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Author Archives: Brainspiral
Was there ever a more egregious representation of “manifest destiny” than this 1872 painting entitled “American Progress” by John Gast? We see here a diaphanous ” Columbia” carrying school books in one hand and a telegraph wire in the other, arrogantly thrusting herself forward like a battleship figurehead. She flies above an earthly parade of pioneers who’ve crossed the Mississippi River and are advancing into the unknown wilderness beyond . Your sacred national duty, the air-born lady declares to them, is to spread modern civilization (and all its invented gadgetry from the enlightened eastern seaboard) into the heart of wild west darkness. I submit that that’s still America’s archetypal obligation, even today in international politics. Can we ever not assume psychologically that east is always back and west forever out?
In a series of forthcoming but leisurely intermittent mini-cyber lectures, I’d like to make the case that our Williamstown community, by virtue of its geographic location during the eighteenth century, played a significant role in shaping the very notion of “manifest destiny.” Indeed, Ephraim Williams, the founder of our town and its prestigious college, was one of the earliest martyrs in what some have called “America’s First World War,” fought amongst all the European powers, but most decisively between England and France in North America from 1755 to 1763, after which a unique Anglo-American hybrid civilization emerged which led to our inexorable conquest, not only of the whole western continent – but, at least culturally, of much of the rest of the world.
Allow me to display a map showing Just how strategically located our town was during the eighteenth century. It began as a tiny English settlement then called West Hoosac near the river named after the Mahican word for “Place of Stones.” By deliberate political intent, West Hoosac was founded right at the edge of a territory claimed by the English but disputed by the French during the imperialist expansions of both these European nations in the early 1700s. However, most of the area north and west on the map, whichever power claimed it, was thickly forested, and inhabited mostly by Indians and a few white trappers. If burdened armies would penetrate this vast area, they could only do so by traversing navigable water routes or by following ancient Indian trails already cut through the
dense wilderness. Thus, whichever military power controlled these routes, also controlled the surrounding lands as well. By 1755, the routes marked in red on the map were nominally British, while those in blue were French. The latter commanded the Saint Lawrence waterway through southern Canada and were pushing west and south via Lake Champlain and Lake George. The British on the other hand were driving north and west in competition. One can clearly see from the map just how important the original Mohawk Trail, which underlies most of present-day highway route 2, was to this expansionist endeavor. Running from Boston Through Deerfield, and then up along the Hoosic River just north of Williamstown and on to Albany, NY, it was the principal east-west avenue for bringing British arms to bear against the aggressive French advances south especially on Lake George, which, as we shall see, led to several heated confrontations between 1755 and 1757.
Perpendicular to the Mohawk Trail, were two north-south avenues, the western one, navigable from New York by way of the Hudson River as far north as Fort Edward just below Lake George, and a second route which present day route 7 follows from Norwalk, CT on Long Island Sound, north along the Housatonic River through Massachusetts, crossing the Mohawk Trail at Williamstown, and continuing to Bennington, VT, then over to Hoosick Falls, NY, Cambridge, Schuylerville, and on to Lake George. The French, however, were in control of that part of the route that ran along the eastern bank of the lakes. Present route 4 more or less follows this part of the trail. Along the short fifteen and a half mile stretch between Fort Edward, NY and Lake George, now traversed by NY route 9 but known at the time as the “Great Carrying” or “Great Portage” Place, occurred some of the bloodiest battles between the British and French from 1755 and 1763, and then between British and Americans in 1777. The armies on each side included large numbers of Indian allies as well as professional European soldiers and colonial militia. One of the first of their deadly encounters involved Ephraim Williams, newly appointed as brevet colonel in command of Massachusetts volunteers sent against the French on Lake George in 1755. He owned property in West Hoosac and was now leading his troops to reinforce Fort Edward when unexpectedly ambushed and tragically killed just south of the Lake in a brief engagement called for some reason the ”Bloody Morning Scout.” A monument to this event along with Colonel Eph’s original grave marker, still stand today off route 9, a few miles north of Fort Edward.
