13. Battle of Bennington

There were no Tory loyalists in Williamstown. At least none dared speak publicly in favor of the British during the course of the war . When the Declaration of Independence was read to the people during July of ‘76, everyone expressed support. Militia contingents were organized as soon as hostilities broke out. Benjamin Simonds was commissioned colonel of Berkshire County volunteers, forming a regiment of some five hundred men known as the “Berkshire Boys.” Amomg these were  Isaac Stratton and Samuel Sloan, who had already participated in several engagements as of  August, 1777.  At this time too the “South Part” of Williamstown had its own separate recruiting center at  Sloan’s Tavern, Five Corners – one might even say that this was the birth of  the South Williamstown Community Association.[i]

Furthermore, the news of Burgoyne’s advance during July and August of 1777 along the eastern shore of Lake George, and especially of the atrocities committed by his Indian allies, alarmed the citizens of adjacent Vermont and Massachusetts as no other British outrage. Enlistments in the local militias soared.  By amazing luck (as it would turn out), an impetuous  colonel of New Hampshire volunteers named John Stark  had been passed over for  promotion to brigadier general in that same February list prepared by Congress in which Benedict Arnold was passed over – in spite of the fact that he too had an heroic record going back to the Battles of Bunker Hill and Trenton. Like Arnold, he was furious, and forthwith resigned from the regular army. But fortuitously, he was made another  patriotic offer he couldn’t refuse.  He was invited, with the rank of brevet brigadier general, by the New Hampshire (which then included Vermont)  Committee of Safety to organize the loose groups of local  volunteers  and form them into an effective fighting force to defend against an immanent threat of invasion  by Burgoyne.

However, General Phillip Schuyler, current commander of the American northern theater,  insisted that Stark, with his new militia contingent which now numbered over a thousand volunteers, should join him in the protection of New York. Stark flatly refused. Such intransigence might have led to a threat of court martial, but  in this amazing instance,  it led instead to one of the most important victories in the entire American Revolution. On August 9, Stark headed with his New Hampshire militia for the western Vermont border.  Lest any lurking Tories lay for him along the way, he refused to tell friends his intended itinerary, saying only that he was traveling along the “Molly Stark trail,” in reference to his wife (by whom he had eleven children).  Even though General Stark’s route has actually been traced elsewhere,  modern Vermont highway 9 from Brattleboro to Bennington, has ever since been designated as the “Molly Stark Trail.”

Stark arrived in Bennington and met there in the Catamount Tavern with other militia commanders including Colonel Simonds. All the towns around quickly sent their local volunteers to join him. Williamstown contributed one hundred sixty men, including sixty-five from “South Part“ under Captain Samuel Clark, whose original house still stands on Sloan Road, now owned by SWCA member Carolyn Umlauf (see Installment 7 for photo).

The initial plan for the defense of his command area which included logistical stores in Bennington and Williamstown was to garrison all the roads that Burgoyne might take were he to move toward the east from his current position south of Lake George. The most likely would be the route that ran from Cambridge, NY, and  down along the Walloomsac River through the community of Sancoick (now the village of North Hoosick, NY,  on route 67; just north of  Hoosick Falls on route 22) [ii], in the direction of  North Bennington.

On that same day, unbeknownst to Stark, Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum, commander of a combined force of some thousand “Hessians” (actually from Braunschweig, Germany), loyalist militia, and Indians, was setting out from Burgoyne’s camp in Fort Edward, heading for Bennington along this very route. He had been ordered by Burgoyne to raid the rebel stores believed to be lightly guarded in Bennington and bring back “fifteen hundred horses” much needed for the main army’s continuing advance (the Germans soldiers were originally mounted dragoons). Also Baum, who spoke not a word of English, was to “try the affections of the people” in hopes of gaining more loyalist support. The German commander, who had never led so large a force before, was to accomplish all this in a fortnight, and then return to join Burgoyne who hoped by then to be in Albany.

By August 14, Colonel Baum with his troops had reached a point about eight miles from Bennington, near Sancoick (North Hoosick, NY) and there, upon a steep hill rising from the bank of the Walloomsac River, paused to camp and set up a defensive perimeter. That night and the next day it rained.

Meanwhile Baum was becoming aware of much sniper fire and other enemy activity around him. Indeed, his presence had been dicovered by the Americans, whose scouts were all about reconnoitering his position. Baum sent word back to Burgoyne, asking for reinforcements. Burgoyne replied that Baum should strengthen his defences, sit tight where he was, and that another detachment of troops would shortly be on the way. Because of the rain, Baum packed his artillery ammunition into a covered wagon in the center of his redoubt to keep it dry.

