‘My men, those are your enemies, the red coats and the Tories. We must conquer them, or tonight, Mollie Stark will be a widow!’ So swore Brigadier General John Stark as he led his men across the shallow Walloomsac River, through a screen of Loyalist volunteers and on up the hill beyond, toward the British and German defenders at its crest. Thus began the Battle of Bennington, where an army of unskilled, ill-armed farmers took on an opposing force of professional European soldiers, using a plan of attack any textbook-taught officer would have hesitated to even contemplate.
The confrontation at Bennington in mid-August 1777 came at a low point in the fortunes of the American colonists’ struggle for independence from Britain. Although they had driven the British from Boston in March 1776, the rebels — or Patriots, depending on whose side one was on — had failed to seize Quebec, and a British invasion force under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Sir William Howe had overrun Long Island and New York City and sent General George Washington’s Continental Army reeling south through New Jersey. Only Washington’s winter victories at Trenton and Princeton had encouraged his troops to persevere in 1777.
Ironically, events in America also were far from encouraging from London’s perspective. There were the heavy casualties at Bunker Hill, the subsequent evacuation of Boston and the repulse of British forces at Charlestown. Then there was the blunting of Canadian Governor-General Sir Guy Carleton’s plan to invade New England at the Battle of Valcour Island and Howe’s inertia in New York. All gave consternation to Lord George Germain, secretary of state for the Colonies. With such key cities as Montreal, Quebec and New York in British hands, how was it that a land of farmers and shopkeepers could still stymie the armies of the empire?
The answer was unclear when, early in 1777, Carleton’s second-in-command, Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne, presented Germain with a plan he had conceived nearly a year before. As it eventually developed, Burgoyne’s ‘Grand Strategy’ would call for Howe to march his army north, up the Hudson River from New York, while Burgoyne marched south from Montreal to meet Howe at Albany, splitting the Thirteen Colonies in half. Such a development’s consquences were not lost on the Americans, especially the New Englanders, who warned the Continental Congress that British control of the river would cut off northern communication with the southern colonies and give the British control of the Indians on New York’s western frontier.
Pursuant to the Grand Strategy, Burgoyne arrived in Canada on May 6, 1777, and began assembling an army of 7,863 British regulars, German mercenaries, Canadians and Indians. In spite of a huge supply train and more than 130 brass cannons of various sizes, the force began moving south on schedule, and by June 30, the British were in sight of Fort Ticonderoga. Although determined to fight, Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the fort’s commander, was soon apprised of its unwise location when the British managed to haul cannons atop nearby Mount Defiance. This enabled them to bombard the fort at their leisure. Reluctantly, St. Clair ordered it abandoned on the night of July 4.
At first Burgoyne gave chase, leading to the campaign’s first pitched battle (and the only one fought entirely on Vermont soil) at Hubbardton on July 7. Although ultimately driven from the field with 41 dead, 96 wounded and 234 taken prisoner, the American rear guard inflicted 60 dead and 148 wounded on Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser’s Redcoats and Maj. Gen. Friedrich Freiherr von Riedesel’s Brunswick mercenaries. The New Englanders’ success at holding up Fraser for an hour and then evading his and Riedesel’s pincers with 67 percent of their force intact impressed their adversaries — and was a portentous indication that Burgoyne was facing something more disciplined than a rebel mob. Burgoyne pushed on, driving the Americans from Forts Edward and George on July 31, but at last he called a halt to bring up his supply train.
Settling down in comfort at the home of his Loyalist political officer, Colonel Philip Skene, Burgoyne was content to follow Skene’s advice and built a road through the surrounding forest toward Stillwater, the current position of Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, commander of the Continental Army’s Northern Department. Burgoyne’s decision proved to be the Americans’ salvation. While felling trees, flooding lowlands and burning crops slowed the British advance almost to a standstill, Schuyler organized skirmishing parties to harry the enemy flanks.
As the situation in upper New York stabilized, the storm caused by St. Clair’s abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga broke at last. New England, in a frenzy of fear over its now defenseless borders and distrustful of the New York general commanding its forces, was instrumental in having Schuyler sacked and replaced by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates.
