British Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne had a grand, three-pronged plan to win the Revolutionary War. In June 1777 he would lead about 7,000 regulars out of Canada via the Richelieu River–Lake Champlain waterway to New York’s Fort Ticonderoga, which he would capture. From there he would follow the Hudson Valley to Albany. A smaller army under Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger, meanwhile, would head eastward along the Mohawk Valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany. A third British force led by Maj. Gen. Sir William Howe would move up the Hudson from New York City to block any rebel response from the south. Thousands of Loyalists— Tories, as fellow Americans labeled them—would welcome the invaders. Control of the Hudson would split the colonies, isolate New England and force a rebel surrender.
About all that came to pass was Burgoyne’s capture of Ticonderoga, earning him promotion to lieutenant general. The Mohawk Valley army, beaten in a fierce battle, retreated into Canada. Howe’s New York force went to Philadelphia instead. The Tory uprising did not happen. But Burgoyne’s army—British regulars, German mercenaries, Canadians, Indians and Tories —did reach the Hudson.
On August 11, short of supplies and in need of horses, Burgoyne ordered some 800 men on a forage mission to the village of Bennington, Vt., about 30 miles east of the march route. Burgoyne believed the area to be full of Loyalists who would rush to join his army. But the man he placed in command of the foraging, Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, spoke only German.
On the morning of August 16, at Walloomsac, N.Y., near Bennington, Baum saw “small bodies of armed men …mostly in their shirtsleeves” approaching from all directions. These were 1,500 militiamen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, led by Brig. Gen. John Stark, a tough old veteran of the French and Indian War who had fought at Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton. Baum, assuming the militiamen were Loyalists, let them drift into his ranks.
In a savage battle of musket, sword and knife, the militiamen killed, wounded or captured more than 200 Tories. The Indians scattered and vanished. The Germans fought valiantly until Baum fell, mortally wounded by a musket ball. Reinforcements for both sides arrived, but as the long day ended, the surviving invaders fled the field.
The rebel victory discouraged would-be Tories and inspired militiamen to head north to join the fight against the invaders. “Wherever the king’s forces point,” Burgoyne later wrote, “militia to the amount of 3,000 or 4,000 assemble in 24 hours.…The alarm over, they return to their farms.” Burgoyne, heading for Albany, faced a growing enemy army while his own force was losing some 1,000 men to muskets or capture.
The clash at Bennington was an overture to the climactic Battle of Saratoga that October, when once again the rebels outmaneuvered Burgoyne’s shrunken army. Saratoga is celebrated as the turning point of the war. But the turning began when those men in shirtsleeves appeared near Bennington.
■ During a revolution Loyalists rarely make reliable allies.
■ When Loyalists do support your cause, try to use them intelligently.
■ Indians may be great fighters, but they don’t obey orders.
■ After a foreign battle with heavy losses, armies cannot easily find replacements.
■ European-style maneuvering doesn’t work in the American wilds.
■ Grand plans can often be far too grand to actually work.
■ Foragers should know where they’re going—and who is already there.
■ It helps to use officers who speak the local language.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.