August 10, 2006

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Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution, by James L. Nelson (McGraw Hill, 2006, 386 pages)

Not just the story of Benedict Arnold’s navy, this is the story of the entire American effort to secure Lake Champlain (that’s the one between Vermont and New York State) as the key to the continent during the Revolution. Other players include George Washington, Philip Schuyler, Richard Montgomery, Ethan Allen, and on the British side Guy Carleton and John Burgoyne. Oh, and Henry Knox, who led a group of men in dragging cannons 150 miles from Ticonderoga, N.Y., to Boston, where they were placed at Dorchester Heights, helping scare the British out of Beantown.

This book tells the story of all the events leading up to the formation of a fleet on Lake Champlain, headed by Benedict Arnold, in 1776, a fleet that made all the difference in the course of the war.

“[T]he army of 1775 was still more a gaggle of militia than a unified force,” Nelson writes. It was “an American army seemingly sprung from the earth. The new Congress represented a group of colonies that had no unified plan or vision, and now American forces had captured three of King George’s forts and had staged a military incursion into Canada….” But lest you go thinking this shows that we Americans don’t need no stinkin’ plan, note that “For all the romantic notions, then and now, of the citizen-soldier, the minuteman called to arms to defend his country, it became clear to those fighting the war that only a professional army could win, not a rabble biding its time until discharge. It was a change that would come, and it would be one of the most profound differences between the mob that retreated from Canada in 1776 and the army that stood up and beat Burgoyne in 1777.”

Though some insight is given here into why Arnold went turncoat, that’s tangential. (You’d be ticked off too, if somebody sent you to capture a British fort and then, as soon as you came through, they acted like you never existed. That’s what the Massachusetts Provincial Congress did to Benedict Arnold, but he didn’t quit the army at that point. Only several slights to his prickly personality later did he throw over to the enemy.)

These events are close to home for all New Englanders and have a special resonance for those of us who grew up within sight of the battle’s locale. (Arnold’s ship, a captured British schooner called The Royal Savage, was sunk in Lake Champlain; pieces of it were later recovered and housed in an eponymous restaurant-inn near the site, where some of us ate many a haddock entrée in our youth and held our wedding ceremonies in later years. The inn is now closed. The commemorative plates live on.)

For those without close ties to the area, the book, especially in its middle stretch, might feel a bit like a school history report Still, the story is quite important, and although you might want to take the reading slowly, it’s well worth knowing. If you’re more of a historical fiction fan, try Pulitzer-winner Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel and Rabble in Arms, novels written in the 1930s that recount these same events with more dramatic immediacy. Better yet, try both authors.

Note: It turns out that James L. Nelson is the writer of The Sweet Trade, a fictionalized biography of two female pirates published under the pen name Elizabeth Garrett in 2001, and now reprinted under the title The Only Life That Mattered under Nelson’s name. Unwitting, I interviewed Elizabeth Garrett by e-mail in 2001 and Hippo ran a courtesy photo of her. Well, of somebody. And I still haven’t met James L. Nelson in person.

Nelson has a Web site at jameslnelson.com, which includes his scheduled appearances. B

— Lisa Parsons


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