Review: Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty


April 5, 2021
by George Kotlik Also by this Author


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Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty by Jack Kelly (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021)

Scholarly focus on decisive military actions in 1776 seldom mention the Battle of Valcour Island. Jack Kelly reminds readers of the importance of that engagement in his book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty. For people unfamiliar with Valcour, Kelly’s book provides an engaging narrative that covers the battle in its entirety. The Battle of Valcour Island was a naval engagement of the Revolutionary War that took place off the coast of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. A sizable fleet of American vessels took on a more formidable British force that voyaged southward up the lake from Canada with orders to contribute to Gen. William Howe’s attack on New York City. The Americans were well aware of the northern threat. Phillip Schuyler, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold constituted the main rebel leadership tasked with repelling the British advance south. To prevent British mastery over the lake, the rebels thought it prudent to assemble a navy. The going was slow, but by the time British forces under the command of Gen. Guy Carleton made their appearance known in the region, American naval forces moved to counter them. The resulting effort produced the Battle of Valcour Island. In the end, that engagement delayed the British long enough to prevent any Crown advance past Fort Ticonderoga that winter. Consequently, rebel efforts repelled any British contribution from the north in the New York Campaign. Had Carleton managed to cooperate with Howe’s forces in New York City, Washington’s situation would have been even more perilous.

Significant detail is given to the battle itself. After a deadly engagement, rebel forces slipped away past the British under the cover of darkness and while a thick fog enveloped both fleets. Maps of the battle showing British and American positions, coupled with illustrations depicting the types of boats used on the campaign, help readers better understand the battle. The author did not hold back on depicting both British and American struggles and the horrors each sides endured:

Men on all the ships saw sights they had never imagined: human bodies opened, white bone laid bare, the pulse of lacerated flesh. The eyes of injured men, pupils dilated, groped the scene with ghastly intensity. Ruddy skin turned a leprous white as blood spilled from torn arteries. [184]

Such a style of writing successfully puts the reader in the shoes of the men who fought at Valcour. Primary sources taken from the Naval Documents of the American Revolution offer an invaluable and detailed look at the battle. After Carleton’s fleet was forced to turn back, American soldiers from the northern army reinforced General Washington (234).

While a strong book, Valcour is not without its shortcomings. The first chapter is confusing and difficult to follow. The reader is thrown, rather haphazardly, into a narrative that assumes a high level of prior knowledge. Kelly provides no backstory, a necessary consideration for those who are unfamiliar with this account, until chapter three. Until then, readers are left to their own devices. While a unique story, the Battle of Valcour Island has been written about before. Look no further than James L. Nelson’s Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain But Won the American Revolution (2007). Certainly not a new story, Jack Kelly’s Valcour is nonetheless still a worthy read that illuminates an underappreciated aspect of the American Revolution.

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  • One thing missed by the review was that naval activity on Lake Champlain began only 11 days after Concord, when Benedict Arnold’s men seized what became the Continental 10-gun ketch LIBERTY and got her ready to assist in the capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, whose heavy cannons were then sent by Arnold to ring the British garrison in Boston.
    Another detail that most people miss is that a wartime navy is usually intended to defeat an enemy navy. The Continental Navy had three major purposes much more important than that: 1) prevent British forces from surging down the lake until we were ready for them at Saratoga; 2) purchase, beg, borrow, or steal ALL the gunpowder needed by land forces, since powder could not be made in America; 3) make a show in British waters so the Royal Navy would be forced to devote resources to reassuring the British public, resources that could therefore not be used in North America.

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