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The Battle of Bennington’s Anniversary

 

Legacy of Payne Front Cover_On August 16th, two hundred forty-three years ago today,, The Battle of Bennington was fought just outside Bennington, Vermont, just inside New York Colony. The battle is an important milestone in my latest novel, #3 of The Maggie Chronicles, The Legacy of Payne. Here is an excerpt in honor of the day. (Oh, yes—available on Amazon, wink-wink.)

At Stark’s encampment, they stopped, but only long enough to drop their knapsacks in a pile and line up for a ration of rum and water. Then they were off. The gunfire, no longer scattered, shivered on Sam’s brow. Sweat ran down his neck and soaked his shirt. As he ran, double-time now, the rum worked on him, relaxing the fearful weight on his chest, and his mind.

Just as he imagined himself prepared for what would come, a cannon blast sent the rum rolling in his gut.

Ez laid his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “We take care of each other now. One step at a time.”

“Just pay attention to what’s in front of us,” Rob added. “And at our backs.”

Jed edged up between them. “And up there. See it? The first bridge? Never thought I’d be wantin’ water—surely not yesterday. Now I want to bathe in it.”

“You? Bathe?” they said, in unison. And they laughed. They had to laugh. The firing and the cannon shot rose to full battle roar. A pall of smoke drifted into the air, and after kneeling at the Walloomsac’s edge and running water over their necks and cupping it into their mouths, they followed the smoldering cacophony.

Not a half-mile down the road, at another bridge crossing, the battle unfurled before them. Blue-coated Hessians flew down the hill on Sam’s right, their scabbards catching in the brush. One tripped and rolled nearly in front of Sam. His foolish gold hat bounced away, and he threw his hands in the air shouting something Sam could not understand. Then someone—“One of ours,” Sam thought—jabbed a rifle to the blue-coat’s back, smiling as if he had gambled and won.

Men on a small rise worked together to raise two cannons nailed to skids and stumbled off, like prideful pallbearers at some outlandish funeral. Sam twirled in confusion. Nothing made sense. Drunk and bellowing men passed him by, laden with goods stripped from the dead and dying. “Stuck him with his own saber,” one said. “Still’s got his blood. See? It’s a fine blade.”

“Sam?” It was Ez, his hand on his back. “We’re moving.”

They marched on, beyond a swarm of blue and red-suited prisoners, and bodies already swarming with flies.

“A win, by God,” Jed called it.

“Lacking order,” Rob countered and led them on.

They stopped, on orders, at a thinly wooded hill where the road dipped down a ravine. A volley of gunfire and the blast of a cannon told them the win was a ruse. Then the wounded filtered past.

Word carried. “Enemy reinforcements encountered. On Warner’s orders, head down the road and form a line…” The words jumbled. Barely contained, the company, like a bull in heat, rushed downhill and spread out.

Jed and Sam bumped into each other, headed in opposite directions. “Right,” Sam yelled. “He said right!”

“Left!” Jed said and pumped his gun toward the river.

“I couldn’t hear,” Ez said, “but they’re mostly heading left.”

They filed toward the river and were met by a riparian swamp. Muck, knee deep, ensnared them. “Now what?” Sam asked, holding his gun high.

“Their coming!” Rob cried.

And they were. Sam fumbled with his rifle, sloshed through the reed and water-loving brush, looking for a bit of high ground. He steadied his arm, elbow high, listening. A musket ball flew past, a whistle at his ear. Reeds rushed and mud sucked, a warning announcing a hard-faced man with frightened eyes. He darted, then froze.

“Like the fox,” Sam thought. He dropped to his knees, gun held high.

“Wir sind ein, bruder!” the man yelled. “Wir sind ein!”

Sam shook his head. What was he saying? He yelled back, “Put your gun down! Gun down!”

The Hessian’s head bobbed. The gun dropped, as did his hand, reaching to his waist. A shot reverberated in Sam’s ears, and the Hessian’s belly opened in a splatter. Thick droplets crusted Sam’s arm and chest. Smoke enveloped him. Then a hand reached out, and gently lowered his gun.

Rob dragged him to the body and pointed, using his gun. “A pistol at his belt. You’d be dead,” he said. “Now, get yourself to high ground. And shoot! Our lives depend on it.”

So he shot—and he killed. One boy in neat civilian dress went down. By his lead shot? “Who cares,” he thought. “The Tory bastard.” Then he yelled it. “Tory bastards!” The words made the next shot easier. And the next.

A Bennington, Vermont Thank You

 

jonah

Jonah Spivak, happy promoter of Bennington and its history, standing at the Tory Redoubt.

Finally I am at my computer, having crawled out from books thick with facts and rich with wonder … my escape from a bone-deep writing inertia. So, first: a tribute to the highlight of my New England excursion, visiting the home sites of my ancestor Samuel Payne.

 

I saw the typical and less typical sites—traveled the road from Lexington to Concord where the American Revolution began; sat on the banks of Walden Pond with my new copy of Walden; walked the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Hubbardton in Vermont; and wandered around the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. (Haven’t been? Go … very tourista, but oh so interesting!)

