Major General John Stark, Continental Army
John Stark was born August 28, 1728 in Nutfield (now Londonderry) New Hampshire. He was the son of Archibald Stark (1697-1758) and his wife Eleanor Nichols (1702-?). His father, Archibald was born in Glasgow, Scotland and immigrated to the New World in 1720. He fathered four sons, of which John was the second. He moved his family to Derryfield (now Manchester), New Hampshire in 1736.
In 1752, John, his brother William, neighbors David Stinson and Amos Eastman went on a hunting trip and were ambushed by Indians. John warned his brother William and Stinson, who tried to make their escape. Stinson was killed but William managed to escape. The Indians made John run the gauntlet where he was beaten with rods and sticks by a line of Indian warriors on both sides. Six weeks later William and a group of colonists from Fort Number Four at Charlestown on the Connecticut River rescued the two survivors by paying a ransom of $103.00. This capture left John emotionally scarred from which he never recovered.
A year later, John was part of an expedition to the headwaters of the Androscoggin River where he was working to raise money to repay Massachusetts for their expenses in equipping the rescue party. Two years later John led an expedition on behalf of New Hampshire’s Governor, Benning Wentworth, to explore the western part of the Colony. There were justified concerns regarding French initiatives along the frontier. The territorial designs of both the French and British colonists had dramatically increased.
The famed Roger’s Rangers was partly established to patrol the border and keep the peace. John Stark was commissioned a First Lieutenant in January 1757. This would be the start of a long and distinguished military career. Shortly thereafter the French and Indian War started.
Aside from patrols to the Lake Champlain area to watch the French activities, the first real action came in March 1757, when the French attacked Fort William Henry. The regiment of Regulars stationed there was raised in Ireland, and the French knew they would have heavily celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day. The French were right, the regulars were in no condition to defend themselves. However, Stark denied his Rangers any drink. As a result, the Rangers drove off the French. This is the first known example of his uncanny ability to anticipate the moves of his enemies. Later that year, Fort William Henry was again attacked and surrendered to the French.
Lieutenant Stark saw action throughout the War. At the siege of Fort Ticonderoga, the Rangers reconnoitered the Fort’s defenses and advised General Sir James Abercrombie that it was virtually impregnable. Abercrombie attacked anyway, and the losses were horrendous. The American provincials (including Roger’s Rangers) had 350 killed or wounded. The British suffered 1,600 casualties. Stark was smart enough to realize the loss was due to the incompetence of the General Officers, an opinion he voice frequently in his life. It was during this campaign that John Stark met two regular British Officers who he would meet years later, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, both destined to be Major Generals in the American Army.
After the War John returned to his home and married Elizabeth “Molly” Page, the daughter of Caleb and Elizabeth (Merrill) Page. Elizabeth was born February 16, 1737 in Haverhill, New Hampshire.
The couple had eleven children: Caleb, Archibald, John, Eleanor (who died in infancy), Eleanor, Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary, Charles, Benjamin and Sophia.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress unanimously appointed John Stark Colonel of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment. Captain Henry Dearborn, (later a distinguished Major General in the War of 1812) commanded a Company in this Regiment.
As the siege of Boston progressed, the Americans learned that General Thomas Gage was planning on a break out from the city. To counter this move, the besiegers decided to fortify Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula. Due to a misunderstanding, the troops built the redoubt on Breed’s Hill which was in range of the British artillery and the Royal Navy. The deployment of the American defenders included the New Hampshire Regiments.
The 1st New Hampshire Regiment was assigned to the northern flank of the peninsula. Here again Colonel John Stark showed uncanny ability to foresee the coming action. He realized that the British attacking forces would be led by General William Howe who was known for his aggressive use of light infantry and would certainly attempt a flanking action along the beach of the Mystic River.
Colonel Stark ordered two hundred of his best men to break up some stone walls and build a breastwork along the beach. Stark then walked down the beach and placed a stake in the sand at about 30 paces.
As Colonel Stark predicted, the British sent three hundred and fifty light infantry to move down the beach and flank the American defenses. Facing them was a very unimpressive stone wall, only about three feet tall and only a few colonials visible behind it. The Light Infantry advanced, fifteen abreast, lowered their bayonets and charged. Suddenly, as they reached the stake Stark had planted, the stone wall exploded with musket fire and the first two ranks of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers fell. The Light Infantry pressed continued to press the attack. In the 18th century it took at least twenty seconds to reload. In that short period of time, the attackers would cover the distance between them and use their bayonets. But this was not the case. A second rank of New Hampshire men stood up and laid waste to the next ranks of light infantry. Still charging forward, the King’s Own Regiment took the lead, when a third rank of Colonials stood and fired point blank into their ranks with devastating effect. The Light Infantry of the 10th Regiment of Foot surged forward, only to be met by a volley from the first rank of colonists, who had reloaded. Next the 52nd Regiment of Foot’s Light Infantry charged over the bodies and wounded of the first three waves. They met the same fate. The surviving troops retreated in disorder, leaving ninety-six men dead, one third of their number. The flanking action had failed. All the British could do now was to launch costly frontal attacks. They were finally successful but the cost was horrendous. In sum, the British forces lost eleven hundred and fifty men, forty percent of their forces in Boston.
