Oct 26, 2008

An Interesting Trip Back in Time...

This weekend I drove to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum near Vergennes, Vermont. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I wanted to see the reproduction canal schooner Lois McClure, the type of boat my great-grandfather George Neddo built. I arrived at the museum around noon on Saturday only to learn that the canal schooner had been moved to Burlington a week earlier to be prepared for winter storage. I chose to stay at the Vergennes site for the rest of the afternoon and had a wonderful day of learning.

I asked the volunteer who was at the admissions counter, Lisa, how to best see all the exhibits, especially since it was starting to rain. She recommended that I start with a video presentation describing the Battle of Valcour Bay and that I then proceed to the waterfront to visit the Philadelphia II.

The museum focuses on all kinds of watercraft that have been important in the history of the lake and also on the importance of Lake Champlain in the history of our country. One exhibit that is especially important is the reconstructed revolutionary gunboat
Philadelphia II.  The story that unfolded for me is worth retelling.

In 1775, the colonial separatists attempted unsuccessfully to take the city of Quebec.  The British launched a counteroffensive in 1776 in which they intended to drive south from Quebec and take control of Lake Champlain and thence the Hudson River valley.  This would split the colonies in two, separating New England from the remaining colonies.  Then the British could defeat each half individually.

The colonial army understood the importance of maintaining control of Lake Champlain, so in 1776, General Phillip Schuyler built a small fleet of 16 gunboats in Skenesborough, now the location of Whitehall, New York.  At the same time the British built a somewhat larger fleet at the north end of Lake Champlain.  According to Wikipedia, "The British had adequate supplies, skilled workmen, and prefabricated ships transported from England, including a 180-ton warship they disassembled and rebuilt 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." General Benedict Arnold, who came from a seafaring Connecticut family, was in command of the small American fleet in October of 1776 when the two forces finally clashed.

The details of the battle are described in a Wikipedia article.  The most interesting part of the story is that by nightfall of October 11, the Americans had lost several gunboats, had suffered significant casualties, and were almost out of powder.  Most commanders would have abandoned their ships and escaped into the woods or surrendered to the British.  But Benedict Arnold, one of the colonies' ablest commanders before he became a traitor at West Point, hatched a plan to sneak out of Valcour Harbour under cover of darkness and get south of the British fleet to fight another day.  It almost worked, but the British ships caught up with the American fleet (such as it was) a couple of days later and sank several more ships.  The rest were purposely run aground or burned to prevent their use by the British.  General Arnold and his surviving forces made their way to Crown Point and Ticonderoga and the British fleet returned to the north to spend the winter of 1776-77.

The military significance of this obscure battle was immense.  The presence of this small fleet on Lake Champlain prevented the British from proceeding unchallenged toward New York to divide the colonies.  The resulting one-year delay enabled the colonies to assemble the army that would defeat Burgoyne at the battle of Saratoga and bring France in on the side of the colonies.

One of the vessels lost during the battle in Valcour Bay was the Philadelphia, a 54-foot gunboat.  Amazingly, she was preserved by the cold pure waters of Lake Champlain (in an era prior to the presence of zebra mussels) and was located and salvaged in 1935, some 169 years after being sunk!  Her description is given in the nomination for designation as a National Historic Site: "The Philadelphia's hull is 54 feet in length, 15 feet in beam and approximately five feet deep.  Construction was almost entirely of oak and sap still remained in the bottom planking. The mast, almost 36 feet high, was found intact except for the top portion, and the hull timbers were still in place.  Three shot holes were visible in the hull and in one of them a cannon ball was lodged.  Considering the punishment it took in battle and its long years underwater, the Philadelphia is an exceptionally well-preserved survivor of this important Revolutionary War naval battle."  The Philadelphia is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian -- the only surviving vessel that participated in the American revolution.

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum built a precise replica of the Philadelphia which is moored at the Vergennes site.  It is amazing to see how small and crude these vessels were that confronted and delayed the British forces.  As I boarded the replica, I was greeted by a couple of museum staff members.  A gentleman named Peter was in full colonial garb as an historical interpreter.  On board the gunboat was a set of artifacts from the period that included eating utensils and other utilitarian objects.  The ship is really a wonderful teaching tool.

I proceeded through several buildings housing other parts of the museum's collections.  All were impressive, but the thrill of the day was learning in such a tangible way about how a handful of courageous colonials in a remote corner of upstate New York changed the course of history for all of us.

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