American Revolutionary War General John Stark should be an American legend. But history is capricious, and outside of his native New Hampshire, he’s little remembered today. Frontier trapper, Indian captive, Ranger, militia commander, farmer, sawmill operator — Stark lived a life of adventure, principal and purpose, and contributed mightily to the founding of the American Republic.
John Stark, a man of hardy Scots-Irish stock, grew up on the New Hampshire frontier. In his teenage years he and his brothers supplemented the family’s income with trapping forays into wilderness lands claimed by the Abenaki. According to the memoir published by his son Caleb Stark:
“They were accustomed to dwell in forest camps, at great distances from home, and thus became inured to hardships, and were early taught lessons of self-dependence. They were often, in the pursuit of their vocation, brought in contact with the native savages, from whom they obtained a knowledge of their language and customs, and became excellent marksmen.”
While relations between the Anglo-American settlers of New England and the native peoples of the region — particularly the Abenaki — were often hostile (the typical reference to the Abenaki as “savages” is indicative), there was a share of interaction and even commonality. The two cultures that clashed on that frontier had some characteristics in common: a strong sense of individual freedom, love of the hunt, admiration for martial prowess. And a propensity for feuds and long-held grudges.
While he would go on to fight the native peoples as an officer of Rogers Rangers, John Stark was no Indian hater — as we’ll soon see…
On the matter of the Stark boys’ skill at arms: We associate frontier marksmanship with the rifle, but the Starks’ woodsrunning firearms would have certainly been smoothbore, probably some form of English trade gun, or perhaps a fowler.
While you’re not going to get rifle-quality accuracy out of a smoothbore at longer ranges, it was possible, with a carefully loaded smoothbore, to do some shooting that was plenty accurate for the job at the kind of ranges the Stark boys would have operated at in the New England woods. Rigorous training makes a difference; Indians and Rangers of the period took their shooting seriously, and often “shot at marks” for recreation and training.
On one of his trapping expeditions in 1752, John Stark was captured by Abenaki out of the northern town of St. Francis between Montreal and Quebec — an episode that will make up the next Frontier Partisans Tales of the Rangers podcast. For our purposes here, it is enough to know that he was well-treated by his captors, who appreciated his pugnacious spirit. This was a time of peace on the frontier — or at least a time between open wars — and Stark was quickly ransomed by the colony of Massachusetts. He would recall that he:
“…had experienced more genuine kindness from the savages of St. Francis than he ever knew prisoners of war to receive from more civilized nations.”
When the French & Indian War broke out, Stark signed on with Robert Rogers, whom he had known as a woodsrunner, and became an officer in Rogers Rangers. He served with distinction in many of the Rangers’ most legendary engagements. Again, we’ll tackle those stories in due course. It is telling that Stark declined to participate in Rogers’ most famous exploit, the long-range raid on St. Francis in 1759. Stark did not want to attack his Abenaki adopted “kin” in their homes. Even in wartime, relations on the frontier were often complicated.
After the war, Stark, who had married a woman named Molly Page, settled down to farming and operating a sawmill. When war clouds again loomed over New England as rebellion exploded in April 1775, Stark mustered a regiment of militia to join the Minute Men surrounding Boston. A lot of mythology grew up around the militia — a people in arms, and so forth. The actual performance was spotty at best. But there was no question that Stark’s New Hampshire contingent, bred on a hard frontier, were quality troops.
As historian Thomas J. Fleming wrote of Stark’s 1st New Hampshire Regiment:
“The uniformless soldiers Stark led were, man for man, the best troops in the amorphous American army. For the other New England colonies, the frontier was relatively remote and there was little or no excuse to use a gun, especially in self-defense. Even hunting was difficult, since the woods were already thinned and powder was scarce and expensive. In New Hampshire, the frontier began at the end of the yard and the woods were still full of game. Stark’s men were much more used to handling guns than the majority of the Grand American army. They were also considerably tougher. One company of sixty New Hampshire men from Nottingham marched the moment they heard the news of Lexington, on the afternoon of April 20, and made the distance to Haverhill, 27 miles by dusk, ‘having run rather than marched’ and were in Cambridge, 55 miles away, within 20 hours.”
On June 16-17, when patriot forces fortified Breed’s Hill overlooking Charlestown, and the British Army prepared a landing and assault, Stark was given permission to deploy his men as he saw fit. Everyone knew his background and respected his tactical acumen. Stark deployed on the American left flank, along a fence near the Mystic River shoreline, and had his men fortify the rail fence with grass and build a breastwork of stone. Stark paced out in front of the field fortification and set a pole at 40 yard for a range marker, and told his men:
“Watch their gaiters. When you can see their gaiters clear, that’s when to shoot.”
