The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/12 Ticonderoga and Bennington, July and August, 1777
TICONDEROGA AND BENNINGTON, JULY AND AUGUST, 1777.
The operations in Canada and on Lake Champlain, during the summer and autumn of 1776, had been conducted by Sir Guy Carleton, the British governor of the province. Generals Burgoyne and Phillips and General Riedesel had served under his orders. For the campaign of 1777, however, a new arrangement was made by the English ministry. Carleton retained the governorship and the command of the army in Canada, but the expedition which was to pass beyond the boundaries of the province, and to oppose the rebels in New York and New England, was intrusted to Burgoyne.
Lieutenant-general John Burgoyne was at this time fifty-five years of age. Lord Macaulay describes him as “a man of wit, fashion, and honor, an agreeable dramatic writer, an officer whose courage was never questioned, and whose skill was at that time highly esteemed.” The time spoken of was but shortly previous to the American war.
Burgoyne was a favorite with the British ministry. He was not a favorite with General Riedesel, nor with that general's wife. Riedesel got on very well with Carleton, but had no faith in Burgoyne, who was probably too much a man of pleasure and of wit to win the confidence of the seriously-minded German officer. Riedesel complains that he was never consulted, and that Burgoyne's plans were not confided to him. It is plain that there was jealousy between the English and German troops, and that Riedesel felt that injustice was being done to himself and to his command.
The plan of operations, of which the main features were made out by Burgoyne himself, was very simple. The main body of the army was to advance from Canada up Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga. When that fort should have been taken, the army was to push still southward to Albany, where it was to meet the army of Sir William Howe, or a part thereof, coming up from New York. A body of light troops, under Colonel St. Leger, was to co-operate with Burgoyne, marching by Oswego to the Mohawk River, which it was to follow to its junction with the Hudson, above Albany, at which point this expedition was to unite with the main army.
The Brunswickers under General Riedesel's orders on the 1st of June, 1777, numbered four thousand three hundred and one officers and men on the rolls, with an effective strength of three thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight. The Hesse-Hanau regiment had sailed in the previous year, six hundred and sixty-eight strong, and had probably not fallen below six hundred men fit for service. This would make the total number of Germans in Canada at the opening of the campaign four thousand five hundred and fifty-eight eight men, of whom six hundred and sixty-seven were left under the command of Sir Guy Carleton, and three thousand eight hundred and ninety-one accompanied the expedition under Burgoyne. This estimate does not include the Hanau chasseurs who were attached to St. Leger's expedition. The total number of white men under Burgoyne was greater than eight thousand, about two hundred and fifty of these being Provincials.
Some five hundred Indians accompanied the army, and at first did good service as scouts, and exhibited to their humane employers the scalps of American soldiers. The sight found favor in the eyes of the fashionable gentleman who commanded his majesty's army. He issued an order that deserters from his own force should be caught and scalped likewise. The savages were thought to have carried their amiable customs too far when they killed Jane McCrea, a young woman betrothed to a Tory with the British army, who had been intrusted to the protection and guidance of two of them. Burgoyne, however, did not venture to execute the murderer, for fear of “the total defection of the Indians.”
Before the establishment of railways had changed the lines of travel, the principal highway between Canada, on the one hand, and New England and the more southern colonies, on the other, was the great water route, which, leaving the St. Lawrence at Lake St. Pierre, led up the Richelieu River, past Fort St. John, to Lake Champlain, and up Lake Champlain, past Crown Point, to Ticonderoga. At Ticonderoga a choice of two ways lay before the traveller, or the invader. He might cross the short portage to Lake George, pass up that beautiful lake to its head, and make a portage of twelve miles to Fort Edward, on the Hudson. This was the usual and the easier way. Or he might follow the narrow upper end of Lake Champlain to the site of the modern Whitehall, in the old district called Skenesborough, and make a longer portage to Fort Edward by Fort Anne. From Fort Edward the way lay down the Hudson to Albany and New York. The general direction of the route is north and south, and remarkably straight, considering that it follows the great natural features of the country. The whole distance from Lake St. Pierre to New York is a little more than three hundred and fifty miles. Whitehall lies about midway between them, and Ticonderoga some twenty miles north of Whitehall.
No point between the St. Lawrence and New York was considered more important from a military point of view than Fort Ticonderoga. This was so placed as to protect the portage from Lake Champlain to Lake George, and to command the passage to the southern extremity of the former lake. The fort was built by the French in 1755, and called by them Fort Carillon. It was improved by Montcalm in the following year, and in 1758 withstood the attack of an English army of fifteen thousand men, the largest body of Europeans which had yet been assembled under arms in America. General Abercrombie, who commanded the English army, so mismanaged his attack that his force was repulsed with great slaughter.
