One of the greatest thrills for any historian is coming upon an important but little-known document, either through one’s own research or the work of other historians. To many, the challenges and adventures are in the search. The reward is in finding that document and sharing it with the world. We have been most fortunate over the years to discover several of these documents related to the Battle of Valcour Island.
The report written by Capt. Charles Douglas on October 28, 1776 is one such find. The first reference we saw to the report was in historian Russell P. Bellico’s book Chronicles of Lake Champlain: Journeys in War and Peace which cited as its source an obscure publication called North Country Notes, the newsletter of the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum, Plattsburgh, New York. Dr. Bellico kindly sent us a copy of Bredenberg’s article.
To validate the article, we found North Country Notes at the University of Vermont Special Collections Library. The article cited by Bellico, entitled “A British View on the Battle of Valcour,” was authored by Oscar E Bredenberg and published in the April 1963 issue. It was a transcription of a letter written by Capt. Charles Douglas, commander of British naval forces in Canada, to the Admiralty on October 28, 1776. In this letter Douglas reported more detailed information about the British victory over the Rebel fleet commanded by Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island than had been contained in his initial report to the Admiralty dated October 21, 1776.
In his preface, Bredenberg said he had found the letter in the “Collections of the Canadian National Archives at Ottawa.” Unfortunately, he provided no specific information about where the letter could be found in the Canadian archives. Every historian understands that the transcription of a document without a specific citation—a catalog number or similar identifier that allows another researcher to locate the original document—is always suspect. If possible, a transcription should be compared to an authenticated copy or the original before being considered valid. Often, even though cited, the contents of original documents, regardless their importance, aren’t published or readily accessible to readers.
Thus began the search for the document in the National Library and Archives of Canada. Initial searches to find the document were unsuccessful, even though we found all the other Douglas letters related to the Battle of Valcour Island.
At the same time, we set out to learn more about the career of Oscar Bredenberg. The Plattsburgh Historical Society had no biographical information about him, but on their suggestion, we contacted the Bixby Free Memorial Library in Vergennes, Vermont, which held a collection of his papers.
Oscar E. Bredenberg, it turned out, was an amateur historian particularly active in the 1950s and 60s. Born in 1893, he was a veteran of World War I, an accountant, was married and had two children. He was a resident of Champlain, New York, but summered in Grand Isle, Vermont. He died February 19, 1970. As an historian, Bredenberg was meticulous and accurate. Long before the days of computers, copiers, and the internet, he transcribed hundreds of documents from various sources relevant to the Revolutionary War in the Champlain Valley.
Following his death, his son donated Bredenberg’s notes and documents (sixty loose-leaf notebooks) to the Bixby Library. The library, recognizing their historical significance and value, scanned them and posted them online to be available to all Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Bredenberg made it easy for us. He put the documents he transcribed in chronological order from June 1, 1775 through November 1, 1778.
Soon, the archivists at the Library and Archives of Canada found a copy the original letter on microfilm. The content was exactly the same as Bredenberg’s transcript except the date, which Brendenberg published as October 29, 1776, rather than the correct date of October 28. Without doubt, this was a simple typo on his part. For whatever reason, to the best of our knowledge, he never published the letter anywhere other than in North Country Notes.
Capt. Charles Douglas’s letter to Philip Stephens, secretary to the Admiralty Board, was written on October 28, 1776. The original report describing the Battle of Valcour Island, written by Capt. Thomas Pringle to Captain Douglas, was dated October 14 and forwarded to the Admiralty along with Douglas’s initial report dated October 21. These reports were sent with Lt. James Dacres to England prior to October 28. Douglas’s October 28 letter was a follow up to those initial reports and was written after Dacres had sailed for England with the first word of the battle.
The letter is reproduced below as published in North Country Notes. All italics and comments in brackets are Mr. Bredenberg’s; the footnotes have been added.
A British View on The Battle of Valcour
The following report on the naval Battle of Valcour, resulting in the defeat of Arnold’s fleet in 1776, has seemingly not been previously published in full. It was recently discovered by Mr. Oscar E. Bredenberg in the Collections of the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa. The student of this period will note the variations from the accepted American version of the battle.
Isis Quebec October 29, 1776
The dispatches sent by Lieut Dacres of the Blonde, being of such high importance to the public weal and having had only a Transport to send them in; I think the news of the great Event, which they contain, by [be] much too precious, to be trusted to one such Conveyance; and therefore without troubling you with Duplicates, I refer you to the following further particulars, as to the demolition of the late Rebel Fleet on Lake Champlain. And to Lieut. Haynes, who herewith waits upon their Lordships, and whose Unremitting Assiduity, in carrying on as an Officer, as well as Agent for Transports, the very important duties at Sorel, ever since Midsummer; especially getting the members of the now victorious Inflexible, so quickly forwarded to Chambly, cannot be too much commended. And I humbly beg leave, hereby most earnestly to recommend the Consideration of these; And his former long & meritorious services; to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty Accordingly. He is well qualified further to satisfy their Lordships in every respect, As to the whole of our Naval Transactions in Canada.