Finally, this history is also the hasty story of Benedict Arnold. While George Washington never slept in Williamstown, Benedict Arnold did! Furthermore, Arnold was about to become a great hero following the evening and night he spent in Nehemiah Smedley’s Tavern on Main Street in Williamstown on May 6, 1775. His service in the cause of American independence then soared even more brilliantly just two years later at Saratoga, only thirty-four miles away from Williamstown. Fortunately for us, his subsequent and infamous downfall took place elsewhere. Our town bears no blame for that – and may rightfully be proud that we hosted him only during his moments of illustrious patriotism.
Next installment: EPHRAIM WILLIAMS’ LAST STAND
Ephraim Williams (1714-1755) bears the distinction of being more remembered for the results of his death than what happened in his life. In this my second installment, I will discuss the latter, the events leading up to, and the battle in which Colonel Williams was killed.
I begin by quickly reviewing the situation in the New England colonies at the turn of the eighteenth century. The bitter civil wars that enflamed the British Isles during the previous hundred years, the struggle between the royalists and parliamentarians after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, had so concentrated the nation’s attention, that interest in the colonies had considerably waned. By 1700, a bare three thousand soldiers protected the entire American seaboard including growing towns of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The thin red line of British civilization extending to the eastern Alleghenies was dangerously insecure, a fact that did not escape the covetous eyes of the French whose own colonial enterprise was expanding in Canada. Indeed, France had replaced Spain as the reigning power on the European continent. Her long ruling King Louis XIV decided that now was the time to challenge British hegemony overseas. He had already sent Jesuit missionaries to Canada to convert the Indians , in particular the Abenaki , who became known as the “St. Francis Indians.” Once inhabitants of eastern Allegheny forests but driven out by the English, they now had an added religious incentive to take revenge against the Protestant settlers who had usurped their former hunting grounds.
In 1704, the French struck a deadly blow deep in the heart of the English colonies. In February of that year a band of French and Indians sneaked on snow-shoes down the Mohawk Trail as far as Deerfield, Massachusetts, surrounded the town at night, and in the early morning with war whoops and slashing tomahawks swept through the small community killing and burning at random. By mid-day, some forty-six citizens including women and children were murdered, and a hundred nine more captured and forced to march for six weeks in snow and freezing cold to Canada where they were held for ransom. While many eventually were redeemed and did return, one woman, Eunice Williams, daughter of Pastor John Williams and distant relative of Ephraim, famously remained among the Indians, one of whom she married and by whom she had children. Her father, finally ransomed and returned to Deerfield was bitterly disappointed, not because his daughter remained a renegade, but because she had converted to “papism.”
In any case, the Deerfield massacre was a tocsin call for the British to defend their New England colonies against the French threat all along the trails. More troops were sent, local militias were raised (“papists” were pointedly excluded from enlisting) and forts were built at strategic locations. With the rise of a powerful Whig parliament in Britain and the accession of a stronger ruling dynasty, particularly under Hanoverian King George II who acceded in 1727, England embarked on an aggressive policy of colonization, urging ever more settlements further to the west. Wealthy investors like Ephraim Williams and his brothers were encouraged to purchase properties on the far frontier. To protect those along the extending Mohawk Trail, Fort Massachusetts was built in a bight of the Hoosic River, where the Trail crosses it twice. The Google Earth photo below shows just how strategic this location was. It’s now in the parking lot of the Price Chopper Supermarket on route 2 in North Adams where a monument marks the spot. The red dot shows where the fort once stood; the blue dots indicate the two river crossings on either side.
Notwithstanding, the fort was too close to a high ridge just to the north, allowing attackers to shoot into it from above, as French and Indians did in 1744, easily overpowering its small garrison. For a brief period the French fleur de lis then flew over our community until the fort was retaken and rebuilt in 1747, and put under the command of Major Ephraim Williams. The fort withstood another French attack in 1748 but was finally abandoned after the British won total victory over the French in 1763. During the 1930s it was again rebuilt as a tourist attraction, unsuccessfully as it turned out. The property was deemed more valuable for commercial exploitation, and so the fort disappeared for the last time. Below is an old postcard view of it looked in the 1930s. A full size reconstruction of the fort’s original barracks room is currently on display in Heritage State Park, North Adams.
