MONTPELIER, Vt. — The rediscovery of a Revolutionary War diary belonging to one of the American commanders of the Battle of Valcour Island is offering historians a fresh first-person view of the fight that historians credit with helping the fledgling United States of America survive.
The diary of Col. Edward Wigglesworth, the third in command of the American fleet during the Lake Champlain battle that began 242 years ago Thursday, was thought lost, but it was rediscovered earlier this year by an amateur historian.
Excerpts from the diary had been published decades ago, but students of the battle wanted the original.
“It’s a voice from Valcour Island,” said Art Cohn, of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, who has studied the battle for decades. “It is somebody literally speaking to us from the event that we hold so highly as a component of the American story.”
In 1997, an American gunboat was discovered upright and in pristine condition in deep Lake Champlain waters. Using diary excerpts published after the book’s discovery in the 1930s that he read in the 1990s, Cohn presumed the boat was the Spitfire. A mis-transcribed name of the boat’s commander in the earlier version kept the issue unsettled.
“It confirmed that everything that Art did was correct,” said Charles Pippenger, a semi-retired neurologist and amateur historian from South Burlington who discovered the diary in March. “They already knew it was the Spitfire, but they spent several years trying to figure this out. If they had had the diary they would have known immediately.”
Now, Cohn has written a plan to raise the Spitfire, preserve it and build a museum where it would be displayed.
The Battle of Valcour Island pitted a small American fleet led by Gen. Benedict Arnold — before he turned traitor — assembled in 1776 at Skenesborough — now Whitehall, New York — to counter a larger British fleet being built in Quebec. The British intended to sail south as part of a broader campaign to split New England from the rest of the country and end the rebellion.
Wigglesworth, an experienced mariner from Massachusetts, was placed in command of a battalion dispatched to Fort Ticonderoga, the American bastion on Lake Champlain.
The British were clear winners after a day of heavy fighting near Valcour Island, just south of Plattsburgh, New York. But it was Wigglesworth who in the dark of night led the surviving American vessels through the British lines and retreated south, preserving the American naval forces on the lake.
Even though the British won the battle, it delayed for a year the British advance south. The extra year gave the Americans time to assemble the forces that were used to win the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, which led to French recognition of the United States.
The first historical reference to the diary is found in the mid-1800s, but after that, it disappeared until 1932 when it was bought by a Vermont man. After his death, it was given to the Bennington Museum. It was not cataloged by the museum staff until 2009 and posted online late last year.
Pippenger found the online listing in March and photographed the entire 34-page document. An article he wrote about the discovery, which includes a number of historical corrections, is set to be published this week by the Journal of the American Revolution.
He says the original version is always better than the snippets frequently used in histories.
“What makes it really significant is you are back to the original thing, the total story,” Pippenger said.