In August of 1777, some New Englanders feared America was losing its Revolutionary War. American forces had surrendered Fort Ticonderoga without a fight, and the British has successfully harassed Seth Warner and his troops out of Hubbardton, Vermont.
The surrender at Ticonderoga was a strategically wise move – the valuable cannon had already been removed from the fort. But at Hubbardton, after a spirited fight, Col. Seth Warner’s troops were forced to make a hasty retreat. While the loss of life on the British and American sides was roughly equivalent, far more Americans were taken prisoner.
The Americans were left trying to re-gather their forces to mount a battle in the Hudson Valley to stop British General John Burgoyne and his army’s march to New York City.
New Hampshire’s General John Stark arrived on the scene in Bennington, Vt. Stark was a veteran of the French and Indian Wars whose fighting skills were matched by his stubbornness. He had chosen Bennington believing it the best way to support the American forces aligned further north.
Rev. Thomas Allen of Pittsfield, Mass. gathered his Berkshire men to join with Stark. He reached Stark on August 15, just in time to participate in a major turning point during the war.
A German lieutenant, Friedrich Baum, had been dispatched by the British to gather supplies – horses, food, etc. He was also recruiting local loyalists to join up with the British cause. He and his 600 men happened on the Sancoick Mill about eight miles west of Bennington. A small contingent of revolutionaries scattered at his arrival. What he learned was that Stark was in nearby Bennington with 1,800 men.
And, he was informed, that Stark would take flight if the British approached the town. Baum’s contempt for the Americans was keen. “The savages cannot be controlled,” he wrote to Burgoyne, describing the colonists who were arriving at the mill seeking food. But he confidently assured Burgoyne he would move on Bennington and roust the Americans.
Thomas Allen knew Stark’s character better than Lt. Baum. Allen had been disgusted by the surrender of Ticonderoga. Stark, he knew by reputation, was a fighter. When he finally met with him, he cautioned that in his view the entire revolt was in danger of collapsing if the war did not begin.
Stark was ordered to move his troops north and west toward an eventual engagement with Burgoyne, who was slowly proceeding down the Hudson River Valley. But he was dragging his feet. He believed his flanking position was stronger.
When news that Baum was nearby reached Stark, he immediately made plans to attack. Arriving late in the day on the 15th, Allen, with his small contingent of militia, was direct: “The Berkshire militia have often been summoned to the field, without being allowed to fight; now if you don't give them a chance this time, they will never turn out again."
Stark’s answer: “If the Lord will give us sunshine in the morning, and I do not give you fighting enough, I will never ask you to come out again."
The sunshine came and Stark and the Americans brilliantly routed the Hessians under Baum. Indian soldiers witnessing the early fighting withdrew and, after a council, abandoned Burgoyne altogether as a bad risk. Baum himself died in the fighting.
One astonished German account of the fighting recorded how row after row of German soldiers would load their muskets and rise up to shoot, only to be slaughtered before they could fire.
But the British side almost saved the day. Late in the fighting, Col. Heinrich von Breymann arrived to bolster Baum’s forces with another 600 men. By this point, the American forces under Stark had lost all discipline. Stark had promised his soldiers that they would be entitled to whatever spoils of war they could recover from the British and German troops.
Men were searching for valuables among the captured troops. Others simply lay down, resting after the vigorous fight. Still others tended to the wounded. Breymann’s reinforcements marched into this chaotic scene, and he did not hesitate. Breymann immediately ordered his troops to begin firing.
Stark tried to rally his men, but chaos was fully under way. He was nearly forced to order a retreat when Vermont’s Col. Seth Warner stepped up and uttered his famous orders: “Stand to it, my lads; you shall have help immediately.”
Warner’s 350 men, fresh and ready, joined the battle. A rest period at Manchester following their retreat at Hubbarton had left them eager and ready for another crack at the British army. The fight began to turn and hours later the British side had to depart.
In the darkness, the Americans dared not pursue for fear of shooting their own men. The final tally was astounding. Thirty dead and forty wounded on the American side. On the other side, more than 200 Hessian soldiers killed and 700 taken prisoner.
The losses deprived Burgoyne of a significant number of soldiers and shook British confidence. Perhaps more importantly it also convinced the Indians to jump ship from Burgoyne. His weakened army would, weeks later, have to surrender at Saratoga, and the seeds of the defeat were sewn at Walloomsac in the Battle of Bennington.
The battle would establish Seth Warner as a genuine war hero. But why had his forces arrived so late? It puzzled historians for a while. Edward Everett Hale wrote a charming story of 15-year-old Luke Varnum, who was forced to stay out of the fighting because of a lame foot.
He was on his family’s farm when approached by soldiers, one of them riding a horse who had thrown a shoe. The young boy had fired up the forge and crafted a shoe that he fitted to the horse, allowing its rider to proceed to the battle. In his telling of it in the book Boys' Heroes he wrote:
“One of the horsemen tarried a minute, and said, “Boy, no ten men who left you today have served your country as you have. It is Colonel Warner.”
The story was used for years to show young people how great service could emerge from unexpected places.
The reality, however, was a bit different. Seth Warner had left the soldiers under his command at Manchester in case the fighting turned in that direction. He had ridden on with Stark because of his knowledge of the countryside. He had summoned his men expecting they would be needed.
When it appeared the British had lost, Warner’s men were well on their way and might well have arrived in time to join a victory celebration. But as it turned out, they arrived in time to win the battle themselves.