I now return to the year 1755. The English were building ever more protective forts, two most importantly at either end of the “Great Carrying Place “ in New York, the fifteen or so miles of swampy land between the northern embarkation point of t he Hudson River, and the southern end of Lake George. All travelers including armies moving in either direction would need to portage their boats over this difficult stretch, usually requiring two or more marching days depending on how cumbersome their equipment; thus dangerously exposing themselves to enemy attack. Fort Edward commanded the Hudson River entry point and Fort William Henry would do the same for the southern landing of Lake George. Each was named after the princely progeny of King George II, and each guaranteed English control over this extremely strategic land link. The two maps below, one old the other new , should make this clear. Today, that once difficult portage distance can be traversed by car in just a few minutes over well paved NY route 9. How many modern travelers, speeding to enjoy what’s now a busy summer resort, give a thought to the blood that was spilled and lives that were lost along this incredibly historic bit of road? What if the other side had won and Lake George became instead a French-speaking Côte d’Azur?
In the late summer of 1755, Commandant Sir William Johnson was commissioned to build Fort William Henry, in preparation for leading an army down Lake George and attack the French stronghold at Crown Point on the eastern tip of Lake Champlain. At the same time, however, unbeknownst to him a French army under command of Marshall Baron Dieskau was heading south to attack Fort Edward (first called Fort Lyman after its then commander). Meanwhile newly appointed Colonel Ephraim Williams had arrived from Massachusetts with a regiment of militia and a contingent of Indians led by chief King Hendrick to aid in Johnson’s campaign. Suddenly the English learned of Dieskau’s plan, and Williams was quickly ordered to return to reinforce the Fort Edward garrison. Unfortunately, Dieskau divined this latter move, and so plotted an ambush of the English army as it passed southward.
On September 8, Williams’ army marched blindly into the trap, completely surprised by the French and Indians hiding in the thick forest on either side of the crude trail. Almost with their first volleys, Williams was fatally shot through the head as he stood on a rock still marked at the site. King Hendrick was also killed and all their troops scattered in confusion. Baron Dieskau and the French seemed to have won the day. Flush with this initial success, Dieskau turned to attack Johnson’s force working on the fort at Lake George, realizing that capturing the Lake George beachhead was the more valuable prize since it would give France control of all the Lake and thus the Great Carrying Place, rendering Fort Edward practically untenable. His initial assault was successful, but then Johnson rallied the English troops and in a series of sharp engagements on September 8 decisively defeated the French, even capturing Baron Dieskau.
Some two hundred dead from both sides were supposedly thrown into a swampy water hole just east of Route 9. It still exudes the dismal aftermath of that brutal battle. A marker appropriately identifies it as “Bloody Pond.” Another monument a few yards away across the same road a identifies where Ephraim Williams fell and his body first buried. Years later his remains were removed and re-interred with an appropriate epitaph in Williams College Thompson Chapel.
A curious addenda to this story is the fact that the famous American revolutionary fife and drum ditty, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was actually written for British troops quartered in Fort Craillo, NY in 1755, by an army surgeon named Richard Shuckburgh. It was sung to the tune of a popular song in John Gay’s recent London hit musical, “The Beggar’s Opera,” and soldiers were invited to add new verses as they marched along singing in rhythm. One particular doggerel verse still recorded seems to poke fun at Ephraim Williams, whom the soldiers may have regarded as somewhat of a martinet, in any case a blundering military commander, no matter his heroic death in action. It goes like this:
Brother Ephraim sold his cow
To buy him a commission
And then he went to Canada To fight for the nation.
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.
Next installment: FOUNDING OF WILLIAMSTOWN & WILLIAMS COLLEGE
1. Wyllis E. Wright, Colonel Ephraim Williams: A Documentary Life, Pittsfield (Berkshire County Historical Society), 1970
As you drive south from Schuylerville along rte 4, imagine that you are joining Burgoyne’s dispirited troops inching toward Albany only 32 miles away, where – hoping – hoping – they might meet up with that other fresh British army under General Howe, supposedly pushing north from New York City. Together, this combined force would then be strong enough to sever New England from the rest of the colonies, thus defeat the Americans and finally end their foolish rebellion. But so far, nothing has gone right. Because of that August fiasco near Bennington, Burgoyne’s once formidable army has been reduced to less than six thousand men. His supplies are nearly exhausted. His Indian guides on whom he depends for scouting the enemy, have deserted him. He has just crossed to the west side of the Hudson River knowing that the main American army is somewhere in this very vicinity. But where? With luck, it could be to the north, far enough behind him, leaving a clear road ahead to Albany.
