James L. Nelson,
Benedict Arnold's Navy
(McGraw-Hill, 2006)

Benedict Arnold, American hero.

That's not something you hear very often during discussions of the American Revolution. It's certainly not what American schoolchildren learn in history class.

But James L. Nelson, a master of American maritime history and fiction, sets the record straight in Benedict Arnold's Navy. Subtitled "The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle for Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution," this thoroughly researched and highly detailed book takes a close look at a chapter of American history often overlooked.

Sure, it's easy to focus on events such as Washington's winter at Valley Forge or his triumphant Christmas assault across the Delaware River, but it turns out the chances of America's winning the war would have been slim to impossible if Arnold hadn't played a vital role to the north.

At the beginning of hostilities, Arnold recognized the strategic importance of Lake Champlain, which provided a direct line of attack for the British from Canada down into the northern states. It was his drive and initiative that pushed a starving militia through the Maine wilderness and secured the vital defenses, including Fort Ticonderoga, along the lake; it was his aggressive invasion of Canada that nearly took Quebec right out of British hands; and it was his tireless efforts that placed a small but effective American fleet in the way of a southbound British armada. Ultimately, Arnold's defense of Lake Champlain would fail -- given the odds against him at the decisive Battle of Valcour Island, it was the inevitable outcome -- but he forced a year's delay for England that gave the fledgling Continental Congress and Washington's army time to rebuild and prepare for the invasion to come. And it was Arnold's attack on British troops the next year that broke the back of England's northern army.

In matters of defense and offense, strategy and leadership, Benedict Arnold was unmatched in his service to the cause of American independence. Although he had his detractors at the time, he numbered George Washington among his friends and supporters. And, if events had taken a slightly different course, he would be remembered as one of America's greatest heroes. In either case, it is likely America would have lost the war without him.

Of course, his name is instead forever synonymous with betrayal. Nelson explains clearly the course that led Arnold to that pass and, while readers may not agree with Arnold's decisions at the end, Nelson certainly gives plenty of reasons why Arnold acted the way he did.

Benedict Arnold's Navy is a thrilling look at a little-known aspect of American history. Drawing heavily on surviving letters and documents of the day and packed stem to stern with details about ships and shipbuilding, troop movements, military tactics and political maneuverings, it is a fast-paced story that will have history buffs turning the pages at lightning speed.

review by
Tom Knapp

15 August 2009

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