Here to return to
GENERAL JOHN STARK.
Early Life. — John Stark was born in Nutfield, now known as Londonderry, on the 28th of August, 1728. His father, a graduate of the University at Glasgow, emigrated to this country with several other Scotch Irish settlers from Londonderry, Ireland, in the early part of the eighteenth century. When John was but eight years old, the family moved to Derryfield, now Manchester.
In our backwoods settlements there was little or no opportunity to gain an education, and Stark’s early life was spent in working hard upon the farm during the spring, summer and autumn, and in hunting and trapping during the winter.
He lived with his father until he was twenty-four years old, when, with his older brother and two companions he went on a hunting trip to Baker’s River in the northwestern part of the state, beyond the farthest English settlements. While there, Stark having wandered some distance from the others, was seized by a party of ten Indians who demanded that he should lead them toward his camp. The young man had no idea of doing this, however, and conducted them in the opposite direction. But his companions, becoming alarmed at his long absence, fired guns and thus disclosed the true position of their camp. The Indians immediately turned about and made a stealthy advance upon them. As soon as they came within hailing distance, Stark, unmindful of the consequences to himself, shouted to his friends to make their escape. This his brother William was able to do, but of the two remaining, one was killed and the other captured.
The latter, with Stark, was taken to the Indian village of St. Francis where they were compelled to “run the gantlet,” that is, they were forced to run between two long rows of Indians, each of whom, armed with a switch or club, beat the captives as they passed. Stark, much to their confusion, and to the amusement of the old men, seized the club of the first Indian, and used it with such effect that he escaped unharmed.
At another time young Stark was made to hoe corn with the squaws, but knowing that the Indians considered squaw’s work degrading to a warrior, he carefully hoed up all the corn and left the weeds, to show them how ignorant he was of such labor. When reproved for this conduct, he threw the hoe far away from him and said, “It is the business, not of warriors, but of squaws, to hoe corn.” The Indians were much pleased at his spirit, and adopted him into the tribe, giving him the name of “Young Chief.” Although closely watched to prevent his escape, he had great liberty, and used all his opportunities for studying the character and habits of the Red Man.
Ransom of Stark. — When he had been with the Indians for some time, Captain Stevens of Number Four and Mr. Wheelwright of Boston went to St. Francis to ransom two citizens of Massachusetts whom they expected to find there. It had become the custom of Massachusetts to pay a ransom for her citizens who had been made captive by the Indians. Mr. Wheelwright advanced the ransom money, one hundred three dollars to Stark, and sixty dollars to his companion, when the two men returned to Derryfield after an absence of four months. Stark always remembered with pleasure this stay among the natives, and often said that he never saw any prisoner of war more kindly treated than he had been by them. New Hampshire refused to refund to Massachusetts the money for his ransom, and Stark went on another hunting trip the next winter in order that he might pay the debt himself.
Stark Made Lieutenant of New Hampshire Rangers. — The first Congress of the colonies, which assembled at Albany, New York, in 1754, planned several campaigns against the Indians, one of which, composed mostly of New England men, was to attack Crown Point on Lake Champlain. Robert Rogers enlisted a corps of rangers in New Hampshire to aid in this expedition, and Stark was made a second lieutenant in the regiment of Colonel Blanchard.
The army accomplished but little. They repulsed the French and Indians under Baron Dieskau, but did not follow up their advantage by attacking Crown Point. The rangers did such good work that Abercrombie, who had succeeded Governor Shirley, enlarged their numbers and Stark was advanced to the grade of first lieutenant.
Attack upon the French. — In the month of January, 1757, Rogers was ordered to take a part of his men on an exploring expedition from Fort William Henry. They started down Lake George on snowshoes, but some of the men became so lame that they were obliged to turn back. The remainder proceeded to Lake Champlain, where they captured a number of sleds loaded with provisions, which were on their way from Ticonderoga to Crown Point. From one of the prisoners they learned that there was a much larger force at Ticonderoga than they had supposed. Knowing that those who had escaped would inform the garrison of their presence, they began a retreat toward their camp of the previous night.
