Bennington Raid

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Bennington Raid

BENNINGTON RAID. 6-16 August 1777. When Burgoyne's forces reached Fort Edward and Fort George on 29 July, two British weaknesses were already apparent. The most obvious problem was logistical—it would be impossible to sustain the offensive with just the supplies that came from Canadian bases. Lines of communications were already 185 miles long and would grow as the army marched south. And, as they kept discovering without ever learning the lesson, the popular support promised by Loyalist leaders in exile did not materialize.

German General Baron Friedrich Riedesel proposed on 22 July that an expedition be sent by way of Castleton and Clarendon into the Connecticut Valley, where horses were reported to be available. Although other foraging was important, Burgoyne needed mounts for the 250 Brunswick dragoons then serving on foot and (more importantly) draft horses and oxen to help haul the wagons and artillery overland, since boats could no longer be used. On 31 July, Burgoyne gave Riedesel preliminary instructions to plan the raid, but in fact he ordered a much more ambitious expedition. Burgoyne's concept of the operation was based on the erroneous belief that Seth Warner had fallen back from Manchester to Bennington. He wanted the raid to push further south so that it would end closer to the main body as it moved toward Albany. The easy capture of Ticonderoga left Burgoyne confident in his regulars' invincibility. Riedesel, who had personally experienced the tough fighting at Hubbardton, was more cautious but was overruled.

Final instructions came on 10 August, when Riedesel briefed Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum on the mission—proceed to Bennington, destroy the American magazine there, and collect horses and oxen. The move would also rally Loyalists and produce recruits to fill Lieutenant Colonel John Peters's Queen's Loyal Rangers. Because Baum spoke neither English nor French, several bilingual British officers accompanied the expedition as translators. The expedition was to start from the Hudson opposite Saratoga (the mouth of Batten Kill), move east to Arlington, follow the Batten Kill upstream to Manchester, and cross the mountains to Rockingham on the Connecticut River. After remaining there "as long as necessary," the foragers were to descend the river to Brattleboro and march west to Albany. Burgoyne expected the operation to take about two weeks.

Baum was field commander of Brunswick's Dragoner Regiment Prinz Ludwig. (Riedesel himself was its colonel, while the honorary chief was Prinz Ludwig Ernst of Braunschweig.) The regiment's four troops formed the nucleus of the expedition. Total strength assigned to the task force was about 800, of whom 374 were Germans (all Brunswickers except for about 30 Hesse Hanau artillerymen). The German strength can be further broken down as follows: 170 rank and file from the dragoons (70 were left behind); 100 infantrymen, most of them elite jägers or Breymann's grenadiers; and the gunners with two three-pounders. The only British regulars were Captain Alexander Fraser's company of about 50 marksmen. Loyalists, Canadians, and Indians—about 100 of each—completed the force. Flaws in Burgoyne's planning included the language barrier (and the related inability to "read" a situation by noticing subtle cultural points), overconfidence, and the use of the slow-moving dismounted dragoons and grenadiers on an operation that should have valued speed.

AMERICAN DISPOSITIONS

The fall of Ticonderoga and the Jane McCrea atrocity became sources for propaganda that aroused New England and New York. Furthermore, for nearly a century the people of southern New England had understood that their safety could best be insured by stopping attacks from Canada well to the north of Albany, especially since an invasion like Burgoyne's could either go south along the Hudson or turn east to the Connecticut Valley. So they mobilized in strength.

New Hampshire turned to John Stark to lead its contingent. He was available, having angrily resigned his Continental commission in March and accepted a state brigadier general appointment (17 July) on the provision that his command remain independent of orders from Congress. Stark took only a week to raise about fifteen hundred men, and by the 30th he had started moving toward Manchester. Seth Warner's Vermonters, in accordance with their last order at Hubbardton, "Scatter and meet me at Manchester," were already there. Also on hand was Continental Major General Benjamin Lincoln, sparking a new crisis.

STARK'S INSUBORDINATION

Lincoln was sent to command the American forces being raised by New England in this region, and he had orders from General Philip Schuyler to have Stark's brigade join the main body on the Hudson. Stark, who had resigned in part because Lincoln's appointment came at the expense of his own seniority, objected. Lincoln handled the problem with remarkable skill. If Stark could not be commanded as a subordinate, some use might still be made of him and his independent brigade by treating him as an ally. Finding that Stark wished to cut in on Burgoyne's left rear, Lincoln agreed to this plan and persuaded Schuyler to go along.

