John Stark (August 28, 1728 – May 8, 1822) was a general who served in the American Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He became widely known as the "Hero of Bennington" for his exemplary service at the Battle of Bennington in 1777.
John Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1728. When he was eight years old, he and his family moved to Derryfield (now part of Manchester), where he lived for the rest of his long life. Stark was married to Elizabeth "Molly" Page, with whom he had 11 children including his eldest son Caleb Stark.
On April 28, 1752, while on a hunting and trapping trip along the Baker River, a tributary of the Pemigewasset River, he was captured by Abenaki warriors and brought back to Quebec but not before warning his brother William Stark to paddle away in his canoe, though David Stinson was killed. While a prisoner of the Abenaki, he and his fellow prisoner Amos Eastman were made to run a gauntlet of warriors armed with sticks. Stark grabbed the stick from the first warrior's hands and proceeded to attack him, taking the rest of the warriors by surprise. The chief was so impressed by this heroic act that Stark was adopted into the tribe, where he spent the winter. Alternatively, in The Invasion Within, Axtell describes how colonists were often abducted by Indians and inducted into their tribes as members through such a ceremony of running the gauntlet.
The following spring a government agent sent from Massachusetts to work on the exchange of prisoners paid his ransom of $103 Spanish dollars and $60 for Amos Eastman. Stark and Eastman then returned to New Hampshire.
Stark enlisted as a second lieutenant under Maj. Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. As part of the daring Rogers' Rangers, Stark gained valuable battle experience and knowledge of the Northern frontier of the American colonies.
General Jeffrey Amherst, anticipating the conquest of Quebec, ordered Rogers' Rangers to journey from Lake George to the Connecticut River. From Old Fort No. 4, the Rangers went north and attacked the Indian town of St. Francis. Stark, Rogers' second-in-command of all ranger companies, refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster-parents residing there. He returned to New Hampshire to his wife, who he had married the previous year.
At the end of the war, Stark retired as a captain and returned to Derryfield.
TheBattle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, signalled the start of the American Revolutionary War, and Stark returned to military service. On April 23 1775, Stark accepted a Colonelcy in the New Hampshire Militia and was given command of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment and James Reed of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment, also outside of Boston. As soon as Stark could muster his men, he ferried and marched them south to Boston to support the blockaded rebels there. He made his headquarters in the confiscated Isaac Royall House in Medford, Massachusetts.
On June 16, the rebels, fearing a preemptive British attack on their positions in Cambridge and Roxbury, decided to take and hold the high ground surrounding the city, including Dorchester Heights, Bunker Hill, and Breed's Hill. Holding these positions would allow the rebels to oppose any British landing (at the time, Boston proper was almost an island and the British soldiers garrisoned there would have to travel by sea to attack the outlying towns). The positions could also be used to emplace cannon which could threaten the British ships blockading the harbor (although no cannon were available to the rebels at this time).
When the British awoke on June 17 to find hastily constructed fortifications on Breed's Hill, British Gen. Thomas Gage knew that he would have to drive the rebels out before fortifications were complete. He ordered the HMS Lively, a 20-gun sloop, to begin firing on the rebel positions immediately and ordered Major General William Howe to prepare to land his troops. Thus began the Battle of Bunker Hill (which should have been called the battle of Breed's Hill). American Col. William Prescott held the hill throughout the intense initial bombardment with only a few hundred untrained American militia. Prescott knew that he was sorely outgunned and outnumbered. He sent a desperate request for reinforcements.
Stark and Reed with the New Hampshire minutemen arrived at the scene soon after Prescott's request. The Lively had begun a rain of accurate artillery fire directed at Charlestown Neck, the narrow strip of land connecting Charlestown to the rebel positions. On the Charlestown side, several companies from other regiments were milling around in disarray, afraid to march into range of the artillery fire. Stark ordered the men to stand aside and calmly marched his men to Prescott's positions without taking any casualties.
