Bennington Battle Day, August 16th, is a state holiday in Vermont, commemorating a key 1777 battle of the Revolutionary War. The battle has been observed every year since 1778. This year, in the wake of COVID-19, most traditional events were canceled. A group of local citizens stepped in to create the Bennington Battle Day 2020 Celebration Committee to create a commemoration that follows public safety mandates. Phil Holland is author of “A Guide to The Battle of Bennington and the Bennington Monument.” As co-chair of this year’s commemoration, Holland says events will pay homage to veterans and essential workers and feature a reverse parade. But first, he explains to WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley why a battle fought in New York became a holiday in Vermont.
“Although the battle was fought just over the New York line in the little hamlet of Walloomsac, New York, the British troops, really they were German troops predominantly, were sent by Burgoyne to attack the Continental storehouse at Bennington. Bennington was the objective. Bennington was the place from which the militia under General Stark set out. It was where the battle strategy was planned and it ensured the existence of the newly fledged state of Vermont. And for those reasons Vermonters claim the title and in fact that was the way the battle was referred to by the participants in the early years.”
Bradley: “The battle has been commemorated….”
Holland: “….every year since the first year after the battle. 1778 was the first commemoration and it's been going on annually ever since.”
Bradley: “So this year seems to be the first year where that commemoration was threatened basically.”
Phil Holland: “Yes, in a sense. Our fire department has organized the parade for the past 50-something years. But for obvious reasons this year they decided that it was not the right thing to do. And a group of us, battle aficionados and boosters, stepped into the breach and organized a more modest kind of celebration so as not to let the opportunity slip and in fact try something new.”
Bradley: “Can you explain what the group is doing that's going to be new?”
Phil Holland: “Sure. First of all instead of honoring veterans or those who fought in the battle, although we will do that we will certainly remember them and our ceremony will be taking place in fact at the Vermont Veterans Home, we'll be honoring essential workers this year. That's something new obviously, but it's not unrelated to the response to adversity that we faced back in 1777. It’s outdoors of course. Seating will be socially distanced. The public is not invited, although we'll be televising the ceremony. We want people to stay at home and simply watch. And although we will have a few dignitaries on hand, otherwise, it's us and the honorees and a few speakers. And so it will be really more intimate. You know one thing I also want to bring your attention to what makes the ceremony a little different. A couple of local students who studied the battle at the middle school, we're going to give them a speaking role because we wanted young people to be involved in celebrating our history. And we've also invited the poet laureate of Vermont, Mary Ruefle, who is a resident of Bennington to read a couple of poems. There was poetry in the first celebration in 1778. We're bringing that back and I hope adds a unique flavor to this year's commemoration.”
Bradley: “Well Phil Holland you mentioned social distancing. One of the things that I read is that for the Battle of Bennington commemoration this year the monument is actually off limits. Wouldn't there be enough space outside the monument itself to allow for people to be there with social distancing and with some of the mask requirements? Why wouldn't you guys be able to do any of these events at the monument?”
Phil Holland: “Well, that's a good question. And that was in our original plans. But the state opened up its historic sites on the first of July, I believe, to see how it went. And they found that although certainly at the monument it's rather spacious around there. But there's only one bathroom.”
Bradley: “This year you're planning a reverse parade. I've heard that term a lot since COVID-19. It's a new type of an idea. How are you doing this reverse parade?”
Phil Holland: “It will first of all kickoff right when the ceremony has finished around noon on this Sunday. It will start opposite the hospital. And the idea of a reverse parade is that the paraders in their cars or fire vehicles pass by the sights, the hospital, the fire station, the police station and we don't expect that the streets will be lined with people.”
Bradley: “Phil Holland you've written about the Battle of Bennington. You are, as you mentioned, a member of many of the organizations that have put the commemoration on in the past and such. When you look at the cooperative effort that's going on right now in the middle of this pandemic to have a Bennington Battle Day celebration, especially this year, do you see an analogy in some ways to the diversity of those who fought in the battle? I'm thinking of the soldiers from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont and everything who came together to protect Bennington and, you know, some of the efforts that you're doing today to remember the battle.”
Phil Holland: “You said it so beautifully, Pat, I'm not sure I can improve on that. But yes it's been for me a very rewarding experience. You've been to the monument haven't you? It's an impressive piece of sculpture that obelisk that anchors our landscape so beautifully in old Bennington. And I think it's the most beautiful obelisk I know because of the continuous parabolic shape on the top. It's not squared off with a pyramid the way the Washington Monument is for instance. It's got smooth lines. And it is 300 and some feet tall. So you look up it's a football field in length. And I hadn't realized until I did some research, the way the edges are subtly incised so that there are soaring vertical lines and the way the stone is roughly coped. It's so delicately tapered. I don't know how they did that. But they dressed the stone at the end of a special rail line right in place. That stone by the way comes from New York state. We do owe New York state a number of things about this battle. We work together and then now.”
There will also be a ceremony at the Bennington Battlefield State Historic site in New York beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday. Gatherings in New York are limited to 50 people.