One might think that the first American warship, named the Liberty, would be showered with accolades and articles touting its significant place in American history. It isn’t. Whether this deficit is because she was first owned by Loyalist Philip Skene under another name, captained by later traitor Benedict Arnold, or recaptured by the British in 1777, she seems to fall from the pages of history, likely prejudiced and dismissed by the U.S. Navy as an inland, shallow-water craft before there was a deep, blue-water, Continental Navy. But minimizing her exploits is wrong—the Liberty was and is a unique part of American naval history.
Little Red Trading-Sloop, 1771–1775
Philip Wharton Skene (1725–1810) was one of the more interesting immigrants that had come to northern New York in 1756. English born, Scotsman-soldier, and entrepreneur, he was a veteran military officer. He married in Ireland, came to America to take part in Gen. James Abercromby’s unsuccessful attack against Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 where he was wounded. The following year he was appointed Major of Brigade in the campaign that took Crown Point.
After all this war, Skene was captivated by the possibility of becoming a major land-baron. He acquired land patents from many British soldiers settling in the area around his plantation at Skenesborough, New York, now known as Whitehall, which even today is touted as the “Birthplace of the United States Navy.” In 1761, Skene was recalled to British active duty and served in the Caribbean, after which he returned to his plantation and entrepreneurial interests near Lake Champlain.
The idea for a north-woods settlement or plantation may have been suggested to Skene by Sir Jeffrey Amherst, not only because of commercial and profit motivation, but also because it might establish a kind of buffer-state or stronghold of former British soldiers near the border of French Canadabefore the end of the French and Indian War. Skene’s military campaigns had made him well travelled in the Fort Anne, Fort Edward, South Bay, Wood Creek, and Crown Point areas of northern New York and the Hampshire Grants of Vermont. Skene’s various successful land amalgamations totaled in excess of 56,000 acres.
In order to populate his plantation, Skene recruited settler-tenants from England, Scotland, and America that eventually totaled some two-hundred. His labor force constructed a blockhouse and barracks, houses, saw-mill, grist-mill, iron forge, barns and stables for commercial sale of horses and cattle, and slave housing. By 1771, Skene had been appointed Post Master by Benjamin Franklin, entitled to collect twenty percent of proceeds of the post office.
Situated next to Lake Champlain, Skene was engaged in transport and sale to Montreal of potash, lumber and iron goods. Additionally, he was selling horses and cattle internationally. By April 1771, Skene wrote his New York City agent that he would have ready a sloop by August of that year, “to convey horses to the West Indies, as well as to carry the produce of staves and lumber to Montreal.” Further, Skene postulated that he might offer the schooner, to be made of locally available red-cedar (Junipperus virginiana) to the Crown for “passenger-service,” even though the King had already decided to build his own vessel.
Oscar Bredenberg has written that the red-cedar sloop Katherine underwent some construction delays but was apparently fully operational by early 1774. It was a square topsail schooner, likely of Marblehead design and influence, “forty tons burden, length of deck forty-one feet, length of keel for tonnage thirty-one feet; extreme breadth fourteen feet nine inches; depth of hold three feet one inch.” Though small, her construction using red cedar made her extremely buoyant due to resinous oils, and the wood was almost impervious to rot. It is thought that the sloop Katherine was named after Skene’s sickly wife, Katherine Hayden of Ireland, appropriately a “red-haired colleen.”
In 1774, Philip Skene returned to England hoping to straighten out a number of vexing issues with his businesses and land holdings, and to establish his new County of Charlotte separate from Albany County. He left his estate in the capable hands of his son, Capt. Andrew Skene, as a going concern.
Enter Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold
Capitalizing on the morale effect of the Battles of Lexington and Concord to cement colonial fervor for separation and revolution, the next offensive effort by the colonies was to strike a strategic, offensive-blow by capturing Fort Ticonderoga. Benedict Arnold of Connecticut and Ethan Allen of the Hampshire Grants worked together, albeit reluctantly, to effect a passage across Lake Champlain that would put them near the gates of the fort. Key to the plan was obtaining water transport to conduct the men assembled at Hand’s Cove near Shoreham on the lake’s eastern shore across about a mile of open water, the first offensive amphibious operation of the Revolution, allowing them to attack the unsuspecting and unprepared British garrison, thought to comprise fifty old and worn-out British Regulars.
“Where’s the Katherine?”
