Wednesday, August 11, 2010
The Battle of Bennington and why it mattered
On a foggy morning in August of 1777 about 2,000 men broke camp and prepared for battle. These members of the New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts militias were mostly farmers, not trained soldiers. The enemy they went to meet was a combination of regulars from the British Army, hired German soldiers, Native Americans, and even some of their own neighbors who remained loyal to the British crown. By mid-afternoon they would be fighting what we now call the Battle of Bennington.
This group of novice soldiers was led by two men who had in the past few years learned and practiced the art of war – Seth Warner and John Stark. Warner, whose home stood not far from the Henry Bridge that now straddles the Walloomsac between Bennington and North Bennington, had been an active member of the Green Mountain Boys. The military skirmishes the Green Mountain Boys engaged in while defending their land from New York and British authorities provided valuable training for these citizen soldiers. Warner was respected for his military experience and leadership, having also taken part in Ethan Allen’s successful capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. In July of 1777 Warner had solidified his reputation as a courageous leader in the Battle of Hubbardton.
New Hampshire’s John Stark was a committed patriot and a veteran of the French and Indian War who had more recently distinguished himself at the Battle of Breed’s Hill. If Warner was a soldier’s soldier, Stark was a rebel’s rebel. When the New Hampshire legislature, having been warned by Ira Allen of an impending British invasion of New England via Vermont, called him out of retirement to lead its militia in the upcoming battle, Stark placed one important condition on his acceptance of the command – that it be independent of the Continental Army. Still smarting from the insult of being passed over for promotion in that army, Stark said he would report directly to the legislature.
Immediately Stark began gathering volunteers and soon commanded nearly 1,500 troops. They arrived in Vermont in early August and met up with Warner in Manchester on the seventh. Warner’s intimate knowledge of the area where the battle would eventually take place helped these men plan what would be a winning strategy.
General Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental Army was also in Manchester, having been sent there to bring the New Englanders to New York’s Hudson Valley, where the American and British were preparing for battle. Stark, confident in his independent command, refused; he instead planned to march south. He reasoned, correctly it turned out, that the British would be after the supplies and ammunition stored in Bennington. He and his men aimed to deny them.
The Battle of Bennington started around 3 p.m. on August 16 in Walloomsac, where British Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and some 600 troops had set up their defenses. The multi-pronged attack Stark and Warner had planned worked perfectly and an American victory seemed certain. Then the German reinforcements Baum had been waiting for arrived and the battle began to turn.
Just as it seemed the Americans would be defeated after all, Warner arrived with the reinforcements he had marched down from Manchester the day before. These fresh and eager soldiers beat back the Germans and secured victory. The Battle of Bennington was a resounding success for the Americans, who lost 30 men and suffered 40 wounded. The British saw 200 killed with 700 captured, almost their entire force. As Stark wrote in his report to the New Hampshire legislature “Had sunlight lasted another hour we would have beat them all.”
Thomas Jefferson later visited the Catamount Tavern in Bennington where much of the last-minute planning for the battle had taken place. He wrote “This success was the first link in the chain of events which opened a new scene in America.” British historian G.M. Trevelyan observed the Battle of Bennington “…proved to be the turning point of the Saratoga campaign, which was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.”
The question remains why these men fought. As the British approached New England many of their neighbors had accepted protection, some turning from patriots to loyalists in a matter of hours. The American forces had suffered mostly defeat at the hands of the British up to that point and with the recent loss of Fort Ticonderoga there was little cause of future optimism. What kept these men, these citizen soldiers, fighting for what appeared to be a lost cause?
Perhaps the answer is found in the New Hampshire state motto, which is itself a product of the Battle of Bennington. Poor health forced General Stark to decline an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the battle but he sent this toast: “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”