John Stark: The French and Indian War [1754 – 1763 CE] and the American Revolution [1775 -1783 CE]

Each state has the opportunity of honoring two persons notable in its history with sculptures in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building. New Hampshire chose Daniel Webster and John Stark [1728 -1822]. The latter deserves to be known for more than his contribution to the state’s license plates. At least four times, Stark’s actions were critical to the success of the American Revolution.

Born in what is now Derry New Hampshire, Stark was an outstanding example of the American of the northern frontier of his day. In 1752, while on a hunting trip, Stark was captured by Abenaki Indians and brought to the Canadian settlement of St. Francis, which was notorious for launching raids into New England territory. One of his companions was killed.

When forced to run the gauntlet upon his arrival in St. Francis, Stark grabbed a stick at the head of the two lines of warriors and proceeded to swing away at the young men who had been prepared to pummel him, to the obvious amusement of the village elders. He later earned further respect from the braves when he refused orders to work with the squaws in the fields. Stark was adopted into the tribe before being ransomed home the next spring.

During the French and Indian War [1754 – 1763], Stark served as second in command to Major Robert Rogers in his Rangers Company. He refused to accompany the Rangers on their celebrated 1759 attack on St. Francis, citing respect for his foster parents there. At the end of the war, he retired with the rank of captain.

When the American Revolution started, Stark accepted a Colonelcy in the New Hampshire Militia, mustered troops, and marched them down to the scene of the fighting around Boston. He made the first of his major contributions to the Revolutionary cause at the Battle of Bunker Hill [Breed’s Hill, June 17, 1775].

When he arrived at the site, Colonel Prescott’s men were erecting defenses. They had called for reinforcements, but most of the American officers and troops hesitated to cross over a neck of land subject to British naval artillery.

Marching his men to the front fieldworks without suffering casualties, Stark took command of the left end of the American line. He and his men quickly reinforced a rail fence as a firing position, and threw up a low stone wall between the end of the fence and the adjacent river, interdicting a previously undefended stretch of beach. His soldiers were deployed three deep behind these hastily improvised works.

The British launched three attacks on Stark’s position, attempting to turn the Americans’ flank. All three attacks were stopped with deadly fusillades. The British facing Stark, having suffered heavy losses, concentrated their forces on another portion of the field for the rest of the fight.

When the Americans were finally forced to retreat, Stark’s troops provided covering fire for Colonel Prescott’s men. The British were considerably sobered by their Pyrrhic victory. They had mistakenly believed they were up against peasant farmers. In John Stark and his men, veterans honed by incessant frontier wars with Indians and the French, the English were battling what was likely the age’s finest irregular infantry.

Washington offered Stark a command in the Continental Army. After the abortive invasion of Canada in 1776, Stark and his men joined Washington in New Jersey. Despite the fact that their terms of enlistment were expiring, the New Hampshire forces under Stark participated in the crossing of the Delaware and the American victories at Princeton and Trenton. Without them, Washington would have had insufficient numbers to proceed.

Sent back to New Hampshire to raise more troops, Stark learned to his disgust that fellow New Hampshire resident Enoch Poor, who had carefully avoided the fighting at Bunker Hill, had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. In March of 1777, Stark resigned his commission, though he pledged future service should it be needed.

It was needed soon. Four months later, after Burgoyne had invaded from Canada and taken Ticonderoga in June, New Hampshire offered Stark a commission as Brigadier General of the Militia from that state. Stark accepted, stipulating that he would not be answerable to the command of the Continental Army. With conniving gasbags like Horatio Gates running the Continental Army’s response to Burgoyne, it was a wise precaution, as Gates’ disgraceful treatment of Benedict Arnold was to prove.

At the Battle of Bennington [August 16], Stark used infiltration and envelopment strategies that essentially destroyed an expedition of German mercenaries fighting for the British: of 374 professional soldiers from Brunswick, only 9 escaped. With Seth Warner’s reinforcements, the Americans also drove off a relief column sent out by the English. Stark lost 14 dead and 42 wounded. The American victories at Bennington cost Burgoyne approximately 1,000 men dead, captured, or wounded, and caused widespread desertion among his Indian allies.

Stark had another key role to play at Saratoga, blocking Burgoyne’s retreat to Canada by siting canon at an outcropping now known by the name of Stark’s Knob.

John Stark was made a Brigadier General of the Continental Army in October. He was Commander of the Northern Department three times between 1778 and 1781, spending much of his time trying to deal with government thieves in Albany.

After the Revolutionary War, Stark retired to private life, a notable exception to the common practice of the American generals of the time, garnering him praise as a modern Cincinnatus. In 1809, unable at age 81 to join a group of veterans commemorating the Battle of Bennington, he wrote to them a letter closing with “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” “Live free or die” was adopted by New Hampshire as its state motto in 1945; it appears on New Hampshire’s license plates.

Further Reading:

• Astonishingly, at the time of this writing there is no standard modern biography of John Stark. Most recent books rework materials from Howard Parker Moore’s A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire [1949] and Caleb Stark’s Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark [1877].

• Two of the better recent offerings are Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark by Richard and John Polhemus and Clifton La Bree’s New Hampshire’s John Stark. Several new biographies are reportedly in progress.


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