Explore the Revolutionary gunboat Philadelphia

In the early days of the American Revolution, the northern border with Quebec was of great strategic importance as a potential entry point for British troops. After some initial successes like Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, the Continental Army launched a pre-emptive invasion of Quebec. They captured Montreal on November 13th, 1775, and moved on to attack Quebec City where they were soundly defeated on December 31, 1775. By spring of 1776, the Continental Army had retreated out of Canada back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Licking their wounds and anxious to prevent the British from traveling south via the Hudson into New York, Continental Congress ordered the construction of a fleet of 15 ships to replace the ones Arnold had destroyed to keep them out of British hands. At Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall) in upstate New York at the head of Lake Champlain, Hermanus Schuyler, the assistant deputy commissary general of the Northern Department, oversaw the construction of four galleys and eight gundalows, larger and armed versions of the flat-bottomed cargo boats used for transportation across the lake. It was the summer of 1776 and this was the first American Navy.

Commanded by Benedict Arnold, who as a civilian had captained his own ships as a successful merchant in the West Indies trade, the small fleet patrolled Lake Champlain getting in the way of the British invasion. On October 11th, 1776, most of the fleet met its end at the Battle of Valcour Island, but not before fighting the larger and much fancier British fleet to a standstill. One of the fatalities was the Philadelphia, a 54 foot, 29-ton gundalow armed with one 12-pounder cannon, two 9-pounders and mounts for up to eight more swivel guns. It was struck by a British cannonball and sank to the floor of Lake Champlain.

For 160 years the Philadelphia rested in the frigid embrace of the northern waters. In 1935 civil engineer and World War I veteran Lorenzo F. Haggulund, who had discovered Arnold’s flagship the Royal Savage in 1932, found the Philadelphia sitting straight up on the bottom of the lake. It was in excellent condition, considering the beating it had taken a century and a half earlier. The mast was missing its top but was otherwise still in place, as were the timbers of the hull. So much of it remained that there were three clear holes shot into the hull, one of them with the 24-pound cannon ball still lodged inside it. That was the proverbial smoking gun, the actual hit that took down the ship still in place after all those years. Hundreds of artifacts from tools to clothes to cooking gear and human remains were also found.

Using a system of slings and spreaders, Haggulund raised the wreck on August 2, 1935. Here is footage of the raising of the Philadelphia, its incredible white pine mast standing proud:


Haggulund put the Philadelphia on a barge and exhibited her at various places on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He continued to search for other wrecks from the fleet but only made one more find: a gunboat he raised in 1952. He was unable to secure funding to maintain and display the gunboat and it soon decayed and was picked away at by looters until there was nothing left to display.

In the wake of that sad loss, Hagglund approached the Smithsonian Institution to see to the long-term safety of the Philadelphia, and in 1961, bequeathed her and associated artifacts to the SI where they were thoroughly studied. When the National Museum of American History opened in 1965, the Philadelphia was on display.

Conservation of the wreck is an ongoing problem, and since visitors to the museum can only observe it from the front and over its decks, in 2013 the Smithsonian made a digital 3D model of the Philadelphia. For curators, it gives them the tools to ensure the ship’s stability and preservation. For the rest of us, the model gives us the opportunity to virtually explore the floating gun platform that was deployed against the might of Britain’s navy.

You can click and drag to change the angle of the model. Scroll to zoom in and out. Be sure to click the dropdown menu on the top left to view the model fullscreen. Once you’ve done that, click the globe icon of the expanded left menu and select “#1 Gunboat Philadelphia Overview” to kick off the guided tour. It takes you through the different parts of the ship, its design, its weapons, the cannonball that took it down and more.

Edit: I’ve removed the embedded 3D model because it may cause mobile devices to crash. Here again is the link to it.

7 thoughts on “Explore the Revolutionary gunboat Philadelphia

  1. Great story but the graphic crashed my Ipad last night, not once but 3 times. Even after I got it back up it wouldn’t work properly and took 3 more forced reboots to get it working correctly. I think a link to the graphic would give your readers a chance to see it but not crash their mobile devices.

    1. I’ve removed the embed and replaced it with the link. Did you try viewing the model on the Smithsonian website and if so did it crash your iPad?

      Thank you kindly for alerting me to the problem. :thanks:

  2. Thank you! I was actually afraid to visit the site again with that graphic on it.
    No, haven’t looked at the Smithsonian site and won’t. I was really worried that my Ipad was ruined last night.

  3. FWIW: I just logged onto the Smithsonian site with my 7 inch Samsung 2 (about 3 years old), with no problems other than a slight sluggishness loading– typical of my connection in late afternoon. Once loaded, I was able to move the little bitty image around at will with no more difficulty than with the larger image on my laptop (open at the same time. It was kind of cute. I love 3d images like this, and had a great time playing with the computer with one hand, and the tab with the other.

  4. It’s sad that the boat deteriorated. There are ways to preserve boats out of water, but are expensive and tedious. I live just a few miles from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which has some wonderful historic displays, but focuses on identifying the location of shipwrecks (from early days to 20th century, then protecting and preserving them in situ, which is often safer than raising them.

    The museum offers maritime tours on one of their recreated historic vessels to some of the sites, with an underwater video camera providing real-time views. There is also a conservation center in which people can talk with people doing work on some particular vulnerable historic pieces. I admit the website is more “touristy” than scholarly, but this is how they pay for the preservation work. Check out the links: it’s worthwhile. http://www.lcmm.org/

  5. 07-29-15 Just logged into the Smithsonian 3D site to view the boat. Took a few secs to reveal the 3D model, then viewed completely free and easy. You must have a fast web connection. I’m on cable.

  6. I have seen the boat in the Museum, It is one of my most profound memories of the place. Within 100 feet of it in every direction that falls within the building, lies the best of the best in preserved American History. I cried, I cried for joy and the privilege of standing before such precious artifacts… At the time I saw General Washington’s iconic uniform, I was his age at the time he wore it, and exactly his size. And I cried. I saw his statue formerly in the rotunda, offering me to take up from him the sword of liberty and freedom. And I cried. I saw the Emancipator’s Hat, and I cried. As I left, I found myself beside THE star spangled banner. It burned as the tears fell, but it was all ok. I noticed the others leaving as the locked the doors, I noticed their tears. I was not crying alone.

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