August 16 is Bennington Battle Day!
Those who enter southwestern Vermont from the west for the first time (Welcome to Vermont!) are in for a surprise when they round a bend on Route 279 and the broad valley of Bennington opens up before them. Straight ahead in the distance rise the Green Mountains, and there on the right, perched on a shelf of ground above the valley, is a soaring stone obelisk as tall as a football field is long (306 ft. 4½ in., to be precise). “What’s that all about?” the uninitiated might well ask.
The natives can tell you, but even they need to brush up from time to time. After all, the Revolutionary War Battle of Bennington that the Bennington Monument commemorates was fought 243 years ago, on August 16, 1777.
Full disclosure: the fighting actually took place in New York state seven miles west of the Bennington (the battlefield, a NY state historic site, is well worth a visit). But the Continental storehouse located on the site now occupied by the Monument was the British objective, and from Bennington, the patriot army under General John Stark of New Hampshire set forth to meet the enemy.
The British had a plan to cut the colonies (as they still thought of them) in two by invading from Canada up Lake Champlain to Albany. 8,000 troops under General John Burgoyne, half of them auxiliaries leased from German princes, had already chased the Americans out of their stronghold at Fort Ticonderoga and beaten them at the Battle of Hubbardton due north of Bennington. Native warriors allied with the Crown scouted the way, taking scalps and plunder where they could. Things were not looking good for our side.
Vermont, a self-proclaimed state less than a month old, called on New Hampshire for aid. New Hampshire sent Stark and almost 1,500 men, though not all were in Bennington at the time of the battle. When news reached the patriots that a 600-man raiding party from Burgoyne’s army on the Hudson was on the march towards Bennington, an alarm went out to western Massachusetts and all of Vermont to send militia to Bennington minute-man style to join the new Hampshire troops. Col. Seth Warner’s Continental regiment of Green Mountain Boys was summoned from Manchester, too.
The opposing forces met just over the New York line at the little hamlet of Walloomsac at a bend in the river of the same name. They skirmished and sized each other up, but the British declined to attack, instead digging in and sending for reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the Americans, who knew the terrain, made a plan of their own, a daring double envelopment of the British forces, which had now been joined by several hundred Loyalists. At about 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th, Stark and Warner attacked from all sides at once. Americans charged uphill into musket and cannon fire at the British hilltop position, vaulting over breastworks made of logs and overwhelming the defenders.
At the bridge on the river and at the flanking fort manned by Loyalists, the patriots also carried the positions; at the Loyalist fort, the combatants sometimes recognized each other as neighbors or former schoolmates. The Crown forces were routed, and hundreds of prisoners were marched off to Bennington.
Then the British reinforcements arrived. They consisted of 656 elite German troops, led by two 6-pound cannons and a military band. The scattered Americans had to regroup. They retreated under German musket fire and deadly canister shot. The Germans were about to outflank Stark’s forces along what is now Route 67 when Warner’s Green Mountain Boys, after a long march from Manchester and a stop in Bennington to pick up ammunition (and breakfast), entered the fray. Warner’s men led a charge that sent the reinforcing troops running off into the growing darkness toward the Hudson. Game over.
Burgoyne lost almost a thousand men, killed or captured; patriot losses were 30 killed and 40 wounded. The supplies Burgoyne was counting on seizing at Bennington to feed and transport his army were untouched. His advance stalled. American forces rallied.
The end came in mid-October, when Burgoyne’s weakened army surrendered en masse at Saratoga after a climactic battle. When the French saw what the Americans had done to their old enemy, they entered into an alliance with the new nation. You know how it ended for King George III. The dominoes began to fall at Bennington.
Commemorations of the battle began one year after it was fought, and have been going on continuously every year since. The Bennington Monument was dedicated in 1891, and Bennington Battle Day became a Vermont state holiday a few years later.
This year the traditional parade through town had to be canceled because of the pandemic, but a ceremony is planned for Sunday the 16th at the Vermont Veterans Home. Governor Phil Scott and Vermont Poet Laureate Mary Ruefle (a Bennington resident) will speak, and essential workers from the town will be honored. The public is encouraged to watch on CAT-TV, Bennington’s local public access channel. There’ll be fireworks the evening before to put everybody in the mood to celebrate.
Now you know what it’s all about!
– Phil Holland, a resident of Pownal, is the author of Robert Frost in Bennington County.
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