Aug. 16 is a state holiday that few Vermonters understand or celebrate. It used to be a common Vermont joke that you knew it was Bennington Battle Day when you went to the bank or DMV and couldn't figure out why the door was locked. Today most banks and state offices remain open on Bennington Battle Day, and the most frequent remark one hears about the holiday is that the battle it celebrates "wasn't even fought in Vermont!"
So why is Bennington Battle Day a state holiday, and why should a minor battle fought 240 years ago still matter to Vermonters? The answer is that Vermont probably wouldn't exist today if not for the Battle of Bennington. August 16th is our "Independence Day."
Vermont in the early 1770's was a frontier region with some 10,000 inhabitants who had originally purchased their land from the colony of New Hampshire, only to have the King rule in 1764 that the land actually belonged to New York. When New York refused to recognize their New Hampshire land titles, the settlers aggressively and successfully resisted that colony's attempts to organize a government. The leader of this political revolution was Ethan Allen, and his armed vigilante followers called themselves the Green Mountain Boys.
The expulsion of New York authority by the Green Mountain Boys created a political vacuum, and out of necessity the settlers began to create their own rudimentary forms of self-government, including a "Grand Committee" of all the towns. When the American Revolution erupted in 1775, the region sided decisively with the rebellion and thus found itself immersed in a "revolution within a revolution." There was no effective government, no military security, and few personal loyalties to any colony or sovereign.
In 1777 a powerful British army under General John Burgoyne set out from Canada and threatened to lay waste to every home, farm and town between Lake Champlain and Albany. As the entire frontier fell into a panic and collapsed southward, the Grand Committee declared the region between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain to be a free, independent republic that it called "Vermont." The new state quickly adopted a constitution for self-government and frantically began military preparations to defend itself from the invaders.
Burgoyne's army easily broke through the American defenses at Fort Ticonderoga and moved south toward the Hudson River. As the main American army retreated and left the new state undefended, Vermont's leaders mustered the militia from throughout the state and sent urgent requests for military assistance to New Hampshire and western Massachusetts. New Hampshire quickly sent a brigade commanded by Gen. John Stark, and additional militia companies arrived from the Berkshires. Altogether the Vermonters raised a force of more than 2,000 armed men who gathered at Bennington under Stark's command.
Bennington was Vermont's oldest, richest and most important town. It was also the location of a large storehouse where military supplies had been collected for the retreating American army. As the British army paused on the Hudson River, less than 40 miles away, Burgoyne took stock of his badly depleted supplies and deployed nearly a quarter of his army to capture the Bennington storehouse. On August 16th Stark's amateur soldiers attacked this professional European army a few miles outside of Bennington, just across the New York border, and virtually annihilated it. Vermont troops played a key role in the battle. Burgoyne never recovered from the loss of men and provisions, and he was eventually forced to surrender at Saratoga. Historians widely view his defeat as the turning point in the American Revolution, and the Battle of Bennington as the turning point in the Saratoga campaign.
In Vermont, the political effect of the Battle of Bennington was profound. The first responsibility of any government is to ensure the physical security of its citizens. The fledgling government of Vermont was wildly successful in meeting this responsibility despite having virtually no resources, no institutional authority and no real hold upon the loyalty of Vermonters. Had it failed to repel the British attack and allowed the British army to invade its territory with impunity, it would almost certainly have collapsed and political control over Vermont would have reverted either to the British in Canada or to the State of New York. Had the Battle of Bennington been lost, Vermont would probably have ceased to exist.
By defending its people and their homes, the new government earned legitimacy and the lasting loyalty of its citizens. Vermonters of the period understood that their victory over the British insured Vermont's survival as an independent state, and they celebrated August 16th with the same fervor that Americans celebrated July 4th. Veterans of the battle were venerated for the rest of their lives as heroes. Although the significance of the battle itself has largely faded in popular understanding, so long as we Vermonters care that our little state is able to govern itself, and not be under the control of New York or Quebec, Bennington Battle Day matters, and it deserves to be celebrated.
— John Page lives and practices law in Montpelier. Born in Burlington, he holds a master's degree in history, specializing in Vermont history, from the University of Vermont.