As part of the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the USS New York sailed into New York Harbor as a floating memorial to the victims. Commissioned in 2009 and built using steel recovered from the World Trade Center site, the ship was carrying several family members of fallen first responders when it arrived for the commemoration ceremonies at Ground Zero. When the ship first visited New York City two years ago, it was opened to the public, and we got the chance to go aboard and explore the massive amphibious transport. The USS New York is an impressive tribute, but it is just one in a long line of fighting ships to bear the name. Earlier this summer, we learned about the first American vessel so named, at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont. In an earlier post, we discussed the lineage of the moniker, which includes a battleship constructed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but the name actually dates all the way back to America’s first fleet, built during the Revolutionary War. Our visit to the museum gave us a more complete history of the vessel, as we saw surviving portions of the ship and experienced what it may have been like to serve aboard the first USS New York.
Lake Champlain was a critical artery during the American Revolution. It was part of a corridor connecting British forces in Quebec with the Hudson Valley and New York City, and if the British gained command of it, they could cut off New England and divide the restive colonies in two. In the summer of 1776, the Americans were forced to abandon their invasion of Canada, a campaign that had begun the previous fall. Inadequate supplies, disease, low morale, and a massive British force poised to strike from Quebec City convinced the American commanders it was better to quit their positions at Montreal and Sorel and retreat to the relative safety of the forts on Champlain.
During the course of their retreat from Canada, the Americans destroyed or captured any vessel the British could use to pursue them, and anything they would need to rebuild their fleet, including shipyards and sawmills. This severely stalled the British advance, giving the Americans time to build a fleet capable of facing their enemy. Benedict Arnold, who had commanded American forces in Montreal, was tasked with building the fleet at Skenesborough (now Whitehall), New York, on the lake’s southern tip.
By September, 16 ships were patrolling the lake, awaiting the British advance. During this time, most of the ships were constantly “at sea,” not moored at the forts. This was in part because the British invasion could come at any time, but also because the ships were manned by inexperienced crews, mostly militiamen with little training. Arnold feared that they would desert once they realized how grueling it was to row these vessels – that was their primary locomotion, not sails – so he kept the men aboard for weeks at a time, resupplying them by canoes, constantly drilling and preparing them for battle.
Despite the defeat, the battle convinced the British that a campaign in the Champlain Valley so late in the season was ill-advised. And despite the explosion, the New York was the only American gunboat to survive the battle. But the following year, British forces commanded by Gen. John Burgoyne would quickly sweep through the valley, capturing the American forts along the way – the New York was stationed at Ticonderoga when it fell in July of 1777, at which point it disappears from the historical record. (This Champlain campaign would also end unsuccessfully for the British, when Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga, a major turning point in the war.) In 1910, the ship’s stem (pictured above) was unearthed while digging a canal in Whitehall, though how it got there is still a mystery. The cannon that exploded was recovered only recently thanks to the Valcour Bay Research Project, which has been conducting archaeological and archival research to reconstruct the battle. Both the stem and the cannon fragments are on display at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Though she did not survive the battle, the Philadelphia has had a longer life than any other vessel in that ill-fated fleet. She remained well preserved on the lake bottom, and in 1935 she was raised and reconstructed. The ship is currently on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. But if you want a more up-close look at what it may have been like the live, work, and fight aboard the ship, you can get that chance on the Philadelphia II, a replica of the gunboat that still prowls the lake from its dock at the Maritime Museum.
This story may be far removed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the waterways of New York City, but these events marked the birth of the American Navy. Today the latest incarnation of the New York may patrol the world’s oceans to protect America’s interests, but 235 years ago, America’s fate rested on a fleet of rowboats on a narrow lake in the wilderness.
All photos by Andrew Gustafson unless noted.