To obtain water transport, a “Skenesborough Raid” was authorized on May 9 against Skenesborough to seize the Katherine, sail her back to Hand’s Cove some nine miles distant, and then load up the Allen-Arnold force to deliver them for an early morning assault. This raid by some thirty men, under the command of Capt. Samuel Herrick, was perfectly executed, but the Katherine was out on Lake Champlain when troops arrived and could not be delivered to transport the American troops assembled at Hand’s Cove.
Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold used other commandeered watercraft and seized Fort Ticonderoga in the early hours of May 10, 1775. Only eighty-three men were put ashore before a heavy squall put an end to further ferrying operations. But it was enough, and the fort and garrison surrendered.
Eleazer Oswald, one of Captain Herrick’s men attacking Skenesborough, made an entry in his journal on May 11, 1775: “We set sail from Skenesborough in a schooner belonging to Skene, which we christened Liberty.” It appears that Oswald and Marine Capt. Johnathan Brown were responsible for the re-naming of the Katherine to Liberty.
Between Allen and Arnold, whatever cooperation there may have once been was soon replaced by unbridled attempts to best the other in correspondence and deed. On May 12, Ethan Allen advised Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut:
Herrick has seized a Schooner of Skene’s, I expect in ten days-time to have it rigged, manned and armed with 6 or 8 pieces of cannon which with the Boats in our Possession I Purpose to make an Attack on the armed Sloop of George the Third [the Betsey] which is now cruising Lake Champlain and is about twice as bigg as the Schooner. I hope in a Short Time to be authorized to acquaint Your Honor that Lake Champlain & the fortifications thereon are subjected to the Colonies.
On May 14, Arnold wrote to the Massachusetts Committee of safety from Ticonderoga, taking credit for the capture of the now re-named Liberty. Arnold advised them, “I intend setting out directly in the small sloop seized from Skene, which has just arrived here, together with a Batteau and 50 men to take possession of the British sloop, Betsey, which we are advised this morning by the post, is at St. Johns, Quebec, loaded with Provisions and waiting for this Place.”
Obviously men both could not be commanders of the same vessel. There was an almost comical aspect of one-upmanship practiced by Allen and Arnold in their race to gain bragging rights in the next iteration of offensive combat against the Crown. Although it can be argued that the Liberty was not really a ship of the Continental Navy because that navy did not yet formally exist, the attack on St. Johns was in fact conducted under auspices and for the benefit of the thirteen colonies that were soon to become the United States.
The Attack of the Liberty against St. Johns, Quebec
The Liberty sailed back to Fort Ticonderoga carrying the captured Capt. Andrew Skene and his daughters. They were disembarked and sent with the captured garrison of Fort Ticonderoga to Hartford, Connecticut, as prisoners of war. On May 12 Seth Warner, third in command of the Fort Ticonderoga assault force, took the Liberty to capture Fort Crown Point, which had only a weak garrison. The Liberty reached Crown Point on May 14, and it was there that the brass cannon captured at Skenesborough were mounted and the ship slightly reconfigured to make it into a fighting vessel. The armament consisted of four carriage guns and six swivel guns.
There is room for some disagreement about the following events, but Benedict Arnold was so anxious to spearhead the attack against St. Johns (present-day St. Jean sur Richelieu) that he pushed north on Lake Champlain in a small boat with thirty men, leaving Oswald and Capt. John Sloan to follow with fifty armed troops aboard the Liberty, both leaving Crown Point on May 16. At some point the Liberty overtook Arnold, and they proceeded north until in the vicinity of Isle La Motte where the attacking force disembarked onto smaller craft, less obvious, and proceeded up the Richelieu River.
Arnold and the troops paddled to Saint Johns and caught the small garrison by surprise at 6 o’clock in the morning on May 18. They captured a sergeant and twelve soldiers, the village of St. Johns, the King’s seventy-ton sloop Betsey with two brass 6-pounders and crew of seven, five large bateaux, and substantial naval stores. They destroyed five bateaux and took the timbers of a cutter that were subsequently used in building the American ship Lee. Arnold had achieved the strategic objective of neutralizing British naval forces at St. Johns, thereby gaining control of Lake Champlain, which could not be challenged until the British re-built their lake navy during the winter and spring of 1775–1776.
Ethan Allen, after discovering that Arnold had taken off from Crown Point to attack St. Johns, put together his own force of some ninety men in four rowed bateaux, chasing Arnold. Humorously, Arnold met Allen’s small flotilla about six miles south of St. Johns as Arnold returned with the prizes from the successful St. Johns Raid.
Allen was bedraggled, as his force had set out with little provisions and he and his men were starving. Allen may have even been a little seasick as he certainly was no mariner like Arnold. Arnold made available what rations he had, but Allen was still adamant that he too would push on to St. Johns to occupy the town. Arnold correctly advised that it was a fool’s errand, and that the strong garrisons at Montreal and Fort Chambly were sure to be dispatched after news of his attack. Allen could not be dissuaded.
