‘Valcour’ sheds light on historic 1776 campaign
Review: “Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty”
To paraphrase Charles Dickens a bit, “he was the best of men, he was the worst of men.” I’m talking about Benedict Arnold. The new book “Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty,” by Jack Kelly, showcases much of Arnold’s heroism early during the American Revolution, while pointing out reasons he might have pivoted to becoming a traitor later in the war.
The author tells the story of the fighting on Lake Champlain that culminated in the underappreciated Battle of Valcour. During the first year of the revolution, Arnold showed he could be selfish and self-serving. However, in fighting for the patriot cause, he was anything but. Kelly calls Arnold passionate in support of the American rebellion, writing “few could claim a greater impulse toward patriotism or a more fiery resolve to gamble all to break the colonies’ bondage to Britain.”
Both sides understood how control of Lake Champlain would be key to British plans for moving southward toward the Hudson River. Arnold proved to be charismatic and a superb strategist. His bravery and ability to lead by example earned him fervent support from his troops. Where others found obstacles, Arnold consistently found opportunity. English officers could be complacent. Britain’s General Guy Carleton missed opportunities. Lt. Thomas Pringle, in charge of the British fleet, never really took time to explore the lake.
Arnold displayed often contradictory qualities of petulance and bravery. He argued with Moses Hazen, previously a strong supporter. Conflicts with fellow officers like Philip Schuyler were often petty. Schuyler, a master of logistics and supply lines more than an inspirational leader in actual fighting, orchestrated establishment of Skenesborough for boat building as part of an early arms race. You need both types of people, and Schuyler had to battle Congress as much as Arnold did. In fact, patriot leaders all seemed to battle smallpox and Congress as much as Redcoats.
There are plenty of details surrounding the battle which I hadn’t previously known, including deficient planning and minimal reconnaissance on the part of the British. Their officers also manifested bickering not unlike that plaguing the American side. I also came to the conclusion that Great Britain had yet to assimilate Canada into its empire effectively, much as corporate takeovers and mergers often fail to account for differences in culture.
The book offers insights into relations with Native Americans. Kelly also addresses technical aspects of managing watercraft on Lake Champlain, and fine points of handling artillery. He also reminds us how hard it is to move heavy cannon. Topography of the lake is exhaustively detailed.
Always gratifying are stories of unknown heroes, like the 19 year old Englishman Edward Pellew, who took charge of a British boat when all his superiors were killed. And there’s no better tale than how British officers were “mortified” upon finding the Americans gone the morning after the pitched battle.
Occasionally the author becomes bogged down in minutiae. At times I felt he got tangled over a few too many adjectives and metaphors. I found it unusual to mention Jane McCrea without adding enough perspective for those unaware of her overall story. These are minor deficiencies. Generally, the narrative moved along well. I enjoyed this opportunity to better understand a major event early in the American Revolution.