General John Stark played a tremendous role in winning America’s independence, yet he is virtually unknown today. In 1809, though the two men had never met, President James Madison wrote to Stark in recognition of “the part you bore as a hero and a patriot in establishing the independence of our country.”1 More than a quarter century after the Revolutionary War, it was still common knowledge that Stark, as Madison put it, was “a champion in so glorious a cause.” Likewise, President Thomas Jefferson had written to Stark, “as a stranger who knows you only by the services you have rendered,” to say, “your memory will be cherished by those who come after you.”2
In truth, we should cherish the memory of Stark, not only for his vital role in winning America’s freedom, but also because he embodied that quintessential American virtue: independence.
Early in life Stark learned the virtue of self-reliance, and it would come to define him. Raised on the harsh New Hampshire frontier, he mastered fishing, trapping, hunting, and generally gained the knowledge and skills necessary for surviving in the wilderness. Consequently, he developed the confidence that he could support himself in any environment or situation.
While trapping when he was twenty-four, Stark was captured by Indians. They demanded that he lead them to his party. Stark calmly paraded them two miles in the opposite direction. Believing that Stark simply had gotten lost, his party, which included his brother, signaled their location by firing into the air. Thus, they inadvertently drew in the roving band. Stark batted away several of the Indian’s guns as they chased his friends. This bold act enabled his brother to flee, but Stark remained a prisoner.
Try as they might, Stark’s captors could not break his rebellious spirit. They forced him to run between two lines of men who were poised with sticks and clubs, ready to inflict blows. Stark turned the tables, wresting a club from one of the men and rushing the line, knocking down several Indians while hardly receiving a blow himself.3 They again tried to humble him by having him hoe corn, a job typically left to the tribe’s women. Stark chopped down the corn, leaving the weeds instead, and then heaved the hoe into the river.4 If the Indians didn’t regret seizing Stark then, they would have cause to later.
With the help of a man from Massachusetts, Stark soon was able to buy back his freedom. A few years later, when the French and Indian War began, he joined the militia of Robert Rogers. Rogers’ Rangers, as they came be called, were feared and respected. Historian Clifton Labree wrote, “Even a hint that Rogers’ Rangers were in the vicinity was deterrent enough to make the wily Abenaki and their French handlers make a detour rather than take a chance on meeting the green-clad rangers.”5 Having spent months with the Indians, Stark now used what he had learned of their culture and warfare against them. His excellent marksmanship, keen judgment, and composure under pressure earned him the rank of captain.
It was while captain during the French and Indian War that Stark first saw justice subverted by those who could exploit policies to attain the unearned. Stark had gotten smallpox and, for a brief time, was confined. His second in command, Lieutenant Jonathan Brewer, took charge in Stark’s absence and apparently yearned to keep his newfound position of power. Stark, having passed the point of being contagious, was scheduled to set sail with his company. But Brewer filed a summary action against Stark, thus keeping his captain confined while Brewer sailed away in command of Stark’s force. Brewer later was dishonorably discharged, but Stark forever more was wary of power and those who could exploit it.
Stark was too straightforward to play politics; he even spurned local political gatherings and the lawyers and politicians who attended them, referring to them disdainfully as “the Exeter crowd.” But as the British ramped up their controls on the American colonies, Stark’s passion for liberty exceeded his far more mild aversion to local authorities. By 1774, he was attending meetings of the local Committee of Safety, a shadow government set up in defiance of British rule.
When he heard about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Stark immediately closed his sawmill, grabbed his gun, and headed for Massachusetts—still in the clothes he’d worked in that day. He was commissioned as a colonel and quickly raised fourteen regiments, more than three times the number raised by other colonels commissioned alongside him.
To Stark’s displeasure, his fifteen-year-old son, Caleb, soon showed up in camp, telling his father, “I can handle a musket, and have come to try my fortune as a volunteer.” “Very well,” answered Stark, thus committing a son to the war effort as well.6
As if admitting his son to the war effort were not trying enough, one of the harshest battles both of the war and of Stark’s life would occur the very next day. Ever since the Boston Tea Party, the bay colony had taken the brunt of British retaliation. Thanks to the intelligence network of Paul Revere, the colonial militias knew when and where the British were planning to move their colossal navy. On June 17, 1775, Colonel Stark’s regiment was ordered to move downriver to Bunker Hill. They marched through crossfire on a narrow strip of land between the Charles and Mystic Rivers where the British had floating batteries on each side. Henry Dearborn, later Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of war, then a general in Madison’s War of 1812, was a young captain under Stark. He later recalled:
My company being in front I marched by the side of Col. Stark, who, moving with a very deliberate pace I suggested the propriety of quickening the march of the regiment that it might sooner be relieved of the galling cross-fire of the enemy. With a look, peculiar to himself, he fixed his eyes on me and observed, with great composure, “Dearborn, one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones” and continued to advance in the same cool and collected manner.7
The commanding officer of the Second New Hampshire Regiment, Colonel James Reed, was absent due to illness. Colonel Stark took command of Reed’s regiment, further augmenting his own force, which already was the largest on the ground that day. Stark’s superior, General Israel Putnam, now left it up to Stark where to place his men. The two knew each other well from the French and Indian War, and Putnam knew that wherever Stark went, he would be effective.