In 1759 the French abandoned Fort Carillon on the approach of General Amherst, who repaired the works. These were now held for nearly sixteen years by the British, unmolested, until the small garrison was surprised, and the fort seized, on the 10th of May, 1776, by a party of Americans under Ethan Allen, “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” During the two years that the fort had been in American hands, great pains had been taken to strengthen it, and it was most liberally supplied with guns, ammunition, and provisions. A new fort had also been constructed on the east side of the lake, at Mount Independence. The Americans would seem to have overshot the mark in the greatness of their preparations. The works, two miles and a half in length, were much too large for the garrison. Moreover, the fort could be completely commanded by artillery on Mount Defiance, a hill which was not included in the lines.
The result of these errors was disastrous. On the 1st of July, 1777, Burgoyne's army appeared before the fortress. Riedesel, with the Germans, was on the east shore of the lake operating against Mount Independence. But little fighting took place. St. Clair, the American commander, seeing himself in danger of being surrounded, retreated, with the garrison of about thirty-three hundred men, leaving the forts with more than seventy cannon, two hundred head of cattle, and a great store of ammunition and provisions, to fall into the hands of the British army. The remnants of the American fleet, which fled in the direction of Whitehall, were presently followed by the British, who had only been delayed by the necessity of breaking through the bridge and boom which had been built across the lake. Two of the five vessels were captured, and three burned by the retreating Americans, who thus lost all the material they had endeavored to save.
The main body of St. Clair's force retreated by the road to Hubbardton. It was closely followed by General Fraser with twenty companies of Englishmen, supported by Riedesel with three Brunswick battalions. Fraser came up with the rear-guard of the Americans, under Colonel Warner, at Hubbardton, on the 7th of July, was sharply attacked, and outflanked. He was in danger of being driven back when Riedesel came to his assistance. The Americans were repulsed. Their loss is not exactly known, but about two hundred stragglers and wounded men were that day made prisoners. The Brunswickers had twenty-two men killed or wounded, the British one hundred and fifty-five. This was the first engagement in the open field which Riedesel saw in America.
On the 8th of July a British regiment was driven back from Fort Anne, but the Americans promptly abandoned that fort also, leaving it in ruins.
On the 22d of July General von Riedesel issued an order against marauding, and threatened all soldiers who should be guilty of it with a beating for the first offense and with running the gantlet four times for the second offense. Officers were to decide what was lawful booty. Riedesel issued this order at the request of Burgoyne, who wished to encourage the Tory colonists of the neighborhood. The days when it would be possible for the Brunswickers to plunder in America were, however, almost past.
So rough was the country between Lake Champlain and the Hudson that it took Burgoyne a month to bring his army the twenty-five miles which lay between Whitehall and Fort Edward. “The toil of the march was great, but supported with the utmost alacrity,” writes Burgoyne to Lord George Germaine on the 30th of July, 1777. “The country being a wilderness, in almost every part of the passage the enemy took the means of cutting large timber trees on both sides the roads so as to fall across and lengthways with the branches interwoven. The troops had not only layers of them to remove in places where it was impossible to take any other direction, but also they had above forty bridges to construct and others to repair, one of which was of logwood, over a morass two miles in extent.” We find a letter from Burgoyne to Riedesel, on the 18th of July, exhorting the latter to make his officers cut down the amount of their baggage. Many English officers, says Burgoyne, are reduced to a small tent and a knapsack.
The army met with little serious opposition on the way, though scarcely a day passed without firing. The Americans had retreated to Saratoga. Yet it was not until the 9th of August that Brigadier-general Fraser led the advanced guard to Fort Miller, seven miles beyond Fort Edward. He was followed by Lieutenant-colonel Baum, with the Brunswick dismounted dragoons and light infantry, some Canadian volunteers, and two small cannon. It had at first been proposed by Riedesel, and agreed to by Burgoyne, that Baum's force should make an expedition into the Connecticut Valley in search of horses and draught cattle. The Duke of Brunswick's regiment of dragoons was thus to be mounted at the expense of the Americans, and the British army was to be provided with pack-horses. To understand the pressing need of beasts of burden we must remember that the army was then eating bread made of English flour, and beef salted in England, and that these provisions had to be brought from Lake Champlain, or Lake George, to the Hudson on men's backs. The plan was, however, changed before the column had passed Fort Miller, and instead of marching on Manchester, the expedition was sent to Bennington, where the Americans were supposed to have a large supply of stores. Riedesel took the liberty of remonstrating against this change of destination, but Burgoyne held to it on the following grounds: First, it would be of the greatest benefit to the army to live for ten or twelve days on the stores they might capture at Bennington. Second, he (Burgoyne) meant to advance on Stillwater with the main army, so that Arnold would not be able to send a strong detachment to oppose Baum. Third, he had heard that St. Leger was besieging Fort Stanwix, on the upper waters of the Mohawk River, and it was important to prevent Arnold from detaching a strong corps for the relief of that place. So Lieutenant-colonel Baum started off on the 11th of August, 1777, on his march towards Bennington, in command of about five hundred and fifty white men, of whom three hundred and seventy-four were Germans. About one hundred and fifty Indians accompanied the expedition. This did not satisfy the Tory who served as guide. He told Burgoyne that at least three thousand men would be necessary to insure success, but Burgoyne would not, and, indeed, could not, spare so many.
