By Sen. Bill Doyle
On August 16, Vermont will celebrate the Battle of Bennington. Edward Conant in his “History of Vermont” said the battle was “the first of a series that led to the surrender of Burgoyne’s army. It was the turning point of the Revolutionary War, as it led to the recognition of the independence of the United States by France and other European countries, and to a treaty with France, on account of which she assisted the new nation with money, fleets, and armies. The victory of the Americans at Saratoga, New York, has been reckoned among the great battles of the world, but the victory at Bennington was necessary to that of Saratoga.”
Despite declaring independence, 1776 was a difficult year for the new nation. Great Britain had never made a greater military effort abroad. Against 32,000 disciplined troops, General Washington could only muster 19,000 Continental and state troops. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that the British forced Americans off Long Island and out of New York City, and drove Washington across New Jersey into Pennsylvania.
In 1777, situations looked worse. The British planned a knock-out punch designed to isolate New England. General William Howe, who had pinned down Washington’s army at Valley Forge; would move north to Albany to meet General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne corning from Canada, thus trapping the Americans in a giant pincers movement.
Fortunately, Howe devised his own plan, took Philadelphia, which was then the capital, and never marched to Albany. Meanwhile, Burgoyne was making great progress along the New York-Vermont border, capturing a series of forts, including Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in Orwell, VT, and gaining advantage in Hubbardton.
Burgoyne, however, was not prepared for American guerilla warfare. Bridges were burned; axmen filled trees along the roads and deserted farms. The British army was forced to building 40 bridges and, at one point; it took the army 24 days to cover 26 miles.
As supplies dwindled, the British decided that their best course was to send a diversionary force to capture Bennington, where the New England Patriots had their headquarters and where supplies could be obtained. The actual battle would take place in Hoosick, New York, near the Vermont line.
By August 15, 1,600 Americans under Bunker Hill veteran General John Stark had gathered at Bennington. The force consisted of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts troops. The Vermont troops were led by Colonel Seth Warner and militia from Bennington and Wilmington. Last to arrive, wet with drenching rain, were volunteers from the Berkshires, led by Reverend Thomas Allen. In Edward Everett’s “Life of Stark”, Allen said to General Stark, “We, the people of Berkshire, have frequently been called upon to fight, but have never been led against the enemy. We have now resolved; if you will not let us fight, never to turn out again.” On the morning of the battle, Allen prayed that the Lord would “teach their hands to war and their fingers to fight.”
After giving the attack signal on August 16, Stark was said to have exclaimed, “There are the Redcoats, and they are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
The 16th of August was described as a beautiful morning and belied what would take place later in the day:
“The morning of the l6th of August rose beautifully serene. The storm of the preceding day having expended itself, not a cloud was left to darken the face of the heavens, whilst the very leaves hung motionless, and the long grass waved not, under the influence of a perfect calm. Every object around, too, appeared to peculiar advantage, for the fields looked greet; and refreshed, the river was swollen and tumultuous, and the branches were all loaded with dew drops, which glittered in the sun’s early rays like so many diamonds.”
In his report to his commanding general, Stark stated that the battle was “the hottest I ever saw in my life – it represented one continual clap of thunder.” Parson Allen described the American attack as one of “ardor and patience beyond expectation” and referred to the British fire as “pearls of thunder and flashes of lightning.”
The battle lasted until dark of the 16th with the British in full retreat. The patriots took 750 prisoners, 1,000 muskets and four cannons.
The Massachusetts Legislature, in thanking Stark for his leadership, paid tribute to the troops at Bennington.
“The events of that day strongly mark the bravery of the men who, unskilled in war, forced from their entrenchments a chosen number of veteran troops of boasted Britons. This signal exploit opened the way to a rapid succession of advantages most important to America.”
A few days later, George Washington, who was camped near Philadelphia, wrote the following:
Headquarters, August 22, 1777. “The commander-in-chief has the happiness to inform the army of the signal victory obtained at the northward. A part of General Burgoyne’s army, about 1,500 in number, were detached towards New Hampshire, and advanced with a design to possess themselves of Bennington. Brigadier-General Stark, of the State of New Hampshire, with 2,000 men, mostly militia, attacked them. Our troops behaved in a very brave and heroic manner. They pushed the enemy from one work to another, thrown up on advantageous ground, and from different posts, with spirit and fortitude, until they gained a complete victory over them.”
Burgoyne continued to press on toward Albany but did not have the supplies he needed, and the American forces grew daily. Finally, two months after Bennington, he was surrounded by a much larger force and surrendered with 5,700 men at Saratoga. The troops marched to Boston, sent to England and pledged never again to fight against America. Burgoyne developed a high appreciation of the fighting qualities of Vermonters.
“The Hampshire Grants in particular, a country unpeopled and almost unknown in the last war, now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race of the continent, and hangs like a gathering storm upon my left.”
For the new nation, 1777 turned out to be a decisive year. For Vermont, it was equally important. We declared our independence against Great Britain and New York, wrote our Constitution and, as an independent state, had fought with valor at Hubbardton and Bennington.
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 223-2851.