On the north side of Bunker Hill was a thinly guarded rail fence. This created an opportunity for the British to advance that, in Stark’s words, “was so plain a way that the enemy could not miss it.”8 Stark ordered his men to reinforce the fence. They quickly stuffed straw between the fence rails, thus building a “sham breastwork,” more a token of defense than an actual barrier to musket balls. When they finished, “Col. Stark stepped in front of the line, thrust a stick into the ground about 80 yards distant and remarked to his command ‘There, don’t a man fire till the red-coats come up to that stick, if he does I’ll knock him down.’”9
The redcoats landed and marched up the beach toward Stark’s men, who were so still that the British wondered if they intended to fight at all. They got their answer as soon as they passed Stark’s stick in the ground.
Death struck so surely, there on the beach, that, one by one, the companies melted away. Officers fell, sergeants and corporals fell, the leading privates dropped and the rest shrank back. As the broken lines of each company gave way, the successor pressed forward, only in turn to be shattered.10
One contemporary British writer observed that three-fourths of the forces that attacked Stark’s position were wiped out.11 Notably, “The killed and wounded were all betwixt the stick and the line, showing with what coolness Stark’s troops obeyed his orders.”12
The regiment to Stark’s right, led by Colonel William Prescott, took heavy casualties. Stark ordered his men, their meager ammunition having dwindled, to cover the retreat of Prescott’s regiment. Then his men—the last Americans to leave the field—also began a slow, fighting withdrawal. Although they withdrew, the damage they’d inflicted on their better-trained, better-equipped adversaries made even this seem like victory: four hundred Americans killed or wounded to about 1,150 British. Of the four hundred Americans, only sixty were Stark’s men.
Soon after the battle, Congress promoted several officers. Though Stark had six years of prior military experience, had dropped all concerns and rushed to the field of battle, and had played an incredibly important role in the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was passed over. John Sullivan, who had served New Hampshire well in Congress but had no military experience, was commissioned directly into the rank of brigadier general. Nathaniel Folsom also was promoted above Stark. On paper, Folsom’s military career looked similar to Stark’s, although Folsom also had made inroads in politics. But neither of the men equaled Stark in ability.
Stark was a passionate patriot who knew the perils of putting less experienced men in command. Lacking the tact of his well-connected rivals, he wrote to the New Hampshire legislature, stating plainly that “there are so many officers in the continental army promoted before me that neither seniority or merit intitles [sic] them to and that never was in an army until they joined the Continental service.”13 He assured them that he “never entered the service for the sake of ease or gain but for pure zeal for my country’s cause.” He asked, “[A]s I am not worthy of the trust reposed in me[,] I hope the Honorable Congress will take it into consideration and either give me my rank in the army or give me leave to retire to my family.”
General Horatio Gates recognized Stark’s merit and gave him command of a brigade, but Stark’s remonstrance to the legislature otherwise went without resolution. Even so, Stark’s “pure zeal” kept him going.
As the war dragged on late into 1776, the Continental Army began losing heart. They’d long been without a victory and often were on the run. Idleness in camp had bred pettiness and a lack of discipline, and Washington was at his nadir, exhausted and desperate. The bulk of his soldiers were to depart at the end of the year, and he could offer no inducement to keep them longer. Washington called a council of war, after which he requested John Stark. According to Stark’s son Caleb, who had continued to serve in the First New Hampshire Regiment:
Stark observed to General Washington “your men have too long been accustomed to place their dependence for safety on spades and pickaxes. If you ever expect to establish the independence of these states you must teach them to place dependence upon their fire arms and their courage.” Washington replied “that is what we have agreed upon—we are to march tomorrow upon Trenton—you are to command the right wing of the advanced guard and General [Nathaniel] Greene the left.”14
Washington could have chosen several other officers who outranked Stark to lead the attack. But when it mattered most, he recognized Stark’s reputation for valor. On the sleety Christmas night of 1776, John Stark crossed the Delaware, as had Washington earlier that evening in what may be the Revolutionary War’s most iconic image. And as Washington had expected, Stark delivered at the Battle of Trenton. General James Wilkinson reflected that Stark “dealt death wherever he found resistance, and broke down all opposition before him.”15 The Americans overran the unsuspecting German mercenaries who had been hired by the British. The battle at Trenton would prove a turning point in the Revolutionary War, wounding the pride of Britain and again solidifying the patriots’ fortitude.
