By Colonel Wes Martin

With each passing day, each passing year, the pages of history stack upon those that have previously been recorded. This usually causes the feats and triumphs of those who have gone before to become buried by the weight of the paper, rather than the sands of time. Often only bits and pieces of a legend, an old piece of literature, a diary, a forgotten letter, or a mention of a name associated with various historical places and battlefields are readily observable. Buried by two centuries of time, the life and triumphs of American Revolutionary War General John Stark seldom readily spark anyone's memory. Yet, his was a life that had a very significant impact on the history of his nation, and certainly America's ability to achieve independence.

Born in Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1728, John Stark lived the life of a farmer and trapper. He took his living from the land, as did those around him. It was in this environment that he developed a character of fierce independence and determination to stand up for what he believed in, despite the cost. His first real test of survivability came at the age of 24, when on a hunting expedition, he was taken prisoner by Native Americans. When forced to walk the gauntlet, instead of trying to protect himself from blows, he took the opportunity to strike back at his captors. This courage immediately earned him the respect and trust of his captors. Such captivity to most would have been a hideous experience. To John Stark it became five weeks of advanced training in frontier survival, where he commenced working at learning the language of his captors, joining their hunts, and practicing warfare tactics.

Two years later, at the commencement of the French and Indian Wars, another young and bold frontiersman, Robert Rogers, was commissioned to organize a regiment of Rangers. Supported in his effort by General George Howe, Rogers was to organize these Rangers into teams that could penetrate deep behind enemy lines, live off the land, and strike their enemies without warning. Uniforms of British red were replaced with buckskin brown. John Stark accepted the commission of a second lieutenant in what would become the legendary Rogers' Rangers. After distinguishing himself in a series of engagements, Stark quickly advanced to the rank of captain and deputy commander. Stark also assumed another role for Rogers, that of Guardian Angel. As successful as Rogers was in deep penetrations, he often got himself into more of a fight than he could handle. On many a raid, as Rogers made his fighting retreat, the French and Indians were in immediate pursuit. Each time Rogers sent word of the predicament to Stark; the deputy would respond by setting up an envelop that Rogers would slide his force into. Stark would then take over fighting rear-guard action while moving Rogers' worn out and wounded soldiers back to British lines. At the time he was rescuing and returning Rogers' forces to British lines, John Stark had no way of knowing that twenty years later he would use the rear-guard tactics he was fine tuning against the British.

Normally Stark and Rogers operated close to each other, always assuring mutual support. It was Stark's sense of loyalty that prevented him from participating in the most famous raid conducted by Rogers. The same tribe that had once held him captive had become a serious problem for the colonial settlers. The problem had to be resolved and the mission was assigned to Rogers. Understanding Stark's situation, Rogers assigned him to lead a party in developing a road through another part of the frontier. This raid would later be re-enacted on the silver screen, with Spencer Tracy playing Robert Rogers. Fortunately, no one had to play John Stark. That would have been a tougher role to fill. Wars bring people together and by various means; it can separate them as well. The French and Indian War took away a very special friend from Rogers and Stark. General George Howe, their supporter and confident, was killed in the battle for Fort Ticonderoga. The night before his death, Lord Howe spent several hours discussing life and frontier warfare with Stark. Ironically, in a future war, another future General named Howe and the same fort named Ticonderoga would play very different roles in the life of John Stark.

After the French and Indian War, Stark returned to New Hampshire, where he built a mill and a family business. By 1775 he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be fighting against the British. He was working his field when alerted about the fight between colonials and the British at Concord. Without thinking twice, he mounted his horse and headed for Massachusetts. By the time he arrived, an entire regiment was in his wake. The British were now pinned up inside Boston, and American militias were assembling. Making camp in Medford, Stark began training his troops and ensuring that all had necessary equipment, weapons, and ammunition for the coming fight. That fight came in June of 1775.