I send you a more Exact list [missing] than the last, of the late Rebel Force, which was to have been laid up at Ticonderoga, on the 15th instant, So very critical was the Reucontre. I am Sir,
Your Most Obedient Humble Servant
PS Lieut. Butler of this his Majesty’s Ship, who has done Eminent Service to His King and Country in the Inflexible, being just returned from the Lake: From him As also by letters from Lieut. Schank & Starke, I learn the following particulars-Vizt-
The Inflexible from her position on the 11th was nearest the Royal Savage, And had the honor of striking her, with the first three Shot, in the Bowsprit, Foremast and Quarter-the Gunner of which, Explained the moment she hove in sight from behind the Island of Valcour “L–d G-d have Mercy upon us-there’s a three masted Ship” Their confusion (and of 4 or 5 more, which were under sail) was accordingly. The Royal Savage then ran ashore on the Island. The Gun boats (being only seventeen in Number) then engaged her, and when she was Silenced, pulled in with Great Courage and regularity against the Body of the Rebel fleet, until within point blank shot They were manned with brave volunteer Seamen from the Transports and their Guns were valiantly fought by the Train of Artillery. Lieut Longcroft, finding his flat bottom Gondola driven (like the Radeau) to Leeward, left her with his boat, Gallantly boarded the Royal Savage; turned some of her Guns on the Enemy; and fired them very briskly for some time, but three of his men being killed, he was obliged to leave her. Fearing that she might return Again into the Enemy’s possession She was set on Fire by Lieut Starke, sent from the Maria, when two Rebel Boats were very near her; and soon blew up. In the mean time, the Inflexible and Carleton kept turning into the Bay and doing their utmost to get at the Rebel Fleet, and fired occasionally, the former leading, Until a large flaw of Wind brought Lieut Dacres in the Carleton, nearly into the middle of the Rebel Half moon, where he was intrepidly Anchored, so I am told, with a Spring on her Cable, which at last being shot away, And her fire thereby become silent, Lieut Schank sent two boats to her Assistance which tow’d her off thro a very thick fire, until out of further reach, much to the honor of Mr. John Curling and Mr. Patrick Carnegy Masters Mate And Midn of the Isis, who conducted them; and of Mr. Edward pellew Mate of the Blonde, who threw the tow rope from the Carletons bowsprit. She had on this occasion, having been some time fired at, after her spring were cut, Eight men killed & six wounded. Inflexible still kept turning to Windward, and firing Occasionally, the Rebels fired at her Masts to disable her all the while. Before dark, she got within point blank Shot of them; with five broadsides silenced their whole line. At Night dropped out and Anchored with the rest of the fleet, extending itself across the mouth of the Bay, which is about one mile and a half wide. The prisoners report that Arnold (rowing about in his boat) on seeing with his Glass white Lappells Exclaimed “By God they are all Navy people”. On this day, the Maria because of her distant situation (from which Inflexible and Carleton had chased by signal) when the Rebels were first Discovered, And baffling winds, could not get into Close action
In the second day’s fight, the Terror, inspired by the white lappells and the Inflexible were still greater than on the first. Waterberry, their second in Command, declared, he chose rather to strike, than receive her broadsides. When her Guns bore, the Rebels left their Oars or lay down. Even Arnold himself, when Closely engaged with the Maria, And firing his two stern Eighteen pounders At the Inflexible and Carleton, put his Helm a Weather And (with five Gondolas) ran ashore, rather than receive more of her Fire; which besides her twelve pounders issued from 10 swivel Guns in her Tops No Muskets were fired. Upon the whole, Sir, I scruple not to say that had not General Carleton Authorized me to take the Extraordinary measure of sending up the Inflexible from Québec, things could not this year have been brought to so glorious a Conclusion on Lake Champlain. And if anything can surpass the services Lieut. Schank rendered to His King and Country, in accelerating Every part of our late naval preparations at St. Johns, they are only surpassed by those, so skillfully and Gallantly performed by this man of merit, in the two engagements on the 11th & 13th instant. The latter was fought About 10 or 12 miles on this side of Crown Point.
The Hurry, we were in to get Lieut Dacres sent away, hindered my Collecting from him, many of the particulars attending the momentous Event in question, for the knowledge of which, Captain Pringle, who commanded, and still Commands our Naval Auxiliaries on the Lake: for want of time did: to him refer me; occasions my troubling you with the foregoing which have been Collected, with the most scrupulous Circumspection.
N.B. It appears from the foregoing, that the Rebels having had a Schooner Cruizing on the Look out, between the North End of Island Valcour & the Main; were not surprised, as first was reported, Otherwise the site of the Inflexible. Philip Stephens, Esq.