BAUM'S APPROACH

Fraser's Advance Corps had moved eight miles from Fort Edward to Fort Miller on 9 August to give Baum a more advanced jumping-off point. On 11 August, Baum advanced from Fort Miller to the mouth of the Batten Kill, a march of only four miles. He wasted the 12th, but on the 13th pushed fifteen miles southeast to camp at New Cambridge. He also suffered his first casualty when a Loyalist was wounded in a small skirmish. On this same day Burgoyne started crossing the Hudson with his main body and headed for the battlefields of Saratoga.

When Stark learned that Indians were in Cambridge, he sent two hundred men from Bennington, about eighteen road miles away, to check them. By evening Stark had learned that enemy regulars were approaching in strength behind the Indians, and he prepared to move with his brigade the next morning, the 14th. Simultaneously, he sent Warner word to move immediately from Manchester to Bennington, a distance of about twenty miles. The local militia also mobilized. Baum's own scouts learned that Bennington was occupied by eighteen hundred militia, not four hundred, and he sent word back to Burgoyne, along with a promise to advance cautiously.

THE BATTLE OF BENNINGTON

Baum resumed his march about dawn on the 14th and after about two hours reached a mill known as Sancoick's (at what was later North Hoosick), where the Little White Creek flows into the Walloomsac River. Colonel William Gregg, at the head of Stark's two-hundred-man advance party, had spent the night there. As Baum approached, the men fired one volley and fell back. After detailing a small guard of Loyalists to guard the mill and its supplies and repairing a damaged bridge, Baum pushed on several more miles, following the course of the Walloomsac. About four miles from Bennington he found Stark waiting with his brigade. Stark had occupied commanding high ground overlooking the river; Baum could not maneuver around that blocking position, so he took up a defensive posture and sent another messenger back to Burgoyne requesting reinforcements. The rest of the 14th saw minor skirmishing between patrols. While no Germans fell, the Canadians, Loyalists, and Indians started losing men, and their morale began to drop.

Before darkness fell on the 14th, Baum committed three crucial errors. First, by asking for reinforcements to reach Bennington, he used wording that Burgoyne reasonably interpreted as good news (see below). Second, although he knew that he was outnumbered by more than two to one and was 25 miles from friendly forces, Baum did not withdraw. Finally, the way he occupied the ground invited defeat in detail. Because he still assumed that he would keep moving along the road towards Bennington, he placed 150 men (mostly Loyalists) on the American side of the river to protect a bridge. They erected a hasty breastwork later referred to as the Tory Redoubt on a small rise about 250 yards southeast of the crossing. Other men occupied cabins on both sides of the river, while the west side of the bridge was covered by 50 German infantrymen, about 25 British marksmen, and one three-pounder in hasty entrenchments.

Baum's main position was on the hill overlooking the river crossing from further back on the west bank. In what became known as the Dragoon Redoubt were the dragoons, the other half of Captain Fraser's British marksmen, and the second three-pounder; the two hundred rank and file at this position represented Baum's largest cohesive unit. Three other posts supported the two redoubts. To keep the Americans from infiltrating through an area on the right bank, which could not be seen from the Dragoon Redoubt, fifty jägers set up a strongpoint. A fifth position was located back along the road to Sancoick's Mill, about one thousand yards from the vital river crossing; here, fifty German infantrymen and some Tories were deployed in a field with the mission of guarding to the rear. The Indians were grouped on a plateau northwest of the dragoons.

REINFORCEMENTS

Burgoyne was awakened before dawn of the 15th with Baum's request for reinforcements. He saw nothing alarming in this and dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Christoph Breymann with most of the rest of the Brunswick Advance Corps, probably about 650 officers and men. This included another contingent of Breymann's grenadier battalion, most of Major Ferdinand Albrecht Bärner's Chasseur Battalion, and another detachment of the Hesse-Hanau Artillery Company under Lieutenant Spangenburg with two English six-pounders. They covered about half the distance to Baum that day and stopped for the night in the woods.