Reflecting on being closed up inside Boston, recently arrived British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne stated to the troops, "Our elbows must be eased." Burgoyne wanted to take the fight to the militias. Spies and loyalists had been informing the British about the build-up and disposition of the militias. Burgoyne got his chance when Americans under the command of Colonel William Prescott took up position on Charlestown peninsula, overlooking Boston. British troops under the command of General William Howe, younger brother of John Stark's friend, began being ferried across the bay. Looking ahead of their troops, Howe and Burgoyne recognized a sure-fire strategy. They realized that the inexperienced Americans had taken the high ground on Breed's Hill, but failed to secure the beachfront on their left flank. A thrust to hold the Americans on the hill, simultaneous with a flanking maneuver would envelop the Americans and bring a quick end to the fight. Just as troops began landing on the shore, an aid turned to General Howe asking "Do you think they will fight or run?" At the same time as replying, Howe observed with disappointment that the gap was suddenly being filled by Americans. Howe commented, "If John Stark is over there, they will fight."

A few minutes earlier, Stark had arrived at the peninsula and saw the same gap. Without consulting Prescott, he immediately moved his troops into position. Meanwhile, cannon from British ships began firing on his soldiers. Troops turned to Stark, suggesting they start running to their positions. Stark forced them to continue to walk, stating, "In battle, one rested man is worth ten fatigued ones." Once on line, Stark used what little time he had left to provide his soldiers with a "call to arms" speech. It would soon become a standard for Stark to finalize his preparations for battle by providing encouragement, to let his soldiers know what to expect, and to remind his soldiers why they were on the field of battle.

As the British rushed Breed's, then Bunker Hill, the American lines began to collapse. The Americans on the hill fought well. As a militia they gave an excellent account of themselves. However, they were no match for highly trained British regulars. This armed force was fast becoming a mass of men of no military value. Their spiritual leader, Doctor Joseph Warren, lay dead. Colonel Prescott had his hands full trying to maintain organization. Other militia commanders had already displayed the spines of cowards.

General Burgoyne's desire to break out into the countryside was beginning to develop. If the British could chase this mass of men off the peninsula, and into the countryside, with the British is hot pursuit, then the rebellion might be broken. Unfortunately for the British, one obstacle stood in the way: John Stark. Not only was Stark holding the beachfront, he had brought the entire remaining force falling in behind him and was fighting a rear-guard operation. It was Rogers' Rangers all over again. The only major difference was instead of firing in front of red uniforms, Stark's soldiers were shooting straight into them. Crossing of white straps over red cloth always did make an excellent aiming point. Stark's soldiers were making the most of it. His ability to never deviate concentration from the heat of battle was soon tested. At one of the battle's hottest moments, Stark was informed that his own son had just been killed. Stark turned to the carrier of the news and replied that he was in middle of fighting a battle and wasn't able to attend to this matter. Stark continued to walk up and down the lines instructing his men when to fire and when to fall back behind the next row of defenders so that they might reload for the next volley.

The British did take real estate from Stark, and did capture the peninsula from the Americans, but they paid dearly with human life. When the "Battle of Bunker Hill" was over, the British had suffered over 1,400 casualties; 400 for the Americans. Later it was learned that John Stark's son was not one of these. The report had been erroneous. Even Burgoyne later remarked that the battle was an exceptional rear-guard operation, totally unexpected from a supposedly untrained militia. Howe was much more quiet. His prediction had been right. Stark was there, and the Americans did not run. There was also a sadness for Howe. The man who was one of his older brother's best friends, had just cost the British Army several hundred lives and prevented a serious blow from being delivered to colonists.

The conflicts at Lexington and Concord had brought New England together, but it was still not a war for independence. It was Bunker Hill that brought all the colonies together, and resulted in the Continental Congress dispatching George Washington to take command of the siege of Boston. At that point it became a Revolution. Had the colonists been sent scurrying back to their farms after Bunker Hill, the Revolution may not have survived. What the British didn't know when they finally allowed John Stark to break contact is that he was down to less than one ball per musket. Stark had paced out his rear-guard operation and disguised his true situation from his adversaries. At days end, both Burgoyne and Howe knew that they had not seen the last of John Stark. However, neither could guess how serious an impact he would have on both their military operations and roles he would play in what would result in American independence.

