Sunday, June 28, 2020

Episode 155 Battle of Bennington




Last week, we left off with General John Stark’s New Hampshire militia army marching to occupy Bennington, Vermont, where the Americans maintained a supply depot.  At the same time, German Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum led a force of over one thousand loyalists and Germans detached from Burgoyne’s army to capture Bennington.

Alert listeners may have noticed a trend that when two opposing armies try to occupy the same town, a battle usually occurs.  That will be the case today as the two armies clash in what became known as the Battle of Bennington.

Cambridge

As I mentioned last week, Colonel Baum’s column moved slowly through the wilderness.  They left Fort Miller on the Hudson River on August 11, 1777.  Two days later, an advance force of about fifty Indians had reached Cambridge, New York, a small village of a few houses just over 15 miles away.  Baum’s main column was still in transit.

In Bennington, less than twenty miles from Cambridge, General John Stark received word of enemy warriors in Cambridge and that they were the vanguard of a larger enemy column.  Stark deployed about two hundred men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Gregg to reconnoiter the enemy and intercept any advancing scouting parties.  That evening, August 13, Gregg’s force set up camp at a grist mill just outside of Cambridge.

Battle of Bennington (from RevWar US)
The next morning, Baum’s column was up before dawn and on the march.  By around 8:00 AM on the 14th, the advance of his column reached Cambridge.  Gregg’s patriots opened fire on the enemy but quickly retreated into the woods before doing any damage.  Baum reported only one Indian warrior wounded.  As the British column repaired the bridge that had been destroyed, an optimistic Colonel Baum said that he had made contact with the enemy and that he continued to advance on Bennington, with an expected arrival in two days.

In response to Baum’s request for reinforcements, sent several days earlier when he received his first intelligence about the size of the enemy, General Burgoyne had ordered the deployment another German, Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breymann at the head of about 600 more Brunswicker soldiers.  Breymann’s column, however, did not leave until August 15th.  The slow moving relief column was on its way, but would not be able to catch up with Baum’s column for several days.  Baum continued on toward Bennington.  He was not certain that the enemy was as large as his intelligence suggested, and even if it was, they were just local militia, who probably would not stand and fight.  Waiting for reinforcements would only give the enemy time to remove the supplies at Bennington that Baum wanted to capture.

As Baum advanced that day, his men ran into another minor skirmish with the militia.  One Mohawk Chief who led too far in advance of the lines was killed.  Baum had about 100 Native American warriors with him, but relations were not good.  The Indians tended to be in the forefront and took most of the casualties.  They also frequently stopped to loot.  What booty they did not want themselves, they often tried to sell to the army.  Baum, however, did not have cash to pay them. Indians who had captured most of the horses so far, simply drove them off or killed them rather than let their allies have them for free.

Baum advancing on Bennington (from Bennington Museum)
Baum’s force continued to advance, but quickly ran into more of the enemy.  American Colonel Gregg had sent word to General Stark that they had made contact with the enemy.  Stark deployed more soldiers to advance and challenge the German offensive.  He also called for reinforcements from the Continentals posted at Manchester.

By the end of the day on August 14th Colonel Baum had placed his men and artillery in a defensive position on a hill just to the east of Cambridge.  The two sides both sent out skirmishers to probe the enemy lines and determine the position and strength of the enemy.  Late in the day, and continuing all day on the 15th, a downpour kept both armies contained.  Both were waiting for reinforcements anyway.

While there were no major clashes on the 15th, the Americans reported killing about 30 Indian warriors.  The British speculated that the Americans were targeting the Indians for revenge.  The memory of Jane McCrea’s murder and the slaughter of other locals was still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Most of the Indians who were not killed, thought this was an opportune time to go home.  They had more loot than they could carry.  Their allies were not interested in buying any of their prizes, and they had no interest in hanging around for a major battle where they might be used as cannon fodder by their allies.  Those who did remain were discouraged and remained behind with the baggage.  At the same time most of the Indians were leaving, local loyalists added more than one hundred volunteers to supplement Baum’s forces.

On the other side, General Stark pulled in more of his own militia.  He also received a group of Stockbridge Indians from Massachusetts who had marched out along with other Massachusetts militia and Continentals led by Colonel Seth Warner to support the New Hampshire militia.