While the Americans adjusted to a change in command, the British began to suffer from supply shortages. With the land all around them laid waste and their closest depot at Fort George too far in the rear to do the army any good, Riedesel suggested to Burgoyne a raid toward the Connecticut River valley, where he had heard there were plenty of horses, carriages and cattle to be had. Skene liked the idea and added that there were plenty of Loyalists in the area, too, just waiting for the chance to flock to Burgoyne’s standard. Convinced, Burgoyne — speaking in French, since Riedesel spoke no English — expanded on the German’s original idea, calling for a more extensive raid to sweep eastward toward Manchester, veer south toward Brattleboro and, from there, back west to meet the main body of his army on its way to Albany. Those movements were far more than Riedesel had envisioned and made him nervous; he had seen the fighting at Hubbardton and feared running afoul of Colonel Seth Launer’s Americans that far from the main force. Nevertheless, the optimistic Burgoyne was set on the plan.
Because his regiment was positioned on Burgoyne’s left, Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, commander of the Brunswick Dragoons, was placed in charge of the expedition. It was not a good choice. Although he was a good officer, Baum’s training in European-style combat and his inability to speak a word of English made him ill-suited for American wilderness warfare. Moreover, his dragoons — still wearing their heavy cavalry uniforms, boots and swords — were hardly prepared to march through the 20 miles of trackless forest and swamp that lay between them and their goal. Even so, with an 800-man force that included an assortment of 374 German dragoons, grenadiers and Jgers, Baum could at least depend on the experience of Captain Alexander Fraser, who commanded about 50 British marksmen; and he would have the less reliable knowledge of more than 300 Queens Loyal Rangers, commanded by the Loyalist Lt. Col. John Peters of Bradford, Vt., as well as a contingent of Canadians and nearly uncontrollable Mohawk Indians. In addition, he brought along two 3-pounder cannons and their crews, servants, the regimental band and some female camp followers. Colonel Skene also accompanied him to recruit Loyalists.
To prepare for his own push down the Hudson, Burgoyne had begun assembling his forces at Fort Miller, about eight miles south of Fort Edward, with Brigadier Simon Fraser’s corps in the lead. Baum’s force was right behind, and on August 11, he was ready to move out when Burgoyne came riding up with a change in plans. It seemed a Tory officer had reported the presence of great amounts of stores, horses and cattle at Bennington, a small village near the Walloomsac River, guarded by only 300 or 400 rebels. That revision compelled Baum to move farther south than originally intended and made Riedesel even more nervous about the whole operation. Nevertheless, Baum had his orders and confidently led his men into the dense New England forest. His dismounted cavalrymen were notoriously slow walkers, and the day’s high temperatures made for even slower progress. Moving east, Baum covered only four miles along the crude road that led to the mouth of the Battenkill River, where he made camp.
While Baum’s regular troops moved with careful deliberation, his Indian allies ranged in all directions, spreading terror and alarm throughout the countryside. Soon word of Baum’s approach reached every town and farm in the area. That, coupled with recent news of the death of Jane McCrea, a young Loyalist woman killed and scalped by the Indians, instilled a fierce determination among the local citizenry to resist the invaders. The new state of Vermont (formerly the New Hampshire Grants, the disputed territory west of the Connecticut River) had hurriedly convened its Committee of Safety some weeks before. The state’s only military unit, Colonel Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys, had recently been bloodied at Hubbardton, and a plea was sent to neighboring New Hampshire for more troops.
New Hampshire had hardly been idle since the fall of Fort Ticonderoga and the ominous advance of Burgoyne’s army. With the pledge of John Langdon, the wealthy speaker of the New Hampshire legislature, to offer his fortune and credit to the state, authorization was given to raise a brigade of militia. To command it, Langdon nominated local hero John Stark.
A veteran of Robert Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, Stark had been a colonel in the Continental Army and had seen action at Bunker Hill, Montreal and Trenton. When he was passed up for promotion, however, he resigned his commission and walked away. Back on his farm, he still burned with patriotic fervor, and when called by the legislature he responded eagerly — with one proviso: His command would be independent of the Continental Army and Congress. His terms were met, and his commission as a brigadier general was signed on July 17. With that, Hezekiah Hutchins, a state delegate from Concord, immediately departed for his hometown and rode all night, arriving on Sunday. Bursting into the meetinghouse, he gave the news, after which all the men got up and followed him out. On Monday Captain Hutchins had a complete company outfitted and on the way to meet Stark. By the end of the first week, Stark had 1,492 officers and men — 10 percent of New Hampshire’s registered voters — under arms.