Even though the British had captured the Charlestown peninsula from the Americans, John Stark had prevented the fight from turning into a rout and the British breaking out into the countryside. With the arrival of George Washington from Virginia and cannon from recently captured Fort Ticonderoga, British Commander General Gage elected to evacuate from Boston. By sea they moved to New York. Washington moved by land.

As summer turned into autumn, and Gage was replaced as supreme commander by Howe, the fighting continued. By Christmas, Washington had suffered a series of defeats and had lost the majority of his army and the coastal colonies. Howe, convinced that he had defeated the rebel army, went into winter quarters. Down to less than three thousand ragged men, Washington was positioned in Pennsylvania on the west side of the Delaware River. On the east side was a series of British and Hessian (German mercenary) camps. Desertion was now taking a heavier toll than combat. John Stark's troops were holding firm, but their enlistments were only a few days away from completion. It appeared that Howe was right, the war was over. Washington believed otherwise. With his broken army he crossed the Delaware River and hit the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776. Returning across the Delaware, Washington waited nine days and re-crossed to hit again at Princeton. In both cases, Washington didn't wait for British reinforcements. A full battle would have proved Howe right. In both battles Washington fought rear-guard actions to get his men to safety. Once again, John Stark was on line. His sharpshooters gave Washington distance and time. The dual victories caused Washington's ranks to swell. When Stark's soldiers started marching home at the end of their enlistments Washington's immediate future was once again bright. Stark's departing words to Washington was a promise to raise another volunteer force and to return to battle.

Back in New Hampshire, Stark had no problem in recruiting a regiment. His reputation and fighting nature brought men into his ranks. Unfortunately, it also brought resentment and jealously from less capable and more political correct opportunists. Stark raised his regiment, only to be passed over for promotion and to have his command turned over to another. The troops marched off bitter. They had joined to serve under Stark, not newly promoted General Poor. As soon to be proven, the man's name matched his leadership and combat capabilities. Disgusted, Stark resigned his commission and returned to his family business.

By spring, the Revolution was again taking a turn for the worse. General Howe controlled the southern end of the Hudson River. General Burgoyne was marching from the north with seven thousand British and Hessian soldiers, supplementing by hundreds of Mohawk warriors. Under orders of American General Schluyler, Fort Ticonderoga was evacuated. One of the American commanders of this evacuation was General Poor. Feeling his soldiers were too tired to push on, he allowed them to rest. Surprisingly, Colonel Seth Warner allowed his Green Mountain Boys to do the same. This mistake cost the Americans several hundred lives.

The New Hampshire Committee of Safety came to John Stark. Fearing that Burgoyne would turn east into New England, Stark was asked to recruit and lead another command. Stark accepted with the condition that he will be his own boss and take orders from no one. Once he had his army raised, Stark immediately moved into Vermont to block an enemy advance. Until Stark arrived, the only New England opposition facing Burgoyne was the badly mauled Green Mountain Boys. Stark set a message to their commander, Seth Warner, instructing for a link up at Bennington. Meanwhile, unaware of Stark's activity, Burgoyne also dispatched instructions, Burgoyne ordered 750 Hessians into Vermont for a mission of raid and plunder. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Baum, the Hessians (augmented by 500 loyalists) also moved towards Bennington.

As the two forces met in a stand-off, a dispatch for reinforcements was sent to Burgoyne. As Stark prepared for the fight, he sent many of his soldiers into Baum's camp with instructions to pretend they were British loyalists. Their mission, was to find out everything possible about the Hessian encampment. Believing that the visitors were loyalists, the Hessians allowed Stark's men to pass freely through and out of camp. On the morning of August 17, 1777 Stark evaluated his situation. He knew Warner was less than half a day away. He also knew that Burgoyne had to be sending reinforcements, didn't know who how many were coming, and estimated that they also had to be within half a day's march. Stark prepared for the attack. His call to arms was simple: "There are the redcoats and they are ours, or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight." The man was not afraid to die and neither were his soldiers. But today, death did not to make many visits to the American camp. It was too busy collecting Hessians. A fighting raged in the forests and pockets of Hessian resistance attempted to hold out for reinforcements, Seth Warner arrived. Like a tidal wave pouring over a coastal community, the Americans washed over the Europeans. Very few of Baum's force was able to escape and Baum himself paid the ultimate price. Those that did escape ran only a short distance before they found their relief column. The tidal wave was still raging. Soon the relief column was being overrun. Only darkness saved the second force also from complete annihilation. This time Stark was not fighting a rearguard operation, he was in full attack.

