Written by David Pitlyk
Philip Skene was an integral part of Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum’s expedition to Bennington. He was directed to Canada in 1777 by the Crown and accompanied Burgoyne’s invading army. Given his past service in the British army and position in pre-revolutionary government, he was appointed Chief Commissary of Oaths which placed him in a role of civil leadership for the detachment as it interacted with inhabitants of the countryside. He was also made Chief Commissioner of Supplies, a role that required him to “regulate… matters relative to the supplies and assistances that shall be required from the country or voluntarily brought in.” He was so well known at the time that some Americans identified him as the commander of the Crown Forces in place of Baum, yet his perspective of the battle is rarely considered in modern histories. At least three letters exist that provide his version of events. A fragmentary letter and a letter written to Lord Dartmouth, former secretary of state for the American Department, provide a vivid account of the second engagement when taken together and beg analysis.
Skene’s writing on the battle has not been widely reproduced and is therefore not often consulted. Ketchum’s book on Saratoga gives it prominence in his treatment of Bennington, but his work is the exception rather than the rule. Ketchum primary leans on his letter as an indication of his incompetence and excuse-making.
Traditionally relegated to a position of secondary importance, his writing suggests Skene was knowledgeable to some degree about the military operations of Baum’s detachment. He gives the strength of the detachment as it set out at 556 though that number was probably closer to 760. He displays an awareness of Baum’s communications, detailing the chain of correspondence that led to Burgoyne sending Lt. Col. Breymann to his aid, suggesting that he was consulted or at least informed of the decisions as they were made. He does however go on to write that he “had no Military Command but shall have [his] share of censure for what should be, as well as what was not.” He did not delude himself into thinking his role was greater than it was but at the same time was aware of his responsibility.
The Dartmouth letter notes that Skene sent back carriages and horses to Breymann to hurry him along, but when von Barner arrived he “begged he would be Cool and wait for the detachment.” At the time of their arrival it is likely the first engagement was already over, but one cannot help but wonder what might have been if Skene had not intervened to keep Breymann’s vanguard from immediately jumping into battle.
Skene defends this delay by relating information from a loyalist and Capt. Campbell who both reported that Baum was under attack but had not yet been overwhelmed. It should be remembered that Skene was not with Baum at the time the attack commenced but rather was to the rear “on business.” This is remarkable considering that they were well apprised of the numbers of militia at Stark’s command. It may suggest a lack of respect for the ability of American militia.
Breymann provided his own account of the action. He wrote that “at 1/2 past 4 OClock in the afternoon, I reached the Mill, & found the advanced Guard in possession of it, & all quiet. I must positively declare, that neither during the march, not even after I reached the Mill, did I hear a Single Shot fired either from Small arms or Canon. … At this time I knew nothing of his engagement being over. If Col. Skene knew it, I cannot conceive what his reasons were for concealing it from me [emphasis added].” But Skene must have known from the messengers cited in his letter that Baum was besieged, and writes “I own I wanted faith to believe [the messengers].” One of these men would seem to be dissembling. Acoustic shadows or not, Skene knew the battle was on and he chose to proceed anyway.
Breymann and Skene advanced a short distance and then found “Rebells at the end of a Worms fence ascending to the Eastward while we were marching on the road due South.” Skene inquired if they were loyalists and was met with a volley that hit his horse but missed his person. He implies that Americans and Tories alike wore white feathers or paper in their hats. Later he admits that a good many Americans that he must have offered protection to turned out to be spies.
This version of events is challenged by Major General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel. He writes that “Governor Skene assured him that this force were not rebels; but Breymann, not satisfied with this assurance, sent ahead a patrol toward the eminence, who were immediately received with a volley of musketry.” While a secondary source, one may assume Riedesel received reports of the battle with great interest.