Without waiting for all of his militiamen to assemble, Stark started groups of 100 off for Manchester, where Warner was waiting. Arriving on August 9, Stark intended to waste no time before finding and harassing Burgoyne’s army. A temporary hurdle was waiting for him, however, in the overweight form of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, sent there by Schuyler with orders to dispatch all available men to him. Lincoln’s higher rank did not impress Stark, who waved his commission under the Continental general’s nose and told him that his only loyalty was to the people of New Hampshire. Rather than challenge Stark, Lincoln wisely agreed to his plan to harass Burgoyne’s left flank. While Stark moved on to Bennington, Lincoln rode back to Schuyler and convinced him to follow Stark’s strategy. ‘Seldom has such rank insubordination produced such excellent results,’ a historian later wrote of the incident, which chanced to place Stark and his brigade at the right place at the right time to perform highly beneficial service to the Patriot cause.
Meanwhile, after resting his men for two days, Baum covered the next 16 miles in 12 hours and surprised a detachment of militia at the small Vermont town of Cambridge, where he captured eight of them, as well as a handful of carts and wagons. He was too late to stop the Mohawks from killing or driving off the few horses in the vicinity, but information gleaned from his prisoners confirmed that there was a rich store of supplies in Bennington. However, it was now guarded by some 1,500 men. Undaunted, Baum sent a message back to Burgoyne telling him of his determination to press forward. Later that day, Stark received news of marauding Indians in the Cambridge area and dispatched about 200 men there to scout them out.The next morning, August 14, Baum crossed the watershed between the Battenkill and Hoosic rivers and reached Sancoick’s Mill. There, he encountered Stark’s detachment, which fired a volley at his troops from the forest before pulling back. The Americans’ retirement was made easier by Eleazer Eggerton and two friends, residents of Bennington, who stayed behind under fire to demolish St. Luke’s Bridge over Little White Creek. That afforded the scouts time to fall back two miles to meet Stark and the rest of his volunteers at a ford on the Walloomsac. Upon learning that Baum’s regulars were coming up behind the Indians, Stark immediately sent word back for Warner in Manchester to bring up his men.
Baum, his confidence rising with the Americans’ retreat and word from more prisoners confirming Stark’s presence in Bennington, informed Burgoyne of his intention to strike the rebel force early the next morning. By early afternoon the bridge had been repaired and Baum’s troops streamed across to pursue Stark’s detached rear guard. At that point, however, the two main forces came in sight of one another at the Walloomsac. Stark quickly deployed his men, but battle was postponed when Baum inexplicably decided to take up a defensive position. The frustrated New Englanders were forced to watch as the Germans and British settled down atop a hill centered on Walloomsac Farm. After some late-day skirmishing in which the Americans claimed more than 30 enemy dead, Stark pulled his men back about a mile or so to camp for the night. Both commanders laid plans for the next day’s action, which would highlight their different tactical philosophies.
August 15 was marked by a heavy downpour. With combat again postponed, Stark refined his plans. On the night of the 14th, Baum had stationed about 150 men on the far side of St. Luke’s Bridge, apparently holding it for some offensive use. The growing number of rebels in the surrounding forest seems to have given him second thoughts, however, and that night he sent Burgoyne a note requesting reinforcements. In addition to the Tories Baum had placed on the south side of the shallow Walloomsac, the north side of the bridge was guarded by half of his Brunswick infantry and some of Captain Fraser’s Canadians, with one of the 3-pounder cannons. A smaller hill rose about a half mile to the southeast, where more of Fraser’s men struggled in the mud and rain to dig trenches and build a breastwork of fallen trees — too far away from the men holding the bridge to give them any real support. More Tories and Canadians occupied a scattering of cabins along the hillside.
At the top of the hill Baum situated his main defensive works, later called the Dragoon Redoubt by the Americans. There, behind more trenches and log breastworks prepared throughout the rainy 15th, were more than 200 dragoons and British marksmen, supported by the other cannons. Fifty Jgers were positioned farther down along the river, covering the bridge but out of sight of the main redoubt. More than 50 German infantry and Tories were in the open along the road leading back to Sancoick’s Mill. Finally, all the Indians were placed on a plateau in the rear under the doubtful command of La Corne de St. Luc, ostensibly protecting Baum’s flanks. Broken up into such small units and scattered over nearly a square mile, Baum’s 800 men were in the worst possible position to mount an effective defense or lend each other mutual support and communication.
