On This Day...
The Battle of Bennington, August 16 , 1777, at Bennington, Vermont.
British General John Burgoyne was attempting to push through the northern Hudson River Valley. After the recent British victories at Hubbardton, Fort Ticonderoga, and St. Clair, Burgoyne's plan was to defeat the American forces in the area and then continue south to Albany and onto the Hudson River Valley, dividing the American colonies in half. This was part of a grand plan to divide the rebellious New England colonies from the (believed) more loyal remaining colonies via a three-way pincer movement. However, the western pincer was repulsed (see Battle of Oriskany), and the southern pincer, which was to progress up the Hudson valley from New York City, never started since General Howe decided to attack Philadelphia instead of helping Burgoyne.
However, Burgoyne's progress towards Albany had slowed to a crawl by late July, and his army's supplies began to dwindle. Burgoyne sent a detachment of about 800 troops under the command of the Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum from Fort Miller. Half of Baum's detachment was made up of dismounted Brunswick dragoons of the Prinz Ludwig regiment, while the other half consisted of local Loyalists, Canadians, and Native Americans. Baum was ordered to raid the supply depot at Bennington, which believed to be guarded by fewer than 400 colonial militia.
However, Burgoyne's supply lines from Canada were growing longer and less secure. His German mercenaries, mostly Brunswickers did not have any cavalry horses and his army was short of beef, wagons, and draft animals. With little regard for the American's military skills, he proposed that Baum lead an expedition into Vermont and New Hampshire to forage for supplies. Hearing that the American storehouses at Bennington were poorly defended, Burgoyne ordered instead that Baum capture them. Half of Baum's troops were Brunswickers; the remainder were Canadians, British sharpshooters, Tories and Indians.
The intelligence Burgoyne had received was inaccurate. Vermont's Council of Safety, aware of his approach, had sent out a call for help. When information arrived that Gen. Arthur St. Clair had retreated and Ticonderoga had been taken, New Hampshire flew to arms, and called for Stark to command her troops. He consented on condition that he should not be subject to any orders but his own; and to this the council of state agreed, because the men would not march without him. Setting out with a small force of 1,500 men for Bennington, he there learned that Burgoyne had dispatched Baum with 500 men to seize the stores collected at that place. Sending out expresses to call in the militia of the neighborhood, Stark marched out to meet him, hearing of which, Baum entrenched himself in a strong position about 6 miles from Bennington, and sent to Burgoyne for re-enforcements. Stark's men and a smaller force of Vermont militia under Seth Warner were near Bennington as Baum's expedition was preparing to attack.
Baum set out on the 40-mile trek to Bennington on August 11, but the dismounted cavalrymen in their cumbersome uniforms, plus his strict adherence to European military formalities, slowed the march.
On August 13, 1777 , en route to Bennington, Baum learned of the arrival in the area of 1,500 New Hampshire militiamen under the command of General John Stark. Baum ordered his forces to stop at the Walloomsac River, about four miles (6 km) west of Bennington. After sending a request for reinforcements to Fort Miller, Baum took advantage of the terrain and deployed his forces on the high ground. In the rain, Baum's men constructed a small redoubt at the crest of the hill and hoped that the weather would prevent the Americans from attacking before reinforcements arrived. Deployed a few miles away, Stark decided to reconnoiter Baum's positions and wait until the weather cleared.
The American raiders met and drove off a British scouting party at Sancoicks Mills on August 14. After dispatching a request for reinforcements, Baum advanced 4 miles to a hill overlooking the Walloomsac River. Only 5 miles from Bennington, Baum's men entrenched on and around this hill, awaiting further American resistance.
On the afternoon of August 16, the weather cleared and Stark ordered his men ready to attack. Upon hearing that the militia had melted away into the woods, Baum assumed that the Americans were retreating or redeploying. However, Stark had recognized that Baum's forces were spread thin and decided immediately to envelop them from 2 sides while simultaneously charging Baum's central redoubt head-on.
