John Stark: the forgotten revolutionary

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  • Frontiersman
  • Roger's Rangers
  • Bunker Hill
  • Maverick
  • Live Free or Die
  • Ironically, Britain lost the American colonies because of its repression of Ireland. The English and Scottish settlers it sent there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to "pacify" the Irish met with ferocious opposition, and that centuries old bloody conflict continues still. Into this mess came a Scottish opportunist by the name of Archibald Stark, who evidentially became so disgusted by the abuses he saw in Ulster County that he and his family moved with several other compatriots to America. Eight years later, in 1728, his son John Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Although after the Revolutionary War General John Stark received letters from nearly every major figure of the American struggle for independence admitting that they would have probably lost without his service, he remains generally unknown, his role in history being overlooked by many historians. It is the aim of this paper to correct the abysmal dearth of knowledge about the last surviving Revolutionary War general, and to show how America may owe its independence to a man its citizens have largely forgotten.


    Before Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, there was John Stark. The frontier he grew up in, though, was New Hampshire. Major Indian raids and massacres such as the one in nearby Contoocook in 1746 when Stark was eighteen years old were still an ever-present threat. The main occupations of hunting, fishing, and Indian-fighting provided a rough environment in which the rough, unrefined Stark excelled. (As did his future wife, Elizabeth "Molly" Page, who, apparently the original tomboy, was described at age twelve as being "too much for any man to handle" and was also an excellent marksmen.) He owned extensive tracts of land around Amoskeag Falls and in Dunbarton (then called Starkstown) and Derryfield (now Manchester), and although his main assets were his farmland and his sawmills he was fairly well off. He was a very hardy, strong man, lived a very active ninety-three years, and of his and Molly's eleven children, an unusual ten reached maturity. Like his father, he was an opportunist, although also a man of strong principles and very strong-willed and independent, with a reputation for speaking his mind plainly and somewhat of an intolerance for fools. Yet he felt, and would continue to feel for the rest of his life, as if he were a second-class citizen, yearning desperately for title and rank to give him the status his appearance and crudity did not. In the very class-based English society in which he grew up, this meant acquiring rank and property, and so he later joined the military to gain some respect and prestige, in addition of course to the adventure and glory it promised. That he was well suited for military life and was even a brilliant tactician was a fortunate coincidence of ambition and skill.

    One of his most legendary pre-military exploits occurred a few years before the outbreak of war between the English and the French and the Indians. In April of 1752, Stark, his brother Will, and some other men were trapping furs deep in upstate New Hampshire when their party was discovered by some of the native Abenaki. Stark and another man were captured by the hunting party of Indians who inhabited the village of St. Francis, at the time in French territory, who intended to sell them as servants to the French to make them pay for trapping on their land without permission. As a way of humbling their prisoners, the Abenaki first would make them run the gauntlet, that is, run between two rows of men who would beat at them with sticks, while holding only with a thin long pole that was ineffectual in defense and served only to slow the prisoner down. Stark's companion acquired quite a beating this way, but Stark was different. He beat up the gauntlet, for instead of running in between the lines of men, he ran straight at them, yelling "I'll kiss all your women!" and stunning the men armed with clubs by attacking them with the thin pole and continuing to beat at them even after it broke. He was accepted into the tribe as one of their own while his companion was sold. He further earned the warriors' respect by his refusal to do "squaw's work", so eloquently shown by carefully hoeing up all the young corn plants to give the weeds room to grow. Later, when some English officials came to buy back any prisoners held by the French, Stark went with them, not as a ransomed servant but as an adopted member of the Abenaki tribe.

    Roger's Rangers

    When the French-Indian War broke out, Stark served as a senior captain with Roger's Rangers, who had the reputation of being the wiliest and scrappiest unit in the British Army. It is possible that, had he been appointed a British officer, he would not have joined the rebellion several years later. Such an appointment, however, did not materialize as Stark had the double strike against him of being a colonial and a rough, uncultured one at that. Nevertheless, he was a very successful officer, so much so that a later biographer could state that "his military career is without the blemish of a single failure". Even British General Gage, years later at the Battle of Bunker Hill when he was trying to determine if the Americans would really fight or not, referred to his conduct in the French-Indian War and stated "that if one John Stark was with them they would fight; for he was a brave fellow and had served under him in 1758-9 at Lake George."

