Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Meeting Notes: September 16, 2015

"The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action that Saved America," Bruce Venter

Sandwiched between the 1777 military actions at Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, the Battle of Hubbardton is far less known to students of American history, and yet it played a key role in America’s successful fight for independence.

“The Battle of Hubbardton was a tactical victory for the British but Seth Warner did a very credible job to form a rearguard and save America,” said historian Bruce M. Venter at the September 16, 2015 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Venter is the author of the recently published book entitled The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action that Saved America.

Venter added that as a result of this battle, most of Arthur St. Clair’s American forces were able to avoid a major battle with the British after a grueling retreat from Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. This enabled St. Clair’s forces to rejoin the northern Continental army under the command of Philip Schuyler, and to implement an American plan to slow down the invading British army under John Burgoyne by disrupting Burgoyne’s supply lines which stretched up to Canada.

Burgoyne began his campaign against America on June 16, 1777. The campaign was part of a three-pronged British strategy to isolate New England from the remaining American colonies by seizing control of three important New York waterways located near New England---Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. Three British armies (Burgoyne from the north, Sir William Howe from the south and Barry St. Leger from the west) planned to advance via Lake Champlain, the Hudson River and the Mohawk River toward the common objective of Albany. Unfortunately for Burgoyne, Howe changed his campaign plans and headed the opposite direction toward Philadelphia, and St. Leger’s army was stopped at the Battle of Oriskany---approximately 100 miles short of Albany.

Burgoyne’s army numbered approximately 9,000 troops which included British, Germans, Loyalists and American Indians. Most of the German troops were Brunswickers, not Hessians.

The Burgoyne invasion route basically followed the one used approximately one year earlier by Sir Guy Carleton when he advanced as far as Valcour Island on Lake Champlain before turning back to Canada. Burgoyne’s first major objective was to defeat the American garrison which defended Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, located opposite each other on Lake Champlain.

Defending Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence were approximately 2,000 Continental troops and militia units under the command of Arthur St. Clair. Earlier St. Clair had received permission from Philip Schuyler, the commander of the northern Continental army, to withdraw from Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence if St. Clair felt threatened by a much larger enemy army.

On July 5, 1777 Burgoyne’s army maneuvered troops and cannons onto Sugar Loaf Hill (later called Mount Defiance). From this position Burgoyne could easily bombard both American defensive positions. When the Americans spotted British troops and guns on Sugar Loaf Hill, they made immediate plans to abandon Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. On the night of July 5 the American retreat began.

St. Clair’s garrison retreated via land and water. He sent a small number of troops, along with all of the women and his sick troops, south on boats via Lake Champlain to the town of Skenesborough (today known as Whitehall). He also marched most of his troops down the Mount Independence-Hubbardton military road toward Castleton, VT. From there, St. Clair hoped to march toward Schuyler’s main army which was located at Fort Edward, NY.

Early on the morning of July 6 two American deserters came into contact with Burgoyne’s troops, and told them about the American evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Burgoyne made immediate plans to pursue the retreating Americans. While Burgoyne took most of his troops south on Lake Champlain toward Skenesborough, Burgoyne instructed Simon Fraser to take 850 troops from his advance corps and pursue the retreating Americans on the Mount Independence-Hubbardton military road.  

Serving as the three battalion commanders under Fraser were Robert Grant, John Dyke Acland and Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarres. Following the British forces a few miles behind on the Mount Independence-Hubbardton military road were the 1,100 German troops under the command of Friedrich Baron von Riedesel. 

Commanding the American rearguard on the overland retreat was Seth Warner, who had successfully commanded the rearguard one year earlier during the American retreat from Canada. Serving as subordinate commanders under Warner were Ebenezer Francis and Nathan Hale (not the famous American spy who gave his life for his country).

While most of St. Clair’s troops completed their July 6 march to Castleton and encamped there overnight, some of his troops fell so far behind that they bogged down Warner’s rearguard. The delay got to the point where Warner decided to encamp overnight in the Hubbardton area with his 900-man rearguard plus approximately 300 American stragglers.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of July 7, Fraser’s lead troops caught the encamped Americans at a creek called Sucker Brook. At approximately 7:00 a.m. the British battalion under Robert Grant attacked the Americans who were just across the creek, and drove them back to a defensive position now known as Monument Hill. During the creek attack Grant was killed.

As the Americans formed a defensive line on Monument Hill, Fraser elected to pursue the British attack immediately rather than wait for Riedesel to bring up his troops from a few miles farther down the military road.

“Fraser was a brigadier general while Riedesel was a major general,” said Venter. “Fraser probably wanted to attack immediately while he was in command rather than wait for Riedesel to arrive with his men and possibly take overall command of the British and German troops.”

The British succeeded in driving away the American defenders on Monument Hill, who then retreated to a small unnamed hill which contained a high log fence. The fence was shaped similar to a long inverted “U” and provided the Americans with a strong defensive position.

“Fraser thought he could push the Americans off the hill,” said Venter. “Instead the Americans made a stand, even though they were being flanked.”

While the British and American troops slugged it out near the high log fence, the key moment in the Battle of Hubbardton took place when Riedesel arrived and immediately deployed his advance guard of 180 troops. He sent them to the left of the British troops in such a manner that they flanked the right side of the American line and poured into the American right rear.

“As Riedesel’s troops arrived, his band played music and his troops sang hymns,”said Venter.

The American left side became flanked by British troops as well, creating a total collapse on both sides of the American defensive line. During the last American stand, Francis was killed. The American rearguard fled in disarray but they had fought hard for nearly three hours, and had prevented the British from destroying St. Clair’s main forces, who were on their way to joining Schuyler’s northern Continental army at Fort Edward.

“Casualties numbered almost 200 of Fraser’s men, the cream of the British army. I think these losses hurt at Saratoga,” said Venter. “The Germans didn’t have many casualties, and the Americans actually lost more soldiers but many of them were stragglers and drunks. I don’t see the American casualties as critical as for the British.”

In summarizing the Battle of Hubbardton, Venter blamed Fraser for being too impetuous in his pursuit of the retreating Americans. “He pursued the Americans with no food and no medical support, and after the battle he was unable to move his troops anywhere for 24 hours,” said Venter.

Most of Warner’s rearguard and St. Clair’s forces regrouped and would continue to fight Burgoyne’s army until it surrendered at Saratoga on October 17,1777. “This was a campaign of logistics, and Burgoyne was a cavalryman. Logistics killed him,” said Venter.

Bruce Venter is president of America’s History, LLC, a tour and conference company that conducts trips to American Revolution battlefields and historic sites. The company also holds a nationally-recognized conference on the American Revolution each year in Williamsburg, VA.

Venter serves as first vice president of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Albany. He and his wife Lynne own a summer house on Lake George, NY---approximately 50 miles from the Hubbardton, VT battlefield.

In other business conducted at the September 16 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, the following topics were discussed:

1. Mark Lender, the chairman of the Roundtable’s book award committee, announced that the winner of this year’s award is Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris.

2. Other members of the Roundtable made various announcements regarding upcoming meetings, seminars and college courses that relate to the American Revolution and American history in general.    

--Bill Seward

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