by Phyllis Chapman
There are certain auspicious events among people that call for the establishment of annual formal celebrations and civic festivities. After the Declaration of Independence had been accepted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” However–he believed the date should have been set for July 2nd, when the Congress declared independence, not the 4th, when the text of the document was approved and signed. Preference aside, his prediction of celebratory activities proved correct, and continues to this day. The formal observance in Bristol, Rhode Island of Independence Day, “The Military, Civic and Firemen’s Parade”, (its official title), is one of the oldest continuing celebrations since its founding in 1785.
Other countries have their national patriotic celebrations . “Bastille Day”, which the French actually call “The 14th of July” (Le 14 Juillet) was first celebrated the year after the event-(the storming of the prison in 1789.) The 1790 celebrations featured Gen. Lafayette swearing fealty to the new Constitution, a Mass conducted by Tallyrand, and even the King and Queen present, with their young heir, the Dauphin, swearing to uphold the new Constitution! The four day event featured parades, banquets, and people running nude through the streets to demonstrate their new-found freedom. Presumably, Adams would not have condoned the latter.
Unfortunately, the following July 14th,1791, the French Guard fired upon protesters in the same spot, killing 50, and the King and Queen were executed two years later. The resurrection of the holiday came in 1880, favoring the spirit of the 1790 celebration over the distressing circumstances of other July 14ths.
Great Britain’s Guy Fawkes’ Day has been celebrated in one form or another since 1606, the year after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. A Catholic dissident group attempted to blow up the House of Parliament, when King James I would be present for the opening session. Some of the perpetrators, including Guy Fawkes, were convicted of treason and executed by drawing and quartering. The King declared November 5, the anniversary of the foiled attempt, a “national day of thanksgiving” the following year, and the celebration, known as “Guy Fawkes Day” or “Bonfire Night” has been observed ever since, usually with bonfires, and burning of Guy Fawkes effigies, or any other current politician or celebrity in bad odor with the public. The original anti- Catholic sentiment and celebration of drawing and quartering is, thankfully, a thing of the past.
“Battle Day”, or “Battle Weekend”, which celebrates the victory of American militia over the British and German forces at the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777, doesn’t command much attention beyond Vermont and the surrounding towns. The Battle was strategically important, which is more universally noted across the country, albeit among history buffs. It was a morale-booster for the fledgling nation, in that ordinary citizens defeated the strongest army on the planet, and its consequences can be directly linked to Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, almost two months to the day later. Locals and historians often refer to it as “the turning point before the turning point.” So, it is interesting to note that in a nation that does not generally devote holidays to battle anniversaries, Battle Day has been, for the most part, celebrated every single year, beginning with year following the event, 1778!
The year 1777 was an important one for Vermont; in addition to the success of the Battle, the state declared itself as an independent state (in the global sense), repudiating any prior claims from New York, and established a democratic, republican government with its own Constitution, which, among other things, abolished slavery and allowed for fairly liberal voting requirements. August 16th, is an appropriate date for Vermont to celebrate independence on two fronts.
But, it is the Battle that takes precedence in the festivities. The Vermont Historical Society records suggest that the holiday was celebrated with exercises and parades near the site where the Bennington Monument stands today in 1778, the very next year after the victory. From early accounts, the survivors of the Battle, and their descendants, took leading roles in marking the event publicly. The observance may have included a procession from there to the Old First Church (not the one of today), speakers, and undoubtedly a liberal number of toasts drunk in tribute to the day.
T.D. Seymour Bassett, a historian with the Vermont Historical Society, wrote of that first celebration, “…orators pointed out that the setback to Burgoyne’s German dragoons on their side trip to seize munitions broke the spirit of the invaders in 1777 and led to American victory and independence” and added “…for the first ten years, Battle Day ‘was the busiest day in the year’ in Bennington. Youths would find an old barn to burn, and volunteer firemen paraded in full uniform.” In the years between 1795 and 1841, Battle Day celebrations were held in Shaftsbury, Pownal, Dorset, Manchester, and on the Battlefield itself, in Hoosick.
The 10th anniversary of the Battle was an especially large event, beginning with guns firing 14 times at sunrise- one for each of the original 13 colonies, and one for the independent Republic of Vermont. Businesses closed for the day, and people from miles around came to the festivities. The parade included “Captain Robinson’s Cavalry” and “Captain Safford’s Light Infantry.” The noted printer, Anthony Haswell, delivered an oration. Considering that he eventually became one of a handful of people arrested and jailed under President Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts, it must have been quite a speech.
