History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne
and The Expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger.
by William L. Stone.
Albany, NY, Joel Munsell. 1877.
No. III continued
NARRATIVE OF A PARTICIPATOR IN THE BATTLE OF BENNINGTON. "
September 27, 1866.
WM. L. STONE, Esq.,
Dear Sir : The following narrative was communicated to me in 1828, by Mr.
Stafford of Albany, the son of an American captain, who was in the battle
of Bennington. I send you herewith my original notes of the conversation,
taken down at the time from the lips of the narrator, which you may cheerfully
make use of (if you so desire), in your forthcoming translation.
" My father lived in the western part of Massachusetts, and when Colonel Warner called upon the militia to come out and defend the public stores at Bennington, he set off at once with many of his neighbors, and hurried his march. He was well known to his townsmen, and so much esteemed, that the best men were ready to go with him ; many of them pious people, long members of the church, and among them young and old, and of different conditions.
" When they reached the ground, they found the Hessians posted in a line, and on a spot of high ground, a small redoubt was seen formed of earth just thrown up, where they understood a body of loyalists or Provincial troops, that is, tories, was stationed. Colonel Warner had command under General Stark; and it is generally thought that he had more to do than his superior in the business of the day. He was held in high regard by the Massachusetts people ; and my father soon reported himself to him, and told him he awaited his orders. He was soon assigned a place in the line, and the tory fort was pointed out as his particular object of attack.
"When making arrangements to march out his men, my father turned to a tall, athletic man, one of the most vigorous of the band, and remarkable for size and strength among his neighbors. ' I am glad,' said he, l to see you among us. You did not march with the company but I suppose, you are anxious for the business of the day to begin.' This was said in the hearing of the rest, and attracted their attention My father was surprised and mortified, on observing the man's face turn pale, and his limbs tremble. With a faltering voice, he replied : ' Oh no, sir, I didn't come to fight, I only came to drive back the horses !' t I am glad,' said my father, ' to find out we have a coward among us, before we go into battle. Stand back, and do not show yourself here any longer.'
" This occurrence gave my father great regret, and he repented having spoken to the man in the presence of his company. The country you know, was at that time in a very critical state. General Burgoyne had come down from Canada with an army, which had driven all the American troops before it; Crown point and Ticonderoga, the fortresses of Lake Champlain, in which the northern people placed such confidence, had been deserted at his approach ; and the army had disgraced itself by a panic retreat, without fighting a battle, while Burgoyne was publishing boastful and threatening proclamations, which frightened many, and induced some to declare for the king. Just at such a time, when so many bad examples were set, and there were so many dangers to drive others to follow, it was a sad thing to see a hale, hearty, tall man shake and tremble in the presence of the enemy, as we were just going to fight them. However, an occurrence happened, fortunately, to take place immediately after, which made amends. There was an aged and excellent old man present, of a slender frame, stooping a little with advanced age and hard work, with a wrinkled face, and well known as one of the oldest persons in our town, and the oldest on the ground. My father was struck with regard for his aged frame, and much as he felt numbers to be desirable in the impending struggle, he felt a great reluctance at the thought of leading him into it. He therefore turned to him, and said: 'The labors of the day threaten to be severe, it is therefore my particular request, that you will take your post as sentinel yonder, and keep charge of the baggage.' The old man stepped forward with an unexpected spring, his face was lighted with a smile, and pulling off his hat, in the excitement of his spirit, half affecting the gayety of a youth, whilst his loose hair shone as white as silver, he briskly replied : l Not till I've had a shot at them first, captain, if you please,' All thoughts were now directed towards the enemy's line ; and the company, partaking in the enthusiasm of the old man, gave three cheers. My father was set at ease-again in a moment; and orders being soon brought to advance, he placed himself at their head, and gave the word : ' Forward, march !'
" He had observed some irregularity in the ground before them, which he had thought might favor his approach ; and he soon discovered that a small ravine, which they soon entered, would cover his determined little band from the shot of the enemy, and even from their observation, at least for some distance. He pursued its course ; but was so far disappointed in his expectations, that, instead of terminating at a distance from the enemy's line, on emerging from it, and looking about to see where he was, he found the fresh embankment of the Tory fort just above him, and the heads of the Tories peeping over, with their guns leveled at him. Turning to call on his men, he was surprised to find himself flat on the ground without knowing why , for the enemy had fired, and a ball had gone through his foot into the ground, cutting some of the sinews just as he was stepping on it, so as to bring him down. At the same time, the shock had deafened him to the report of the muskets.
The foremost of his soldiers ran up and stooped to take him in their arms, believing him to be dead or mortally wounded ; but he was too quick for them, and sprang on his feet, glad to find he was not seriously hurt, and was able to stand. He feared that his fall might check his followers ; and, as he caught a glimpse of a man in a red coat running across a distant field, he cried out,-.'Come on, my boys! They run! They run !' So saying, he sprang up, and clambering to the top of the fort, while the enemy were hurrying their powder into the pans and the muzzles of their pieces, his men rushed on shouting and firing, and jumping over the breastworks, and pushing upon the defenders so closely, that they threw themselves over the opposite wall, and ran down the hill as fast as their legs would carry them.
