This Little Warship Blew Up, Burned and Saved America
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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
Royal Savage was a tiny warship, but she went out with a big bang. Her quick destruction bought the early Continental Army some much needed time to build up reinforcements in 1776.
On Oct. 11 of that year, she fought in the Battle of Valcour Island, a naval clash on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. A military history enthusiast dredged up her wreckage in 1934, and the city of Harrisburg owned the remains — really just a pile of wood — until July 1, 2015, when the city handed the debris over to the U.S. Navy.
Her story is an interesting look at naval combat tactics and the reality of 18th century warfare – and how one little ship might’ve helped save the American revolutionary war effort.
Royal Savage wasn’t much of a warship. She was a 50-foot-long schooner which weighed about 70 tons. Forty or 50 sailors tended her and handled the 12 cannons — eight four-pounders and four six-pounders — and 10 one-pound “swivel” guns.
She was originally British. In 1775, American troops invaded Quebec and captured her, sailing her back to Lake Champlain after a disastrous defeat at the hands of British troops in Quebec City.
On its face, fighting for Lake Champlain doesn’t seem all that important. But its strategic importance derived from the nature of 18th-century travel.
Unless you had no other option, you did not travel by land. Frontier travel was arduous and dangerous — and it took days to move more than a dozen miles, and weeks to travel a few hundred miles.
Traveling by waterway, however, substantially cut time and was a lot cheaper … let alone when it came to transporting an army. Before 1815, “the cost of transporting a ton of goods thirty miles inland from an American port equaled the cost of carrying the same goods across the Atlantic,” historian James McPherson wrote in his Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom.
The importance of controlling the waterways is what led to the Royal Savage’s destruction. In the summer of 1776, British and American troops amassed on the northern and southern entrances to the lake — a long and narrow waterway connecting the St. Lawrence River to the north with the Hudson River to the south.
Above — ‘Royal Savage’ getting toasted by the Royal Navy. Unknown artist circa 1925. At top — a drawing of ‘Royal Savage.’ New York Public Library illustration
If the British pushed south, they could have cut rebel forces in New England off from the rest of the continent. So the two warring sides encamped on their ends of the lake, hacking away at trees, fortifying their defenses and building ships.
With the fleets assembled, the two sides moved into the lake. The American fleet under the command of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold took up position in a line between Valcour Island and the lake’s western shoreline. As the British fleet sailed past, the Americans opened fire with their cannons.
Royal Savage — along with the Congress — left the line to bait the British fleet closer. This was successful … but at a cost. Royal Savage ran aground on Valcour and was then swarmed by British ships firing away with their cannons.
Royal Savage caught fire, exploded and burned. After an exchange of cannon fire, the remaining American fleet slipped out under the cover of darkness — helped by the distraction provided by the burning Royal Savage.
“Add to that eyes unable to quickly adapt to the darkness of a moonless night after staring at the fire and the British never saw the American fleet slipping away close to the New York shore,” historian Michael Barbieri wrote in the May 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Revolution.
The Americans later scuttled their shot-up fleet — a definite tactical loss. But the battle on the lake kept the British forces away from American troops fighting further south, which contributed to the British defeat at Saratoga in the fall of 1777.
That turned out to be the most significant American victory of the war.
But time hasn’t been good to Royal Savage’s remains. Aside from being underwater until 1934, the wreckage had sat in a garage — leading to further decay. The city of Harrisburg even tried to auction the pieces off in 2006, but the winning bidder had a change of mind.
There wasn’t much money for storing, preserving or restoring the debris — and attempts by the Navy to buy them fell through after mandatory brakes on defense spending following the 2009 economic recession. With the handover, they now have a proper home.
This article originally appeared on July 4, 2015.
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