The highlight of my trip, though, was meeting Jonah Spivak who honored me with an all-encompassing tour of the sites of the Battle of Bennington. The battle took place in New York just over the border from Vermont near Bennington.

First, I commend and thank Jonah for his generosity. He gave his time to someone he didn’t know who arrived from across the nation, California no less, claiming an interest in Bennington’s history. He and his friends were expert in the area’s history; I was a novice at best. He took a chance.

We met for lunch at the delicious Tap House at Catamount Glass where he answered my every question. He loves the human stories and he is an entertaining storyteller. The stories he told highlighted the local nuance of the Revolutionary War conflict—the animosity between “Yorkers” and settlers on the Grants (the New Hampshire Grants which would become Vermont); the brother against brother divide created by the conflict; the strategic importance of each actor and setting in the story.

 

Bennington Monument

Colonel Seth Warner’s Statue at the Bennington Battle Monument in Bennington, VT

And then there was the physical tour. My husband and I had already spent a lovely afternoon walking around the Bennington Battle Monument and its environs, so he drove me first to the Tory Redoubt, pointing out important places along the way. Next we climbed a little knoll to where the British opposition forces had (likely) first placed their three-pounder cannons. We walked the Hessian Hill, and he took time to orient me to north and south. The original map of the battle drawn Desmaretz Durnford places north not at the top of the page, but to the right side of the page. (include map here)

Dunford Battle of Bennington

Position of the Detachment under Lieut. Col. Baum and attacks of the Enemy on the 16th August at Walmscock near Bennington courtesy of Library of Congress, Map Division (with north oriented to the right on the map)

I got it! Then we traveled to the site of the second battle where he pointed out the rocky ledge mentioned in original accounts. The knowledge I gained, in combination with the physical sense of place, enhanced everything I knew and would learn about the battle and the times.

 

It was a good lesson for me—for all of us—in the importance of taking a chance on a stranger and sharing what we know. Besides, it was just plain fun meeting someone with a common enthusiasm. And because of it my understanding of this unique time in our Nation’s history increased exponentially.

Here is a list of books he recommended (or I discovered) that bring the important (and often overlooked) history of the New Hampshire Grants and their role in the Revolutionary War to life.

  1. War over Walloomscoick by Phillip Lord, Jr., New York State Museum Bulletin No. 473 (The University of the State of New York, State Education Department) This is an amazing book on many levels. It details the Durnford map and uses it to explain cultural details of the times as well as key aspects of the battle. I was fascinated! If you have an interest in the 1700’s in general the detail in it is worth the price. BUT, it isn’t easy to find. I finally entered the bulletin number and it popped up on Amazon through a used-book vendor.
  2. No Turning Point: The Saratoga Campaign in Perspective by Theodore Corbett (part of the Campaigns and Commanders Series through University of Oklahoma Press: Norman) Note: He calls it a “perspective” and it is definitely written from his perspective. His choice of adjectives and verbs carries editorial weight. Colonial militiamen are called “rebels” and the Green Mountain Boys, he says, instituted a “reign of terror.” Still, the viewpoint is a valuable juxtaposition to the usually localized populist bent of our histories. I particularly found the British efforts at “pacification” of the Vermonters interesting, as well as the conflicting loyalties found town by town, and the skirmishes within the region preceeding the Battle of Bennington.
  3. The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers and Civilians by Michael P. Gabriel (The History Press, Charleston, SC) I love this kind of book! Gabriel took artifacts of the period, including letters, pension applications, first-person accounts and interview, to paint a picture of the conflict—before, during, and after the battle. The accounts are laid out with short introductory narrative. The human reveals the confusion, assumptions, and excuses interwoven into the factual accounting. A great way to illuminate history.
  4. The Revolutionary War in Bennington County: A History and Guide by Richard B. Smith (The History Press, Charleston, SC) Based on the number of book tags, this book ranked high in usefulness. Smith divides the book into a history of the area during the revolution, an excellent overview for a novice like me, and a tour of the key landmarks. Again I found the commentary accompanying the “tours” insightful. But as a tourist in Bennington, driving its roads, I was pretty lost, and opportunities to turn out and really see the places he mentions was near to impossible. Luckily, he gives tours. Unluckily, I wasn’t able to attend one. (And, luckily, I met Jonah on line!)
  5. Honorable mentions and books still to be read: Chipman and Sparks Memoir of Colonel Seth Warner/The Life of Colonel Ethan Allen, Ethan Allen’s Reason, and Moses Robinson and The Founding of Vermont by Robert A Mello (hard to find). And Jonah says, “Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga is suggested reading … it covers the whole of the 1777 campaign, but contains a really excellent chapter on the Battle of Bennington and one of the best descriptions of the battle. I’d also be remiss to not mention the book by Phil Holland, The Battle of Bennington and the Bennington Battle Monument which is a very nice short book and included one gem of information regarding the existence of a cannon on the American side!”

IF you love history, and IF you are unfamiliar with the unique history of Vermont, the Canadian “invasion,” or the Battle of Bennington, I urge you to investigate. How little I knew about this fascinating period and place, and how thankful I am to Jonah Spivak for being my “boots on the ground.”