On Saturday, 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, N.Y., 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, Gen. Washington could muster only 19,000 Continental and state troops. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that the British forced the Americans off Long Island and out of New York City and drove Washington across New Jersey into Pennsylvania.
The year 1777 looked worse. The British planned a knockout punch designed to isolate New England. Gen. William Howe, who had pinned down Washington’s Army at Valley Forge, would move north to Albany, New York, to meet Gen. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne coming 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, and gaining advantage in Hubbardton.
Burgoyne, however, was not prepared for guerrilla warfare. Bridges were burned, axmen felled trees along the roads. The British army was forced to build 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 Americans had their headquarters and where supplies could be obtained. The actual battle would take place in Hoosick, New York, near the Vermont line.
By Aug. 15 that year, 1,600 Americans under Gen. John Stark had gathered at Bennington. The force consisted of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts troops. The Vermont troops were led by Col. Seth Warner and militia from Bennington and Wilmington. Last to arrive, wet with drenching rain, were volunteers from the Berkshires, led by the Rev. Thomas Allen.
After giving the attack signal on Aug. 16, Stark was said to have exclaimed: “There are the Redcoats, and they are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.” 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.”
Allen described the American attack as one of “ardor and patience beyond expectation” and referred to the British fire as “peels of thunder and flashes of lightning.” The battle lasted until dark on Aug. 16 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.” A few days after the battle, George Washington, camped near Philadelphia, paid tribute to the Bennington battle by calling it a signal victory.
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. Burgoyne developed a high appreciation of the fighting qualities of Vermonters: He had described Vermont as “a country unpeopled and almost unknown, (that) now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race of the continent, and hangs like a gathering storm upon my left.”
The Battle of Bennington on Aug. 16, 1777, was important in the quest of our nation’s independence. That is the reason we celebrate the event as a state holiday.
Sen. William Doyle of Washington County serves on the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Economic Development Committee and is the Senate minority leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College.
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