Friday, 27 February 2015

Bennington Vermont, 1777

Timothy sprawled out on the grass staring up at the sky. It was a carefree day, the sun was shining
brightly, the birds sang in the giant elm tree next to him. Life was good. His father, John had given him free time today, a break from working on the farm. At eleven years old Timothy needed the time to be a kid and his father was kind enough to realize that. His mother Elizabeth, no so much. It was a point of contention. She wanted him to help out more around the farm, as the rest of the boys did. But every now and then John allowed the boys time to just live life. In the morning Timothy went to school in the town, about a forty-five minute walk. For two hours he learned about life, math, english and religion in the little one room school. He hated his teacher, too often he was getting the strap for things he didn't feel were warranted. But that was life. It wasn't easy. Some days going home to the farm and working was a relief from learning, other days it was the other way around.
Today was different, he had the rare chance to explore and play knowing full well that when he came home there would be more chores, there always were more chores. That afternoon he and his father were going to fix the holes in the walls of the cabin. With colder weather coming they needed to be shored up to keep the cold New England winter at bay. But now was his time.

He stared at the sky lost in thought. At his age things that mattered were simpler, he didn't care about politics or business. He didn't worry himself about food production or money, he just followed the lead of his brothers and sisters and parents and teacher. They were all older and wiser, or so they told him constantly. He was just a kid and had much to learn about the world around him. His father was a veteran of the French and Indian wars, so he was a hard man. Now a farmer in a quiet town, he still stayed away from other people instead preferring the company of family and church. At night, he would gather the children around the hearth and read the bible to them. During the day he would run the farm like a tyrant. With twelve brothers and sisters the work was spread out and he was more like a boss than a father, even strapping those who failed him. He was a tough man and he had to be. But then he would have moments of weakness where childhood memories compelled him to back off and let kids be kids.

Elizabeth was also tough. Having lived through the wars with John and coming from a similar home down south she was used to the life. The women typically kept to the house while the men worked outside. Elizabeth taught the five girls to sew, cook, make bread and butter, milk cows, make clothing, fix things inside and much more. Growing up she didn't need to do that much, as her father was a slave owner. He was a fairly wealthy man and she'd gotten off lucky for it. But now she had an immensely different life which she enjoyed – she had a good man for a husband and they really didn't want for much. Everything was provided by God and John.

“Hey!” came a shout from over the meadow. “Time to stop daydreaming and get home, Father's waiting for you and he's not happy. Come now”.

Timothy heeded the call of his older brother William, slowly getting up after taking one more long gaze at the blue sky. “Maybe tomorrow”, he murmured to himself. And he got up and followed his brother without a word. With the war going on all around them, days like these were indeed rare, and that made them so much more appreciated.

Chinking the walls was not the most difficult job on the farmstead and therefore one normally reserved for the youngest. John had shown him how to do it a couple of years ago, but was always there to help. The mixture of mud, clay, grass and moss was mixed for him, all he had to do was patch the holes. Easy enough, but boring. His father was there as always, to teach and ensure the job was done right. John took pride in reminding him that if it wasn't done right he'd freeze his butt off that coming winter. The cabin wasn't large, about 15 foot by 20 foot, but the addition on the backside required special care. Initially John built a cabin for a small family, with a loft for sleeping but as the McCombs clan grew he needed more space. Five years ago he built a 10 foot by 10 foot addition on the cabin, making it one of the larger homes in the area. The gaps between the main cabin and the addition were the problem as the logs used to build them were not joined together in the tongue and groove fashion used to build them vertically. Rather holes were bored out and logs fitted into them. This made for larger gaps that required more chinking. And of course, that's where the joints were weakest. It would be an all day job, if not into tomorrow.

While Timothy set to work his father headed off to check on the rest of the boys, working in the fields. It wouldn't be harvest time for another month but that didn't take away from the tasks of the fields. In the twenty-six years John McCombs owned the farm he had built it from a forest. When his grant of land came through after the last war he realized he'd been given trees. Millions of them. The farm evolved within that 500 acre patch of forest in the Vermont countryside to a farm, but the old tree stumps still littered the fields. The first years were not spent producing, but in cutting down the trees to open up the land, and the fields were planted around the old stumps. Over the years the stumps rotted and made them easier to remove. So the backbreaking job of taking them out carried on alongside the wheat and corn farming. Today, John and the boys would remove three, maybe four stumps and cut them up for firewood. One of John's neigbours, David Street, had built himself a massive stump pulling devise, and rented it out to those who could afford it, but of course, John couldn't. A few years back he did hire Street's devise, but the cost wasn't worth the reward. Now with seven boys to help him, he could do just as much without it.

The first 100 acres behind the barn had been cleared already. Now they were deep in the fields working in the unbearable August heat. Two of the girls, Margaret and Elizabeth, were tasked to bring water to the men working. All day they went back and forth carrying water in whatever they could find, buckets, jars, and leather canteens. All day the men worked on the stumps all the while careful not to destroy the precious wheat growing all around them. It was exhausting work, and Timothy was happy to have a slightly less strenuous task.

While Timothy worked he daydreamed. He stared across the at the road out front and wondered where it would take him someday. He often dreamed of just leaving and exploring his world, but today was not the day. As he glanced up at the road he noticed soldiers marching. That wasn't uncommon here, there were 1,500 men garrisoned in Bennington just ten miles away. So seeing men walking down the road at any point was not a surprise. Today was different. There were hundreds of men, in columns, marching past the cabin, an officer on horseback leading them, the flag of Vermont Republic waving in the breeze. Timothy went to the road to watch them, knowing of course that his father would rail on him for doing so. But he went. The men were marching west, out of town. Many were signing songs while they marched. He wondered if the officer on the horse was Washington, he'd never seen his portrait. Probably not, Washington was somewhere else commanding the Continental Army, not in a small backwater town. The men were a rag tag mix. Many in uniforms he recognized from days past when the army marched in, many others were in field clothes. All of them carried muskets and battle gear such of powder horns and charge boxes. Then the Massachusetts flag went by. Then the New Hampshire flag. This was big.

