Battle of Hubbardton

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has some Fourth of July thoughts about the only Revolutionary War battle that was fought on Vermont soil.

(Slayton) Modern war is technical and impersonal. It’s easy to forget, as we watch the televised explosions of laser-guided bombs, that actual human beings are being blown to bits. Even the most horrific image of our times ¿ the collapse of the World Trade Towers last September 11 ¿ left me numb: I simply couldn’t comprehend the horror of that moment.

War in the Revolutionary War era, by contrast, was intensely personal. The most feared battle maneuver of the time was the British infantry’s massed bayonet charge, in which ranks of men literally speared their opponents to death, face-to-face. Firearms were inaccurate so soldiers were instructed not to fire until they could see their opponents’ faces clearly. And they heard their cries as they fell.

Dick Ketchum’s wonderful book, Saratoga, retells the battle of Hubbardton in detail, as it was a key part of the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Saratoga and the surrender of the British army in 1777. This weekend, a large group of re-enactors will re-create the Battle of Hubbardton, to commemorate its 225th anniversary.

Hubbardton followed a British triumph: General John Burgoyne’s men had outflanked the American stronghold at Mount Independence in Orwell, and the American general, Arthur St. Clair, had to immediately begin retreating to save his army.

Two mornings later, at East Hubbardton, the British stormed out of the woods near Sucker Brook, surprising the American rear guard and overrunning their pickets. A confused, helter-skelter battle followed. The Americans fell back, then set up skirmish lines behind a stone wall and threw the British back down the hill with many dead and wounded.

The battle deteriorated into a series of small, viciously fought engagements. Author Dick Ketchum tells us in his book, Saratoga, how a British officer, Sir John Harrington, saw an American soldier rise up from behind some underbrush and aim a rifle at his head. Harrington whipped up his own weapon, fired quickly, and the man fell.

Harrington walked over to where his assailant lay and said he hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. They were both English, after all: one a colonial, the other from the mother country. And they were both human beings. But Sir John was shocked to find the man ¿ in the words of the time ¿ “stone dead.”

The battle continued, with the Americans generally winning the upper hand, threatening to enfilade the British left flank ¿ until a column of reinforcing Hessians arrived on the battlefield to the sound of martial music ¿ bugles, fifes and drums.

Outnumbered and very nearly surrounded, the Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts troops saw their commander, Colonel Ebenezer Francis, fall, shot dead in a British volley. And then they fled, clambering up and over Pittsford Mountain, effectively finished as a military unit.

In thinking about Hubbardton, I find myself returning again and again to the individual acts of heroism and terror, the sudden battlefield death of the American commander, and the simple human concern displayed by Sir John Harrington, who had shot a man and hoped he wasn’t badly hurt.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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