The Battle

When the weather finally cleared on the morning of the morning of August 16, the two armies prepared for battle.  Baum had put his German dragoons on the high ground, forming a redoubt at the top of a hill.  His cannons covered the bridge they would need for their retreat back to Cambridge if necessary.  He deployed his few remaining Indians as well as several hundred loyalist volunteers in a second defensive redoubt further to the south.  This second redoubt was somewhat removed and isolated from the main force and would be the first target of attack by the Americans.

Stark had held a council of war with his colonels on the night of August 14 to develop a plan of attack. Because the 15th was so rainy, they waited until the 16th to put their plan into action.  Stark divided his army into four divisions.  He knew that he outnumbered the enemy and hoped to hit the entrenched defenders from multiple sides at once.  Lieutenant Colonel Moses Nichols would lead 250 New Hampshire soldiers on a march around the enemy’s left flank so that they could attack the German redoubt from the North East.  At the same time Vermont Colonel Samuel Herrick would take 300 soldiers around the enemy’s right flank, ford the Walloomsac River and attack the enemy from the south. Colonels Thomas Stickney and David Hobart would take more New Hampshire Militia and directly assault the loyalist redoubt from the southeast.  Stark would personally lead a 300 man force to storm the German redoubt in a frontal assault from the southeast as well.

By the afternoon of the 16th, the men were ready for battle.  General Stark gave a short speech to motivate his men.  He pointed to the enemy and, referencing his wife, said something to the effect of “There are the redcoats and loyalists, and they are ours or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight.

The attack was set to begin at 3:00 PM.  Colonel Nichols made a last minute request for reinforcements and received another 100 men.  Since Nichols had the longest march, the orders were for him to attack when in position. The sound of the gunfire would be the signal for the other divisions to attack.

Nichols and Herrick both hit the German redoubt with a sudden opening volley.  Firing on both sides opened up.  Stark described it as the hottest engagement he had ever witnessed, like a continuous clap of thunder.  The Americans outnumbered the Germans, but the Germans held the high ground and were backed by cannons.

The intense fire only lasted for a matter of minutes before the Americans charged the redoubt and engaged in a vicious hand to hand combat with the defenders.  The Germans broke ranks and fled down the hill with the enemy in pursuit.  The battle devolved into chaotic hand to hand combat between men fighting with swords, bayonets, and using their muskets as clubs.  Within a half hour the German redoubt had collapsed, with all the defenders dead or prisoners.

Battle (from Bennington Museum)
In the loyalist redoubt about 250 loyalists were entrenched on high ground led by Lieutenant Colonel John Peters of the Queen’s Loyal Rangers.  Stafford’s Americans approached the redoubt through a ravine that prevented the enemy from seeing their approach.  When the Americans attacked, they were practically inside the redoubt.  Colonel Stafford ordered the Americans to charge, but was shot down in the first volley.  He soon realized he was just hit in the foot and stood back up to continue to rally his men.

The fighting at this redoubt was some of the fiercest.  These loyalists and patriots were often men who had grown up together in the region and knew each other well.  One of the men who shot Stafford later said that he knew him personally but still took careful aim to drop him.  He was stunned when Stafford stood up again after he thought he had killed his former friend.

As Colonel Peters rallied his loyalist defenders, he heard an enemy shout “Peters, you damned Tory, I have got you” as he bayoneted Peters in the chest.  Peters recognized his attacker as his old schoolmate, and now patriot militia Captain Jeremiah Post.  Peters fired his musket at Post at point blank range, killing him instantly.

With the German dragoon and loyalist redoubts overrun, General Stark could focus almost all of his divisions on the remaining central defensive position under the command of Colonel Baum himself.  Baum’s remaining Brunswickers were heavily outnumbered and quickly running out of ammunition.  They realized that they could not hold out for reinforcements.  Baum ordered a desperate charge into the enemy lines in an attempt to break out and retreat.  The Americans did not give way, leading to more hand to hand combat with swords, bayonets, and muskets used as clubs in a desperate struggle for survival.  Colonel Baum took a bullet during this fighting and collapsed with a mortal wound. The remaining Germans still alive had to surrender, with only a few scattered soldiers escaping into the woods.

Breymann’s Relief Column

By 5:00 PM, the battle was over except for the Americans hunting down a few enemy soldiers hiding in the woods.  Baum’s Loyalist leader, Philip Skene had left before the battle began, trying to find von Breymann’s relief column and get them to hurry forward.