But what if the Americans are in front of him?
In fact they are!
An entire corps of the Continental army, nearly ten thousand strong (with new militia recruits arriving every day) is indeed blocking the Albany road (still rte 4) a few miles further south near the town of Stillwater. It is led by newly appointed Major General Horatio Gates with also newly appointed Major General Benedict Arnold in command of the left flank (a very combustible pairing of personalities as you shall soon see). As American scouts report the British advancing toward them, General Gates, on the advice of his brilliant military engineer, Polish General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, has ordered his forces forward to occupy a high plateau called Bemis Heights along the western edge of the river. He has deployed his army in a strong defensive position with artillery posted on his right flank on a bluff above the river road, threatening any enemy attempt to pass from that direction. While this end of the American army is safely anchored on the river, General Arnold, ever bold and impetuous, observes that his left flank dangles in the woods and is still dangerously exposed to an enemy attack from the west. He insists that he be permitted to attack first in order to allay that possibility. General Gates, ever cautious and suspicious of Arnold’s impetuousness, is hesitant. He prefers to sit tight and wait for the British to make the initial move.
It is mid September, 1777. The weather is turning chilly already with morning frosts. A disappointed General Burgoyne now realizes that his only option in order to reach his goal is to pierce the American front by whatever means in spite of his inferior numbers. He must find some point in the enemy’s line that is weak, concentrate his forces there and hope that the sudden surprise will allow him to break through. That point, he believes is at the dangling American far left, just as Arnold feared.
Look now at the above top half of the site map showing the present routes for driving through the Saratoga Battlefield National Park. Near the middle of the right edge of the map is a red dot marking where rte 4 passes the Saratoga Park sign, you turn right here onto a long park entrance road (colored black) that more or less parallels the original British line from its left along a deep ravine and extending a mile and a half to the west. Follow the entrance road for this length until you reach the Park Visitor Center where you need to register and pay a five-dollar per car entrance fee. Then continue along the same road (now colored blue) which turns south toward the original American line. It passes a number of stop-offs , each marking where a major event of the battle – actually two battles – occurred in 1777, the first on September 19, and the second October 7.
The first stop-off is at Freeman’s Farm, far to the right of the British line, where Burgoyne on September 19 began a three-pronged sweep intending to turn the American left. It was anticipated by Benedict Arnold, however, who, overcoming Gates’ objection, had already advanced to meet the British spearhead. After a ferocious fight, Arnold had to withdraw, ceding the field to Burgoyne but not before preserving his own defensive position and inflicting heavy (and eventually unsustainable) losses on the British (see Chapter 15 of “Hasty History”).
Burgoyne, on the other hand, believes he has actually achieved a victory and prepares for a second assault. For the next several days after the battle at Freeman’s Farm, he has his troops erect a series of fortified redoubts all along his line where now are stop-offs #6, #7 and #9. These consisted of earthworks ten to twelve feet high laced with heavy logs, and with “hedgehogs” of interlaced pointed sticks in front (the early modern forerunner of WWI barbed wire). Each stretched several hundred yards and was equipped with protected embrasures for heavy artillery as well as infantry.
After Freeman’s Farm, and following on the bottom half of the site map above, drive further on for about a mile until you reach the Neilson House (stop-off #2), headquarters of the field officers just behind the American line, and then a short distance further east, the road leads to the far right of the American defense anchored on the high bluff above the Hudson River (stop-off #3). Now turn around and drive north on the same road, bearing right toward the Chatfield Farm (stop-off #4) from where, on October 7, American pickets spotted suspicious movements of Burgoyne’s army, indicating another attempt to turn the American left flank.