Although the redoubt on Breed’s Hill was captured, the Americans were not routed. They retreated, with a rear guard action being fought by Colonel John Stark and his men. British Major General John Burgoyne wrote on the retreat: “no flight, it was even covered with bravery and military skill ” General, Sir Henry Clinton, who would replace General Howe, wrote: “A dear bought victory, another such would ruin us.”
Colonel John Stark wrote to the President of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress: “We remain in good spirits as yet, being well satisfied that where we have lost one, they lost three.”
Colonel Stark went with his Regiment to New York, fought there, and then retreated with General Washington across New Jersey. On December 25th, 1776 he commanded the 1st New Hampshire Regiment, Continental Line in the successful attack on Trenton and then at the Battle at Princeton.
Following the winter campaign, he returned to New Hampshire to recruit replacements for his Regiment. While there he learned that he had been passed over for promotion to Brigadier General. He felt that he had earned the promotion and that the officers selected could not match his service record. They were: William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, Thomas Mifflin and Benjamin Lincoln. On March 23, 1777 he resigned his commission.
Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General Enoch Poor (both of New Hampshire) tried to talk him out of his resignation, but John Stark pointed out that he felt the current threat would come from Canada and he would make himself available if that came about. Again, he was correct about the intentions of the enemy.
In mid-June 1777, the Americans learned that British General John Burgoyne and some 10,000 troops were coming down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River route toward Fort Ticonderoga. Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, started to assemble a force to oppose the invasion. He appointed General Arthur St. Clair to command the Fort. John Stark, true to his word, started organizing a force to defend Vermont and New Hampshire, but was reporting solely to the New Hampshire Provincial Congress. They had selected Stark to lead their militia and granted him a commission as Brigadier General of Militia. He raised 1,492 men and officers and started west.
Major General Benjamin Lincoln, one of the officers promoted over Stark, had been dispatched by General Schuyler to gather reinforcements from the New England colonies. Stark informed him that he served New Hampshire and not Congress and refused. To Lincoln’s credit, he did not contest Stark’s insubordinate position, but enlisted Stark’s support as an independent ally.
In the meantime, St. Clair realized that he could not defend Fort Ticonderoga with the force at his disposal, and abandoned the post without defending it. This action saved the ten Continental and two militia regiments under his command.
The American retreat was well organized. Burgoyne dispatched General Simon Frasier to pursue the retreating Americans. He caught up with the rear guard at Hubbardton. The rear guard was commanded by Colonel Seth Warner. After a fierce fight, the Americans were forced to retreat. Warner gave a very unmilitary order. “Scatter and meet me in Manchester.” St. Clair ordered the destruction of as much of the road south as possible. They did this by felling trees, burning the numerous bridges leaving Burgoyne with the task of rebuilding a road through the wilderness. This action slowed the British down to a snail’s pace and allowed the American forces to gather and prepare defenses north of Albany.
These delays not only consumed valuable time, the supplies necessary to feed such a large expedition. General Burgoyne received word that there were ample supplies in the Connecticut Valley and more importantly, many horses, which could be used by his dismounted Hessian dragoons. He was also advised there was no organized force to defend the area. He dispatched Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum of the Brunswick Dragoons whose force numbered about 800.
On August 13th, 1777, Brigadier General Stark learned of the approaching force. He mustered all the men he could at Bennington. The first contact was made at 9:00 a.m. on the 14th, at a mill known by several names (Sancoick’s, Saint Coick’s or Van Schaick’s). American Lt. Colonel William Gregg’s advance party fired a single volley and then retreated. Baum followed him, but at a snail’s pace. Having encountered the unexpected resistance, Baum sent a message to Burgoyne requesting reinforcements. He then ordered his men to fortify a defensive position and await reinforcements. Having received the request from Baum, General Burgoyne ordered Lt. Colonel Heinrich Breymann of the Light Grenadiers with 642 Hessians to march to Baum’s relief. Like Baum, he moved at a snail’s pace.
As both forces faced each other, a heavy rain forestalled any action. Stark had sent a message to Seth Warner for reinforcements. He marched to Bennington. Both he and Breymann were slowed by the rains and muddy roads. Neither arrived in time for the first phase of the battle.
On the morning of the 16th, Brigadier General Stark attacked. He employed the double envelopment tactic. He deployed Colonel Moses Nichols with 200 New Hampshire men to the right, and Colonel Samuel Herrick with 300 Vermont Rangers and the Bennington militia on the left. A second envelopment was deployed with Colonels David Hobart and Thomas Stickney to attack the redoubt thrown up by Baum. They attacked simultaneously, with predictable results. The fighting was brutal, but Stark’s men overwhelmed the Hessian positions. The Hessians lost heart when their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Baum, was mortally wounded by a musket ball in the abdomen.