Warner had gotten Stark's request for reinforcement on the 14th, but a considerable number of his men were off on patrol, and he did not start for Bennington until the morning of the 15th. He had 350 men; although their speed was considerably better than Breymann's, and the distance about the same, they also were slowed by the rain. Warner joined Stark the evening of the 15th, and around midnight his troops camped about six miles (two hours' march) behind him. Other militia from Berkshire County, Massachusetts, followed. Neither side's reinforcements arrived in time to take part in the first phase of the battle of 16 August.

BAUM'S DEFEAT

The same rain that slowed the advance of the reinforcements also kept Stark from attacking on Friday, 15 August, since it would have neutralized his one tactical asset, musketry. But American reconnaissance patrols probed every part of Baum's perimeter and came back with accurate knowledge of his positions. They also picked off about thirty men, including two Indian leaders.

By daybreak on the 16th, Stark realized he now held a three to one advantage and decided to attack. Dividing his force into three columns, one to fix the center and the others to execute a double envelopment, he started forward about noon. Colonel Benjamin Nichols led two hundred men in the right arm of the pincers, marching four miles along the wooded high ground and taking up a position to hit the Dragoon Redoubt from the north. The other enveloping force, three hundred strong under Colonel Samuel Herrick, forded the Walloomsac, swung south around the bridgehead by masking themselves behind a ridgeline, and then crossed back over to come up on Baum from the west. The third column advanced down the road using two hundred men to double envelop the Tory Redoubt (with Colonel David Hobart on the left and Colonel Thomas Stickney on the right). Another one hundred demonstrated against Baum's front.

Baum had been sending out small mounted patrols during the morning, and when the rain stopped around noon he could see parties of Americans leave Stark's bivouac from his exceptionally fine observation post in the Dragoon Redoubt. Tradition says that he had drawn the unfortunate conclusion that they were retreating, and that when small bodies of armed men later approached, he mistook them for Tories seeking protection. Surviving German sources do not support that assumption. What is certain is that somewhere around 1 p.m., portions of Baum's perimeter started taking heavy firing. The Indians and some of the Canadians and Loyalists broke and started to flee. One of the cannon fell silent as American snipers eliminated its crew. About 3 p.m. the fighting became general. Nichols and Herrick overran the main position from the north and west, while Hobart's and Stickney's men, having disposed of the Tory Redoubt, came in from the south and east. Stark moved out of the bivouac area with another twelve hundred or thirteen hundred troops to make the main effort down the Bennington Road. At this time or somewhat earlier he shouted to his men, "We'll beat them before night, or Molly Stark will be a widow." Baum's own redoubt held out until about 5 p.m., when ammunition started running out and he fell mortally wounded. Without his leadership, resistance collapsed. Those survivors who could escape started racing west for the safety of the relief column.

BREYMANN'S DEFEAT

The slow-moving German relief column had not started moving (due to the rain) until 9 a.m., and when it reached Sancoick's Mill about 4 in the afternoon, it found refugees from Baum's command, who gave widely disparate accounts of the situation. Although the Dragoon Redoubt was only four miles on a beeline from the mill, Breymann later reported that he heard no sound of firing; this was apparently a case of "acoustic shadow." The tired Germans resumed their march from the mill on the assumption that Baum was still holding out, and their flank patrols on the high ground left of the road drove off the small militia bands that attempted to stop their progress.

Stark's command was in a poor situation to meet this new threat: his men had scattered to chase fugitives or guard prisoners. But Warner's column (about three hundred men) took up pursuit as it came onto the battlefield and made contact with Breymann about a mile beyond the ford, near the village later known as Walloomsac. He fell back at contact in order to occupy a better position on high ground. One of the Germans later talked of the opening of this phase of the fight as being a situation in which the relief column "ran into the fire at full speed." The Americans quickly realized that they outnumbered Breymann by four or five to one and began trying to work around his flanks and rear.

Although they might be called "fresh troops" in the sense that they had not yet done any serious fighting, the reinforcements of Breymann and Warner had experienced an exhausting march in oppressively hot, muggy weather. They nevertheless engaged with vigor, and Breymann actually advanced almost a mile. But then the tide turned as he started running low on ammunition and casualties started mounting. About sunset Breymann started a fighting withdrawal. He had to abandon both of his artillery pieces when all the horses fell but did bring off a large number of his wounded.