    One such campaign in which Stark showed his remarkable ability and stamina was in the desperate battle fought around Ticonderoga in January of 1757. With a force of seventy four men, including officers, Roger's band of Rangers was ambushed by 250 Indian and French forces. Rogers was wounded early in the battle, and another captain was killed, leaving Stark in command. After fighting most of the day, the Rangers had had fourteen killed, with six wounded and six more captured, while 116 of their enemies had perished on the battle field. As soon as the enemy withdrew, the Rangers began the long march towards the nearest English post, but after walking the whole night it was clear that cold, fatigue (due to a full day of fighting and then a night of marching), and injuries would preclude further travel for the majority. Stark and two others volunteered to trek the forty miles needed to reach Fort William Henry and bring back aid, which they started immediately and incredibly accomplished by that evening. Stark's perseverance earned him the captainship.

    Bunker Hill

    When the Revolutionary War broke out fifteen years after Stark had resigned his commission due to the cessation of fighting in North America, he immediately volunteered to command a militia, raising four hundred men in six hours. This extremely high number, especially so since the colonial militia would be facing the stormtroopers of their day, was due to Stark's reputation from the French-Indian War. Furthermore, he gathered troops that were possibly the finest in the American army of the time. They were renowned for being excellent sharpshooters, due to living on the frontier where they would have much more familiarity with firing guns than the other troops. Stark's units also stayed together throughout the war despite massive desertions elsewhere, a tribute to his skill as a commander and the trust his troops placed in him.

    Stark proved that he warranted this trust during his first major battle in the war for independence, Bunker Hill. Innumerable analyses have been made about this battle and countless scores of books written, but few say much about Stark's role in making it a very expensive victory for the British. Rather than being a symbolic gesture of not allowing the British to occupy one more inch of Massachusetts territory, there was a specific goal to the misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill, which was to cripple the striking power of the British troops in Boston by bombarding them with the cannons available to the Americans. For this purpose Breed's Hill should have been the focus of the American troops. Israel Putnam, however, the major general who was nominally in charge and who displayed remarkable incompetence throughout the battle, actually fortified the wrong hill, Bunker Hill, which was simply too far away from Boston for the intended purpose. As a result, the focal point of the battle was underdefended. In what historian Thomas J. Fleming calls "the best order Artemas Ward would give all day," Stark and his 1,000 men from the New Hampshire militia who were waiting about a mile away in Medford were ordered to reinforce Breed's Hill.

    To get his men to the battlefield, it was necessary to cross a small strip of land barely thirty yards wide with British cannon balls whistling overhead. Captain Henry Dearborn, a young officer on his first campaign, nervously suggested that they might want to think about "quickening the march of the regiment, that it might sooner be relieved of the galling crossfire of the enemy." Stark's response was that "one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones." The troops continued on in the same steady manner, reaching Bunker Hill in perfect order. There, Stark discerned almost immediately what he needed to do: a rail fence on the left flank of the hill held the key to the American defenses, and there were only a few men holding it. Stark promptly brought his men down there and set them to covering the fence with hay, brush, mud, and anything else that might deflect musket balls and convince the British that the barrier was more substantial than it really was. Spotting a gap large enough for a British light infantry column to pass through between the end of the rail fence and the beach, he ordered 200 of his men to build a crude stone wall all the way down to the water. He then proceeded to hammer a stick into the ground about forty yards in front of the stone wall and ordered his men not to fire before the enemy had crossed in front of it.

    When the British finally did cross that point they were overwhelmed by the American fire. Despite the difficulties associated with reloading rifles of the time, Stark had picked up a method of maintaining close to continuous fire while serving in Roger's Rangers years earlier: the front would fire while the rear waited and then reload while the rear was firing, and so on. The British regiment was decimated and promptly fled, leaving behind ninety-six dead.

    They attacked again a short time later, and again they were repulsed with horrifying casualties. The fighting by the rail fence was the bloodiest (for the British) in the whole battle, with Stark and his troops inflicted 70% casualties on them, His men concentrated especially on officers; several companies had every single one of their officers killed or wounded by the deadly American fire. Not surprisingly, their return fire was rather ineffectual.