With this, the second engagement had begun. The fragmentary letter offers slightly more detail on this phase of the battle. Von Barner’s Brunswick Light Infantry pushed back the scattered American militia on the left of Breymann’s column, hugging the hillside. Skene writes that “Lt Col Brymer [sic] behaved very Bravely and always advanced in front to show his men an Example.” This élan probably accounts for his injury in the battle. The Brunswickers crossed a rail fence, perhaps the same fence the Americans posted behind when they fired on Skene, and “would have flanked the Rebels, but unluckily the German Grenadiers did not close with the Enemy but continued in a Line firing away their Ammunition at too great a Distance…” Skene claims that, with the 6-pdr.’s raining grapeshot on the Americans, Breymann advanced for an hour and a half covering two miles. He points out that for the first mile and a half the left was thinly wooded with a modest slope suggesting this transitioned to more rugged terrain as Breymann’s men chased the Americans back. Skene tried to be of use and would have his reader believe that he risked his own person to do so. He brought up the ammunition cart to the Brunswickers who “wanted small Arms Ammunition.”Turning back to the Dartmouth letter, when Skene returned with it he found the column in full retreat and Breymann was nowhere to be found. He apparently assumed command, halting only when the column arrived at Sancoick Mill. Breymann returned last of all, no doubt making a last ditch effort to save the 6-pdr.’s. Skene notes with pride that he “brought off all the wounded, and Baggage even to all the knapsacks.” Clearly he believed he did his duty and did not see himself as one of the parties responsible for defeat.
Skene opined that “Victory was at our Command had the Grenadiers been Quick in their March, or not wasted their Ammunition at too great A Distance…” He left feeling certain the Americans had suffered heavy losses. He spends a few lines critiquing Baum’s decisions. He apparently approved of the post (not a popular opinion) but wrote “I find that he detached from his Party and therefore weekend his post, that should have been on the defensive until the reinforcement arrived.” Extraordinarily, he was under the impression that Baum was the attacker.
This opinion may have its basis in an abortive attempt by the Native Americans to drive back the assault just as the encirclement began. Claude de Lorimier noted that he asked for and obtained permission from Baum to make such an attack, but after advancing 600 yards from “some high ground” was driven back and opted instead to seek out Breymann’s relief column. Upon finding the column, Lorimier notes that his Native Americans “had hardly gone 400 yards along the base of a very high crag when we received a terrible volley of musket fire from some traitors who, two hours earlier, had come into our entrenchments as friends on Major Skene’s recommendation.” De Lorimier was probably not appreciative of Skene’s contributions that day.
Thomas Mellen of New Hampshire gives us one of the best accounts from the American perspective. For a moment it appeared that the American flank would be turned. Breymann placed his artillery front and center to good effect. At this crucial moment (or more specifically, five minutes later) Warner’s Extra- Continental Regiment of Green Mountain Boys arrived to stiffen the faltering militiamen. Mellen recalls, “[I saw a man] waving his sword to the artillerymen, I fired at him twice. The horse fell. He cut the traces of an artillery horse, mounted him, and rode off. I afterwards heard that officer was Major Skene.” If his identification is accurate, it is possible that Skene lost his nerve and rather than fighting to bring the 6-pounders off the field, contributed to their loss. Morton argues that this eyewitness probably viewed him making way to the ammunition cart and misinterpreted what was in reality an act of bravery.
Skene was slow to accept the defeat of Burgoyne’s army. In an undated letter, he describes how he was “of the opinion the Army might have made good their retreat to Canada quitting their Baggage and Artillery and I remonstrated against the Convention of Saratoga…” With the formal surrender, he then “took the Character of a poor follower of the British Army” (i.e. not a soldier, though this distinction was of little value by the terms of Article VIII of the Convention) and was permitted by General Gates to make his way to Boston. He bemoans the fact that he had two horses shot out from under him, lending credibility to Mellen’s account.
The peace was as challenging for Skene as the war. He lived as a British subject outside the newly created United States. A letter written to Governor Clinton in 1784 may be taken as a measure of his desperation as Skene tried unsuccessfully to reenter American life with his tail between his legs. Apparently one in a series of letters that were largely ignored, he wished “to obtain the privilege of becoming a Faithful Citizen” and “enter as heartily into the interest of America as a good subject can be wished for.”
Skene is an enigmatic figure. His story of the second engagement is compelling, but occasionally challenged by other accounts. It is telling that the most notable work on his life, while laudable, is the product of an amateur researcher written nearly 60 years ago. Prior to the war, he stood on a par in terms of wealth and influence with many other influential landholders. He corresponded with men in high positions of both governments. Contemporary New Yorkers knew him well. In the 21st century however, he is afforded only a supporting role in the story of the American War of Independence.