Wounded in the leg and with five bullet holes in his clothes, Breymann personally commanded the rear guard action that permitted two-thirds of his command to escape after dark. The ubiquitous Philip Skene also conducted himself bravely in this action. Stark wisely ordered his men to break contact and not attempt a pursuit after dark, when it would have been impossible to maintain any control and Americans would have been shooting each other.

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

Historians disagree on the American casualties in this running engagement, generally citing somewhere between 40 and 70 killed and wounded. The most reliable numbers, however, are the ones contained in Stark's official after-action report: 14 killed and 42 wounded. The raiders left 207 dead on the field, and about 700 prisoners (including 32 officers and staff) were taken. The dragoons bore the brunt of the fighting, but the Loyalists also paid a heavy price; the Indians had taken off early in the action and it appears that most of the British marksmen got away as well. Stark captured all four of the Germans' cannon plus a large array of other weapons and equipment.

SIGNIFICANCE

Tradition tends to magnify the remarkable American victory at Bennington. Clearly, the mission assigned by Burgoyne was too optimistic, and the composition of the task force in retrospect seems flawed. But it is a bit misleading to condemn Burgoyne and his subordinates for underestimating the size of the American forces massing at Bennington, since that judgment assumes that invading armies of that era had greater ability than they actually did to carry out effective military intelligence operations. Both columns of Germans fought quite well—they just erred in standing and fighting while they still had a chance to withdraw. The problem with criticism of that error is that had they known to do so, Burgoyne would have had to know that his own mission was impossible and that he should have begun retreating to Ticonderoga. The other traditional charge leveled against the German commanders is that Baum and Breymann failed to adapt their military thinking to the new military problem of fighting American irregulars. For example, historians often charge that Breymann did not really have to stop his column and dress ranks every fifteen minutes during their approach march. Unfortunately, given the nature of the Brunswick tables of organization, such a system preserved the order needed to be effective on the battlefield—it was a tactical decision that actually made great sense.

On the American side, most attention normally falls on Stark and Warner, both of whom tend to be identified as militia leaders. Actually, both were Continentals (Stark merely spending a few months in the militia out of the entire war) who happened to be charismatic leaders. Historians conditioned by Emory Upton's negative views of militia forces, views that influenced interpretations after the Civil War, have charged that Stark's plan of attack violated many principles of war and that he was lucky in finding an opponent who blundered more. Actually, he took advantage of his numbers and the terrain and (like Morgan at Cowpens) plotted tactics tailored to the abilities and personalities of his men. Congress recognized these features when, on 7 October, it appointed him as a brigadier general as a reward for this victory. Lincoln earned a solid reputation as a general who could successfully work with militia based in large part on his handling of Stark, and that reputation would lead to his later appointment as commander of the Southern Department.

Bennington was a great boost to American morale at a time when one was needed, and it encouraged further militia mobilizations. On a more practical level, the losses significantly weakened Burgoyne's combatant strength in pure numbers, and qualitatively they did even more damage by stripping away the best of his German units. Coupled with the failure of St. Leger's expedition, Bennington helped set the stage for Saratoga.

SEE ALSO Burgoyne's Offensive; Hubbardton, Vermont; Lincoln, Benjamin; McCrea Atrocity; Rank and File; Riedesel, Baron Friedrich Adolphus; Schuyler, Philip John; Skene, Philip; St. Leger's Expedition; Stark, John; Warner, Seth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Burgoyne, John. A State of the Expedition from Canada. London: J. Almon, 1780.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Holt, 1997.

Lord, Philip, Jr., comp. War over Walloomscoick: Land Use and Settlement Pattern on the Bennington Battlefield, 1777. Albany, N.Y.: University of the State of New York, State Education Dept., 1989.

Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.

Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise. Letters and Memoirs Relating to the War of American Independence, and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga. Translated by William L. Stone. New York: G. and C. Carvill, 1827.

Wasmus, J.F. An Eyewitness Account of the American Revolution and New England Life: The Journalof J.F. Wasmus, German Company Surgeon, 1776–1783. Edited by Mary C. Lynn. Translated by Helga Doblin. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

                             revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.