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The Stark Truth about Bennington Battle Day


August 16, 2000. For me, it was a day when one quirky Vermont tradition trumped another. After much soul-searching, my partner and I decided to get a civil union. We drove to downtown Burlington, strode proudly up to City Hall, and tried to enter. The door was locked. Taped to the glass window was a paper sign that said only, "Closed on August 16." Above the caption was a drawing of a rag-tag young man in a tri-cornered hat, toting a rifle and staring resolutely into the distance.

"What?" said Ann-Elise, my shocked and disbelieving partner "How can they be closed?" She seemed convinced the world was conspiring against us. I, on the other hand, knew better. "I think," I said cautiously, "it's Bennington Battle Day."

I was right. We had both lived in Vermont for years, but since only state and local services like libraries and municipal offices are affected, we'd never been forced to reckon with Vermont's only state holiday. The occasion commemorates a Continental Army victory during the Revolutionary War, at a battle fought on August 16, 1777, named after the town of Bennington.

My curiosity was piqued that fateful afternoon, and I've since learned a few things about the old "Battle of Bennington." For one, it did not take place in Bennington. Nope, the Battle of "Bennington" was actually fought in Walloomsac Heights, New York. Not that New Yorkers care -- their state workers certainly don't get the day off.

And though Vermonters proudly point to the Green Mountain Boys -- led by Colonel Seth Warner -- as the heroes of the day, the most famous person associated with the fight wasn't even there; she was in New Hampshire.

"She" was Molly Stark, whose husband, Brigadier General John Stark of New Hampshire, commanded the 2000 mostly untrained Continental Army volunteers facing a 700-strong British force. As the battle began, General Stark reportedly shouted to his troops, "There are the Red Coats; they will be ours or tonight Molly Stark sleeps a widow."

This rallying cry is said to have inspired the men to victory. In commemoration of the call, signs bearing the name Molly Stark are nearly as ubiquitous in southern Vermont as signs advertising maple syrup.

Ann-Elise and I did eventually get our civil union. This past Memorial Day weekend, she and I went camping in Wilmington, Vermont. To get to our campground, we drove down Route 9, a.k.a. the Molly Stark Trail, so named because it's the path Molly's husband followed on his way back to the Granite State. During our trip, we saw the Molly Stark Motel, the Molly Stark Hospital, the Molly Stark School and at least one Molly Stark gift shop. Each night, we returned to our campsite in the Molly Stark State Park where we read pamphlets devoted to this feisty woman, who bore 11 children and nursed her husband's wounded soldiers. Did I mention that she lived in New Hampshire?

No trip to Molly Stark territory would be complete without a visit to the Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot-tall obelisk that's actually the tallest structure in Vermont. A group of Bennington Battle boosters in the late 1880s erected the monument -- how else does one describe the creation of a massive granite tower? It stands on the former site of an arsenal depot, which is what the Brits were after when they ran into John Stark's irrepressible band of patriots. Visitors can pay $2 a pop to ride up to the observation deck in a rickety elevator. On a clear day, you can see the battlefield -- in New York.

Recently I asked Joe Hall, president-elect of the Bennington Historical Society, if he thinks Vermont's unique reverence for the Battle of Bennington, while commendable, is at all ironic. He said no. Hall defends the conflict's association with Vermont.

"If there was a lovely young lady," he explains, "and two gentlemen were fighting over her, but the fight is in Walloomsac, the battle is still called whatever her name is. It's the same here."

Um, so why don't they just call it the battle of Molly Stark?