Book Review: A Tale of Three Gunboats: Lake Champlain’s Revolutionary War Heritage by Philip Lundeberg, Arthur Cohn, Jennifer Jones, et al. (Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2017)
Sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain a few miles south of Burlington, Vermont, is the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM). Like your typical museums, it has displays explaining the history of its chosen topic, the story of human interaction with the lake. Unlike your typical museums, however, it has built three full-scale reproduction boats—the bateau Perseverance, the canal schooner Lois McClure, and, most germane to this article, the gunboat Philadelphia II.
In addition to its physical displays, LCMM has a long list of both scholarly and general reading publications dealing with the lake’s history and the museum’s activities. The latest is A Tale of Three Gunboats: Lake Champlain’s Revolutionary War Heritage. The book is actually the third version of the story of the gunboat Philadelphia that fought as part of Benedict Arnold’s fleet in the battle of Valcour Island on October 11-13, 1776. The Smithsonian Institution published the first version in 1966—Philip Lundeberg’s The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia and the Northern Campaign of 1776. The second version came out in 1995—The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776 published by LCMM.
Each version actually tells part of the whole story. Lundeberg’s book recounts two stories, that of the battle and that of the 1935 recovery of the Philadelphia along with its ultimate inclusion in Smithsonian Institution’s American history display. LCMM’s 1995 publication added to Lundeberg’s work the narrative of the building of the second gunboat, the replica Philadelphia II. The latest book, A Tale of Three Gunboats, authored by Philip Lundeberg, Arthur Cohn, and Jennifer Jones with contributions by a dozen other people, includes the material from the first two books but expands on the earlier works by adding dozens of new images and information about the on-going work relative to a third gunboat, the Spitfire, that sank following the October 11, 1776, action. LCMM discovered the ship in 1997 during their side-scan sonar Whole Lake Survey project.
The new book is done in a soft-cover coffee-table format. It contains over 230 glossy pages measuring 11×8½ inches and is richly illustrated with paintings, photographs, maps, drawings, and even screen captures from the Smithsonian Institution’s X3D website. Each image includes a detailed caption with credit given to the source of the image. The book’s text is well-written, includes several primary source quotes, and is an easy read. An appendix, extensive annotated bibliography, and detailed index complete the publication.
A Tale of Three Gunboats is much more than a history—two-thirds of it deals with the treatment of artifacts like the Philadelphia and the Spitfire. But those pages are not simply a discussion of preservation outcomes: they also address the challenging questions of ownership, conservation, and display of those boats left in their original surroundings and those recovered. Also, rather than just presenting current thought on these topics, the book includes commentary on the processes used to arrive at decisions made in each of those areas over the last one-hundred-fifty years. Many of the concepts and practices are illustrated through case studies of what happened, good and bad, to ships recovered from Lake Champlain and around the world.
In addition, the book includes two sections on what may seem to some to be unusual topics. One deals with zebra and quagga mussels and the threat they pose to underwater artifacts. These invasive species encrust objects not only hiding them from view but, in the process, destroying them. The point is driven home through several before and after photographs of objects now covered with the mussels. Another section explains how all three of LCMM’s replica projects have been put to use rather than just left sitting as static displays. The museum has been able to gain additional understanding of the history of each type of vessel and its time period through utilizing each replica during activities based on historical research. For example, forty-four reenactors representing the full crew of the fifty-four-foot Philadelphia spent a weekend on the replica out on the lake (this author slept crammed alongside the port 9-pounder).
A Tale of Three Gunboats is not a static story. Rather, it builds a foundation for the reader to move on into a discussion of the management of the Spitfire. The book outlines the discovery of the gunboat and presents the twenty-year debate over what to do with her. Offering up various alternatives for preservation in situ or for recovery, the deficiencies of each idea are described. Ultimately, what has come to be set upon as the best choice for the future of the Spitfire is presented.
The attentive reader will discern one salient lesson offered up by the authors of A Tale of Three Gunboats. It is supported through the examples of the treatment of several ships given throughout the pages with the Philadelphia, obviously, being the most relevant: “The gunboat Philadelphia and the story of her recovery without a planned destination provides an instructive example of how good intentions can lead to a potentially bad outcome.” With that lesson in mind, A Tale of Three Gunboats closes with more than merely stating what would be best for the Spitfire. Rather, several pages are devoted to proposing general steps, timeline, and likely financial commitment necessary to achieve the complex conservation goal.
Anyone looking for a detailed account of the historical subject matter presented in A Tale of Three Gunboats will need to look elsewhere. That is not the focus of the book. However, for anyone interested in underwater archaeology and the conservation of vessels, this book is a “page-turner” and well worth acquiring.