Battle of Bennington: A historic revival
As the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bennington draws closer, Jonah Spivak believes it deserves a grander telling.
BENNINGTON — Jonah Spivak would like to see his obsession with the Battle of Bennington evolve into a comparable victory — in economic terms — for the modern-day town.
"I've always loved history," Spivak said. "I have a degree in history from the University of Vermont, but at the time I was more interested in European history."
Spivak believes a recreated Catamount Tavern — a popular haunt of battlefield heroes Col. Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys — and an official 250th anniversary celebration could exponentially expand historical interest in Bennington, and the battle that helped turn the tide of the Revolution.
"One of the things I was impressed by was how the battle was celebrated over the years: 1871, when it was proposed (the monument was dedicated in 1891); 1927 and 1977," he said. "That really is what got me thinking about how a community celebrates and remembers its history. It really defines who we are."
To mark the anniversary of the battle, Spivak, the local chamber, area lawmakers and others have proposed state legislation that would establish a 2027 celebration commission and include funding to promote and enhance anniversary events around the state, culminating in Bennington on Battle Day, August 16, 2027.
Spivak, the owner of the Hawkins House and a past president of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce said it wasn't until he moved back to this area and reconnected with a friend, Bob Hoar, that his consuming interest blossomed.
Hoar had researched many local historical sites, including the early Dutch settlement of Sancoick in what is now North Hoosick, N.Y., and has focused particularly on the famous 1777 Revolutionary War battle.
Together, the friends visited the Bennington battlefield park off Route 67 in Walloomsac, N.Y.
"He just took me along for the ride," Spivak said, "and what struck me was what a good story this was. And having over 200 firsthand accounts of the battle is really extraordinary; having the kind of maps that we were given. Just absolutely wonderful primary sources, telling the story of what happened there."
The battlefield is much more expansive than most people realize, Spivak said. It extends along both sides of the Walloomsac valley near the park site and west along what is now Route 67 into North Hoosick.
The state park is now in New York, but at the time, the land was part of an undefined and disputed border area between that state and what would later become Vermont. In fact, Spivak said, the area within the park was one site among several that saw fighting during a battle that spread over three days that August.
A detachment of Gen. John Burgoyne's army, including Native Americans siding with the British and soldiers from German principalities — often called Hessians, despite the fact many were from Brunswick, not Hesse — planned to push into Bennington in search of horses, oxen and military supplies.
Instead, they were defeated on the climactic third day of the engagement, Aug. 16. They fell back in disorder to the west, rallied after reinforcements arrived from the main British army near Saratoga, N.Y.; then were pushed back again later in the day, sustaining heavy casualties.
Two months later, after a pair of battles near Saratoga, Burgoyne's army surrendered — a major victory for the new nation, and one that gave France the confidence to aid the American war effort.
A boost for the region
Involved at that critical moment were Warner and the Green Mountain Boys, perhaps the most famous patrons of the legendary Catamount Tavern that once stood in Old Bennington. They arrived and entered the fight when the enemy appeared to have gained momentum.
The tavern burned in 1871 and now is marked by a catamount statue on Monument Drive.
A replica 18th century tavern would "really impact this region," Spivak said, adding that "a number of people have come up to me to say they were really excited about that thought."
Spivak said some have suggested several replica colonial-era buildings around a new Catamount Tavern, in the manner of structures in Historic Eastfield Village.
Such an attraction "would be a boost for the entire Shires region," he said.
Spivak says it dawned on him that Bennington County and nearby New York towns are only scratching the surface when it comes to telling the story in an interactive way that could attract far more visitors to the area, and that a good time to renew this effort would be the 250th anniversary of the battle, in 2027.
Even if a Catamount Tavern replica proves too difficult a project, he said, it is certainly feasible to add many more interpretive historical markers around the area of the battle, calling attention to the written accounts, which abound.
Those locations include the riverside site of the "Widow Whipple's" house, which had a cannonball fly through it, and the hilltop "Tory Redoubt," where the enemy commander, Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, stationed a contingent of Tories (those who remained loyal to Britain), including many from nearby towns.
American commander Gen. John Stark's encampment site for the battle, in a field off Harrington Road in Bennington and marked by a small monument, is one of those that could easily be enhanced with recreations and reenactments, Spivak said.
From there, Stark could walk a short distance to see the modern-day state park site and what became known as "Hessian Hill" — not that Stark needed to view the British Army defenses, Spivak said. Many of the estimated 4,000 people involved in the battle — more than 3,000 on the American side — did not have regular uniforms, and more than a few simply walked into Baum's camp and took mental notes.
The German-speaking Baum — who would receive a fatal stomach wound in the battle and die at a nearby house — apparently discounted warnings from Native American allies and from a British officer, Spivak said, that these people "might not be your friends."
In fact, Americans lacking uniforms famously took up positions near Baum's troops as if they were Tories and then opened fire on Baum's troops as soon as the fighting started.
All these documented and sometimes colorfully recounted stories illustrate the appeal of the battle's history and its major historical significance, Spivak said.
Weeks after the two contingents sent toward Bennington by British commander Gen. John Burgoyne were decisively defeated with 900 casualties and 700 taken prisoner, the main British army was halted near Saratoga, N.Y.
Burgoyne's entire army subsequently was defeated that October by troops from the Continental Army and militia units from the surrounding states. That in turn helped convince France to enter the war on the American side.
With new historical and archaeological information continually surfacing, Spivak said, it became clear that the traditional, simplified story of the Battle of Bennington "is flawed in many ways."
The major misconception for the general public is that the battle took place on the date now celebrated as Bennington Battle Day, Aug. 16.
In fact, there was a confrontation on Aug. 14 in the Sancoick settlement (North Hoosick), and heavy skirmishing around the area continued on Aug. 15, as troops searched for weak points in enemy lines or advantageous terrain to defend. Despite rain on the 15th, fighting produced a number of casualties.
Other surrounding communities were also involved in battle events, Spivak said. Gen. John Stark, of New Hampshire, and his troops passed through Peru and stopped for a time in Manchester when marching to Bennington from his home state.
In fact, he said, Manchester was the original target of the raid, but Burgoyne sent word to Baum to head for Bennington instead, based on erroneous Tory information that it would be lightly defended.
Nearby Berkshire County, Massachusetts, likewise sent a contingent to the battle, and others arrived from around Massachusetts, as well as from Connecticut and New York state.
Burgoyne's goal that August was to fight his way down from Canada to Albany, New York, part of a grand British plan to "cut the colonies in two," but the strategy failed miserably, shocking the British and boosting the American cause.
"We are celebrating something that is not just significant locally but nationally and internationally," Spivak said. "It was a huge deal."
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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