Of course, Allen accomplished little but went on to take the lion’s share credit for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, and his impetuosity later caught up with him when he attempted a with a weak force to attack Montreal. He recruited some fifty French Canadians who paddled over to Lachine, Quebec, where they promptly abandoned him, and he was captured by the British. He was sent in irons to London, with serious discussion whether he should be executed as traitor, but he was released in an exchange in 1778.
The Rest of the Liberty’s Story
By mid-August 1775, the American lake navy on Lake Champlain was comprised of the schooner Liberty, sloop Enterprise, gondolas Hancock and Scuyler, and two large bateaux armed with swivel cannon. These vessels patrolled the lake as well as collected intelligence and reports of British activity in her dockyards. The vessels also supported transportation of the American army in an invasion attempt made against Canada. Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery in command and embarked from Ticonderoga with some 1,200 troops on August 12, several hundred of which had become ill by the time the Army landed at Isle La Motte on September 2. The American Lake Champlain fleet including the Liberty operated in the vicinity of Isle aux Noix in September and October, supporting the capture of Fort Chambly and Fort St. Johns. These victories resulted in the captured of the schooner Royal Savage, raised after the British had scuttled her, and Revenge. Both vessels joined the American lake navy returning to Ticonderoga.
Both the British and Americans spent the early part of 1776 building up their respective navies with which to engage in a decisive battle. The British concentrated their construction at Chambly and St. Johns. The Americans built at Skenesborough, for which reason it is called “Birthplace of the American Navy.” Capt. Jacobus Wynkoop, formerly of the 4th New York Regiment, was assigned in early summer of 1776 as commander of the Lake Champlain fleet. He had charge of the construction and upgrade of the fleet, but his inspiration and commitment were found lacking in comparison to the effort of Benedict Arnold. Arnold was effective in finding supplies, crews, and materials based on his general knowledge of ship construction and seamanship. When Arnold was made the new commander of the fleet, Wynkoop refused to accept Arnold as his replacement. On August 17, 1776, Arnold ordered the Revenge and Liberty to proceed north to scout and provide support to the Americans at Crown Point. Wynkoop, operating from the Royal Savage, fired a swivel gun at Revenge and Liberty in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent them from raising sail to perform their assigned mission, giving Liberty the unusual distinction of having been fired on by a friendly ship.
On August 24, “the American fleet commanded by Benedict Arnold departed Crown Point, comprised of Royal Savage and Enterprise, followed by the gondolas New Haven, Boston, Providence, Spitfire, Philadelphia, and Connecticut, with schooners Revenge and Liberty in the rear, as well as a large number of bateaux.” After being joined by the cutter Lee and gondola New Jersey, and finally by the galleys Congress and Trumbull, the American fleet was ready for battle.
At Valcour Bay, adjacent to present-day Plattsburg, New York, Arnold prepared for a defensive action to delay the British fleet’s move toward forts Crown Point and Ticonderoga. The schooner Liberty was employed to make repeated runs back to Ticonderoga for supplies and last-minute components of hardware and rigging for several of the hurriedly-completed American craft.
The British fleet consisted of ship Inflexible, schooners Maria and Carleton, radeau Thunderer, gondola Loyal Convert, and twenty or more gunboats, longboats, bateaux, and canoes. The British had difficulty locating Arnold’s fleet but when they finally made contact on October 11, 1776, the battle generally went badly for the Americans, prompting Arnold to make a secretive, night-time escape south toward Crown Point.
The British pursued the remnants of the American fleet across and up Lake Champlain. The Liberty, sailing northward down the lake from Ticonderoga, met up with the retreating American ships on October 13, the sloop Enterprise, schooner Revenge, row galley Trumbull, gondola New York, and schooner Liberty. The British, however, because of the lateness of the season with snow in the air, determined to go into winter quarters and headed back down the lake towards Quebec.
During the fall and winter the Americans constructed a floating bridge that connected Fort Ticonderoga with Fort Independence directly across the lake. All of the surviving American vessels, including Liberty, were placed behind the floating bridge and did not venture further north.
Forts Ticonderoga and Independence were abandoned on July 6, 1777, in the face of an advancing British army. Six hundred American troops accompanied the five armed galleys (including Liberty), heavily laden with supplies and artillery, invalids and women, in some 200 batteaux, as they made their way to Skenesborough while the main American army sought retreat to Hubbardton and Manchester in Vermont.
