Artifacts from America's birth on display - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Artifacts from America's birth on display

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Posted: Saturday, July 1, 2006 2:00 am | Updated: 2:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

PERU, N.Y. - More than 229 years ago, Gen. Benedict Arnold led his crew of sailors on Lake Champlain against a far superior British fleet near here and lost. But their dogged fight in October 1776 delayed British movement south for a year, when they would be defeated in the Battle of Saratoga.

Historians today consider the Battle of Valcour Island a "victory in defeat" that gave Colonial forces a chance to win at Saratoga - and eventually the Revolutionary War.

On Saturday, dozens of artifacts from that pivotal battle - gathered from the lake by divers over the last seven years - will be exhibited at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vt.

They include cannon fragments, solid iron cannonballs, a brass powder scoop, a trigger guard, spectacles and bombs.

The artifacts "are tangible connections to the people and times when the concepts of liberty, independence, insurgency and freedom were being debated and defined by this country," said Art Cohn, executive director of the museum, which is a partner in the Valcour Bay Research Project.

A first peek was given during a lakeside ceremony across from Valcour Island on Friday.

The jewel among the finds is a cannon from a Colonial gunboat called the New York. The cannon exploded - no one knows why - sending fragments flying into the water and killing a lieutenant named Thomas Rogers.

Portions of the gun were found a few years ago. Divers have now recovered three more fragments, allowing them to jigsaw the pieces together.

They also have discovered a heavily oxidized sword nearby with the tip broken off that "may well have been Thomas Rogers' sword," said Adam Kane, an archaeologist with the museum.

Many of the artifacts are a few feet down in the silt, which has helped preserve them. Still legible on many of the cannonballs are distinctive "broad arrow" markings that identify them as British.

The finds so far come from where the Colonial ships lined up for battle, though divers hope to work their way to the British line. "We've now mapped the equivalent of eight football fields of the American line," Kane said.

Had Arnold died in the Battle of Valcour, he would be famous mostly for cunning and bravery, instead of treachery. He took on the bigger British boats in a narrow straight that made it difficult for them to maneuver.

Pummeled by the British all day, he sneaked his boats past them that night in a retreat. The British gave chase the next morning. Arnold burned some of his boats to keep them out of British hands and led hundreds of men to Fort Ticonderoga on foot. By the time fighting was over, snow was falling. The British, fatefully, paused their campaign for the winter.

Arnold stalled the British attempt to take the Hudson Valley and cut the colonies in two.

"His battle plan was brilliant," said Ed Scollon, one of the lead divers.

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