The exultation of victory fresh, Stark seized the moment. Years later, one soldier recounted, “A few days previous the terms of the New Hampshire regiments expiring; Stark was the first to propose an enlistment for six weeks; He left his station as commander for the moment [and] took upon himself the task of a recruiting officer.”16 As the men’s wages were badly in arrears, Stark also pledged the little money he had to his name. His men responded unquestioningly, “and not a man failed to enlist.” Other officers followed suit, giving Washington an army with which to keep his momentum. Thus, three days after the new year, the Americans again attacked the British in the Battle of Princeton and again won.
When the six-week enlistments expired, Stark traveled back to New Hampshire to enlist more troops and learned that, once again, a less experienced man had been promoted above him. This time it was Colonel Enoch Poor—who had held his men back in idle safety at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Historian George Bancroft wrote of this, “Stark stood at the head of the roll of New Hampshire for promotion, was the best officer from that state and had rendered very great service at Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, but on the idea that he was self-willed he was passed over.”17 Stark resented the injustice, and he let the New Hampshire state legislature know it:
Ever since Hostilities commenced, I have . . . Endeavored to prevent my country from being Ravaged & Enslaved by our cruel and unnatural Enemies, have undergone the Hardships and Fatigues of two campaigns with cheerfullness and alacrity, ever enjoying the pleasing satisfaction that I was doing my God and Country the Greatest service my abilities would admit of & it was with the utmost Gratitude that I accepted the important command which this State appointed me . . . But [I] am extremely grieved that I am bound on Honour to leave the service, Congress having thought fit to promote Junior officers over my head.18
Stark held that to stand for the injustice would be to “show myself unworthy of the Honour conferred on me & a want of that Spirit which ought to glow in the Breast of Every officer.”19 The state legislature was powerless to overturn the decision of the Continental Congress. They gave him genuine thanks for his service and tried fruitlessly to dissuade Stark from resigning. He responded that “an officer who would not stand for his rank would not stand for his country.”20 He warned them of the perilous state of Fort Ticonderoga in New York, a stronghold on Lake Champlain that served as a gateway between Canada and the northeastern colonies. He pledged himself to the defense of New Hampshire, should the war ever make it there, and tendered his resignation.
Once back home, Stark couldn’t help but continue recruiting for the Continental Army. His son Caleb, who recently had been promoted to adjutant in his father’s old regiment, wrote, “His zeal for the cause continuing as ardent as before, all of his family capable of bearing arms were fitted out and dispatched to the army.”21
Just as Stark had feared, in early July of 1777 British General John Burgoyne had his sights on Fort Ticonderoga. It was the responsibility of General Philip Schuyler, but Schuyler had been blind to the encroaching danger. He had left the fortress in the hands of General Arthur St. Clair, who, along with Enoch Poor and another brigadier general (Matthias de Fermoy), decided to withdraw their forces without a fight at the sight of the British. They fled in the night, leaving an unequaled position of strength along with 127 cannon, huge stores of musket balls and gunpowder, and thousands of barrels of food: the very supplies that could have sustained them through a siege. Nor was the American withdrawal orderly. They bolted. Many of the sick and wounded were killed either by the pursuing redcoats or by stealthy Indians.
The horror story quickly made its way back to New Hampshire. In his plea for help, Vermont official Ira Allen declared, “By the surrender of the fortress of Ticonderoga, a communication is opened to the defenceless [sic] inhabitants on the frontier. . . . Unless we can have the assistance of our friends . . . it appears that it will soon be out of the power of this State to maintain its territory.”22 Allen also pointed out that “when we cease to be a frontier, your state must take it.”
John Langdon, a businessman who had served in the Second Continental Congress and was now speaker of the New Hampshire state legislature, realized the gravity of the situation, and he saw a solution. He rose and made a pledge:
I have a thousand dollars in hard money; I will pledge my plate for three thousand more. I have seventy hogsheads of Tobago rum which will be sold for the most they will bring. They are at the service of the state. If we succeed in defending our firesides and our homes I may be remunerated; if we do not then the property will be of no value to me. Our friend, John Stark, who so nobly maintained the honor of our state at Bunker Hill, may safely be entrusted with the honor of the enterprise and we will check the progress of Burgoyne.23
Thus, Langdon pledged his substantial wealth to finance a small army and nominated Stark to command it. Stark returned with the messenger who brought the proposal. He had little confidence in his military superiors, whom he deemed responsible for losing Fort Ticonderoga. He told the council that he would gladly accept the commission but only if he were allowed to act on his own judgment, independent of the Continental Army. New Hampshire officials shared his worry that Stark’s mission might be interrupted by officers who outranked him, and that he might be ordered to flee from the enemy and to link his troops with those of the Continental Army. Thus the state of New Hampshire made Stark a brigadier general—and the only one of his kind, answerable solely to the state legislature and otherwise left to act on his own best judgment.
