While Washington was struggling around New York City, the failed invasion of Canada was coming to its inevitable conclusion: the invasion of the United States from the north. Since the American high water mark on New Year’s Eve, the death of BG Richard Montgomery on the walls of Quebec (Ontario and Quebec were one disciplined soldier’s action away from being the 14th and 15th States), the campaign in Canada went badly for the Americans. Parliament recognized how perilously close was Canada’s loss that they sent Maj Gen John Burgoyne and 10,000 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries to reinforce Gov Guy Carleton. Faced with this overwhelming response, the remnants of Montgomery’s army, led by newly promoted BG Benedict Arnold, quickly retreated back to Lake Champlain in the late winter of 1776, burning all the boas and ships on the lake, Fort St Jean and destroying anything that they couldn’t carry or the British could use to builds ships on the lake. Without ships, Burgoyne could not proceed south.
Carleton anticipated this situationand requested prefabricated ships from Europe which could be transported overland and assembled on Lake Champlain. While those ships were enroute, MG Horatio Gates and nascent shipbuilding team from the brand new US Navy built ships as quickly as possible on the southern end of the lake. But the efforts were inadequate. An outbreak of smallpox slowed work down considerably, and furthermore there were too few American shipbuilders and sailors that could be lured away from the lucrative Atlantic seaboard to the wilderness of upstate New York. With great difficulty, the Americans built 15 ships (including two galleys, and the sloop USS Enterprise). The British managed to assemble 25 ships, the two largest with more firepower than the entirety of the American fleet.
Through sheer force of personality Arnold, an experienced sea captain, took command of the fleet. (The fight for command was the first glimpse at the problems with joint operations. Arnold didn’t accept that CDRE Esek Hopkins had command over him, and Hopkin’s choice didn’t accept Gates’ authority. Arnold won because of his rapport with the men.) Accepting that he couldn’t stand the British firepower on the open lake, Arnold moved the fleet to the narrows between Valcour Island and the shore (Plattsburg NY today). The next morning 11 October 1776, Carleton’s Navy attacked Arnold. The battle was fought all day and Arnold was correct that most of the British ships couldn’t engage, but it didn’t matter. Even though only a third of Carleton’s ships could enter the narrows, the British thrashed the inexperienced Americans, despite Arnold’s flagship, the galley USS Congress, fighting three different and larger ships simultaneously. Almost one year to the day after its establishment, the US Navy lost its first real battle.
That night Arnold’s fleet stealthily escaped sure destruction the next morning, and Carleton chased him down the lake. At Crown Point, Arnold burned his fleet, burned the fort and made his way overland to Ticonderoga. With a battered fleet, no places to winter, restless Indian allies, a strongly defended Fort Ticonderoga, and the smell of snowfall in the air, Carleton withdrew north. Though Benedict Arnold and the US Navy lost the battle, they did enough damage to delay the British invasion of the Hudson Valley until the next year.