In contrast, Stark’s plans were a model of recklessness designed to take advantage of Baum’s caution with a force now grown to almost 2,000 men. As soon as dawn broke on the 16th, Colonel Moses Nichols would lead a detachment of New Hampshire volunteers three miles to the right to hit the Dragoon Redoubt in the flank. At the same time, Colonel Samuel Herrick would take his 300 Bennington militia and Vermont Grangers to the left, cutting the Cambridge road and flanking the redoubt from that quarter. Finally, Stark’s center would consist of Colonel David Hobart on the left and Colonel Thomas Stickney on the right, each with 200 men at his disposal, and a central force of 100 men to strike the Tories at the bridge. Stark and his men would wait behind the front until Herrick and Nichols opened the action and Stickney and Hobart distracted the enemy front. He then would lead the main attack across the Walloomsac, up the hill and into the Dragoon Redoubt. It was an ambitious plan, but one that would be aided by Baum’s mismanagement of his resources and not a little luck.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne had received Baum’s request for help on the 15th, and dispatched a 650-man Brunswick advance corps under Lt. Col. Friedrich Breymann. The overdressed Germans had left for Bennington early that morning, making a brave effort to cover the 25-mile distance through the pouring rain. At the same time, Warner had received Stark’s appeal to hurry his men on to the Walloomsac. Because of other patrolling duties he could not get them assembled quickly, and once they got underway the rain slowed the Vermonters as much as it did the Braunschweigers. Hastening ahead of his troops, Warner managed to join Stark in time to take part in the following day’s action.
The rain continued into the night. Although it kept most of the combatants in camp, Stark managed to field a number of skirmishers who scouted Baum’s positions and whose intermittent harassing fire hit two Indian chiefs. In addition, Americans began appearing along Baum’s picket lines with pieces of white paper stuck in their hats and their muskets clubbed in the European style of surrender, pretending that they were Loyalists who wanted to join the British army. Told by Burgoyne and Skene to expect such ‘cooperation,’ Baum naively ordered his pickets in and, much to the horror of his officers, allowed the Americans to occupy the empty spaces within his own lines.
As the rain ended on the morning of August 16, Baum received word of Breymann’s approach and sent Colonel Skene back to hurry him along. As Stark’s troops began leaving their camp to make their way to their assigned positions, Baum could see their every move from the top of his hill. Unconcerned as he was with the enveloping movement or the comings and goings of the newly arrived Loyalists he thought had joined his ranks, Baum must have been surprised when a shot rang out about midafternoon, killing one of his officers. The American attack was to have begun when Nichols’ and Herrick’s men met at the rear of the hill, but the unexpected shot — traditionally believed to have been fired by Jacob Onderkirke of Hoosick — started the battle early.
Upon hearing the shot, the Americans who had infiltrated the Anglo-German positions leveled their muskets and began firing at will, creating havoc as Nichols’ and Herrick’s troops closed in on the reverse sides of the Dragoon Redoubt. In the front, the Tories and Canadians guarding the bridge loosed a sweeping volley at the approaching rebels while the three cannons thundered in support. The moment the defenders paused to reload, however, the Americans rushed their positions, throwing them into a panicked retreat across the river. As his forward detachment continued its assault over the bridge, Stark himself followed closely with the balance of his army, some 1,200 troops.
Reaching the bridge, Stark dismounted, tied his brown mare to a post and uttered his famous challenge to his men. With a hurrah, his men dashed after him, and in a blind spot at the base of the hill where the enemy in the redoubt could not see them due to the steep grade, they fell on the retreating Tories and Canadians. In the short, bitter struggle between neighbors that followed, Loyalist Lt. Col. John Peters encountered an old childhood schoolmate, Patriot Captain Jeremiah Post. ‘Peters, you damn Tory, now I have got you,’ shouted Post as he rushed Peters and drove his bayonet into his side. Peters, who could still fire his gun, later said, ‘Though his bayonet was in my body I felt regret at being obliged to destroy him.’
Fire-breathing, gun-toting Parson Thomas Allen hopped on a tree stump and tried to encourage his Loyalist neighbors to defect to the Patriot side, only to hear a shout of ‘There’s Parson Allen, let’s pot him,’ followed by a shower of lead. Soon, however, Stark’s troops had cleared the base of the hill and the collection of cabins around the lower redoubt and began their climb to the summit.
Meanwhile, Nichols’ and Herrick’s men had stampeded the Indians, who fell back on Baum’s position and then fled the field entirely. The two flanking groups began to merge with the men who had infiltrated Baum’s lines earlier and advanced steadily toward the Dragoon Redoubt. As Baum saw the converging columns coming from all directions, his soldiers concentrated their efforts to make a heroic stand. Supported by their one remaining uncaptured cannon, Fraser’s red-coated marksmen and Baum’s Brunswick troops put up fierce resistance against their equally determined assailants. Suddenly, a thunderous explosion rent the air as a British ammunition cart blew up, and in a final rush the rebels stormed the ramparts of the redoubt.