In the meantime, Breymann arrived as did Warner. Again Stark attacked. Breymann realized the peril he was in and ordered a retreat. He personally commanded his rear guard. They managed to hold off the attacking Americans and allowed about two-thirds of his command to escape into the darkness. Shortly after, he was forced to surrender.
Brigadier General Stark reported that he lost 30 men killed and 42 wounded. The British force had 207 dead and 700 captured (which also includes their wounded).
The loss at the Battle of Bennington greatly impacted Burgoyne. He had lost 1,000 of his fighting men and any possibility of obtaining much needed supplies from the countryside. It also had affected the morale of his men. He made several attempts to break through the lines now commanded by American Major General Horatio Gates and was soundly thrown back. Due to this success on Stark’s part, he widely became known as the “Hero of Bennington.”
Brigadier General Stark moved his force to Fort Edward, thereby blocking any attempt by Burgoyne to retreat to Fort Ticonderoga and safety. As a result Burgoyne was forced to surrender on October 17, 1777.
By act of Congress on October 4, 1777, it was “Resolved that the thanks of Congress be presented to General Stark of the New Hampshire Militia, and to the officers and troops under his command, for their brave and successful attack upon and signal victory over the enemy in their lines at Bennington, and that Brigadier General Stark be appointed a Brigadier General in the Army of the United States.”
Brigadier General John Stark sat as a judge in the court martial that in September 1780 found British Major John André guilty of spying and in helping in the conspiracy of Benedict Arnold to surrender West Point to the British.
Brigadier General Stark remained active for the rest of the war, and was the commander of the Northern Department three times between 1778 and 1781. When the the Society of the Cincinnati was founded in May 1783, Brigadier General John Stark was the most senior ranking officer and disapproved of the proposed Society and his regiments took no part in the proceedings. Subsequently, Baron von Steuben approached Major General John Sullivan, the next ranking officer, who formed the New Hampshire Society in November 1783 at Exeter. Stark has first represented in the Society of the Cincinnati in 1915 by virtue of the Rule of 1854.
Congress had finally recognized his services and promoted him to brevet Major General on September 30th, 1783. He resigned on November 3rd, 1783, when the war was officially over.
In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered to commemorate the battle. General Stark, then aged 81, was not well enough to travel, but he sent a letter to his comrades, which closed “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” The motto “Live Free or Die” became the New Hampshire state motto in 1945. Stark and the Battle of Bennington were later commemorated with the 306-foot (93 m) tall Bennington Battle Monument and a statue of Stark in Bennington, Vermont.
There is a New Hampshire historic marker near John Stark’s birthplace on the east side of NH Route 28 (Rockingham Road) in Derry, New Hampshire, just south of the intersection of Lawrence Road. There is a second stone marker at the actual homestead location.
Major General Stark’s childhood home is located at 2000 Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire. The home was built in 1736 by John’s father Archibald. The building is now owned by the Molly Stark Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is open by appointment only. Manchester’s Stark Park, also a listed property, is home to his grave and is named in his honor. There is a bronze statue of General Stark in front of the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord; it was dedicated in 1890. New Castle’s Fort Stark was re-named for the General in 1900. It was one of seven forts built in the area to protect the nearby city of Portsmouth. The historic site is placed on a peninsula known as Jerry’s point (or Jaffrey’s Point) on the southeast side of the island. After the War he retired to his Manchester home and private life, and passed away on May 8, 1822 at the age of 93. He was the last surviving Revolutionary War general.
Sources: Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army, (Baltimore, 1914), 379; Frederic Kidder, History of the First New Hampshire Regiment in the War of the Revolution (Albany, 1868), 90-93; C.E. Potter, The Military History of The state of New Hampshire, From its Settlement, in 1623, to the Rebellion, in 1861: Comprising and account of the Stirring Events Connected Therewith; Biographical Notices of Many of the Officers Distinguished Therein: and Notes Explanatory of the Text (Concord, 1866); Reminiscences of the French War; containing Rogers’ Expeditions with the New-England Rangers under his command, as published in London in 1765; with notes and illustrations. : To which is added an account of the life and military services of Maj. Gen. John Stark; with notices and anecdotes of other officers distinguished in the French and Revolutionary wars(Concord, N.H.: Luther Roby., 1831); Reminiscences of the French War with Robert Rogers’ journal and a memoir of General Stark (Freedom, N.H.: Freedom Historical Society, 1988); Memoir and official correspondence of Gen. John Stark, with notices of several other officers of the Revolution. Also a biography of Capt. Phine[h]as Stevens and of Col. Robert Rogers, with an account of his services in America during the “Seven Years’ War.” With a new introd. and pref. by George Athan Billias; by Stark, Caleb, 1804–1864. pub. Boston, Gregg Press, 1972 [c1860]; Leon W. Andreson, Major General John Stark, hero of Bunker Hill and Bennington, 1728–1822 (Evans Print. Co., c1972); Polhemus, Richard V.; Polhemus, John F.,Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General (Black Dome Press, 2014); The Papers of John Stark, New Hampshire Historical Society, 30 Park Street, Concord, New Hampshire. An unpublished guide to the collection is available at the Society’s library.