By Kate Morrand, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Senior Conservator & Laboratory Manager
On 11 October 1776, the Continental Navy fought one of the most critical naval battles of the
American Revolution. With a squadron of captured schooners and newly built gunboats, America’s developing Navy seemed no match for the superior British Royal Navy. Fought along the rocky shores of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, Vermont, the Battle of Valcour Island resulted in the loss of Royal Savage, among several other American gunboats. The story of Royal Savage did not end, however, in 1776. Rather the timbers and artifacts of the vessel, which returned to the Navy this summer, are just beginning to reveal more detailed information about 18th century ships and their crews during the American Revolution.
The Battle Commences
Royal Savage, a two-masted schooner, began its life as a British vessel that was damaged and sunk by American forces under Richard Montgomery during the siege of St. Johns, Quebec in 1775. Raised and repaired after the capture of that fort on 2 November, she, with the small schooner Liberty and the sloop Enterprise (ex-HMS George III), formed the core of the Continental Navy’s Lake Champlain squadron.
The squadron, led by Benedict Arnold, who would later become one of America’s most infamous traitors, served as Lake Champlain’s primary source of defense from the British. During the early fall of 1776, the fleet scouted the lakeshore and moved into anchorage at Valcour Island with Royal Savage as the flagship. Here, American forces waited for the arrival of supporting vessels, and the British. With the arrival of the galley Congress, Arnold shifted his headquarters to that boat, and continued to wait for the enemy.
On 11 October the north wind carried the British past the island. American ships, including Royal Savage, appeared and fired on the enemy with the sole mission of delaying the British advance. Royal Savage, however, ran aground while trying to return to the American line. Undefendable and under heavy fire, the crew abandoned ship. All attempts to reboard her proved unsuccessful, and she was taken by the British and burned.
Despite the eventual loss of the battle, American forces successfully prevented the British Navy from inflicting further damage later in the war. The Battle of Valcour Island forced the British to reassemble their own naval forces in Canada during the winter, thus costing them the opportunity to continue invasions along the northeast coastline.
A Navy Ship’s Return
The wreck of Royal Savage remained on the lakebed for more than one hundred and fifty years. In 1934, a team of local salvors decided to raise it and its associated artifacts. The assemblage was then sold to the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1996 for a museum display. In July of 2015, the city formally transferred the artifacts to the United States Navy.
A team of conservators and archaeologists from NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch visited the National Civil War Museum and another off-site location in Harrisburg this summer to transport the artifacts to the NHHC Underwater Archeology and Conservation Laboratory. The team devised a careful plan to transport the artifacts safely and packed each artifact and timber systematically.
What’s next for Royal Savage?
Now that the timbers and artifacts of Royal Savage are safely housed at NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory, they will be processed and treated so that future generations can learn from the vessel’s rich historical past. Over, 1,300 artifacts and timbers are now being processed by conservators and interns. Once the artifacts are processed, documented, catalogued, and stabilized, each artifact will be evaluated to determine the appropriate conservation treatment necessary for its immediate and long-term preservation. The conservation of these artifacts is an important aspect of the research and interpretation process.
In the end, archaeologists hope to reconstruct the original lines of the ship which will serve as a vital tool in understanding the construction of similar vessels from this period. The artifacts will offer further insight into daily life and customs aboard Royal Savage. The complete conservation and reconstruction of Royal Savage is estimated to be a multi-phase, multi-year project. This project exemplifies NHHC’s mission to protect and preserve the Navy’s deep history and heritage.