Fighting at close quarters, neither side spared musket butt, sword or knife, but ultimately the outnumbered Germans and British either fell where they stood or turned back. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation and that Breymann would not reach him in time, Baum ordered his officers and remaining men to cut their way through the Americans. Soon afterward, Baum fell mortally wounded with a musket ball in the stomach. At that point his troops either surrendered or fought their way to the nearby forest.
Some desultory firing from back along the Cambridge road, where Breymann was brushing off roving parties of Americans who had been pursuing Baum’s survivors, warned the rebels of the approaching threat. An alarmed Stark ordered his exultant men to reassemble, but it proved difficult, since some had discovered liquor among the plunder they found in the captured redoubt. The arrival of Warner’s fresh regiment of Green Mountain Boys, however, galvanized Stark’s men with the prospect of another victory. Leaving the captured cannons behind — Stark was the only one who knew how to use them — the Americans moved off to meet the new enemy force.
Breymann had reached Sancoick’s Mill when he met Colonel Skene at about 4 p.m. The fighting at the Dragoon Redoubt had reached its peak, but because of the phenomenon of acoustic shadow, the Brunswick troops heard nothing until some of Baum’s men stumbled from the woods, filled with conflicting stories of the battle. Convinced by the optimistic Skene and his own confidence in European arms, Breymann decided to move on, continually stopping his tired, overheated men on the march to redress their lines.
Soon Skene spotted groups of Lt. Col. Samuel Safford’s Vermont Rangers as they scouted the advancing column from a wooded ridge on the north side of the road. Thinking they might be Loyalists, Skene rode out and hailed them: ‘Are you for King George?’ They replied with a scattering of shots that killed his horse and drove him back to the German lines. Breymann aggresively ordered an immediate advance. As his men fired their muskets and trained their cannons on the Americans, Safford ordered a retreat until he was able to rejoin the rest of Warner’s regiment and Stark’s scattered troops on a nearby rise. Breymann’s troops were right behind him, and upon encountering the main rebel force they tried to circle around the American right. Warner had much the same idea as he moved half his regiment to his left, trying to flank the Brunswick corps’ right, while using Stark’s men to extend his own right and check the enemy’s flanking movement.
By dusk both forces had spread themselves out as far as they could go and began exchanging musket volleys in earnest. As German ammunition began to run low, however, their cannons fell silent, their musket fire became intermittent and Breymann ordered a withdrawal. Perceiving their enemies’ predicament, the Americans pressed them. Forced to abandon his cannons, Breymann managed an orderly retreat at first, but the New Englanders, with plenty of ammunition left, soon resorted to their specialty — harassing their retiring foes from the cover of nearby woods. Ultimately, the German formations disintegrated, as some Braunschweigers tried to surrender while others were cut down. Breymann ordered a drumroll, signifying a request to parley, but the backwoods farmers were not versed in European military etiquette and continued firing.
Night fell at last, and the running fight petered out as Stark, fearing his men would be more of a threat to each other than to the enemy in the darkness, reluctantly ordered a halt to the chase. Although he had been shot in the leg, and his clothing was riddled with bullet holes, Breymann personally commanded the rear guard and succeeded in getting two-thirds of his men safely to Cambridge.
Cheated though Stark felt of achieving complete victory, he and his untrained citizen soldiers had won a great one. At a cost of about 30 men killed and 40 wounded, they had killed 207 professional soldiers and captured more than 700. With the decimation of Baum’s and Breymann’s forces, Burgoyne had been stripped of a good portion of his army. That, coupled with the repulse of Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger’s western force at Fort Stanwix two weeks earlier, made his final defeat at Saratoga in October almost inevitable.
In the meantime, the victors at Bennington celebrated the end of their private war, still independent of the Continental Army and Congress. Their captives were paraded through the streets of Bennington to the hoots, hollerings and rustic crudities of its citizens.
Colonel Baum was carried from the field by the Americans, but he died of his wounds soon after and was buried along the road to Bennington. As for John Stark, upon returning to the bridge over the Walloomsac he found that his brown mare and saddle had been stolen by some’sly, artful, designing’ character; a month later, he was still advertising for their return.
This article was written by Pierre Comtois and originally published in the August 2005 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!