HUBBARDTON, VERMONT. 7 July 1777. Defeat of American rear guard. After Burgoyne's operations made it clear that Ticonderoga could not be held, Arthur St. Clair evacuated the post under cover of darkness on 5-6 July. There were only enough boats for the invalids and baggage, so he marched the main body, about 2,500 strong, on the roundabout route through Castleton following to parallel roads. He intended to join Colonel Long's force at Skenesboro. At the tiny settlement of Hubbardton (later East Hubbardton), Vermont, St. Clair left behind Seth Warner to cover his rear while the column continued another six miles to Castleton, where St. Clair's men camped for the night. Warner's orders were to wait with his 150 men for the rear guard regiments to arrive and then to join the main body at Castleton, but he chose instead to remain in Hubbardton for the night. His command, all Continentals, consisted of his own regiment from Vermont, Colonel Ebenezer Francis's hand-picked 450-man rear guard built around his own Massachusetts regiment, and Colonel Nathan Hale's Second New Hampshire Regiment. Including stragglers, they numbered about 1,000 under experienced commanders, but they were exhausted. After consulting with the other two colonels, Warner assumed that he was beyond danger. While failing to post adequate security guards, the three components of the force spread out and occupied different pieces of key terrain. That assumption of safety would be a critical error.
The enemy had in fact pursued with uncharacteristic vigor upon realizing that St. Clair's evacuation was not a trap. Simon Fraser's Advance Corps left Mount Independence on 6 July and trailed St. Clair down the miserable roads by only a few hours. The British were followed by Riedesel with a force of Brunswickers, including his own regiment and Breymann's Advance Corps. At about 4 p.m. Riedesel, with his vanguard of jägers and grenadiers, caught up with Fraser and took command by virtue of seniority. Arguing that the heat had been harder for his Germans, he agreed to let Fraser push on another three miles before halting and that both contingents would resume the advance the next morning at 3 o'clock. Fraser bivouacked about three miles from Warner's camp, at the place later called Hubbardton. During the night his Indians discovered the location of Warner's camp and Fraser planned a dawn attack.
Led by Loyalist and Indian scouts, the British moved on schedule. At about 4:40 a.m. they collided with American pickets and firing began. After considering and discarding the possibility of an ambush, Fraser chose to attack without waiting for the Germans to close up. His column had a leading detachment of the Twenty-fourth Foot, supported by the Earl of Balcarres's light infantry, with Major John Acland's grenadiers bringing up the rear. Around daylight the column hit Hale's regiment finishing its breakfast near Sucker Brook. As they deployed into line, the British came under fire. The first American volley cut down about twenty, killing Major Grant of the Twenty-fourth and wounding Balcarres. Then the action cooled down a bit as Hale's men withdrew.
Francis and Warner had just finished a meeting to discuss orders that a messenger had brought from St. Clair. The general informed them that the British had broken through the boom and sailed to Skenesboro, and he now ordered them to retreat to Rutland. Francis's force had just started its march when British light infantrymen emerged from the woods where they had been sent to maneuver around Hale's rear guard. Francis promptly deployed behind a stone wall and some fallen trees and easily drove the British back. A more cautious Fraser now built up his own forces and the two sides created a one-thousand-yard line of battle. The American left flank was on the slopes of twelve-hundred-foot Zion Hill (as it was later named); Fraser must have instinctively seen that this was critical terrain, and he started thinning out his forces on the left to build up strength to envelop by way of this hill. When his grenadiers clawed their way up the steep, rocky, wooded slopes, the Americans curved this end of their line to the rear, in a maneuver known as "refusing the flank," and kept up their fire. On the other end of the line, Francis started pushing back the weakened British left. The wooded terrain favored the American emphasis on musket fire rather than the bayonet charges and close combat at which the British excelled. As a result Fraser was getting the worst of it when Riedesel's Germans arrived and turned the tide. Riedesel had set out that morning as planned, but when he heard gunfire he hurried forward with his jägers and grenadiers, just as he had done the day before.
The American line held its ground and pulled back only after it was threatened with envelopment. Whether by intent or simply because it made tactical sense on a minute-by-minute basis, Colonels Francis and Hale's survivors both began a type of fighting withdrawal known as delaying on successive positions. This gave the British all they could handle. By this time the fight reached the position where Warner's regiment had formed, and as Riedesel came up he immediately attacked the American right, having his men sing to the music of their band to dramatize the arrival of reinforcements and exaggerate their size. At this point Francis was killed and his men gave way and raced across Hubbardton Brook. Seeing a bayonet attack coming and knowing that the other two contingents were in retreat, Warner told his men, "Scatter and meet me at Manchester."
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
The two-hour action was "as bloody as Waterloo" in proportion to the numbers engaged. British and German participants actually thought from the intensity of the fight that the Americans had 2,000 or more men when in reality there were only half as many. By the final phase of the action Fraser and Riedesel probably had 850 men in action. American casualties probably amounted to 325 or so, mostly prisoners. British losses appear to have been around 35 killed and 148 wounded; German casualties were relatively light.
Although not immediately apparent, the combination of the tough fight here and the companion engagement at Fort Anne took the starch out of Burgoyne's pursuit. Exhausted by their efforts, the elite Anglo-German troops had to stop and refit. That enabled St. Clair to get clear and fall back to the Hudson River while Schuyler's delaying tactics began to destroy the lines of communications. Trading space for time let the Americans recover from the loss of "the Gibraltar of the North" and would make it possible for Burgoyne to blunder into disaster in the fall.
Anburey, Thomas. With Burgoyne from Quebec: An Account of the Life at Quebec and of the Famous Battle at Saratoga. Edited by Sydney Jackman. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1963.
Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Holt, 1997.
Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the American Revolution or Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.