    The Americans could not withstand a third attack, however, as they were nearly out of powder and ammunition; most units, including Stark's, had not had adequate supplies to begin with. The British ended the day with a technical victory, but a very, very costly one: 1,045 out of the 2,400 soldiers sent against the militiamen were dead or wounded, a large percentage of them by the men under Stark's command. Indeed, had Stark not seen the hole in the American defenses and fortified the rail fence, there would have been a huge gap in the defenses, enough perhaps to have allowed the British to win with much less loss of life and thus the morale boost the revolutionaries received from Bunker Hill would never have come.

    After Bunker Hill, Stark continued to serve successfully in other prominent battles, including the Christmas attack and capture of vital military stores in Trenton and the battle of Princeton soon after, the only two battles in which he fought with Washington. He was also part of the campaign in Canada. But in March 1777, Stark resigned his commission because younger officers kept getting promoted over his head. The first such incident had been in June 1775, only days after the battle of Bunker Hill, when a man with no battle experience was promoted to brigadier general over the battle hero Stark because the Continental Congress would rather appoint a third party over either him or his rival for the promotion, Nathaniel Folsom. When in March 1777 a new regiment was formed, Stark was both the most logical and the most senior choice for the promotion, but despite his distinctive service in all his campaigns and his position as the logical candidate he was not chosen to command it.


    Part of Stark's problem were his perennial clashes with the ruling elite of the colonies. After he had formed his New Hampshire militia in 1775 and fought with such distinction in the battle of Bunker Hill, the New Hampshire state legislature officially called it the Second New Hampshire Regiment, elevating over it into the position of First a unit that had not fought in any battles yet. When Stark was later in Exeter for some other reason, he reputedly prefaced his remarks to the assembly with the statement, "It is indeed a great honor to address such an august and powerful body that can make a baby born yesterday older than a baby born last month." Such statements naturally did little to endear him to the legislators, and so it was that in 1777 certain prominent members of Congress and other aristocrats, offended by his stubbornness and blunt speech, promoted officers of lower rank to be his seniors. Stark decided that enough was enough and insisted that he be authorized by the New Hampshire state legislature "to act separately for the protection of the people or the annoyance of the enemy." Ironically, it was during this time period, while he was not officially commissioned, that he took part in his other major battle, the battle of Bennington.

    At the time, due to the British capture of Ticonderoga, Burgoyne's army looked poised to overrun New England. Their current goal was to seize the military supplies that the colonists had at Bennington, something they were not going to be allowed to do without a fight. Accordingly, Stark acquiesced to the request of the state of New Hampshire that he take command, as a brigadier general, of a joint New Hampshire- Massachusetts- Vermont militia of 1750 men to repel the British. His battle plan was enacted on August 17, 1777, when he rallied his forces with one of his vintage Stark phrases: "There they are, men. We'll beat them before night or Molly Stark's a widow." He was extremely successful: fully two-thirds, or 1,200, of the enemy's forces were killed, wounded, or captured, while the equal-sized American troops lost less than 100.

    Stark was thereafter known as the "Hero of Bennington". He had on one day, if the wounded, prisoners, and deserters are figured in, depleted 14% of Burgoyne's troops, as well as seriously dispirited the Indian allies of the British, many of whom decided to just go home afterward. Washington wrote of the battle as "the great stroke struck by General Stark near Bennington," and it proved to be a turning point in the war. It was also a turning point in Stark's career, for it forced the Congress that had only days before been considering disciplining Stark for disobeying orders to commission him as a brigadier general in the Continental Army. It was a very late gesture (October 1777), and it is interesting to contemplate what might have been the course of the Revolutionary War had the extremely efficient and successful Stark been a general since June 1775.