Within an hour of the arrival of the Americans at Skenesborough, British gunboats closed on the Skenesborough channel and brought about the sad end of the American lake fleet: “Trumbull Galley—Taken; Revenge—loaden with powder—Blown up; Gates Galley—Blown Up; Enterprize Cutter—laden with provisions—Burnt; Liberty—schooner—loaden with Powder—Taken.”
The Liberty became part of the British fleet, and supposedly transported British troops who escaped capture at Saratoga back down the lake later in 1777. For the remainder of the war she patrolled the lake with British Marines on board. A March 1784 list based on a “Return of Vessels at St. Johns, Quebec, 3rd Sept 1783,” recorded the Liberty as “Ha[u]led up on the stocks not worth the trouble.” It appears that most of those vessels left at St. Johns “settled to the bottom of the Richelieu River, or were broken up in the vicinity of St Johns.” “Remnants of the British fleet were found at St. Johns when the Chambly Canal was constructed during the nineteenth century,” but no artifacts specifically attributable to the Liberty are known. On May 31, 1790, Capt. John Schank, commanding at Quebec, reported that the Liberty was “old but still repairable.”
What Firsts for the Liberty?
Although not officially recognized as the first Unites States naval vessel, the Liberty can claim a number of firsts during the Revolutionary War:
• First private ship captured by American forces.
• First re-named and or christened American warship.
• First American warship transporting prisoners of war, the Skene family.
• First ship to land American troops on foreign soil.
• First American warship involved in the capture of a foreign town (St. Johns), a Royal Naval vessel (the Betsey), and British Naval installation (Fort St. Johns’s Dockyard).
• First American warship to patrol and control an inland waterway (Lake Champlain).
The history of the Liberty is more intriguing and varied than almost any other of Arnold’s Lake Champlain ships. Her service evolved from commercial sloop, to American warship involved in some the nation’s first offensive operations, to British schooner patrolling the Lake Champlain corridor. But through it all there is another first that should not be minimized. Throughout the whole of her service from capture by the Americans on May 9, 1775, until her demise, she was always referred to as LIBERTY, even when in British service.
Doris Begor Morton, Birth of the United States Navy (Whitehall, NY: The Whitehall Independent, 1986). Morton, the Whitehall Town and Village Historian, begins with the capture of the Katherine and follows the history of Whitehall (former Skenesborough) through the construction there of the American lake navy by Benedict Arnold.
The Betsey, referred to in original contemporaneous documents as the “Kings’ sloop” and the “armed sloop of George the Third.” Russell P. Bellico, Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, Revised edition, 2001), 116.
Philip Skene referred to his civilian mercantile ship as a sloop, but once captured by the Americans and re-named Liberty, and employed in a military capacity, reference was appropriate as a schooner.
Sources that name the Skene schooner as Katherine before American capture on May 9, 1775 include: Brendan Morrissey, Quebec 1775 (Osprey Publishing, 2001), 10; Lake Champlain, An Illustrated History (Adirondack Life, Lake Champlain Quadri-centennial Celebration, 2009); Bellico, Sails and Steam in the Mountains, 115. Interestingly, the fictional ‘Kathi’ of Skenesborough, written by May Bell Curtis in 1914 (re-published, Peru, NY: Bloated Toe Publishing, 2013) indicates that the schooner was referred to by Skene’s Black slaves in 1774 as Liberty, which seems highly unlikely.
NDAR1: 330; Massachusetts Archives 193: 186; Bredenberg, “The Champlain Fleet, 1775-1777,”249. Oscar Bredenburg touts that Arnold feared if word of Ticonderoga’s capture reached St. Johns, Quebec, the post would be reinforced. Bredenberg, “The Champlain Fleet, 1775-1777,” 250.
Bellico, Sails and Steam in the Mountains, 172, citing “A Journal of Carleton’s and Burgoyne’s Campaigns,” Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum 11 (September 1965) Part 2: 231. This list is identical to one published in the Connecticut Gazette, December 5, 1777, in NDAR 9: 225.
The British sloop Betsey, seized in the St. Johns Raid, was re-named as the American ship Enterprise while being sailed back to Fort Ticonderoga by Capt. John Sloan. En route, Sloan drew up a ship’s company payroll for the “Sloop Interprise” which covered the period from May 3 to July 12, 1775. The sixteen men on the roll were referred to as “Marines,” and these men must have served initially on the Liberty. Ratification by the Congress shows that their service was approved, formally “adopting all men under arms, placing them under public service on 14 June 1775.” Morton, Birth of the United States Navy, 5-7.