Battlefield Map (from RevWar US)
The night before Breymann had camped about seven miles from Cambridge.  After the battle, Breymann would take criticism for not reaching Baum in time to support him.  Many historians have pointed out that Baum and Breymann did not like each other, and that Breymann might have deliberately moved slowly in order to let Baum fail.  But it had taken Baum three days to march as far as he did. Breymann made that same march in two days.  His men were similarly clothed in a way that was not suited for wilderness marching, and several rather large field cannons with him had to be hauled over hills and across streams.  Remember also that the 15th, when he left, was a day of hard driving rain, so hard that the two sides did not even attempt battle.  Breymann’s relief column had to march through that same storm.

Still a few miles from the battle scene, Breymann met up with Skene and a few other Tories who had escaped battle.  Skene told Breymann that the battle was still raging and that he should hurry his reinforcements forward to battle.  Breymann began to deploy his soldiers when a group of armed men on horses rode toward them.  Skene told Breymann they were loyalists, but it turned out they were not. They men fired on the Germans, killing Breymann’s horse and wounding the colonel.

Angered, Breymann ordered his men forward, and brought up his field cannons.  Most of the Americans were still miles away, engaged in mopping up operations.  They were looting Baum’s supplies as well as the dead and wounded enemy.  The small patriot force under Colonel Herrick that engaged with Breymann was far outnumbered and began to retreat back toward the main army.  Since the Americans were mostly armed with rifles, they could inflict devastating fire on the pursuing Germans, while keeping enough distance that the Germans armed with muskets could not effectively return fire.  Breymann’s officers were particular targets for the American riflemen, and took a disproportionate number of the casualties.

Prisoners after the battle (from Bennington Museum)
With the superior numbers and use of artillery, the German relief force moved forward.  Miles away, a messenger reached General Stark to inform him of the enemy relief column headed his way.  Stark had to scurry to reorganize his militia.  He had not taken many casualties in the first battle, but many of his men were either off looting, or removing prisoners back away from the battlefield.  His army had lost all its organization and now he faced a new incoming army of unknown size.

Colonel Seth Warner had arrived on the scene ahead of his reinforcements, who were still marching from Manchester.  Warner worked with General Stark to set up skirmish lines with the soldiers available.  Hearing the firing, more militia dropped what they were doing and rushed to the sound of battle, giving the Americans more troops.  Even so, the Germans still outnumbered the American defenders.  Breymann detached a regiment under Major von Barner to turn the American right flank.  As the Germans attempted to flank the American line, Warner’s 130 Continentals and another 200 rangers arrived at the battle in time to push back the Germans.  Breymann sent in another several hundred men to flank the Americans but found they could not do so.

After several hours of fighting, the German relief force realized that Baum’s forces were already gone.  They had taken heavy casualties themselves, and were in danger of being overrun.  By 8:00 PM the sun was setting.  Breymann ordered his soldiers to retreat.  They abandoned their cannons, their carts, even their wounded, as men fled the field.  A third of his force was killed or captured.  Breymann escaped with his wounds and marched his remaining force back toward Burgoyne’s army.

Aftermath

The battle had been a brutal one, especially for the Germans.  Nearly all of Baum’s army was killed or captured.  Von Breymann’s relief column lost a third of their men.  In total, the Americans took over 700 prisoners, including 30 officers.  Only nine of Baum’s soldiers escaped capture.  Another two hundred or so loyalists were also killed or captured.  Native American casualties were not recorded, but were a high proportion of those involved as well.  Of the nearly two thousand men committed to the battle, Burgoyne’s forces took a nearly 50% casualty rate.  Instead of capturing much needed weapons, supplies and horses, they had lost around a thousand irreplaceable soldiers, as well as a few of their cannons.  By contrast, the Americans had suffered only about thirty killed and forty or fifty wounded.  Among the dead was Seth Warner’s brother Jesse.

The Americans treated the Germans and the few British regulars captured as prisoners of war, Many wounded went untreated for days, and some reported a few prisoners killed by their guards.  But most of the Germans capable of walking were marched back to Bennington.  After a few days, the Americans marched the captives to Boston where they were held as prisoners of war.

