Left in Andover: The sword, and the stones of the Bennington Battle Monument

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In late June of this year, the bronze sword attached to the statue of General John Stark at the Bennington Battle Monument site went missing, but was found within a matter of hours.

Was removing Stark’s sword a political act, a copy cat action related to the dismantling of Confederate era statues in the south? If so, someone got their history lesson mixed up. For who can object to Gen. John Stark, Revolutionary War hero of Bunker Hill and Bennington.

If ever there were a leader or cause for which to do battle, it was Stark and the fight for American freedom from British oppression.

However, were Stark alive today, he might not be as upset over losing his weapon as his apocalyptic motto – Live Free or Die – featured on all Granite State license plates, suggests.

In fact, the peace loving lines of Isaiah 2:4 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares” apply just as nicely to Gen. Stark. This warrior-farmer harbored no ancillary political or commercial ambitions. After the war, he dodged all such opportunities, preferring private life on his farm in Derryfield, N.H.

In 1809, as an octogenarian, Stark reflected on 32 years to the Battle of Bennington. Of his fellow militia members he soliloquized:

“They were men that had not learned the art of submission. Nor had they been trained to the art of war. But our astonishing success taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves.”

As a final toast, he pronounced the words forever associated with him: “Live Free or Die.” This was actually a translation of “Vivre Libre ou Mourir,” a rallying cry from the French Revolution, which occurred after – and was inspired by – the American Revolution.

The slogan was borrowed from a passage in “The Year 2440,” a futuristic utopian science- fiction book written in 1771 by moderate peoples’ Convention member Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Mercier did not support the beheading of Louis XVI, for which he was jailed during The Reign Of Terror. Nevertheless, Mercier’s incendiary words propelled the French people forward: “Choose then, Man! Be happy or miserable; if yet it be in thy power to choose: fear tyranny, detest slavery, arm thy self, live free or die.”

In late July 1777, halfway through the American Revolution, Col. Seth Warner of the Vermont Republic had requested help from New Hampshire to guard a Yankee supply cache at Bennington. Within a couple weeks, 1,000 to 1,500 volunteers assembled at the site of Fort at No. 4 across the Connecticut River from Springfield in Charlestown, N.H., prepared to follow Stark through the wilderness to New York to fight the British.

The modest obelisk in Peru commemorating Gen. Stark’s encampment.

After ferrying across the Connecticut, the troops marched through Springfield to Chester, where they camped overnight. Local boys are still known to go metal detecting in hopes of locating the encampment site, but its exact location is either officially unknown or a well-kept secret.

From Chester, Stark and his men followed the Middle Branch of the Williams River west, passing within 2 miles of where my house now stands in Andover. Although it had been chartered in 1761, Andover was still wilderness during the Revolution.

Abby Maria Hemenway’s Local History of Andover, Vt lists only two pre-war settlers, Shubal Geer and Amos Babcock, both of whom homesteaded Weston Island in 1768.

Fontaine Martin, in his 1981 book The Landgrove Meetinghouse traces how their neighbor from Ashford, Conn., Capt. William Utley, chopped a path through the forest for them 14 miles from Chester. The following spring Utley continued on his own to what would become Landgrove, where he was first to establish roots.

Upon the advice of Ira Allen, Stark and his men followed Utley’s road, arriving at Utley Flats in Landgrove around Aug. 4, 1777.  The captain undertook to feed the mass of men:
“The troops dined with Captain Utley, and for a part of their rations he prepared a potash kettle of mush, or … hasty pudding.”

Stark and his men then bushwhacked to Peru through the virgin forest, pushing along a single cannon. On Hapgood Pond Road near the village center, a modestly sized historical obelisk marks their encampment of Aug. 6, 1777.

My father’s uncle and cousins visiting Bennington, 1940s at the monument.

From there, it was down hill through Winhall to Manchester and eventually to Walloomsac, N.Y., where Stark engaged the British and their Hessian “slaves” on Aug. 16, helping to turn the tide against the British in the Revolution.

It must be noted that no battle ever occurred in Bennington. That was a public relations stunt perpetrated a century later by Bennington boosters under the leadership of ex-Gov. Hiland Hall.

In 1876, Hall urged his centennial committee to design an ambitious monument to honor the battle, on the site of the supply cache in Old Bennington.

Hall exhorted the committee to aim high, measuring its ideas against “the Egyptian pyramids, Pompey’s pillar at Alexandria, the Nelson Monument and Duke of York’s column in London, and the towers of the new Brooklyn Bridge.”

In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison dedicated the resultant 306-foot-high limestone obelisk, which has dominated the surrounding countryside ever since. Tens of thousands of spectators attended.

Even now, only the most savvy of Vermonters and visitors realize there was no battle in Bennington. The only Revolutionary battleground in Vermont is at Hubbardton in Rutland County.

Uncle Fritz riding a mini bike in Bennington parade in 1961.

Regardless of his ambivalence over the obelisk’s design, and whether the battle was even Bennington’s to own, my father was a local boy through and through. He couldn’t resist bringing us kids to town on every Aug. 16 for the yearly parades and sidewalk sales.

I was especially in awe of my Uncle Fritz, a Holocaust refugee as well as an American WWII vet who got into the spirit of the occasion riding his bicycle and unicycle up and down Main Street without ever falling off. Compared to all his other balancing acts, this was no doubt a piece of cake.

By 1950, Bennington was having a difficult time maintaining its monumental obelisk. In 1953, the state assumed ownership and all costs associated with its upkeep. The statue of General Stark was added to the site in 2000.

The anonymous removal of his sword was likely an act of pure vandalism. However, the perpetrator may not have been the first to imply that the dismantling of certain Vermontiana might be advisable. On that note I will let my outrageous father have the last word.

On the 182nd anniversary of the Battle of Bennington in 1959, he dashed off the following tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor of the Rutland Herald:

“Let us keep the faith with our Revolutionary heroes. The Monument has become a scurrility upon them. This, moreover, is no latitude for such an obelisk. My thought is that it might be dismantled, and the stone used to construct a shrine of more manageable proportions (and one for which a responsible contractor can in conscience be held accountable). I once lived in a cottage built of stone from a dismantled Crusaders castle, I am reminded, and found it entirely satisfactory.

Herbert Leader
Andover, Aug. 18, 1959

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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