On August 16, when the rain finally stopped, American General Stark devised a plan to surround Baum’s redoubts and attack from three sides at once. Coloner Simonds’ Berkshire regiment was to attack from the south.  Amazingly, the three prongs synchronized their assaults in perfect timing. After two hours of furious fighting, the Americans were pouring over Baum’s breastworks. A lucky shot must have struck Baum’s powder cache which exploded in a gigantic roar. The Germans were suddenly without ammunition; they had only their sabers with which to defend themselves. Those that could ran off  into the neighboring forest and fields, some sliding down the muddy slope into the river. But clearly the Americans  had won the engagement, capturing about six hundred prisoners, and leaving some  two hundred dead.  Colonel Baum himself was mortally wounded. He was carried to a near-by farm house where he expired.

Meanwhile, the reinforcements Burgoyne had promised arrived late in the day, led by Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann.  The surprised Americans, already dispersing, even carousing around the rum supply abandoned by Baum’s routed troops, were suddenly confronted by another fresh enemy force.  Breymann’s German grenadiers quickly lined up in the usual European formation, and rolled out two artillery pieces loaded with grape shot which nearly panicked the disorganized Americans who wavered and began to run. But then from another part of the battlefield with wild war whoops rushed in the Green Mountain Boys under Colonel Seth Warner, (successor to captured Ethan Allen) who had just arrived at the scene. They were joined by Captain Samuel Clark and Major Isaac Stratton of Simonds’ reserve. Stratton,  astride a black horse which caught everyone’s excited eye, charged in with such elan that even those soldiers who were fleeing turned around and hurled themselves again upon the German line. Now outnumbered and overwhelmed, the Germans fell back. The two artillery pieces were quickly captured, spun around and fired instead at the retreating Germans. It was a another rout. No doubt about it now, the Americans had won a decisive double victory.

Nearly a thousand prisoners altogether were taken. Burgoyne in effect had lost an eighth of his total army. Among these prisoners were many local Tories – they distinguished themselves from their neighbor patriots by wearing a white paper stuck in their caps. Rules of war did not apply to such traitors (who would steal the patriots’ horses and cattle and give them to the British), and many were hanged on the spot. The German prisoners were more kindly treated, as much out of curiosity as pity. Tied two-by-two together, they began their long trek to prison camps near Boston. People came out of their houses to gawk as they marched by, “like the first time anybody’d  ever seen a rhinoceros,” someone commented.

As the prisoners passed in the vicinity of Williamstown, one of the Germans named Johann Hintersass escaped into the woods north of town in the vicinity of what is now White Oaks. He built himself a cabin and managed to live there without detection by changing his name to John Henderson. Eventually as his isolated neighborhood attracted other settlers, a road was built  to connect with the town – the same scenic Henderson Road which honors his alias to this day. Another prisoner, apparently still badly wounded, collapsed as he was being led through South Part and died right in front of Isaac Stratton’s house (formerly just across the road from Sloan’s Tavern).  The Stratton family were concerned enough to give him a Christian burial, the first in what is now Southlawn Cemetery, the land for which they donated initially for this purpose.

There’s no doubt that Williamstown’s greatest contribution to the American Revolutionary War  was its participation in the Battle of Bennington. Indeed, about ten percent of General Stark’s army came from both the North and South Part of town, mostly in the regiment of Colonel Benjamin Simonds. The Williams College Museum of Art has a portrait of Simonds  painted by itinerant artist William Jennys in 1796.

In the next chapter, we will see how the camp of General Burgoyne reacted when Colonel Breymann and his surviving soldiers straggled back to Fort Edward with their devastating news – made all the more painful when they passed the pontoon bridge just built across the Hudson River by Burgoyne’s advance units to convey the anticipated bounty of supplies expected to be  brought by Colonel Baum’s triumphant troops astride their hoped-for captured horses!

Next installment: SARATOGA!  SEPTEMBER 19, 1777

With the assistance of Andrew B. Crider


[i] Arthur Latham Perry in his Williamstown and Williams College (Third edition, Norwood Press, Norwood, MA, 1904) p. 126, published the payment  list of  Captain Samuel Clark’s  South Williamstown militia company serving during the Bennington campaign, including the names of soldier ancestors of families still living and/or remembered in Williamstown today:  Galusha, Young, Sabin, Woodcock, Torrey, Sloan, and many more. Curiously, Richard M. Ketchum in his otherwise authoritative book, Saratoga (Henry Holt, New York, 1997), makes no mention of Benjamin Simonds or any other Williamstown contribution to the Bennington victory.

 

[ii] “Sancoik” became the local pronunciation of the original French name for the community of “St. Croix” now incorporated as the village of North Hoosick.

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