Within a week, Stark enlisted nearly fifteen hundred men; in less than a month they were positioned in Vermont. Near Bennington, Stark detached two hundred men who marched northwest and soon came upon a regiment of five hundred German soldiers from Burgoyne’s army. The Americans withdrew discreetly, luring the enemy back toward Bennington, Stark, and the remainder of his force. After a day and a night of drenching rain, Stark’s army enacted a pincer movement, surprising the enemy’s left and right flanks while Stark himself led troops up the center.
Just before his center column commenced its attack, Stark gave a rousing speech, concluding by pointing and declaring, “There are the red coats and they are ours or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”24 Stark’s plan was perfectly timed and superbly executed. In less than two hours, the enemy lines had collapsed, and the Americans were transporting prisoners back to camp.
What Stark hadn’t planned for, however, was another force of five hundred Germans, which was spotted two miles up the road. Stark and his officers began hurriedly organizing the now-scattered men. Just as the two forces were colliding, a fresh American regiment, which Stark had sent for, appeared. The second wave of Germans fought fiercely but crumbled just like the first. Stark later reported, “The battle continued obstinate on both sides till dark, but had day light lasted one hour longer, we should have taken the whole body of them.”25
In five hours, Stark’s fresh recruits, who had been untrained and inexperienced, had made an improbable stand for their homes, for their families, and for their freedom. They had defeated two forces of skilled veterans, taking hundreds prisoner.
The Battle of Bennington shattered British General John Burgoyne’s plans and his confidence. He attempted to retreat north, but Stark and his men regrouped and cut him off. Burgoyne was boxed in without supplies—and without hope. These disappointments led to his full surrender at Saratoga, a momentous turning point in the war and the event that persuaded France to aid America.
The fierce independence that had long kept Stark from progressing finally was recognized for the virtue that it was. Near the war’s end, Stark was made a general. During Stark’s lifetime, every American would have agreed with Jefferson’s sentiments, expressed in a letter to Stark nearly thirty years after his famous fight: “Respected General . . . The victories of Bennington—the first link in the chain of success which issued in the surrender of Saratoga—are still fresh in the memory of every American, and the name of him who achieved them dear to his heart.”26
In 1809, at the approach of the thirty-second anniversary of the Battle of Bennington and many years after Stark had returned to his family and to civilian life, Vermont officials invited him to speak at a memorial. They wrote, “No event could so animate the brave ‘sons of liberty,’ as to see their venerable leader and preserver once more in Bennington; that their young men may once have the pleasure of seeing the man who so gallantly fought to defend their sacred rights.”27 But “Should this request be inconsistent with your health,” they added:
We should be happy in receiving a letter from you . . . that we may read it to them on that day. Sentiments from the age, and from those who have hazarded their lives to rescue us from the shackles of tyranny, will be read by them with peculiar pleasure, and remembered long after their fathers have retired to the silent tomb.28
Stark, now suffering from debilitating rheumatism, was kept from traveling to Bennington. But he promptly responded with his sentiments. Stark recalled the men he’d served with at Bennington—some sixty of whom were to be there for the celebration—saying, “They were men who had not learned the art of submission, nor had they been trained to the arts of war; our ‘astonishing success’ taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves.”29 Recalling men’s minds to the purpose of their fight, he continued:
As I was then, I am now, the friend of the equal rights of men, of representative democracy, of republicanism, and the declaration of independence—the great charter of our national rights—and of course a friend to the indissoluble union of these states. I am the enemy of all foreign influence, for all foreign influence is the influence of tyranny. This is the only chosen spot of liberty—this the only republic on earth.30
Noting that some of America’s worst enemies during the Revolutionary War had come from within in the form of “powerful British faction[s]” working toward the “subversion of our liberties,” Stark recognized that it was “by having good sentinels at our outposts [that] we were apprised of the danger.” Without the brave writers and activists who first rose to defend freedom—without those who raised the alarm and alerted their countrymen—American liberty may have perished without a fight, gradually and absent all resistance. So, Stark continued, “These are my orders now, and will be my last orders to all my volunteers.” He commanded those who were to carry on the responsibility of safeguarding liberty to maintain vigilance, to stay alert, “to look to their sentries.”31
Stark ended his letter with a toast that will forever affix him in our minds as an embodiment of that quintessential American virtue: independence. His tribute to those “who had not learned the art of submission” was, “Live free or die—Death is not the worst of evils.”32
Here’s to General John Stark and to all who hold “that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves.”