The battle began at 3:00 P.M. Stark's plan succeeded, and after a brief battle on Baum's flanks, the Loyalists and Indians fled. This left Baum and his German dragoons trapped on the high ground without any horse. The Germans fought valiantly even after running low on powder. The dragoons led a saber charge and tried to break through the enveloping forces. However, after this final charge failed and Baum was mortally wounded, the Germans surrendered. Many Indians, Canadians and Tories fled or surrendered after the first musket volleys, but the dismounted cavalrymen held position, fighting off the attackers with sabers. Baum himself died in the battle, which lasted 2 hours before the hill was finally taken.
Stark's men had barely cheered the victory when news arrived that Lt. Col. Heinrich von Breymann was approaching with the requested reinforcements. Fortunately, Warner's Vermont militia arrived in time to meet this advance. The second British force of 500 men under Breymann arrived on the scene and was also totally defeated. Of the 1,000 British soldiers, not more than 100 of them had escaped, all the rest being killed or captured, a result of great importance, as it led ultimately to the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga. Baum, who was mortally wounded, said of the provincials: "They fought more like hell-hounds than soldiers." Gen. George Washington spoke of it immediately as "the great stroke struck by General Stark near Bennington ".
Burgoyne and Baum had severely underestimated the strength of the Americans. Shortly after this battle ended, while the New Hampshire militia was disarming the German troops, Baum's reinforcements arrived. The German reinforcements, under the command of Lt. Col. Heinrich von Breymann, saw the Americans in disarray and pressed their attack immediately. After hastily regrouping, Stark's forces tried to hold their ground against the German onslaught. Fortunately for the New Hampshire militia, before their lines collapsed a group of several hundred Vermont militiamen arrived to reinforce Stark's troops.
Burgoyne had failed to obtain his needed supplies. His army was thus weaker against the Continental forces at Saratoga and after 2 unsuccessful battles, he surrendered his forces on October 17. Stark's decision to intercept and destroy the raiding party before they could reach Bennington was a crucial factor in Burgoyne's eventual surrender, because it deprived his army of supplies.
For this victory, Stark was made a brigadier-general on October 4 and given the thanks of Congress. The American victory at Bennington also galvanized the Americans and was a catalyst for the French involvement in the war.
The American Forces
Most of the residents in New Hampshire supported independence, though for the men of the Hampshire Grants independence from New York was often at least as important as independence from Great Britain. The farmers from the Grants were among the first to rally to the call to arms when hostilities between the British and the colonists erupted at Concord and Lexington. In 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys joined Benedict Arnold and Patriots from Massachusetts in a successful attack on the British at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. By June 1777, the newly declared state of Vermont was preparing to select delegates to the Continental Congress. When Burgoyne captured Ticonderoga in July, Vermont appealed to New Hampshire for assistance in stopping the British invasion. John Langdon, presiding officer of the legislature and a rich man, offered critical help:
I have $3000 in hard money; my plate I will pledge for as much more. I have seventy hogsheads of Tobago rum, which shall be sold for the most they will bring. These are at the service of the State. If we succeed, I shall be remunerated; if not, they will be of no use to me. We can raise a brigade; and our friend Stark who so nobly sustained the honor of our arms at Bunker's hill may safely be entrusted with the command, and we will check Burgoyne.
Lt. Gen. John Stark had fought with the Continental Army at Bunker Hill, in Canada, and at the Battle of Trenton, but resigned when he was passed over for promotion. He agreed to take command of the New Hampshire militia on condition that he operate independently, outside the authority of the Continental Congress. Within six days, almost 1500 men signed up. Stark was difficult, but his experience was needed.
At Bennington, Stark commanded approximately 2,200 militiamen who had assembled to oppose Burgoyne's advance. Some 1400 came from New Hampshire, 600 from Vermont, about 40 from New York, and the balance came from Massachusetts and Connecticut. The volunteers were mostly farmers and townspeople. There was no time for lengthy training and no money for uniforms or expensive weapons. The volunteers left their businesses or farms wearing their usual clothes and often carrying their own guns. A British soldier captured at Bennington described the appearance of the colonial militia:
Each had a wooden flask of rum hung on his neck. They were all in bare shirts, had nothing on their bodies but a shirt, vest, long linen trousers which extended to the shoe, no stockings--powder horn, bullet bag, rum flask, and musket.