Here once more is the upper half of the site map showing where the decisive action of the continuing battle took place on October 7. From the Chatfield Farm, you now drive to stop-off #5, the Barber Wheat Field. General Burgoyne has just sent contingents of his army to this place, again off to his right, as he plans another assault on the American left. The field is full of ripened wheat, and the redcoats, so lacking in supplies, pause to reap this sudden bounty. They are observed by the American pickets who report this advance to their general officers gathered for mess back in Gates’ supreme headquarters (at the very bottom of the full site map).
General Arnold immediately insists upon sending out a sizable force to confront the British troops in the Barber field. General Gates becomes incensed at Arnold’s aggressive tone, impugning his own hesitance as indecisiveness. A fierce argument breaks out between them. Gates, the senior officer, explodes. He orders Arnold off the field and relieves him his command. Arnold cursing Gates stalks off. The other officers are aghast and urge both generals to cool it. Gates nevertheless does order three brigades forward to drive the British away, while Arnold retires to his quarters, sulking like Achilles. He writes a bitter letter resigning from the Continental army, but is persuaded by his other officers not to submit it.
The fighting quickly heats up. The redcoats are driven from the wheat field abandoning their booty, but do retreat in order into their long redoubts at stop-offs #6 and #7. Here they rally, especially behind the Balcarres Redoubt #6 (named after the British officer who supervised the construction). The American attack seems to falter before these impervious British defenses.
Meanwhile Benedict Arnold is watching from a window in the Neilson House. He is exceedingly agitated, drinking and pacing nervously. Finally, he can no longer stand the uncertainty of what he is observing. Suddenly, gulping another draft of rum, he races from the house, leaps on his horse tethered outside, and gallops furiously toward the battle. General Gates sees him pass and is horrified. He orders an adjutant to chase after Arnold and call him back, but too late.
Arnold then with raised sword wheels his horse into the American line, calling upon his old command to follow him. With a welcome cheer from the tired troops and even from the new flank commander, his former subordinate Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned, they fall in eagerly behind him in a re-energized assault. Arnold has also noticed a British officer, sitting high on his horse who obviously is rallying the British resistance. Arnold beckons to a near by New Hampshire sharp-shooter armed with a special long-range rifled musket and tells him to pick off the redcoat leader. The latter falls, mortally wounded. He is Brigadier Simon Fraser, Burgoyne’s most admired and valiant junior officer, as brave and charismatic as Arnold himself. When the other redcoat soldiers see him down, they begin to lose their elan, and start to fall back.
At this moment Arnold does another amazing feat, He races ahead of his troops, turns to the left and gallops right in front of the Balcarres Redoubt, all five hundred yards of it with eight cannon and a thousand muskets all firing point blank in his direction. He is even in front of his own men firing back at the redoubt. Miraculously neither he nor his horse are hit from either side; again his old command is inspired to follow. They turn to their left and drive through the lesser defenses between the Balcarres Redoubt and another two-hundred yard long redoubt at the extreme right of the British line.
This redoubt, stop-off #7, is commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Breymann and is manned by several hundred Braunschweig mercenaries. It is intended to be the anchor of Burgoyne’s right flank and Arnold instinctively realizes that this is the jugular of the entire British defensive position. As he breaches the line between the two redoubts and rushes with Learned’s troops toward Breymann’s defenders to attack them from behind, Colonel Daniel Morgan, Arnold’s other former brigade commander, swings his troops further left to attack the Breymann redoubt from the front. Their raging assault from both sides overwhelms the Germans who flee in panic, leaping over the parapets falling on their own hedgehog as well as American bayonets.
But Benedict Arnold is suddenly hit.
He is shot in his left leg, and his horse is simultaneously fatally struck, falling over and further shattering the already badly wounded limb. He has to be carried from the field, out of the fray at the very moment that Burgoyne’s army, its right flank destroyed by his valiant charge, is retreating to its last tenable position, the so-called Great Redoubt built at the river’s edge originally to protect the far left of the British line (stop-off #9). There the redcoats gather to consider their next move. They have no other choice; they must escape back to Fort Edward.
As you drive from stop-off #6, the Ballcarres Redoubt, to stop-off #7, the Breymann Redoubt, you are tracing Arnold’s heroic dash to get behind and attack the latter. If you walk up the path to the original site of the redoubt you will be standing exactly where Arnold and his soldiers fell upon the Germans from their rear. Press the button under the marker before you and hear a German accented voice plaintively describing the chaos as Arnold charged into the fort.
