It was sometime in September of 1776 when the first armed vessel of the United States to carry the name New York slid into the lower reaches of Lake Champlain. She was an odd looking thing, about 50 feet long and 15 feet on the beam, drawing around 5 feet from the waterline to her flat bottom. Though she had a mast that carried a square mainsail and a square topsail, she was essentially an oversized rowboat. She was known in the local vernacular as a gundalow, or gondola.
This New York was not, strictly speaking, a part of the Continental Navy. That branch of the service had been established by the Continental Congress in October 1775. Five months before the gondola New York slid into fresh water, the Continental Navy and Marine Corps had staged their first amphibious landing on the island of New Providence (now known as Nassau in the Bahamas).
But there was no official naval presence on Champlain. The defense of the lake was an Army affair.
The enemy, 10,000 British and German troops, were coming south, but their only way through that wilderness was over the water. Both sides understood that the issue would be decided not between armies but between fighting ships. But first, those ships would have to be built.
The British could call on the expertise of their naval personnel stationed in the St. Lawrence to build a fleet to contest the lake. The Americans, building their own fleet, had no such resource. That, to some extent, explains the New York’s appearance. The one boat that the people on the frontiers knew how to build was the bateaux, the flat-sided, flat-bottomed, ubiquitous transport used on northern waters. New York was, in essence, an oversized bateaux, with a 12-pounder cannon over her bow, and two 9-pounders on each side.
Around the time that New York’s keel was laid, Gen. Horatio Gates, the commanding officer at Fort Ticonderoga, put in command of the little fleet his most experienced sea-going officer, Gen. Benedict Arnold. Arnold, a former merchant captain, lit a fire under the boatbuilders, greatly speeding production, eager to beat the British in their wilderness arms race.
On Oct. 11, 1776, New York took her place in the line of battle, ready to stop the British movement down Lake Champlain. Arnold, in a brilliant tactical move, formed his fleet up in a half-moon line tucked in behind Valcour Island. The enemy, he knew, would have to sail past the island, and then try to claw their way upwind to attack, which the larger, better armed ships would not be able to do.
It worked just as Arnold had hoped. By noon the enemy’s smaller, oar-driven gunboats had come up and engaged the Americans, while the larger vessels were unable to sail against the adverse wind. For 5 hours, the New York and her consorts delivered a brutal pounding to the British fleet, and received as much or worse in return.
New York took more than her share of punishment. By late afternoon all of her officers save her captain were dead. Her aging bow gun exploded, sending shards of iron through her crew, wounding one man and killing another. By the time darkness put an end to the battle, New York and her companions were battered, their crews decimated, their guns all but out of ammunition.
Rather than wait for destruction to come with the morning sun, Arnold led his fleet under the cover of darkness and fog right through the British lines, a move that impressed even the enemy, and away south toward Ticonderoga. A two-day running battle followed, in which nearly all of Arnold’s fleet were taken or destroyed by their own crews. New York, alone among the gondolas, managed to reach Fort Ticonderoga. There was nothing left to oppose the British advance, but the campaigning season was too far advanced for them to continue, so they withdrew to Canada for the winter.
The following year, Gen. John Burgoyne led the British troops in another push for Albany. This time, the British naval force was so overwhelming that the Americans could offer no resistance, and they did not even try. New York and the other ships left from Arnold’s brave little fleet were burned at Skenesborough (now Whitehall, N.Y.) where they had been built.
The only battle that the first New York fought was, in the short term, a defeat for the Americans. But in the long term it was anything but. The year’s delay that Arnold had won for the Americans, at the cost of his fleet’s destruction, allowed the American army to rebuild to the point where it could actually defeat Burgoyne at Saratoga the following year. The little New York and her consorts were the first link in a chain of events that would ultimately lead to American victory in the War for Independence.