In one day Stark eliminated one seventh of Burgoyne's force. Stark also proved Burgoyne's army was not invincible. He had also captured several cannon that were badly needed by the American's blocking Burgoyne's southward advance. Burgoyne didn't receive the supplies and livestock he had hoped Baum would acquire. Burgoyne knew further action to the east had to be forsaken. Burgoyne's only options were to were either a southern breakthrough or a northern retreat. He chose the former, believing that if he failed in that endeavor he could execute the latter. On September 19th, Burgoyne attempted his southern breakthrough strategy. His efforts were beaten back by his other American nemesis, Benedict Arnold. Preparing for his second southern attack in early October, Burgoyne learned through spies and deserters that Stark was with the Americans to the south. For Burgoyne, this was good news. Since Bennington, Stark had organized a successful raid on Fort Ticonderoga. If Stark was to the south, he was no longer a threat to Burgoyne's east flak and northern rear. Exercising military deception, Stark made every effort possible to make his presence known, until the night before when it was obvious that the British were preparing to attack. As battle-lines were drawn, and no man's land was established between the two armies, Stark rode out of camp. Americans were stunned and annoyed that this "hero" had left them behind. Practicing early day operations security, only the American generals knew the reason of Stark’s departure.

Burgoyne's second attack also resulted in defeat and once again he had reason to curse the name “Benedict Arnold.” Now Burgoyne had one option, take the latter option and retreat back to Ticonderoga. As Burgoyne commenced preparations Indian scouts brought in reports that a while the British had been fighting to the south, a thousand American soldiers had moved in to their north and were blocking off any chance of an unchallenged escape. Burgoyne still greatly outnumbered the thousand. If he could hold back the southern forces, he could overrun this new threat. Then came the report on who was in command of the thousand - Stark. The knowledge of Stark's ability to yield land at a great expense to the attacker and Burgoyne’s realization that he could not overrun Stark faster than the Americans could come up from the south left the British commander with one option: surrender. Following the surrender Burgoyne and Stark met at the banquet. Years later Stark's son recalled the conversation that the conversation between the two was not adversarial, but about common experiences in the French and Indian Wars.

Both thinking their military days of war were over, Burgoyne returned to England and Stark to his mill in New Hampshire. For Burgoyne war was in the past. Fate played a different role for Stark. Benedict Arnold became commander of the northern army. A captured spy confessed to Washington that Arnold was about to sell out the entire northern army to the British. Washington had a serious problem. American soldiers were not being properly paid, they were hungry, had little supplies, and their commander tried to sell them. Washington needed someone who could pull this back together. He needed a commander who the American soldiers trusted, British soldiers had no desire to fight, Hessians feared, and Indians respected. Washington needed someone who was as committed to the American Revolution and was beyond compromise. Washington needed someone who was as tough as the frontier that he would command and local militias would quickly rally to in time of danger. When all the credentials were laid out, Washington recognized his best option: John Stark.

Stark finished out the Revolution commanding the northern army. There were no more British invasions. Loyalists soon came to realize that Stark had no tolerance for subversive activities. Concerning the loyalists, in a June 1778 letter to Stark, Ethan Allen commented, "I hear you are doing well with some of them." Allen was referring to Stark's use of a hangman's rope. Stark had not forgotten Nathan Hale, and made sure the loyalists remembered with every opening of the trap door.

Keeping up his tradition to be the last man to stop fighting, in 1822 John Stark was the final Revolutionary War general to pass away. Unfortunately, since then he also passed away from most history books. A great American, and great warrior for American independence, continues to fade into the shadows of time. Yet, history would have been written differently if John Stark had not been a pivotal participant in the outcome of many chapters. When the legislature of New Hampshire developed the state motto, the spirit of John Stark was clearly within: "Live Free or Die."

©2021 Wes Martin