    During the winter of 1777-8, when the term of enlistment for many troops expired, Stark pledged his own small private means (he was after all a farmer who also ran some sawmills, and although he lived fairly comfortably he was never wealthy) to help pay for their salaries. He also used his reputation to convince his entire remaining regiments to re-enlist. Part of his popularity with his men may have been due to the fact that he did not take them to Valley Forge that winter, finding it more practical that they spend the winter with their families at home rather than camped out in the freezing cold. There was also the consideration that the local governments would frequently seize the estates of owners who were gone in order to sell them for revenue, laws prohibiting such seizures being easily circumvented, and so his stay home from Valley Forge was also touched on by a not unfounded fear of having his property taken in his absence.

    This did not mean that Stark had abandoned the Continental Army, however: towards the end of winter, he arrived with his fresh, well-wintered troops and encouraged the ragged forces under Washington to continue. Stark continued to be active in the rest of the war despite bouts with rheumatism after 1780. He was part of the campaign that captured Fort Edward and blocked Burgoyne's escape, forcing him to surrender. As a general, he served on the the board of officers that tried Major Andre for espionage. He was also twice the commander of the northern department. Washington wrote him about this in 1781: "I am induced to appoint you to this command on account of your knowledge and influence among the inhabitants of that country... I rely upon it, you will use your utmost exertions to draw forth the force of the country from the Green Mountains and all the contiguous territory. And I doubt not your requisitions will be attended with success, as your personal influence must be unlimited among these people, at whose head you have formerly fought and conquered, with so much reputation and glory."

    After the war, Stark went home. His biographer Howard Moore described him thus: "A man of unswerving principles, he retired to private life when the independence of his country had been won and became the only true Cincinnatus of them all." (Incidentally, those same principles led him to oppose the of the Order of the Cincinnati, a hereditary club for officers who had served in the revolution, as he was against the general idea of such military organizations. Evidently, his experience with aristocrats British and colonial alike had made him realize that it would be folly to create another such institution.) He lived the next nearly forty years out of the public spotlight, his service to his country being finished. He finally died on May 8, 1822, and was buried with military honors.

    Live Free or Die

    John Stark was not a politician, nor a statesmen, nor a would be policy-maker, nor anything on the national scale other than an excellent general and tactician. He was uneducated, in contrast with the majority of the men remembered today as the nation's heroes, unrefined, uncouth, and rather unwilling to follow orders, and he had the audacity to be very successful in spite of all that. He never was a member of any of the elite classes, either financially or intellectually, and he left no writings of his own save his journal, which is mainly a financial ledger. We must therefore depend on the accounts of others who were not necessarily unbiased in their reporting of his doings. His grandson Caleb's biographies sometimes are incorrect or exaggerated, while other sources neglect to mention him at all or attribute his victories to other individuals. This could account in large part for why he has overwhelmingly been forgotten and his role in history downplayed.

    This does not, however, mean that his omission from history books should continue. John Stark made Bunker Hill a success, for the grievous price paid by the British for the hill had a galvanizing effect on the nation. As Massachusetts loyalist and later general in the British army John Coffin once said, the American forces "could not have succeed without it. Something in the then state of parties was indispensable to fix men somewhere... to show that the Northern people were in earnest." It also helped convince those colonists who were as yet undecided whether to support the revolution or not that Britain was prepared to wage an all-out war to preserve its control over them. Bunker Hill showed that the American people could be a force to be reckoned with, providing a large moral boost to the American troops by proving that the British could be defeated, or at least made to pay for their victories very dearly.

    Likewise, the "Hero of Bennington" deserves some credit for starting the chain of American victories that led to the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga. When his forces so thoroughly routed the British at Bennington and denied them the supplies they were aiming for, Burgoyne was forced to cross the Hudson to an apparently more secure position- the area near Saratoga. He was soundly defeated there and forced to surrender, and the rest, as they say, is history. In many ways, John Stark was the catalyst through whose actions great things happened.

    Despite being uneducated, Stark did have a way with words, and he is renowned for his many picturesque phrases: "I'll kiss all your women!" "Dearborn, one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones." "There they are, men! We'll beat them before night or Molly Stark's a widow." "It is indeed a great honor..." Perhaps his most famous phrase is one that is familiar to many people who have never even heard of John Stark, which became the motto of the state of New Hampshire that he coined in 1809: "Live free or die- Death is not the worst of evils." A fitting epitaph, perhaps, to the man who may have made it all possible for so many people to do just that.

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