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12-gun Continental Navy Sloop ENTERPRISE, 1775

Several months before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War at Concord, Massachusetts, the British feared that a war was coming. They knew that Lake Champlain was a key body of water that could help contain the war, so they began a program of building small warships at the northern end of the lake at Saint-Jean, Canada. The first two to be finished early in 1775 were the 10-or-12-gun sloop George and the 12-gun schooner Royal Savage, both the same size at about 65 feet (20 metres) long on deck and 21 feet beam and carrying a crew of about 50-80 seamen and marines.

Continental Navy Sloop Enterprise

When news of the Battle of Concord on 19 April 1775 reached New Haven, Connecticut, Captain Benedict Arnold and his regiment of the Governor’s Footguards hid all the local gunpowder to make it safe, and prepared to ride long distances. Arnold took 2/3 of his men to the Boston area to see if they could help, but he sent 1/3 squad to Skenesborough, New York (now called Whitehall) to seize the 55-foot ketch-rigged yacht Katharine that belonged to Loyalist Philip Skene. The vessel was quickly converted into the 8-gun warship Liberty, which amazingly was sailing under Continental colors (then the British flag over-written with the word LIBERTY) by the end of April. For the first few months of 1776, she would have flown the 13-star flag designed in Boston by Washington, and later she would have flown the Continental Colors. When Arnold arrived, now promoted to colonel, he sailed up to take charge of the capture of Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point on 10 May “in the name of the Continental Congress and the Great Jehovah,” and he ordered all the heavy cannons from the forts to be sent to the Boston area, where they were later used to force the British to evacuate Boston on 17 March 1776 – the first major American success of the war. Arnold then sailed up to Saint-Jean at the head of the lake and captured the British base there on 18 May 1775. There he captured the Royal Navy sloop George, which he renamed Enterprise, and the framing for an 8-gun cutter which he called Lee and for a schooner he called Revenge and ordered completed in a different shipyard; however, a stray cannon shot sank the schooner Royal Savage, so his men had to return at a later date to raise her and repair her. Enterprise therefore became the first purpose-built warship in Continental service, about 5 months before the Continental Navy was founded on 13 October, and a few weeks before even the Continental Army was founded on 14 June, and before the first of the individual state navies (Rhode Island’s) was founded on 12 June.

Enterprise did what Arnold intended her to do: she and the numerous other vessels Arnold ordered built helped keep the British from advancing down the lake until they were able to destroy much of Arnold’s fleet at the Battle of Valcour Island on 11 October 1776, but by that time it was too late in the year to invade American territory, so Arnold’s ships saved Washington and the American army from certain annihilation in the summer of 1776. Arnold’s maritime activities on the lake the next year with Enterprise and the few other remaining vessels delayed the British until the American army was ready to fight them at the two battles of Saratoga on 19 September and 7 October 1777. The American victory at Saratoga (also largely due to Arnold) encouraged the French and Spanish to join the American cause; therefore the little-known sloop Enterprise, which had to be burned to avoid capture on 5 July 1777, had a major role in the success of the American Revolution and the achievement of independence. There could have been no American independence without Enterprise and the naval force on Lake Champlain.

Colonial Navy Inc. (non-profit, tax-exempt) is planning to build a full-sized operational copy of Enterprise for its year-round sail-training program (aimed in part at at-risk youth and in being part of a military PTSD rehab program), using cold-molded wood-epoxy laminates for strength and longevity. Traditional construction, which because of wood rot would require rebuilding again every 15 years, would cost $6.5 million, but we have found a shipyard that can build the sloop in less than a year using the cold-molded method for under $1 million. Our Project Director John Millar was responsible for building in 1976 the full-sized, operational copy of the sloop Providence (first ship of the Continental Navy, first to land the Marines, and first command of John Paul Jones, and essentially a sister-ship of Enterprise), so he is competent to supervise this project. A few eye-witness paintings give a good idea of the original design of the sloop. Now that the 250th anniversary of independence is around the corner, it is the right moment to get Enterprise sailing again. Contributions, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to Colonial Navy Inc., 710 South Henry Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185-4113, designated for Enterprise.

Colonial Navy Inc.’s historic ship line-up: ships Batchelors Delight, General Pickering; barque Surprise; brigs Tartar, Cabot, Andrew Doria; schooner* Royal Savage; ketch Thunder;* sloop Enterprise; cutter Dolphin.

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