Now follow the path to the left for a few yards to a clump of trees where you will see the spot where Arnold was wounded, and also a unique and most peculiar memorial, a stone with no name carved on it, just a relief of a booted left leg. It was erected after Arnold’s infamous treachery , and so depicts the only part of his body still worthy of being honored here!
You have now re-experienced all the American highs during the Battle of Saratoga. As you head toward the Park exit, you might for a moment ponder the British lows. How devastated “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne must have felt! Holed up in his headquarters at stop-off #8, he watches as the remnants of his defeated army pour into the Great Redoubt (at stop-off #9)! What should he do next? First he has to bury his dear friend Brigadier Fraser (at stop-off #10), and then prepare the remainder of his army for a hasty retreat to the river crossing eight miles north at Saratoga. From there he might escape into friendlier country, and possibly make it all the way to Fort Ticonderoga.
To compound his army’s misery, the weather has become cold with heavy rain, turning the road to Saratoga into a gooey morass. As the tattered redcoats slogged in ankle-deep mud along what is now paved rte 4, the eager Americans are in hot pursuit, even closing off the river crossing before the British can reach it. Now, completely surrounded, Burgoyne realizes the jig is up. He calls for a “convention,” his still proud euphemism for what in fact is unconditional surrender.
Ten days after the battle , on October 17, he humbly presented his sword to General Horatio Gates. That classic gesture of military defeat was later recorded in a large painting by John Trumbull now hanging in the rotunda of the US capitol in Washington DC. Benedict Arnold is not depicted among the victorious American officers.
Driving home by way Schuylerville on rte 4, just before you reach the stoplight where you turn right onto rte 29 to head toward Massachusetts, you will see a sign on the left directing you up a side road to the Saratoga Monument. Take that left for a short distance and in a minute you will see a very tall structure commemorating the battle. Large niches, one above each of the four side entrance portals, contain bronze statues of the generals responsible for the victory: Horatio Gates, Daniel Morgan and Philip Schuyler. The fourth niche, intended for the most important of all the heroes of Saratoga, was deliberately left empty.
For Arnold’s fateful downfall after the Battle of Saratoga, see Chapter 16 of “Hasty History” above.
Start with the short drive to Bennington Center. When there, you have two options. Either elect to visit the three-hundred foot tall Battle Monument first, or later, after the battlefield itself. In any case before you set out, please re-read Chapter 13 above. On rte 7 just north of Wiliamstown, you’ll pass by on the left “River Bend Farm,” originally the house and inn of Colonel Benjamin Simonds. Imagine now that this is early August, 1777, and you’re following his militia regiment of “Berkshire Boys” marching along the same road to Bennington to join General John Stark who has just arrived from Brattleboro with a large contingent of New Hampshire militia in order to protect the community from a threatened British invasion. General John Burgoyne’s eight thousand red-coats were indeed currently advancing south along Lake Champlain and Lake George, intent on severing New England from the rest of the rebelling colonies.
You might then prefer to visit the Monument area first, because that’s where Stark’s and Simonds’ American troops were assembling around a large store of provisions, including horses, cattle and even bread baked in Williamstown. Rumor had it that Burgoyne might be sending a raiding party to seize these supplies. His own army, already far from its base in Canada and currently resting in Fort Edward after a long and grueling march was in dire need of food and horses. He had heard of the stores in Bennington, and erroneously assumed there was no American garrison there to guard them.
While you’re tarrying to contemplate what was about to happen, take a short walk to the Bennington Museum on rte 9 just before Monument Circle (the museum is open every day except Wednesday, 10am-5pm; and on all seven days during September and October. It’s closed in January and on all major holidays). Here you will see many exhibits related to the history of Bennington and vicinity, and also a collection of paintings by famous Hoosick Falls artist, Grandma Moses.
Also, stroll around the corner to the Old First Church of Bennington on Monument Drive. Browse for a few moments among the period stones in its famous cemetery; contemplate their mournful images and melancholy epitaphs, and likewise the grave there of Robert Frost. Cast another mournful look across the street at what remains of the once elegant, now abandoned Waloomsac Inn. In 1791, just after Vermont became the fourteenth state in the union with Bennington as its first capital, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison lodged there while visiting the new governor.