When the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the Kings Own 4th Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) advanced, Stark’s frontiersmen leveled their muskets, and gave them a devastating volley at close range. The fire swept the first two ranks of the British advance, crumpling the advance. Stark’s men, loaded with buck-and-ball, fired again and again into the stalled mass of troops, and broke them. The British retired, leaving 96 men dead. Stark said:
“I never saw sheep lie as thick in a fold.”
In a third assault, the British finally pushed the American force off of Breed’s Hill. The patriots were low on ammunition and could not hold. It could have been a disastrous rout. Stark’s men covered the retreat, preventing the British from flanking the hill and getting into the American rear.
What became known to history as the Battle of Bunker Hill was a serious scrap: The Americans took 450 casualties, 115 killed, mostly in the third assault when the British troops broke into their defenses, and took after them with the bayonet. The British losses were 1,054, with 207 killed, including 19 officers, which was a profound shock to the British commanders. A dying British colonel said:
“A few such victories would ruin the Army.”
Stark’s New Hampshire men had accounted for almost half of the British KIA.
John Stark became an officer in the Continental Army, and served with distinction, supporting the failed invasion of Canada and recovering the retreating men, then joining General George Washington for the vital victories at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey. Despite stellar service, when promotions came through from the Continental Congress, Stark was passed over in favor of less able but more politically connected officers. This was exactly the kind of BS that drove Benedict Arnold to turn his coat later in the war. Stark was made of finer timber than Arnold, but he was disgusted nonetheless. 18th Century men were touchy of their honor, and his had been badly affronted. He resigned and returned to New Hampshire — though he assured his colleagues that, should a threat develop from the north, he would fight again — but not under Continental Army command.
In 1777, British General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne pushed down the Lake Champlain corridor from Canada in a bid to drive to Albany along the Hudson River, splitting the colonies, and isolating revolutionary New England. It appeared to be a war-winning strategy, but Burgoyne had rough going in hard country, with American militia rallying to support a strong Continental Army contingent under General Horatio Gates (with the fiery General Benedict Arnold taking the field), dispatched by Washington to meet a potentially mortal threat.
Stark and other officers mustered the New Hampshire militia.
Burgoyne was suffering from supply problems as he moved slowly through a wilderness. In dire need of horses and foodstuffs, he dispatched a strong force of 1,000 German mercenaries, Loyalist militia and some Indian scouts to Bennington, in the New Hampshire Grants (now Vermont), which lay south of his position and east of the Hudson River.
German Dragoon Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum led the expedition. He quickly became alarmed at the numbers of what he called “uncouth militia” dogging his track. He sent back to Burgoyne for reinforcements and forted up behind hastily constructed breastworks on high ground.
Stark devised a simultaneous three-pronged assault, a bold maneuver for a militia force. It was so well-executed that Baum initially thought his uncouth enemy was retreating.
To fire up his men, Stark cried:
“There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
He meant it. Stark led from the front as his men penetrated the breastworks and surrounded the British force. The Indians and Loyalist militia took to their heels, leaving Baum to make a last stand. The German was mortally wounded in the intense firefight, that Stark recalled as:
“…the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed, resembling a continual clap of thunder.”
Late-arriving reinforcements from Burgoyne might have turned the tide of battle, but Col. Seth Warner checked them in a sharp action, and they were forced to turn about and return to the main British column.
The German’s force lost 200 dead and wounded, and 700 were taken prisoner in the Battle of Bennington. Stark and his uncouth militia and Col. Seth Warner and his Continental contingent had effectively eliminated the entire force. This was a devastating blow to Burgoyne. Not only did he not get the supplies he desperately needed, he had seen 1,000 troops — including crack German fighters — taken off the board. Two months later, he would be defeated in two battles at Saratoga.
Burgoyne might have been able to retreat to Canada — but Stark’s militia, after resting and refitting from the Battle of Bennington, slipped in behind him and hemmed him in. Burgoyne surrendered his army. The surrender at Saratoga led directly to French intervention in the American Revolution, which turned it into a world war. It was a hinge-of-fate moment, and the New Hampshire frontiersman John Stark had played a major role in creating it.
Stark earned a Brigadier General’s commission in the Continental Army and served with honor — though no more combat — through the end of the war. Then, he went home.
As Revolutionary War Journal recounts:
Of all the American Revolution generals, it seems Stark was the truest of the Cincinnatus. At war’s end, he remained absent from public life, content to spend the next thirty-nine years quietly working his farm in Derryfield, New Hampshire. His last legacy occurred in 1809 at age 81. He was too ill of health to travel to Bennington to gather with fellow veterans to commemorate the battle. He did however, send a letter to his former comrades. It closed with the words “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” Live Free or Die became the New Hampshire state motto in 1945.
With leadership qualities and tactical brilliance developed and honed on the New England Frontier with Rogers Rangers John Stark was a Revolutionary War hero — and an All-American Badass.