Crab Island, NY – July 4, 2013
The fireworks used to be real on Lake Champlain. This was part of the old route between New York and Montreal. It’s how trade, news, and people moved in peacetime. It’s how soldiers, guns, and cannons moved during war.
In 1776, the British sent an army south from Quebec to capture the upper Hudson. Control of the river would extend British power from Montreal to British-occupied New York City and cut the rebelling colonies in half.
The revolution was only a year old and teetering. The British had bigger guns, better soldiers, and more of both. The Americans needed time, they needed to rally supporters, train militias, and coalesce around the revolution. They needed to believe.
“Happy Independence Day!” a man shouts at me from a sailboat anchored a few miles north of Valcour Island.
“To you too!” I yell back.
“The fireworks should start at 9:20,” he says, pointing toward the shore.
Retreating Americans destroyed or captured every ship they could as they fled south from Quebec across Lake Champlain, but by October the British had built a fleet with twice the firepower of the Americans.
The forces met in the narrows of Valcour Island. It ended in a day. Only a third of the American ships escaped the battle, more sunk in the retreat, but they’d done what they needed to do. Preparing to fight and hunting down the American fleet had delayed the British long enough for winter to set in, to freeze the advance, to give the continental army one more year to prepare.
Fireworks rise across the lake. They shoot over the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains in Vermont, sparkling in the dark, marking towns with glittering color. The booms echo off the water, far behind the lights in the sky.
When the British came again the next spring, their campaign ended in Saratoga where the surrounded British commander, cut off from retreat and supplies, surrendered to the Americans. It was the first major victory for the growing nation, it convinced France to declare war against Britain, and may have been the turning point in the fight for independence.
The fireworks give way to darkness, the night goes silent, and Independence Day ends on Lake Champlain.