- * * *
Douglas’s letter confirms that both Captains John Schank and John Starke sent reports to Douglas describing the Battle of Valcour Island from a significantly different perspective than did Captain Pringle in his report to Captain Douglas which was forwarded on to the Admiralty October 21, 1776.
Douglas tried to correct Pringle’s unfairness to his other officers, despite the key roles these officers played during the battle, in his letter of October 28, 1776. Apparently, the Admiralty chose to do nothing about the discrepancies. Pringle’s report still stands as the official report of the Battle of Valcour Island even though it is grossly incorrect.
October 11-13, 2020 marks the 244th Anniversary of the Battle of Valcour Island, one of the key actions during the American Revolution. A major artifact from that battle has been discovered: the Spitfire, an American gunboat, part of Arnold’s 1776 fleet, which was sunk by her crew during the nighttime retreat following the Battle of Valcour Island. We urge everyone to join the effort to preserve this remarkable connection to the American Revolution.
Acknowledgments: The author gratefully acknowledges this article’s co-author James L Nelson. A special thanks to the following for their assistance and guidance essential to bring this document to publication: Russell Bellico, Art Cohn, Emeritus Director Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Ernie Haas, James K Martin, Richard Hibbert, Susan Ferland of the Vergennes Historical Society, Rebecca Johnston and the Bixby Free Memorial Library staff, Don N. Hagist and the JAR staff, and a very special thanks to Nathalie Mathieu, Sarah Bellefleur Bondu, and the Library Archives Canada staff whose kindness, help and consideration made this article possible.
Russell Bellico, Chronicles of Lake Champlain: Journeys in War and Peace (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1995), 215, 235; also cited it in Sails and Steam(Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1992), 341, 361.
North Country Notes, Number 13 (April 1963): 2-3.
Microfilm Roll B-2614, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Canada. We obtained copies of all letters written to and from Captain Douglas during October 1776. Only the October 21 and 28 letters are relevant to the Valcour Battle.
Weal, “That which is best for someone or something.” www.lexico.com/en/definition/weal.
Schank’s report has been published; “A New Eyewitness Account of Valcour Island Resolves the Pringle Controversy” Published online in The Journal of the American Revolution October 13, 2016. Starke’s report remains missing “A New Eyewitness Account of Valcour Island Resolves the Pringle Controversy,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 13, 2016, allthingsliberty.com/2016/10/new-eyewitness-account-valcour-island-resolves-pringle-controversy/.
An intriguing find and captivating article! The Douglas account clearly depicts the British view that they had won a unequivacable victory and were not thwarted in any way by Arnold’s actions. This is a more compelling view than historians who conclude that the Battle of Valcour was a tactical loss but a strategic victory by the Americans. After a mere couple of days of battle, the British fleet could sail unopposed up Lake Champlain to the gates of Ft. Ticonderoga. Clearly, the need to build a fresh water fleet to counter the Rebel naval forces, delayed the British assault earlier in the summer. However, once the British built their vessels, Arnold’s actions did not further significantly deter the British advance.
While counter factuals are dangerous, I have always wondered if combining cannon at Crown Point or Ft. Ti with Arnold’s undergunned fleet would have outgunned the British fleet and let to an American victory. If so, this would have greatly impeded Gen. Burgoyne’s advance the following year!
Hi Gene- Thanks for your kind comments and thought-provoking response. I believe the historians are correct. Arnold and the Americans lost the Battle of Valcour Island, but their loss won the Revolutionary War.
Douglas was an honorable man. He did not have to send this letter to the Admiralty correcting Pringle’s report. However, he knew Pringle had not been fair to all of his offices and men. The letter was sent to correct Pringle’s omissions. Douglas did the right thing.
Even if the British had sailed down and taken Fort Ti immediately after the Battle they faced difficult problems. Remember the Battle was fought in October, the fighting season was at an end and the logistical problems of supplying the British army at Ticonderoga over the winter appeared insurmountable. More importantly, Arnold’s leadership in building the American fleet in the Spring and Summer.
We must remember the British (especially Carleton) made many tactical errors before the Battle. They believed the British fleet had to have a 3-masted “frigate like” ship to overwhelm the American fleet. Pringle made a serious error by not blocking Arnold’s escape route, even though Schank recognized the potential and blocked it with the British gunboat Spitfire. Pringle countermanded that decision by ordering the Spitfire to the East side of the fleet. See: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/10/recently-discovered-letters-shed-new-light-battle-valcour-island/
You are correct counter factuals are dangerous. What would have happened if the British had engaged Arnold without waiting for the Inflexible to be completed? The British would have defeated Arnold, taken Fort Ti, cut off New England and we would still be singing “God Save the Queen”. I am glad Arnold and friends prevented that from happening. Pip