On the 12th Baum captured some stores and cattle at Cambridge.
On the morning of the 14th he found some stores at Sancoik and took five prisoners. He reported to Burgoyne that there were fifteen or eighteen hundred men at Bennington, but that they would probably leave it on his approach. He would proceed so far as to fall on the enemy early the next day, and make such disposition as he should think necessary, from the intelligence which he should receive. People were flocking in hourly and wanted to be armed. The Indians could not be controlled, and ruined and took everything they pleased. Baum, who could not talk English, apparently relied on the assurances of the Tory governor, Skene, who would seem to have been a very credulous personage. Burgoyne would appear not to have entirely shared in the delusions of his subordinate, for he sent back orders not to advance should Baum find the enemy too strongly posted, and maintaining such a countenance as to make a coup de main hazardous. Later in the same day Baum sent another report, stating that he had been attacked by a rebel force of seven hundred men, and had driven them back with a few cannon-shots, but that there were eighteen hundred men in a well-placed, fortified camp near Bennington, and that he would wait for reinforcements. This report reached Burgoyne during the night, and at eight in the morning of the 15th he ordered Lieutenant-colonel Breymann, with six hundred and forty-two German soldiers, to march to Baum's support. Breymann started off without tents or baggage or sufficient ammunition, and only two small field-pieces. He had only twenty-four miles to go, yet he made but little more than half the distance before he encamped for the night. The day was rainy and the road was bad, yet such slowness in a party of soldiers in light marching order going to the relief of their brothers in arms seems incredible. I have found no complete description of the uniform of the Brunswick infantry. Riedesel had introduced some modifications in it, to adapt it to the service and the climate, but it was still far too heavy. A large part of Baum's men were dismounted dragoons. They were armed with short, thick rifles and big sabres. It was said in the army that the hat and sword alone weighed more than the whole equipment of an English soldier. A man thus armed might be formidable on horseback on a level parade-ground, but afoot, in August, in a cart-track through the thick woods, he was hardly a match for an American farmer and hunter in his shirt-sleeves.
It is clear that no one, not even Baum himself, had realized the seriousness of that officer's situation. In the middle of the morning of the 15th Burgoyne wrote that if a retreat were necessary it must be so conducted as to give the enemy no opportunity for triumph, otherwise the Indians might be discouraged. Therefore, all captured cattle and wagons must be brought off, and any flour and corn that could not be carried away must be destroyed. It was not until afterwards that Burgoyne suggested that Breymann might have pushed on without his artillery.
Lieutenant-colonel Baum spent the 15th of August, 1777, in intrenching himself on a hill about four miles north of Bennington. About nine o'clock on the morning of the 16th he noticed small bodies of men, mostly in their shirt-sleeves and with fowling-pieces on their shoulders, passing quickly and quietly behind his intrenched camp. The good officer took these shirt-sleeved fellows for Tories seeking his protection. It is said that many people in that part of the country had taken the oath to the king. In the course of the morning an attack was made and easily repulsed. At last, about three in the afternoon, the Germans were completely surrounded, and the battle began in good earnest. Most of the Indians, Canadians, and Tories made good their escape. The Brunswickers held out for an hour or two, until their ammunition began to fail. The Americans fought with desperation. They rushed to within eight paces of the cannon that were loaded with grape-shot, and discharged their rifles at the artillerymen. Stark, who commanded them, had inspired them with his own spirit. “Come on, my lads,” he is reported to have said before the battle, “we shall either beat the British, or Molly Stark will be a widow this night.” At last the fire of the Germans slackened. The Yankees rushed again on the intrenchments. It was gunstock against sabre. Baum fell, mortally wounded, and the Brunswickers were taken. The battle with Baum's soldiers was over when Breymann arrived in the neighborhood of the field. He says that he drove the Americans before him, and only stopped pursuing them for want of powder and shot; but certain it is that he presently fell back, and made off in the night without his cannon, having lost more than one third of his men. General Burgoyne, who received word of these misfortunes early in the morning of the 17th, started at six o'clock, with the whole army, to save Breymann. The main body advanced, however, no farther than the Battenkill, while Burgoyne himself, at the head of an English regiment, pushed on until he met the retreating Germans.
Nearly seven hundred prisoners, of whom about four hundred were Germans, fell into the hands of the Americans. Of Baum's command, three hundred and sixty-five Germans did not return to camp; of Breymann's two hundred and thirty-one were killed, wounded, and missing.
