The course of history is often shaped by the outcome of battles, even small ones. That's the case with the Battle of Bennington, which was fought back in August 1777. Phil Holland is an English teacher at Community College of Vermont and the author of the new book A Guide to the Battle of Bennington and the Bennington Monument.
In advance of Bennington Battle Day, recognized annually in the state on Aug. 16, Holland spoke to Vermont Edition on Thursday about this battle. First thing's first though – this battle wasn't actually fought in Bennington.
"The supply depot that the British army was after was located in Bennington and a detachment was sent by Gen. [John] Burgoyne towards Bennington to capture cattle and wagons," Holland explains. "What Burgoyne didn't realize was that there were 1,500 New Hampshire militiamen recently raised from New Hampshire, in response to a call from Vermont, that were right there in Bennington and that went out to meet the advancing detachment and they encountered each other in a little hamlet of Walloomsac, just over the Vermont-New York border."
The lead up to the battle
In 1775, the Green Mountain Boys had taken Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Over the next couple of years, there had been a few rebellions that the British had trouble putting down, Holland explains.
"So they decided to get serious and Gen. Burgoyne conceived a plan whereby he would invade from Canada, down the Champlain corridor towards the Hudson, with about 9,000 men," Holland says. "He would be met there by another British force advancing from the west, down the Mohawk Valley, and a third force coming up from New York – which never came."
The goal of this, Holland explains, was to isolate New England from the other colonies.
"They were the most rebellious colonies and that was to put an end to things," he says.
A need for supplies
"Ultimately it was the logistics that were Burgoyne's undoing," Holland says, adding that Burgoyne's army faced challenges with food and also lacked an adequate number of animals to help transport weapons and other supplies.
"They were headed straight to Albany, but they thought they'd just make a little foray, a raid into Bennington, and pick up a few supplies," Holland explains.
Holland says about 650 men were sent, the majority of whom were actually German mercenaries.
"There were only 50 British soldiers in that British detachment," Holland says. "The rest were mercenaries from the German state of Brunswick, but they were professionals and they thought they had easy pickings there in Bennington. It didn't turn out to be the case."
Gen. George Washington's predictions
Holland explains that about a month prior, Burgoyne had regained control of Fort Ticonderoga with little resistance from the Americans.
"About ten days later, Washington very confidently predicted that Burgoyne, in his overconfidence, would make a mistake," Holland says. "In fact, would divide his force, would send a detachment of - and he almost called the numbers right - four, five, six hundred men. And if the Americans could beat that detachment, defeat them, it would spirit up the American cause and people would enlist. Psychologically, there would be relief."
As Holland points out, that's what ended up happening.
The role of spies
Holland says it was likely difficult for the British and German forces to be able to tell who was actually a loyalist versus a colonist, allowing some New Hampshire militiamen – who were being led by Gen. John Stark – to gather inside information.
"It must have been very important because it rained heavily the day after the first sighting of one force by the other," Holland says. "And so the Americans had a chance to scout the positions and knew just where each defense was, how many people were in it, and developed a plan to envelop the forces based on the information they had. So their intelligence was much better than the British intelligence of the U.S. force."
The actual battle(s)
"It was not one, but two battles – or even more if you count the particular fights in various places," Holland says. "But certainly there were two engagements."
"Each side had sent for reinforcements when they first encountered each other on the 14th and especially on the German side, the British side, those reinforcements were anxiously awaited," Holland continues. "There was another force of equal size on the way, but it got delayed in the mud and they lost their way and their horses hadn't been fed."
Meanwhile, Holland says that the American side called on the Green Mountain Continental Rangers to come assist them.
"Neither force had arrived, but Stark sent out the signal to attack at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the battle raged for two hours. The Americans won," Holland says. "But of course the battle wasn't over because then the German reinforcements arrived – just a little too late to offer the kind of resistance that they could have had they been on time."
The German troop advanced, Holland explains – but then there was yet another turn of events.
"Just when the cause appeared to be lost, Seth Warner's Green Mountain contingent arrived," Holland says. "They were experienced soldiers who had a score to settle because they'd been defeated at Hubbardton and they in turn turned the tide again and defeated that second force."
The effect on the war
"Burgoyne lost men and materiel and never got his provisions, which delayed his advance to Saratoga and Albany," Holland says. "But it also psychologically dealt a blow to Burgoyne and inspired the Americans to enlist, so that when Burgoyne finally made it to north of Albany, there were many to oppose him there."