Specifics regarding celebration programs varied. A wolf hunt was a centerpiece of the ceremonies in 1796. The year 1799 marked a particularly large celebration, and at least 16 toasts were drunk- salutes such as “The United States of America- May they never exchange the Eagle for a Crown” and to “the brave General Stark.” Two celebrations took place in 1821; the larger being in White Creek, NY, where it was said people from Bennington, Shaftsbury and Pownal in Vermont, joined inhabitants of White Creek, Hoosick, Cambridge, and Jackson, NY. The procession, led by Capt. Henry Robinson and Captain Fort was said to have over fifteen hundred men in line.
The first mention of a re-enactment is in 1789, when a “sham fight” took place, with Capt. Robinson’s Troop of Horse, Captain Safford’s Light Infantry, and two companies of Rangers. Later, in 1802, the sham fight took place near the Battlefield, and attracted people from area towns. It is worth noting that even by this time, many survivors of the Battle were still on hand to join in the holiday- who were noted as the “silver greys.” Organizers of the event tried to convince the distinguished “Silver Grey”, Gen. John Stark, to attend in 1809; he politely declined, citing age and infirmity. To those who remarked that they wanted their sons to see the famed soldier in person, he replied, “…those of you who have seen me can tell them, that I never was worth much for a show, and certainly cannot be worth their seeing now.” His letter closed with his famous salute, “Live free or die; Death is not the greatest of evils.” (The state of New Hampshire’s motto today.)
Women participated in a special event in the 1826 celebration; a group of 100 young ladies and gentlemen took tea together on the banks of the Walloomsac in Bennington. During the orations of the 1832 program, twenty-four young ladies were robed to represent each of the states. It must have been a pretty tableau.
Politics generally were a presence; in 1840, Democrats and Whigs held gatherings on the occasion, once serving food to participants (or potential voters?) on a table said to be 75 rods in length. The following year, Temperance advocates held a mass meeting which drew a large crowd, and, presumably, featured no toasts at all!
Far from losing steam as the Battle became a part of a more distant past, momentum increased during the 19th century, largely through the efforts of Hiland Hall. Hall was born in 1795, nearly a quarter-century after the Battle, but held a strong conviction of the significance of the victory, and that a permanent structure or marker should be built in commemoration of the Battle. That Monument stands today where so many of the annual celebrations took place beginning in 1778.
Of course, the years 1876 and 1877 were celebrated in grand style;
Centennial events were numerous throughout the country, with the first World’s Fair held in Philadelphia. The Bennington Battle Monument Association, originally formed in 1853, was re-incorporated in 1876. In a talk for the Bennington Historical Society in September, 2017, Phil Holland detailed some of the exercises for the Centennial of the Battle in 1877; the celebration lasted a week, with over 30,000 people in attendance, and President Rutherford B. Hayes as one of the featured speakers in a tent that could accommodate 12,000 people!
Battle Day/Weekend remains a big deal today, marked by a parade and free admission to the Battle Monument. The Friends of the Bennington Battlefield, aided by the Sons of the Revolution and the Daughters of the Revolution, hold a short, commemorative ceremony at the top of “Hessian Hill” on the New York State Bennington Battlefield Historic Site. The early evening program includes cannon salutes, speakers, and wreath-laying at the map marker by SAR and DAR Chapters from New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. It is held on the 16th of August, regardless of the day of the week.
Initiative and interest in celebrating the Battle has not abated in 200+ years, and actually seems to be increasing. Which prompts the question: Why has one battle been so consistently celebrated for so long, among a relatively small population in a rural area? Each person will have his/her own impressions; however, a few points seem central to our commitment to preserve the memory and continue to celebrate the achievement of ordinary citizens so long ago.
The defenders of Bennington were not professional soldiers, but militia from Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. They faced highly trained, disciplined troops feared just about anywhere on earth. Yet- they prevailed. Stark’s tactical excellence was crucial, indeed, as was the resolve his men felt in protecting their homes, families, livestock and crops from the invaders. It was personal, not fighting for abstract, political motives, or as hired mercenaries. The determination to protect their own was doubly rewarded in their success.
The 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day are all opportunities for Americans to have the day off, picnic and celebrate with friends and family, and take a moment to reflect upon freedom and those who fought so that we could enjoy it. Battle Day, however, is our own; a reminder that even a small town in a rural area played an important part of the broad sweep of history. Bennington exemplifies many concepts Americans love: the success of the underdog, the devotion to home, family and community, and the accomplishments possible when people work together in a common cause. For two centuries, these values have remained constant-perhaps celebrating this Battle has served as an annual reminder that times may change, but what really matters, doesn’t.
Whatever the reason, it appears that Battle Day is here to stay.