" Those raw soldiers, as most of them were, were ready to laugh at themselves, when they turned round and saw themselves, their new position, masters of a little fort which their enemies had been hard at work to construct, they knew not how long ; but out of which they had so easily been set a scampering, merely because they had shown some resolution and haste in assaulting it.
"The result of the day's battle is well known. The Hessians and other troops with them, suffered a total defeat; and not only were the stores at Bennington protected and saved, and the army of Burgoyne weakened by the loss of a considerable body of troops, but the spirits of the people greatly encouraged, and the hope of final success revived. From that time there was less difficulty found in collecting troops , and the recruiting of our army at Bemis's heights, or Saratoga, as it is often called, was more easily effected.
" It so happened that many years after the close of the war, and when I heard my father tell this story many times over, I became acquainted with an old townsman of his, who was a loyalist, and took an active part as a soldier in the service of King George ; and he told me a story of the battle of Bennington which I think you would like to hear.
Story told by one who was in the Tory Fort.
" I lived not far from the western borders of Massachusetts when the war began, and knew your father very well. Believing that I owed duty to my king, I became known as a loyalist, or, as they called me, a Tory ; and soon found my situation rather unpleasant. I therefore left home, and soon got among the British troops who were come down with Burgoyne, to restore the country to peace, as I thought. When the Hessians were sent to take the military stores at Bennington, I went with them and took my station with some of the other loyalists in a redoubt or small fort in the line. We were all ready when we saw the rebels coming to attack us; and were on such a hill and behind such a high bank, that we felt perfectly safe, and thought we could kill any body of troops they would send against us, before they could reach the place we stood upon. We had not expected, however, that they would approach us under cover; but supposed we should see them on the way. We did not know that a little gully which lay below us, was long and deep enough to conceal them, but they knew the ground, and the first we saw of the party coming to attack us, they made their appearance right under our guns. Your father was at the head of them. I Was standing at the wall at the time, with my gun loaded in my hand ; and several of us leveled our pieces at once. I took as fair aim at them as I ever did at a bird in my life, and thought I was sure of them , though we had to point so much downwards, that it made a man but a small mark. We fired together, and he fell. I thought he was dead to a certainty ; but to our surprise he was on his feet again in an instant, and they all came jumping into the midst of us, with such a noise, that we thought of nothing but getting out of the way of their muskets as fast as possible, I saw all my companions were going over the wall on the other side, and I went too. We had open fields before us, and scattered in all directions, some followed by our enemies. I ran some distance with another man, and looking around saw several of your father's soldiers who were coming after us, level their muskets to fire. We had just reached a rail fence, and both of us gave a jump at the same instant to go over it. While I was in the air I heard the guns go off. We reached the ground together, but my companion fell and lay dead by the fence, while I ran on with all my might, finding I was not hurt.
"I looked back, hoping to see no one following, but I was frightened on discovering a tall rawboned fellow, running like a deer, only a short distance behind, and gaining on me every step he took. I immediately reflected that my gun was only a useless burden, for it was discharged, and had no bayonet, and although a valuable one, I thought my only chance of saving my life, lay in lightening myself as much as possible. I therefore gave my gun a throw off to one side, so that if my pursuer should choose to pick it up he should lose some distance by it; and then without slackening my speed, I turned my head to see how he took the maneuver; and found he had not only taken advantage of my hint, and thrown away his own gun, but was also just kicking off his shoes. I tried to throw off my own in the same way, but they were fastened on with a pair of old fashioned buckles. I strained myself to the utmost to reach a wood which lay a little way before me, with the desperate hope of finding some way of losing myself in it. I ventured one look more , and was frightened almost out of my senses at finding the bare-legged fellow, almost upon me, and ready to gripe, and perhaps strangle me by main force. I did not like to stop and give myself up as a prisoner ; for I supposed he must be in a terrible passion, or he would not have taken such extraordinary pains to overtake me ; and even if he should spare my life and do me no injury, in that solitary spot, I did not know what to expect from the rebels, as we called them. So I ran on, though but an instant more ; for I had hardly turned my head again before I found the appearance of a wood which I had seen was only the tops of some trees growing on the borders of Walloomsac creek, which ran at the foot of a frightful precipice, the edge of which I had reached. I felt as if it were almost certain death to go farther, but I had such a dread of my pursuer, that I set but lightly by my danger, and instead of stopping on the brink, I ran right off, without waiting even to see where I was going.
