This Day in History: Brigadier General Stark’s victory at Bennington
On this day in 1777, Brigadier General John Stark writes a letter, reporting on his stunning victory at the Battle of Bennington.
It was an important victory for the Patriot cause.
Americans were then fighting off British General John Burgoyne, who was moving from Canada to Albany. Along the way, Burgoyne was running into supply problems. He dispatched a force toward Vermont, hoping to obtain more horses and meat.
Burgoyne gave command of the force to Lt. Colonel Friedrich Baum, a German officer who didn’t speak a word of English. Baum was told to head to Bennington; Burgoyne believed that the supply depot there was lightly defended.
Except it wasn’t. Stark was on his way to Bennington.
The two sides briefly encountered each other on August 14. Baum realized that he was up against a larger force than anticipated. He decided to entrench his men in a defensive posture while he waited for reinforcements. Except he did a poor job of organizing his men.
“[H]is forces were widely scattered,” historian Michael P. Gabriel reports, “and could not support one another if attacked.” Perhaps worse, Baum was too trusting of people who came to his camp, claiming to be Loyalists. “It seems highly likely that some, if not many, of those who entered Baum’s position and then left were actually spies working for Stark,” Gabriel concludes.
In the meantime, Stark had his own camp outside Bennington. More men were constantly dribbling in, and he probably had about 2,000 men by August 15.
Nothing of consequence happened on the 15th because of a heavy rain, but the weather improved on the 16th. Stark launched a multi-pronged attack, with tough words still ringing in his men’s ears. Reportedly, he told them: “Tonight our flag floats over yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
Needless to say, the battle did not go well for Baum. In fact, it took his forces a bit to even realize that they were being attacked. When Stark’s ragtag soldiers first approached, Baum at first believed them to be Loyalists about to join his cause.
Um, not exactly.
The battle raged for two hours. Stark later described the ferocity with which it was fought. He said it was “the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed, resembling a continual clap of thunder.” Baum was shot in the abdomen. He fell, mortally wounded. The battle was soon over.
Well, at least, it seemed to be. Except then it wasn’t. Baum’s reinforcements arrived, not knowing that their comrades were retreating. Stark soon received reinforcements, too, when Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys showed up. Can you believe that a second round of the battle was fought, with the help of these reinforcements?
“[T]he Action began very warm and desperate, which lasted till Night,” Stark later reported, “we us’d their own Cannon against them, which proved of great Service to us. at Sunset we obliged them to retreat a second Time, we pursued them till dark, when I was obliged to halt for fear of killing my own Men.”
Americans had won an important victory. Burgoyne lost too many men at Bennington—and he never received the supplies that he needed. The defeat undermined him, contributing to his later loss at the Battle of Saratoga. That battle, in turn, would convince the French to join America as allies in the war.
Another victory, just when Americans needed it most.
Caleb Stark, Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark (1877)
Michael P. Gabriel, The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers & Civilians (2012)
Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)