Now take a further short walk down Monument Avenue past several vintage houses, until you spot on the left a mounted bronze statue of a mountain lion. It replaces an actual stuffed “catamount” as called in Vermont, that once served as the sign of the Catamount Tavern, a popular pub run by Landlord Stephen Fay during the mid-1700s, and the notorious hangout of the “Green Mountain Boys. This was a rowdy gang of local farmers led by Ethan Allen, bitter foe of New York which claimed Vermont within its own colonial boundaries, and that Allen and his Boys were squatters who should be evicted from their New Hampshire-granted lands . That’s why the catamount faces menacingly in the direction of New York – a story for yet another summer tour which I’ll present to you later.
For purposes of this trip, however, the former Catamount Tavern was also the place where General Stark held a war council on the eve of August 16, 1777 when he learned that a raiding party was indeed marching toward Bennington. He quickly decided to head off the British before they reached the town, reasoning that the enemy must be approaching along the road from Cambridge, NY. His scouts in fact reported that a force of some seven hundred “Hessian” (actually Braunschweiger) mercenaries and another hundred or so Indians and loyalist Tories had taken up positions on a hill just above the Walloomsac River near the village of North Hoosick, NY, then called Sancoik. General Stark with his fifteen hundred New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts volunteers decided to engage the enemy there and attack him simultaneously from three sides.
Now you can drive north again on rte 7, and turn left on rte 67 for eight more miles to the actual battle park. This is the same route that Stark’s troops followed to confront the Germans. You will pass several historical plaques along side the road designating the progress of the American army. One marks the place where the Braunschweig commander, Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum, died after being mortally wounded during the fight.
The entrance to the park itself is well-marked on the right side of the highway just before the village of North Hoosick. Unfortunately for state budgetary reasons, the site is no longer in full operation. While the gate is still open from 10am to 7pm every day this summer, the former park headquarters is closed, and a single attendant is on duty at the site only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Nevertheless there are a number of plaques and maps displayed there which explain the course of the battle. You might even be interested in returning on August 16 of this year, to help celebrate the 234th anniversary of the event, and witness a colorful reenactment by local buffs dressed in period uniforms and armed with eighteenth-century muskets.
As you will read in Chapter 13 above, the American coordinated assault completely overwhelmed the Germans. The Americans, elated with their victory, then dispersed to collect the loot littering the field. At that moment however, unbeknownst to them, another fresh enemy regiment was just arriving; more Braunschweigers under Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann who suddenly fell upon the disorganized Americans and almost turned the tide. But just as suddenly, an equally fresh contingent of Green Mountain Boys under command of Colonel Seth Warner, cousin of Ethan Allen (who was at the time a prisoner of war, having been captured by the British at Montreal in 1775) rushed upon Breymann’s troops and routed them as well. In all, it was a glorious double victory. Nearly a thousand German mercenaries were taken prisoner, depriving General Burgoyne’s ever weakening army of nearly an eighth of its total. In fact, the demoralizing defeat at Bennington significantly contributed to the final surrender of Burgoyne’s entire force at Saratoga two months later (the objective of our forthcoming blue tour), the decisive battle that finally changed the course of the Revolution to America’s favor.
As you return to Williamstown, contemplate what you might have witnessed right after the battle along the same route: a long line of disheveled German prisoners, handcuffed two-by-two, plodding dejectedly into distant captivity (a camp near Boston). Gawking local bystanders had never seen such a sight before. Not even a herd of “rhinoceroses” could have aroused more curiosity, one wag supposedly remarked.
As the captives neared Williamstown, one of the Germans – his name was Johan Hintersass – escaped. He hid out in the woods near what is now White Oaks Road, and was still there after the war. He even built a cabin for himself at the end of a trail north of town, and became a well regarded local citizen. He married, raised a family and worked as a groundskeeper at Williams College. Meanwhile, he Anglicized his name, from “Hintersass” to “Henderson.” The town eventually paved the trail that once led to his cabin and in memoriamcalled it “Henderson Road.”