The Battle of Bennington
Despite some gallant and spirited attempts to resist Burgoyne’s advance through the summer of 1777, the Continental Army’s Northern Department, first under Horatio Gates, then under Philip Schuyler, then under Gates again, was not inspiring much confidence. “The withdrawal from Ticonderoga reinforced Stark’s view that the northern command was simply not up to the task of defending the region” (Ben Z. Rose, John Stark: Maverick General).
By mid August, Gates’s army was encamped south of Stillwater, New York, not far from the village of Saratoga. With the arrival of more militia units, it was growing in size; by the end of the summer it would swell to approximately 8,000 men.
Burgoyne, on the other hand, was unaware that his reinforcements weren’t coming. Gen. William Howe, who was supposed to be sailing north to join him at Albany, instead decided to head south to take Philadelphia. The British troops coming down the Mohawk River Valley, under Barry St. Leger, turned back after an unsuccessful attempt to take Fort Stanwix from the Continentals.
Meanwhile, on July 18, 300 miles away, the New Hampshire legislature responded to the invasion and calls from the people of Vermont for assistance. Using private funds provided by Langdon, Stark was instructed by the state legislature to raise 1,500 New Hampshire militiamen — estimated to be more than 10 percent of the adult male population at the time — with himself as commanding general. It only took six days!
Marching first to Fort Number 4, crossing the Connecticut River, and encamping at the town of Manchester, Vermont, Stark was confronted by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who claimed the authority to put Stark and his troops under Continental command. Stark refused, marching his men to Bennington, a small village on the New York border.
On August 9, 1777, approximately 1,000 Hessian and Brunswicker mercenaries under the command of Lt. Col. Friederich Baum left Burgoyne’s camp at Fort Edward to raid Bennington for supplies. Not knowing of Stark’s arrival there, Baum believed the town would be only lightly defended, but after a minor skirmish on August 14 he requested reinforcements. Approximately 100 loyalists arrived on the morning of August 16, but an additional 550 men sent by Burgoyne would arrive too late.
The Americans, too, were being reinforced: 350 Green Mountain Boys arrived in camp, and, on the night of August 15, General Stark was awakened by the arrival of Parson Thomas Allen and a group of Massachusetts militia demanding to take part in the coming fight. Stark is reported to have told him, “Would you go now on this dark and rainy night? Go back to your people and tell them to get some rest if they can, and if the Lord gives us sunshine tomorrow and I do not give you fighting enough, I will never call on you to come again.” The next morning a group of Indian allies joined Stark’s forces, boosting his total strength to approximately 2,000 men.
The next afternoon, August 16, was bright and sunny. Stark told his men, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow,” and flanking parties were immediately sent out. Stark had heard that the loyalists supporting the Germans were putting white paper in their hats so that they could be properly identified by the Hessians and Brunswickers. Employing a bit of subterfuge, he had his men do the same thing, which allowed them to virtually surround the Germans before a shot was fired.
When the fighting started, the pro-British Indian and loyalist positions were immediately overrun by Stark’s forces, and Baum’s Germans found themselves alone on a piece of high ground. After they ran low on powder, the Germans charged with sabres drawn but, after Baum was mortally wounded, they were forced to surrender. At about this time the 550 reinforcements sent by Burgoyne arrived and immediately charged the unsuspecting Americans. Stark’s troops began to fall back but, aided by Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys, a hot battle ensued and continued until dark, with neither side gaining the advantage. Having sustained heavy losses, the German reinforcements retreated back toward Fort Edward, leaving their artillery in the hands of Stark’s men.
British losses at the Battle of Bennington are estimated at 207 killed and 700 captured. The Americans lost only 70 men: 30 killed and 40 wounded. The magnitude of these losses was staggering to the British campaign: approximately one-seventh of Burgoyne’s total manpower. With no hope of reinforcement, his plan to capture Albany and divide the colonies was doomed.
Unaware of his dire situation, he decided to press on. When word of the defeat at Bennington reached his camp, his Indian allies and loyalist supporters began melting away. The loss of the Indians was particularly troubling, as they carried out the bulk of his reconnaissance. With his supply lines running dangerously thin and constantly harassed by patriot militia, he crossed the Hudson River and fought large battles with Continental troops at Freeman’s Farm (September 19), which cost him another 600 men, and Bemis Heights (October 7), where he lost several hundred more men and many field pieces. Collectively, these battles are referred to as the Battle of Saratoga.
When Burgoyne tried to retreat north, he found himself cut off by Gates, and went into camp at Saratoga, New York. On October 17, 1777, he surrendered his remaining 5,791 men.
The enormous American victory stunned the world, and France signed a treaty of friendship with the United States on February 6, 1778.
Following the Battle of Bennington, most of Stark’s troops went home, but some returned to take part in the actions against Burgoyne in September and October. John Stark received a personal message of thanks from John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and was granted a commission as a brigadier general in the Continental Army. John Langdon later served as a delegate from New Hampshire in the Constitutional Convention, as a U.S. senator from New Hampshire, and, later, as governor of New Hampshire from 1805 to 1811.
The Battle of Bennington stands by itself as a major American victory in the Revolutionary War, but when considered in the larger context of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga two months later it deserves even greater applause. Defying General Lincoln’s attempts to take over his command, Stark’s decision to engage the enemy at Bennington cost “Gentleman Johnny” a sizable chunk of his fighting force. It is no overstatement to say that his actions at Bennington may have been more important to overall victory in the Battle of Saratoga than any other.
Facing threat to hearth and home, one of every ten able-bodied men in New Hampshire, with the support of Massachusetts and Vermont militiamen, and backed by private funding from one of New Hampshire’s most prominent businessmen, marched hundreds of miles to fight an invading enemy and helped changed the course of history.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 edition of Freedom Daily.