When the New Hampshire militia arrived, the grateful Colonel Prescott allowed Stark to deploy his men where he saw fit. Stark surveyed the ground and immediately saw that the British would probably try to flank the rebels by landing on the beach of the Mystic River, below and to the left of Breed's Hill. Stark led his men to the low ground between Mystic Beach and the hill and ordered them to "fortify" a two-rail fence by stuffing straw and grass between the rails. Stark also noticed an additional gap in the defense line and ordered Lieutenant Nathaniel Hutchins from his brother William Stark's company and others to follow him down a nine foot high bank to the edge of the Mystic River. They piled rocks across the twelve foot wide beach to form a crude defense line. After this fortification was hastily constructed, Stark deployed his men 3-deep behind the wall. A large contingent of British with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the lead advanced towards the fortifications. The Minutemen crouched and waited until the advancing British were almost on top of them, and then stood up and fired as one. They unleashed a fierce and unexpected volley directly into the faces of the fusiliers, killing 90 in the blink of an eye and breaking their advance. The fusiliers retreated in panic. A charge of British infantry was next, climbing over their dead comrades to test Stark's line—this charge too was decimated by a withering fusillade by the Minutemen. A third charge was repulsed in a similar fashion, again with heavy losses to the British. The British officers wisely withdrew their men from that landing point and decided to land elsewhere, with the support of artillery.
Later in the battle, as the rebels were forced from the hill, Stark directed the New Hampshire regiment's fire to provide cover for Colonel Prescott's retreating troops. The day's New Hampshire dead were later buried in the Salem Street Burying Ground, Medford, Massachusetts.
While the British did eventually take the hill that day, their losses were formidable, especially among the officers. After the arrival of General George Washington two weeks after the battle, the siege reached a stalemate until March the next year, when cannon seized at the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga were positioned on Dorchester Heights in a deft night manoeuvre. This placement threatened the British fleet in Boston Harbor and forced General Howe to withdraw all his forces from the Boston garrison and sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
As Washington prepared to return south to fight the British there, he knew that he desperately needed experienced men like John Stark to command regiments in the Continental Army. George Washington immediately offered Stark a command in the Continental Army. Stark and his New Hampshire regiment agreed to attach themselves temporarily to the Continental Army. The men of the New Hampshire Line were sent as reinforcements to the Continental Army during the Invasion of Canada in the spring of 1776. With the defeat of the Continental Army in Canada, Stark and his men traveled to the New Jersey colony to meet up with Washington and fought in the battles of Princeton and Trenton.
After Trenton, Washington asked Stark to return to New Hampshire to recruit more men for the Continental Army. Stark agreed, but upon returning home, he learned that while he was fighting in New Jersey, a fellow New Hampshire Colonel named Enoch Poor had been promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army. In Stark's opinion, Enoch Poor had refused to march his militia regiment to Bunker Hill to join the battle, instead choosing to keep his regiment at home. Stark, an experienced woodsman and a fighting commander, had been passed over by someone with no experience and apparently no will to fight. On March 23, 1777, Stark resigned his commission in disgust, although he pledged his aid to New Hampshire should it be needed.
Four months later, Stark was offered a commission as Brigadier General of the New Hampshire Militia. He accepted on the strict condition that he would not be answerable to Continental Army authority. Soon after receiving his commission, he was ordered by Brigadier General Philip Schuyler to depart from Charlestown, New Hampshire to reinforce the Continental army at Saratoga, New York. Stark refused and instead led his men to meet the Hessians at the Battle of Bennington. Before engaging the Hessian troops, Stark prepared his men to fight to the death, shouting, "There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!"
Stark's men, with some help from Seth Warner's Vermont militia the Green Mountain Boys, routed the Hessian forces there and prevented British General John Burgoyne from resupplying. Stark's action contributed directly to the surrender of Burgoyne's northern army at the Battle of Saratoga some months later. This battle is seen as the turning point in the Revolutionary War, as it was the first major defeat of a British general and it convinced the French that the Americans were worthy of military aid. After the Battle of Freeman's Farm Gen. Stark's Brigade moved into a position cutting off Gen. John Burgoyne's path back to Lake George and Lake Champlain.
He was the commander of the Northern Department three times between 1778 and 1781.
After serving with distinction throughout the rest of the war, Stark retired to his farm in Derryfield. It has been said that of all the Revolutionary War generals, Stark was the only true Cincinnatus because he truly retired from public life at the end of the war. 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 tall Bennington Battle Monument 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 Lane Road.
There is a second stone marker at the actual homestead location. Beginning on Rockingham Road in Derry, travel east on Lane Road for approximately 1/2 mile. Turn right (south) onto Stark Road. The marker will be on the right side in less than 1/4 mile.
John'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 is open by appointment only).
Many places in the United States were named after John Stark and his wife Molly. Among them are:
John Stark has also been memorialized in a unique way. The Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, NH produces General John Stark vodka, made from New Hampshire grown apples.
Detailed information on John Stark is not easy to come by. Please add references and primary resources to this section, noting where the resources can be found.
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.