Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ships: ...And Brotherly Love

Congressional Ship Philadelphia was one of the first warships constructed by the newly self-proclaimed United States as she headed into the Revolutionary War. She is particularly remembered in our era not because of any great victories but because she is still available for all to see.

In 1775 to 1776 the U.S. tried an unfortunate and ill thought out invasion of Canada. The British were having none of that, of course, and the U.S. looked for ways to cut their losses and make sure that as little land as possible ended up in British hands as the enemy fought their way south in retaliation. The best approach for the U.S. was to rely on fort Ticonderoga, which blocked British access to the Hudson valley, and to apply naval pressure in the waterways of Canada and New England.

Benedict Arnold, when still a General for the U.S., therefor instituted a flurry of shipbuilding at Skenesborough, New York in the summer of 1776. The final outcome of his work was a flotilla of schooners, one sloop, a couple of small galleys and eight gun carrying river barges. Known as gundalow or gundelo, one of these was given the name Philadelphia.

She was heavily constructed in order to accommodate guns. She had a single mast shipping two square-rigged sails. She was a little over 53 feet in length and 15 feet 6 inches at her beam. Philadelphia had an unusually deep draft for her overall size at close to 4 feet. She carried one 12 pound gun, two 9 pounders and eight light swivels that were essentially only a little more powerful than a common rifle. Her compliment was 45 men. She is shown in the foreground of the painting above by Ernest Haas.

Once his flotilla was complete the General took his show on the road with disastrous results. He had manned his ships as quickly as he had built them and this meant that most were crewed by landsmen rather than knowledgeable sailors. He began his cruising in September, sticking to Lake Champlain and only moving south in October when intelligence indicated that the enemy was heading south as well. On October 11, 1776, a small fleet of British ships engaged Arnold's flotilla off Valcour Island.

As the six hour firefight wore down, Arnold's flagship, the schooner of 12 guns Royal Savage, ran aground and was boarded and then burned. Two of the galleys also ran aground and were captured. Philadelphia, leaking badly due to enemy fire, was hit by a 24 pound ball and sunk. The British caught up with the remaining flotilla on October 13 off Crown Point. The rest of the ships were sunk or burned.

Bad news for the Americans but bad news for the British as well. With winter coming on the little fleet was battered and low on ammunition and provisions. They had to return to Canada without advancing into U.S. territory.
And Philadelphia? She remained off Valcour Island, her hull and guns well preserved by the fresh, ice cold water that cradled her. In 1934 she was discovered with her mast still in tact and standing in approximately 60 feet of water. She was raised August 1, 1935. Now on display at the Smithsonian, Philadelphia is the oldest warship exhibited in North America.

An unfortunate foray into seafaring by Arnold led, eventually, to a wonderful piece of history preserved in tact for all to see. In the end, posterity benefits. Thanks, Benedict.

5 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting story and cool pictures as well. So, was General Arnold on board one of the ships or was he elsewhere? And were there any survivors if all of the Americans ships were destroyed or sunk? Just curious, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! From what I can understand, a good number of Americans survived. Many to be pressed into service with the British Navy. Arnold, of course, escaped Royal Savage. No big news on what became of him.

Timmy! said...

Ah, thanks for clearing that up for me... and yeah, I seem to recall hearing someting about that. ;-)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Have you ever read "Arundel" and "Rabble in Arms" by Kenneth Roberts? They're older books (I think from the 1930s or so), but Roberts is a fantastic writer. These two books follow that ill-fated Canadian campaign. Oldies but goodies, and well worth hunting down.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Susan! I have heard of Roberts' books before but have not read them. Looks like it's time to hit up Title Wave locally and then head over to Amazon failing that. Thankee indeed for the tip. Always good to get a reading recommendation from an excellent author!