to plan a campaign that would end in the collapse of the British Empire and the rise of America as a world power.
The American Revolution may be best known for its military campaigns, but at its heart was a political revolution. The colonists’ grievances spanned many issues, but they were united in their desire to be free of British rule. The colonists’ admiration for their new country’s founders, the men who had drafted the Declaration of Independence, led many to believe that a similar revolution was possible in America.
As the Revolutionary War was drawing to a close, President of the Continental Congress, John Adams, knew they had to do something to turn the tide of public opinion in their favor, and the only way to do that was to stage a large-scale propaganda campaign through the press.. Read more about american revolution and let us know what you think.
Benedict Arnold, the Manichaean figure whose name became a timeworn surrogate for “traitor” in popular histories of all kinds, has had a tumultuous history. It makes little difference to serious Revolutionary War scholars that the French likened Arnold to Hannibal and regarded George Washington as a mere technician. Nonetheless, for many years, fans of Kenneth Roberts’ historical books were most familiar with Arnold’s epic adventures, which included the march to Quebec and his triumphant roles as George Washington’s top field commander at Valcour Island and Saratoga.
The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André, published in the 1950s, restricted the emphasis of James Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André to Arnold’s plan to hand over West Point, its garrison, and Washington to the British. However, major government research efforts in the 1960s, such as the 10-volume Naval Documents of the American Revolution, opened up new possibilities for studying the Revolutionary War’s specifics. As a consequence, there have been a slew of new books and media portrayals of Arnold. Now comes Jack Kelly’s Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty, which does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the everyday lives and sacrifices of the North’s defenders against a frightening but slow-moving invader.
The smallpox-ravaged remains of an American army that had failed to push British troops out of Canada assembled at Crown Point, New York, on Lake Champlain, only days after 56 revolution-minded leaders signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. A large British invasion army was prepared to split and conquer the newly united American colonies at the lake’s northern edge. Its goal was to divide radical New England from the less rebellious central colonies in a concerted assault, blocking reinforcement from the south.
A combined naval and land force was to rush down Lake Champlain and Lake George, then down the Hudson River to Albany, where it would join the main British army advancing north from New York City. The British were confident that they could put down the American uprising before the end of the year.
And it seemed that the British had the upper hand. They had 2,000 German mercenaries, including 200 professional artillerymen, and 700 selected Royal Navy crewmen to construct and man Britain’s first-ever blue-water squadron, in addition to 10,000 Regulars. The British had gathered 4,000 Native Americans to spy and harass the Americans, and 4,000 French-Canadian draftees to construct roads and bridges.
To confront these 20,000 opponents, the Continental Army only had approximately 2,000 capable soldiers. Only 5,200 of the 11,000 Americans deployed to Canada survived; 3,000 were too ill with smallpox to fight.
Colonel John Trumbull, then 20 years old, wrote to his father, the governor of Connecticut, after arriving at the American advance base camp at Crown Point, saying, “I can hardly conceive a more dreadful sight.” “I discovered a rabble, the broken remnants of twelve or fifteen battalions, wrecked by illness, exhaustion, and defection, and devoid of any sense of order or subordination,” he said.
Kelly transports readers to an American war council on July 7 amid the ruins of an ancient French fort at Crown Point. The meeting is presided over by Major Officer Philip Schuyler, the Continental Army’s second-highest-ranking general and head of the Northern Department. His most senior commander, Horatio Gates, sits on his right, advocating a defensive strategy against the British. But Benedict Arnold, the freshly promoted brigadier general at the head of the table, is having none of it.
Arnold devised a daring strategy: isolate the sick to keep the rest of the troops healthy, evacuate Crown Point, and transfer the effectives south to a supply base at Fort Ticonderoga, where they would be strengthened by artillery. Arnold also pushed for the construction of a fleet of row galleys, armed gundalows, bateaux, and a frigate to ensure naval supremacy on Lake Champlain. His aim was to put the British juggernaut on hold for a season.
Arnold’s proposal was accepted by Schuyler, an experienced logistician from the French and Indian Wars. Gates was to assume charge of Fort Ticonderoga, expand its fortifications, and stockpile supplies, since he preferred the fort to the battlefield. He gave leadership of the lake to Arnold, who had set a goal of completing a ship per week, but he refused to construct a frigate.
Kelly builds on a chapter on the Battle of Valcour Island from his 2014 book, Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, to provide a day-by-day chronicle of the summerlong weapons race in excellent journalistic style. Kelly, a former mystery writer, masterfully creates anticipation for the Revolutionary War’s pivotal maritime battle.
Kelly builds up the suspense of the fight until the reader is as eager as Arnold and his troops for the combat to finally begin. He is a master of characterisation, yet he does not foresee his players’ subsequent mistakes and crimes. Arnold is the stalwart who built a 16-vessel fleet in 90 days and then personally directed the cannon that halted the British assault from the north, while Gates is still a planner and blunderer.
When the British commander was asked to explain what went wrong after losing a year and withdrawing to Quebec, he simply said, “It was Arnold.” There was more to it, according to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a renowned American naval commander and historian. “The British would have resolved the matter if it hadn’t been for Arnold’s flotilla,” he wrote. “The tiny American fleet was wiped out, but no force, large or small, has ever served a greater purpose.”
We now know a lot more about the summer of sacrifice and struggle on Lake Champlain that rescued the American Revolution due to Jack Kelly’s extremely engaging book.
Willard Sterne Randall is a former winner of MHQ’s Thomas Fleming Award for Outstanding Military History Writing and the author of 14 books, including Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
With the headline: Poetry | Ode to a Patriot, this essay appears in the Summer 2023 edition (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
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