Bennington Memorial (from Wikimedia)
The Indians and Tories did not fare quite as well.  I’ve actually read no accounts of Indian prisoners.  Any wounded on the battlefield were likely dispatched where they lay.  The loyalist prisoners were considered criminals.  The level of hatred against former friends and neighbors, sometimes even relatives, had reached such intensity that there was no respect for prisoners of war.  Many were marched back to Bennington to be tried as traitors and hanged.  There are also quite a few accounts of large numbers of prisoners being tomahawked or shot in the back of the head rather than being taken anywhere.  Some thought a quick death was too good for them and dragged prisoners to death behind horses.

General Stark became a national hero.  Patriots toasted his victory across the country.  New Hampshire’s Assembly awarded their hero general a new suit.  Less than two months later, the Continental Congress finally commissioned Stark as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.  Stark’s army did not fare quite as well.  His 1500 man force remained in the area for a few weeks.  During that time, a measles epidemic swept through the camp.  About half of his force either died or became unfit for duty as a result.

For the British, the battle was devastating.  It meant the loss of most of Burgoyne’s remaining Indian auxiliaries. Those who survived, returned home.  The loss of the Brunswickers and loyalists eliminated about one-sixth of his total army, soldiers that he could not replace nor afford to lose.

The two surviving leaders, Colonel von Breymann and Philip Skene, blamed each other for the loss.  Skene was highly critical of how slow Breymann moved to relieve Colonel Baum.  Had he arrived earlier in the day, he could have provided the necessary reinforcements.  Breymann attacked Skene for telling him that Baum still needed rescuing, even though Baum’s army had already been defeated.  Breymann said that, had he known that, he never would have taken his men into battle against a superior army.

Following Bennington, Burgoyne, who had up until that time used Skene as a trusted advisor on local issues, no longer sought his counsel.  Skene and Colonel von Breymann both remained with the army as it continued its march south.

- - -

Next  Episode 156 The Siege of Fort Henry (Available July 5, 2020)

Previous Episode 154 John Stark Raises an Army

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Further Reading

Websites

Battle of Bennington: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/bennington

Battle of Bennington: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/battle-of-bennington

Battle of Bennington: https://www.britishbattles.com/war-of-the-revolution-1775-to-1783/battle-of-bennington

Barbieri, Michael "Bennington Fatally Delays Burgoyne" Journal of the American Revolution, June 11, 2013: https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/06/bennington-fatally-delays-burgoyne

Hargreaves, Reginald “Burgoyne and America's Destiny” American Heritage Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 4, June 1956: https://www.americanheritage.com/burgoyne-and-americas-destiny

The Bennington Battle Monument: https://www.benningtonbattlemonument.com

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Anbury, Thomas Travel through Various Parts of North America, Vol. 1, William Lane, 1789.

Baster, James (ed) The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.

Bird, Harrison March To Saratoga General Burgoyne And The American Campaign 1777,
Oxford Univ. Press, 1963

Brandow, John H. The story of old Saratoga; the Burgoyne campaign, to which is added New York's share in the revolution, Brandow Printing, 1919.

Clay, Steven E. Staff Ride Handbook for the Saratoga Campaign, 13 June to 8 November 1777, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2018 (US Army Website):.

Eelking, Max von, (translated by Stone, William L.) Memoirs of Major General Riedesel, Vol. 1, J. Munsell, 1868.

Hall, Henry Davis The Battle of Bennington, Monpelier, 1896.

Hadden, James Hadden's Journal and Orderly Books, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1884.

Hudleston, Francis J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne : misadventures of an English general in the Revolution, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.

Luzader, John Decision on the Hudson, National Park Service, 1975.

Moore, Howard P. A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire, New York self-published, 1949.

Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise, Freifrau von Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga, Joel Munsell, 1867.

Stone, William Leete, The Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne  and the expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger, Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1877.

Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777; the Saratoga Monument Association, 1856-1891, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1891.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Furneaux, Rupert The Battle of Saratoga, Stein and Day 1971.

Gabriel, Michael P. The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers & Civilians, History Press, 2012 (book recommendation of the week).

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Henry Holt & Co, 1997.

LaBree, Clifton New Hampshire's General John Stark, Peter E. Randall, 2007.

Logusz, Michael O. With Musket and Tomahawk, The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777, Casemate Publishing, 2010

Luzader, John F. Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, Casemate Publishers, 2008

Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, Yale Univ. Press, 1990.

Polhemus, Richard & John Stark; The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General, Black Dome Press, 2014.

Rose, Ben Z. John Stark: Maverick General, Treeline Press, 2007

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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