This battle was the beginning of the end for Burgoyne, though he did not know it at the time. It proved the impossibility of living on the country, and sent him back to his English beef and flour, and his dependence on the provisions he could carry with him.
The failure of St. Leger's expedition to the Mohawk occurred about this time. Colonel St. Leger had left Montreal in the early part of July, in command of about seven hundred and fifty white men and one thousand Indians. Among the former was a company of chasseurs from Hesse-Hanau. This force made its way by the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to Oswego, and then by Oneida Lake to Fort Stanwix, on the upper waters of the Mohawk River. This fort was a well-constructed earthwork, manned by some six or seven hundred militia, under Colonel Gansevoort. St. Leger was to take the fort and then follow the Mohawk towards its junction with the Hudson, thus threatening the flank of Gates's army. But the fort would not be taken. About eight hundred inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley, mostly of German extraction, under General Herkimer, were advancing to its relief. These were surprised on the 6th of August, 1777, in the woods, by an overwhelming force of Provincials and Indians. After the first panic a desperate fight took place. The militia well knew that from their savage foes they could expect no quarter. It was better to fall beneath the arrow, or the tomahawk, than to be reserved for the torturing knife. Herkimer, who had been wounded in the leg, was propped against the trunk of a tree, and directed the defense, puffing meanwhile at his pipe. The men were set in pairs behind the trees, that each might defend the other while he was loading. This plan worked well, and the militia began to get the advantage. A party of Tories from the valley itself came to the assistance of the Indians. This inflamed still more the wrath of the Americans, for these new enemies were their neighbors and had been their friends. The desperate battle continued. It had lasted more than an hour and a half, and one hundred and sixty of the militia had been killed, wounded, or taken, when firing was heard in the direction of Fort Stanwix. Colonel Gansevoort, informed of Herkimer's approach, had sent two hundred and fifty men from the fort to effect a diversion. These fell upon the English camp and pillaged a part of it. Five flags and much baggage fell into the hands of the party from the fort. On hearing the cannon behind them, the Tories and Indians feared lest they should be taken between two fires. They made off, taking some prisoners with them to undergo the horrors of Indian torture, but leaving many dead upon the field. What remained of the militia retreated to Fort Schuyler, where now the city of Utica stands. This sanguinary affair is called the Battle of Oriskany. It settled the fate of St. Leger's expedition, and contributed, with Bennington, to determine that of Burgoyne and of the Brunswickers. These two small engagements form a turning-point in American history.
The brave Herkimer died of his wounds ten days after the battle. But less than a week after that time, Benedict Arnold, bringing with him a small force, and again assembling the militia of the valley, raised the siege of Fort Stanwix, and St. Leger, abandoned by many of his Indians, made off with the remnant of his force to Oswego, leaving his tents and “a considerable baggage.”
Burgoyne was somewhat discouraged at the failures of Baum and St. Leger, but he still relied on help to come from the southward, and felt bound by the orders he had received from England.
- Essay on Lord Clive.
- Eelking's Life of Riedesel, vol. ii. p. 90, n.
- De Fonblanque's “Burgoyne,” p. 268.
- Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. iii. p. 259.
- It is impossible to determine the exact numbers of Englishmen and Provincials. They were “the select corps of British marksmen, a party of French Canadians, a more numerous party of Provincial loyalists.”—Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 383. Compare also Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. ii. pp. 127, 132; Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. iii. p. 36; Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. i. p. 279, where the whole force, including Indians, is set at only five hundred and fifty-one. Notice that the composition of the corps was modified between August 9th and 11th.
- Coburn's “Centennial History of the Battle of Bennington,” where the letter is given (probably a translation). It is dated “Sancoik, Aug. 14, 1777, 9 o'clock” (presumably nine A.M.).
- Sparks, “Correspondence of the American Revolution,” vol. ii. p. 518.
- Eelking, “Riedesel” vol. iii. p. 261.
- For German accounts of the Battle of Bennington and the events that led thereto, see Riedesel's report to the Duke of Brunswick and subsequent justification of his own part in the misfortune; Breymann's report to Burgoyne, lists of losses, with many other interesting documents in Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. iii. pp. 184-197, 210-214 and 261. See also Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. iii. pp. 35-42.
- In German Nikolaus Herckheimer.
- A company of Hessian (Hanau) chasseurs accompanied St. Leger to Fort Stanwix. I have not found any journal of this company. A second company arrived at Oswego, August 26th, 1777, only in time to hear that St. Leger had retreated. The report of the officer commanding this company is in the Archives at Marburg. From it we learn that the first company lost most of its tents and baggage. For the Battle of Oriskany, see Kapp's “Deutschen im Staate New York.”
- Arnold to Gates, August 23d, 1777; Sparks, “Correspondence of the American Revolution,” vol. ii. p. 519.