After the column passed Timothy went back to the cabin and resumed his work. He didn't think much more about it. He was concentrating more on the fact that father or mother hadn't caught him. He kept chinking the cabin.

At 3pm Timothy was startled by gunfire. A little at first, then came roaring explosions, quite close by. He dropped his tools and ran into the cabin yelling “Shooting Mother! In the next fields, there's a battle!” His mother stopped him cold, grabbed him and quickly ushered him to the loft, where she already had the girls hunkered down. Five minutes later the men came in, panicking and yelling to see if everyone was safe.

All fifteen members of the McCombs family was in the cabin now. John pulled his rifle down off the wall, and ordered Thomas to check the supply of shot stored in the chest against the far wall. Then he ordered William to go to the barn and retrieve as much powder as he could carry. The girls started to cry as Elizabeth calmed them as best she could.

After an hour or so John had his musket primed and ready, although he was short on powder. He set the boys to work making as many cartridges as they could. The women and Timothy huddled in the loft, scared but relatively safe. They waited. Probably for nothing, but it had already been proven that this war was as much hell on civilians as to the soldiers. Both sides had looted and burned villages and farms. Now a battle was happened only a mile away, and who knew what to expect.
A window shattered. Then another. John ordered the boys to the floor and Elizabeth pulled the girls and Timothy lower. Lead balls embedded themselves into the far wall of the cabin. Luckily hitting nobody.

On the road in front a skirmish had broken out between groups of men dislodged from the main battle. About fifty men on both sides fired at each other in close quarters. The men of the British side were Rangers and Indian allies, so they fought guerrilla style, hiding among the trees. The men of the American side were Green Mountain Boys. They fought a rolling battle down the road in front of the McCombs homestead moving east towards Old Bennington. Bodies of soldiers from both sides lay on the grass in front of the cabin. Eventually the skirmish moved on, and the rain began, ceasing the guns.

After an hour of uneasy quiet John stepped out with his musket and cautiously approached the road, hugging the trees. Seven men lay dead on his property, on was still alive, a British Ranger. He called out for help. William and Stephen quickly came to the aid of the fallen man, and under their father's orders carried him to the barn. John collected a few muskets and cartridges from the dead men, and while checking his guard, brought them back to the house. He distributed the arms to the older boys, checking first to make sure the rain hadn't damaged the precious powder. Then he ordered Elizabeth to care for the wounded soldier. It didn't matter if he was British, he was a man who would die without aid, and the Christian thing to do was help, even though he would easily be branded a Tory for doing so.

John didn't pick a side in this conflict. He'd been a loyal citizen of the King for almost fifty years, and he didn't plan on picking today to reflect on where his loyalty should lie. Both sides of the conflict had pros and cons, so he chose to just farm his land and raise his family. He was too old for politics anyway. He chose to help his fellow man, regardless of who's side he was on. He was playing a dangerous game. Last year a neighbour, John Walker, after being accused a Tory had his farm burned and his family driven off the land. The last anyone saw of the Walker family they were moving north towards Canada. Nobody knew of their fate. John hoped they made it to the border, and hopefully a new life. John also knew the same fate could await him if anyone found a British soldier in his barn being cared for by his family.

Later that evening the gunfire started again. Louder this time and much more intense. Cannon shot could be heard, so close the remaining windows of the cabin rattled and cooking implements were shaken off the table. The boys hunkered down with their muskets, four now loaded and ready. The girls huddled in the loft with Timothy, and Elizabeth and Alice cared the wounded soldier in the barn. It went on for three more hours, then silence.

By nightfall the Americans under General Stark had the field. They began the process of mopping up the field, looting British and German supplies, and processing the hundreds of prisoners. On the British side over 200 men lay dead, on the Continental side, 30 dead. That night a stream of British prisoners marched down the Bennington Road towards town past the McCombs home. John and the boys lay their rifles down and watched the solemn procession. He still had one though. And he had no idea what to do with him. He was gravely wounded, and the family did not expect him to recover. 

John made the difficult decision to approach the column and talk to a passing officer. He knew the consequences if his actions were taken the wrong way, but it was the right thing to do. He told the officer who he had in his care, hoping that his action would be seen as merely humane. Upon hearing this, the American officer dispatched two men to collect the wounded man from the barn, which they did quickly and efficiently. They joined the column of men and moved on. The officer stared intently at John for a few moments, then moved on. He was safe.

The next morning the McCombs family all took to the duty of the aftermath. Bodies were everywhere, and they had to be given Christian burials. American soldiers had removed the seven dead from the homestead and piled them up with the rest of the casualties on the fields a mile away. When the family arrived to assist, they were initially stopped, but John being the man he was, insisted. Preachers from town were already here, offering last rights to the dead and helping with digging the graves. Soldiers put down their weapons and picked up shovels. Families from around the area were there to help clean up the aftermath of the Battle of Bennington.

Timothy took all this in with horror. He'd never seen battle, he'd never seen death like this. His innocence was lost now. All he could smell was gunpowder and death. Everywhere he looked he saw the shattered remains of men and the cries of the wounded. Everywhere he looked he saw things that would affect him for the rest of his life. The horror of war.