The volunteers were unpracticed in military discipline, but Stark knew how to lead them. When the Battle of Bennington began, he calmed his nervous soldiers, facing cannon for the first time, by joking that: "The rascals know I'm an officer; they're firing a salute in my honor." Later, as the battle rose in fury, he is supposed to have told his troops: "There stand the redcoats; today they are ours, or Molly Stark sleeps this night a widow."
The British Forces
By the summer of 1777, the British were well into their third year of trying to quell the American revolutionaries. Gen. John Burgoyne and his 8,000 troops, artillery, baggage train, and supply boats had been moving south from Quebec towards Albany, New York, for three months. He had captured several American forts along the way, encountering no significant opposition. By August, however, he found himself short of provisions, wagons, cattle, and horses. Burgoyne decided to send an expeditionary force into New England under Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, one of the German officers in his command. The goal of the expedition was to capture military supplies that were being stockpiled at Bennington (now called Old Bennington), Vermont, and to collect cattle and horses for shipment back to the main army.
Philip Skene, a prominent local Loyalist landowner, was acting as an interpreter for Baum, who spoke no English. He assured Burgoyne that he would find extensive support from residents of New York and Vermont on his march to Albany. He had good reason for his belief. New York was a Tory stronghold and many colonists living in Vermont were also ready to join the Loyalist cause. This support was important to the success of Burgoyne's campaign. The British had to carry most of what they needed with them, relying on supply trains from distant Quebec for resupply. They hoped that local supporters would provide them with fresh food, horses, and cattle.
Baum's forces included about 650 professional British and German soldiers, as many as 500 Canadian and Loyalist volunteers, and more than 100 American Indians. The Mohawks had fought with the British during the French and Indian War. They were difficult allies because they preferred to fight in their own way and at their own time. The Loyalist forces included about 300 members of the Queens Loyal Rangers, recruited by Col. John Peters of Bradford, Vermont, and several hundred local Tories. One colonist who fought with the British at Bennington recalled:
I lived not far from the western borders of Massachusetts when the war began. . . . Believing that I owed duty to my King, I became known as a loyalist, or, as they called me, a tory; and soon found my situation rather unpleasant. I therefore left home, and soon got among the British troops who were coming down with Burgoyne, to restore the country to peace, as I thought.
Most of the German soldiers came from the small states of Hesse and Brunswick, whose rulers rented out their armies to whoever would pay for them. Many of these "Hessians," as they were usually called, were dragoons, heavily armed men who normally fought on horseback, but were at that time in search of horses. A British eyewitness, Thomas Anburey, described their appearance as they moved towards Bennington:
The load a soldier generally carries during a campaign, consisting of a knapsack, a blanket, a haversack that contains his provisions, a canteen for water, a hatchet and a proportion of the equipage belonging to his tent, these articles (and for such a march there cannot be less than four days provisions), added to his accoutrements, arms and sixty rounds of ammunition, make an enormous bulk, weighing about sixty pounds. . . . [The dragoons] have in addition a cap with a very heavy brass front, a sword of an enormous size, a canteen that cannot hold less than a gallon, and their coats, very long skirted. Picture to yourself a man in this situation, and how extremely well calculated [he is] for a rapid march.
As Lt. Col. Baum prepared to set off toward Bennington, Gen. Burgoyne gave him these instructions:
It is highly probable that the corps [of Green Mountain Rangers] under Mr. Warner, now supposed to be at Manchester, will retreat before you; but should they, contrary to expectations, be able to collect in great force, and post themselves advantageously, it is left to your discretion to attack them or not, always bearing in mind that your corps is too valuable to let any considerable loss be hazarded on this occasion. . . . All persons acting in committees, or any officers acting under the directions of Congress, either civil or military, are to be made prisoners.