Strangely, America’s greatest traitor Benedict Arnold could be the true father of the United States Navy.
To explain, it was Arnold who created the first fleet of American warships and led it into battle. Hence, the belief that the Scottish mercenary John Paul Jones founded the US Navy is mythology.
However, there are obvious reasons the US Navy ignores Arnold’s place in its history. First, Arnold committed the greatest act of treason in American history. Second, America’s first naval battle was a defeat.
Third, America’s first naval battle did not occur on the ocean. Instead, the first US naval fight, the Battle of Valcour Island took place on a lake in Upstate New York. Fourth, Arnold was an army general at the time of the Battle of Valcour Island.
The British Invasion of New York
In 1776, the British sent two invasion forces against New York State. General Sir William Howe landed a massive army on Staten Island on 3 July 1776.
Meanwhile, General Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, moved south towards the Hudson River Valley. The British plan for the two armies to link up at Albany. The hope was to cut New England off from the rest of the 13 colonies.
To reach the Hudson, Carleton’s forces moved down the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain to reach Lake George. A small British fleet; manned by sailors from the Royal Navy, supported Carleton’s army. The British even had special lake warships built for the expedition in the United Kingdom.*
America’s First Fleet
George Washington, who was busy fighting General Howe’s invasion force, sent General Benedict Arnold north to the American fortress at Ticonderoga, New York. Arnold’s mission was to stop Carleton’s invasion fleet.
Arnold was well-qualified for the mission because he had been an experienced merchant sea captain in civilian life. Moreover, Arnold was well-acquainted with Upstate New York from his prewar business activities.
To that end, Arnold began building America’s first war fleet.* Arnold built a squadron of ships including schooners, galleys, and gunboats. Interestingly, many of Arnold’s warships resembled Ancient Greek and Roman vessels because they used oars for propulsion.
Arnold’s fleet was an improvised force of homemade ships with cannon scavenged from old British and French fortresses in Upstate New York. To build the ships, Arnold recruited frontiersmen and shipbuilders from coastal cities.
America’s First Naval Battle
Arnold’s objective on Lake Champlain was to delay the British advance as much as possible.
Interestingly, Arnold realized that he could not defeat the British fleet. The British had too many ships and too much firepower for the American fleet to overcome. However, Arnold could slow Carleton’s advance with attacks.
After a few American sorties up Lake Champlain, the two fleets met at Valcour Island, or Valcour Bay, on 11 October 1776. Arnold understood he could not beat the British in a naval battle. However, the Americans could disrupt the British advance and slow it by ambushing their fleet in a narrow channel.
Arnold chose the misnamed Valcour Bay, a narrow channel for the ambush. The British won the battle by destroying most of the American ships. The British killed 120 Americans and captured 200 of Arnold’s sailors.
Incredibly, the battle only ended because the British ran out of ammunition. However, Arnold achieved his goal by delaying Carleton.
Benedict Arnold succeeded by losing the battle. Carleton delayed his invasion of New York for a year and never linked up with Howe’s forces.
Instead, Albany; and most of the Hudson River Valley, remained in American hands for the rest of the war. The British did not attempt an invasion of Upstate New York for another year.
The delay gave the Americans a chance to amass an enormous army in Upstate New York. In addition, Lord Howe attacked Philadelphia instead of Albany, which freed the Americans to concentrate many of their forces against the British invasion from Canada.
In September 1777, Britain’s most colorful commander General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne marched south from Lake Champlain. Without Howe’s help, the Americans outnumbered and outgunned Burgoyne’s army.
Once again, Washington sent Benedict Arnold north to stop the British invasion. This time, Arnold had the advantages. At the Battles of Saratoga; Freeman’s Farm and Beemis Heights in September and October 1777, Arnold’s forces overwhelmed and destroyed Burgoyne’s army.
On 17 October 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his army to American General Horatio Gates. Arnold was not at the surrender because of a gunshot wound from the battle.
Saratoga ended British efforts to invade New York from Canada. More importantly, the Continental Army’s success at Saratoga convinced Europe’s most powerful nation, France, to enter the war on the American side. The Saratoga victories would have been impossible without Arnold’s efforts at Valcour Bay a year earlier.
Traitor and Founder
Benedict Arnold; however, went onto become America’s greatest traitor with his efforts to betray the US fortress at West Point and the Hudson Valley to the British. After his effort treason failed Arnold went onto command a British army unit called the American Legion. Arnold filled his American Legion with Loyalists or pro-British Americans.
Arnold became a Brigadier General in the British Army and received £6,000 in cash for his treason. Arnold died in exile in London in 1801. Strangely, five of Arnold’s sons became officers in the British Army.’
One of them, James Robertson Arnold, became a Lieutenant General in the Royal Engineers. Another, George Arnold, became a Lieutenant Colonel in the East India Company’s 2nd or 7th Bengal Cavalry.
Hence it is easy to see why the US Navy wrote Arnold out of its history. No military organization wants to acknowledge the nation’s greatest traitor as its founder.
*See Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by William Sterne Randall Chapter Five.