By Cherise Madigan
American heritage stands tall in Bennington, Vt.: Visitors and passersby can’t miss the Bennington Battle Monument that defines the destination and embodies the revolutionary spirit that shaped it.
In the midst of the sweltering summer of 1777, British General John Burgoyne made his move to quell the American rebellion by cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. By August, however, the general found himself dangerously low on provisions, wagons and livestock. Tantalizingly close to his destination of Albany, N.Y., Burgoyne saw Bennington’s arsenal depot, located at the site of the monument today, ripe for plunder.
Little did Burgoyne know that a militia of more than 2,000 men from Vermont, New Hampshire and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, under the leadership of Major General John Stark and Col. Seth Warner, stood ready to defend Bennington. But instead of waiting for Burgoyne’s men to arrive, Stark took the fight to the advancing troops.
“Before [Burgoyne’s troops] could achieve their objective they were stopped dead in their tracks by General Stark on August 16,” explained David Pitlyk, an assistant at the Bennington Battlefield Historic Site in Walloomsac, N.Y., where the actual battle took place. “Carrying off a series of enveloping maneuvers and storming fortified positions defended with a light cannon, Stark not only won the battle … but also defeated reinforcements who arrived too late to [assist] in a second engagement that same day.”
The victory was crucial to the patriots’ later success at the Battle of Saratoga, considered by many to be a turning point of the American Revolution.
Though the battle took place across the New York border, it has come to define Bennington’s historic landscape and culture.
Perhaps the most stunning fixture in the Southern Vermont skyline, the stone obelisk rising from historic Old Bennington continues to mark that history. Built on the site of the arsenal Stark’s men were defending, the Bennington Battle Monument is more than 306 feet tall.
“It’s certainly the historic asset of this community,” said Tyler Resch, a research librarian at the Bennington Museum and author of “Bennington’s Battle Monument: Massive and Lofty.”
The monument receives 50,000 visitors a year, according to Resch.
“It’s the most frequented of the state historic sites in all of Vermont,” he said.
In the early 1800s, the idea to memorialize the victory began to gain speed, according to Resch. The Bennington Historical Society, founded in 1850 by North Bennington native Hiland Hall — a former Vermont governor and U.S. representative — led the charge to commemorate the Battle of Bennington and the revolutionary generation that had begun to fade away.
Progress moved slowly, and it wasn’t until 1876 that the Historical Society set its sights on a small memorial surrounded by statues. Preferring something “massive and lofty,” however, Hall utilized his political acumen to organize an extensive public relations campaign that would eventually undermine his own committee.
“It happened after he was 90 years old, and he knew that he wouldn’t live to see the monument himself,” said Resch.
In fact, Hall’s desired design was not completed and dedicated until 1891.
“The monument that resulted is exceptional,” Resch said. “It dominates the landscape.”
“That was how we got our beautiful and original obelisk, which is essentially an Egyptian-style sculpture,” said Phil Holland, whose “A Guide to the Battle of Bennington and the Bennington Monument” continues to shepherd visitors through Bennington. “The Bennington Monument is more parabolic,” compared with others like the Washington Monument, and “very subtly done with an airy and graceful quality.”
Crafted from blue-gray magnesian limestone from New York’s Hudson Falls, thousands of visitors scale the monument’s steps [or hitch a ride on the elevator] each year to enjoy views encompassing Vermont, New York and Massachusetts.
An imposing statue of Warner, a commander of the Green Mountain Boys, rests on the monument’s grounds, as well as a bronze tablet placed in honor of Stark and his New Hampshire forces (donated by New Hampshire citizens in 1977).
History buffs may also enjoy a visit to the 372-acre Bennington Battlefield in Wallamoosac. Other historic sites, like Fort Ticonderoga in New York, are within range for those planning a day trip.
Whether you call Vermont home or are just passing through, a tour of Bennington’s historic landscape is bound to edify and awe.
“This is a slice of history waiting in our own backyard,” Pitlyk said. “The opportunity to connect with our shared American heritage awaits.”
The 54th annual Bennington Battle Day Weekend
Bennington Battle Day
When: Thursday, Aug. 16
What: All Vermont state historic sites are free, including the Bennington Battle Monument. A commemorative ceremony, at the Bennington Battlefield, Route 67A, Walloomsac, N.Y., is at 7 p.m.
14th annual Battle Day 5K road race
When: Saturday, Aug. 18. Registration at 8 a.m., race at 9:30. A half-mile kids fun run follows the 5K. In keeping with the theme, the firing of a cannon or Revolutionary War-era rifle starts the race.
Where: Starts at the Bennington Battle Monument.
Information: 802-447-0550, benningtonbattlemonument.com.
Battle Day Parade
When: Sunday, Aug. 19, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Downtown Bennington. Runs from Main and Safford streets to Depot Street then to River Street and ends at the Bennington Fire Department.
When: Sunday, Aug. 19, 3 to 4:30 p.m., following the parade.
Where: Old First Church Barn, Monument Circle.
What: A historical fashion show by Vintage Visitors Presentations, featuring women’s fashions, ranging from Colonial to Victorian times. Included in the collection is a 19th century riding habit, a Victorian mourning ensemble, day dresses, evening gowns and wedding gowns. Fashions for children and gentlemen also are featured. The Vintage Visitors interpreters will remain for a short period after the show, in costume, to chat and answer questions.
Tickets: $10 for 15 and older, $2 for youth, ages 6 to 14
Information: 802-447-0550, benningtonbattlemonument.com.
Cherise Madigan is a native Vermonter and frequent contributor to the Manchester Journal and Bennington Banner.