" I fell like a stone, and the next instant struck on my feet in soft mud, with a loud, spatting noise, which I heard repeated close by me. Spat! spat! for down came the fierce fellow after me, and struck close by me in the wet clay, by the edge of the water. I looked at him with perfect dismay , for what could I do then ? I had sunk into the mud up to my knees, and was entirely unarmed. It was some relief to see, that he had no pistol to shoot me, and was not quite near enough to reach me. He, however, was beginning to struggle to get his legs out, and I expected to see him free and springing upon me in a moment more. I struggled too, but found it was no easy work to extricate myself, and began to think, that it would probably be as bad for him. This encouraged me to try with all my might, and I thought I found my neighbor was much slower in getting out than I had feared. Indeed I could not perceive, for some time, that either of us made any advances, although we had wasted almost all our remaining strength. I now remarked, that my enemy was standing much I deeper in the mud than myself. Oh, thought I, the fellow was barefooted ; that is the reason : the soles of my shoes had prevented me from sinking quite so deep ; there is a good chance of my getting out before him. Still neither of us spoke a word. So I struggled again most violently; but the straps of my shoes were bound tight across my ancles, and held them to my feet, while I felt that I had not strength enough to draw them out. This made me desperate; and I made another effort, when the straps gave way, and I easily drew out one bare foot, and placed it on the top of the ground. With the greatest satisfaction I found the other slipping smoothly up through the clay , and, without waiting to regret my shoe buckles (which were of solid silver), or to exchange a blow or a word with my enemy, whom I was still dreadfully afraid of, I ran down the shore of the brook, as fast as my legs could carry me.
" A man who has never been frightened as I was, with the expectation of instant death, cannot easily imagine how far he will run, or how much he can do, to get out of danger. I thought for some time, that my long-legged enemy was coming, and ran on, afraid almost to look behind me. But he did not come, and I never saw or heard of him again. How he could have got out, I cannot imagine ; and there seemed to be no chance of his finding help very soon, so that I think he must have spent the night in that uncomfortable condition, and may have stayed, for aught I know, till he starved to death.
" However, my fears were not dispelled , for I knew our whole detachment had been entirely routed , Germans, Englishmen, tories and all, and, as I thought there would be a pursuit by our conquerors, I expected every moment to meet some of them, with arms in their hands. Indeed, at any moment I might be discovered by some of them, and fired upon before I could see them ; so I chose the most secret paths and courses I could find, keeping among the thickest trees and bushes, and avoiding every house and sign of inhabitants, under a constant fear of being dead or a prisoner the next moment. Who can tell what I suffered in that one day ? I had been delivered from the imminent danger of musket balls, bayonets, the close pursuit of a rancorous enemy, a leap from a precipice and a long and most fatiguing run through a wild and unknown region, traversed, as I presumed, by many men thirsting for my blood. Night was now approaching, and I felt almost faint with the want of food as well as weariness. But I soon reached a region which I began to recognize as one I had before seen ; and, knowing that the house of my brother-in-law was not far distant, I determined to visit it, and get such food and clothes as I now greatly needed. On second thoughts I concluded that I might be in danger even there. There might be a party of my enemies in the neighborhood, if not in possession of the house , for in such times, in a region overrun by war, one party often occupies a position one day or one hour which they give up to their enemies the next. I therefore determined to proceed with great caution , and, although I soon came in sight of the house, and was suffering greatly from the want of rest and refreshment, I concealed myself, and watched the neighborhood as long as I could see, and then, after remaining quiet till late in the night, stole out softly, and walked round the house, listening carefully, and scrutinizing everything, to discover traces of any change unfavorable to my wishes.
" Finding no signs of danger, I at length mustered up courage and entered the house, where I found the family had not all retired to rest ; and was very glad to see my sister coming towards me with an air of unconcern, which showed the household had not been disturbed, When she approached me, however, she addressed me as a stranger , and then, for the first time, I began to think of my appearance. There had been powder enough burnt in the fort to blacken my face as dark as an Indian's and the perspiration which had started out during my races had washed it partly off in streaks, so that the expression of my countenance was strangely altered. At the same time I was without a coat, and my few remaining garments were torn by thorns and spattered with mud.
"I was treated with the utmost kindness by my sister as soon as she recognized me , and, after eating a good meal, and taking a long night's rest, I felt quite well and strong. She kept me as long as I was willing to stay ; but I did not feel safe out of the army, which then seemed sure of soon reaching Albany and finishing the war. I soon set off on foot, reaching Burgoyne's lines, and was placed in the tory fort on the eastern brow of Bemis's heights. There I thought myself safe once more. The abatis, formed of rough trees, with their branches on, which had been laid on the sides of the fort, appeared absolutely impassable by any body of the enemy. But in this I was disappointed , for, when the battle came on, the Yankees rushed upon our fortification with impetuosity, and in such numbers that they soon covered the ground and trees, that they were as thick as the hair on a dog. Again I was glad to save myself by a rapid retreat."
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