A hero of the First Vermont Republic of 1777

  • Published in MyView

By Gregory Viens

Two hundred forty years back – it was the year 1777 – in late June General Johnny Burgoyne was advancing up Lake Champlain with a combined force of British regular and light infantry and German mercenary troops of Brunswick. Right away the heights of Mount Defiance were taken. A British officer said, “Where a goat can go a man can go and where a man can go, we can drag a gun.” It was not any gun but at least two 12-pounder brass cannons. They started firing down on Fort Ticonderoga on July 6.

On that day and night, the meager American troops abandoned the two forts of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence with two-thirds going south on the lake by boat to Skenesborough (Whitehall, NY). Hospitalized and sick American troops at Mount Independence headed out on the military road to Hubbardton (VT). The British and German troops tried to envelop the American troops before they could flee east into Vermont. The American troops marched all night until they collapsed and stopped on July 7 at a hillside farm in Hubbardton. At twilight, the British and later the German troops started a battle that ended when the remaining American troops melted into the thick woods with their sick and wounded and tired soldiers in their ragged, worn uniforms to the safety of Rutland.

On July 8 in Windsor, VT, the fathers of the First American Republic were finishing the ratification of Vermont’s constitution when word was brought by a courier of the abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence and the battle at Hubbardton. Right then and there a new temporary regiment was ordered to be formed to try and defend against the military aggression of Burgoyne’s troops on the newly formed republic. Colonel Samuel Herrick’s regiment of Green Mountain rangers was formed. Benjamin Wait was made a major and I believe second in command.

In about 40 days they enlisted 300 men between the ages of 15 and 60 who were fit to arm and clothe themselves for a hard march and a hard fight. A force of British and Germans had built a redoubt fort 5 miles from Bennington, VT, on the New York side of the boundary line. This fort was to be a base for attack and to take the supplies stored at Bennington.

Herrick’s two companies of rangers were situated with a New Hampshire company of troops on the left and Massachusetts troops on the right. During the worst of the fighting, Seth Warner’s company of rangers came in the nick of time to support the center of the battle line on the right of Herrick’s company and thus broke the defense of the British redoubt.

It was a great victory over the British forces and cheers went up for the leader of the attack, Brigadier General John Stark. Herrick’s men had been flying a battle flag of a light green cloth with a blue field with 13 stars hand sewn on it. The flag was made by the womenfolk of Herrick’s men. It was presented to General Stark for his leadership and great victory over the hated British forces and the defense of Bennington.

The troops disbanded after their victory so the frontiersmen could tend to their families and farms and crops. But word soon went around that a raid was planned on Fort Ticonderoga. Word was put out for volunteers to come for this raid of all American forces. Two months after the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga, men in coordinated groups attacked silently in the dark of night and early morning of September 8. Benjamin Wait led his detachment by boat along the rock cliff just above Fort Ticonderoga. Wait and his men scaled the steep, straight-up cliff and with the aid of ropes helped the rest of the men hoist up their muskets and gear. Once on top, they silently took the guards of the brass cannons by surprise and got the guns ready for firing once it was light enough to see what they were firing at.

When the American troops were ready, Wait fired on the different positions of the fort which was the signal to carry out the rest of the raid on Ticonderoga which was planned by Colonel John Brown. While Major Wait kept the British on their toes running for cover, the Americans broke into the supply stores. As the American troops withdrew, they freed the men who were captured at Hubbardton and other battles that followed. Among the supply stores were a colored slave woman and her baby. They were taken back to Vermont as contraband, but once in Vermont they were freed according to the rules of the new constitution. Their names were not record and have been lost to history. This is proof of the character of the new republic and how they kept their word through their deeds.

Forty-two days later on October 19, 1777, General Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates at Saratoga, NY. It was the first American victory over a major British army in the field. It was the leadership of men in the field that helped make that victory possible.

Gregory Viens lives in Fayston.