Advancing in Indian file, Major Rogers in the lead and Lieutenant Stark in the rear, they suddenly came on a force of two hundred fifty of the enemy, who immediately opened fire. Captain Spikeman was killed and several were wounded, but Stark and his men kept up such a steady fire that the rangers were enabled to form a line of battle on a hilltop, sheltered by trees. The enemy made an assault and the battle began in earnest. The contest lasted from two o’clock in the afternoon until dark. Rogers was wounded in the wrist, and one of his comrades cut off the Major’s queue to stanch the wound.
Then the command devolved on Lieutenant Stark. When there was talk of falling back, he cried that he would shoot any man who retreated. In spite of the intense cold, the men having to stand in four or five feet of snow, the fight continued. A bullet broke the lock of Stark’s gun. He promptly seized one from a fallen Frenchman. The enemy offered them every inducement to surrender, but they refused, and to such good purpose that nearly half the French force was mortally wounded. At dusk, the enemy stopped firing, and the rangers, knowing that they were very near a large garrison, resolved to retreat toward Fort William Henry. Assisting the wounded as best they could, they dragged themselves to Lake George, which was reached in the morning.
Although still forty miles from Fort William Henry, Stark with two other men volunteered to go there for a sled on which the wounded could be carried. Passing over the lake on snowshoes, they reached the fort about dark. Immediately they started on the return trip, and by traveling all night succeeded in bringing back the wounded at the close of the next day. It is said that Stark himself helped to drag the sled back to the fort, thus having labored for three days and two nights without stopping. In appreciation of his gallant conduct, he was advanced to the grade of captain in the place of Spikeman, who had been killed.
Stark Repulses an Attack upon Fort William Henry. — On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, Captain Stark overheard some of the soldiers at Fort William Henry talking of the way in which they were going to celebrate, and in order that his own men at least might be sober, he gave strict orders to the sutler not to furnish any liquor to the rangers except on an order signed by himself. When the men asked for orders, Stark complained that his wrist was lame and therefore he could not write. The French knowing that many of the garrison would be likely to drink hard on St. Patrick’s Day, made an attack that night. As Stark expected, the regulars were unfit for service, and the fort would certainly have been taken had it not been for the New Hampshire rangers.
The Attack upon Fort Ticonderoga. — Both England and her colonies were determined to conquer Canada, and for this purpose large forces were raised in New England. New Hampshire furnished three thousand soldiers for the campaign of 1758. Loudoun was recalled and Abercrombie was put in command of the troops, which consisted of fifty thousand men, the largest army that had ever been seen in America. In July they marched against Ticonderoga. Stark, with his rangers, was ordered to go before and clear the woods of scouts and skirmishers.
Abercrombie delayed his advance so long that, when he finally made an attack, the French had received reinforcements and had entrenched themselves behind trees that were felled with their boughs and branches all pointing outward, making it almost impossible for an attacking party to charge through them. The English forces were repulsed with great loss, and although they still had twice as many men as the French, yet Abercrombie ordered a retreat. It now became the duty of the rangers to protect the rear as they had before protected the advance. No more work was done by the regular army that summer, but the rangers were employed in reconnoitering and in waylaying the baggage trains of the enemy. Stark, who was not needed, obtained a furlough, and returned to his home, where he married Elizabeth Page of Dunbarton.
After the capture of Louisburg, Sir Jeffrey Amherst was given command of all the Canadian forces. Stark, becoming tired of the slow way in which the campaign was conducted, soon resigned his commission and devoted himself to the care of his farm.
The Commencement of the Revolutionary War. — In 1774 Stark was a member of the committee of safety of his town, and he did all in his power to encourage his friends to stand firm for their rights and to resist oppression, even if it became necessary to rebel against the mother country. To this end, he greatly helped the militia in its organization and drill.
When the news came of the Battle of Lexington, the messenger, who was sent to ask Stark to take command of the New Hampshire forces, found him at work in his sawmill. He immediately stopped the mill, hurried to his house, took down his rifle, and started on horseback to Massachusetts, forgetting in his haste even to put on his coat. As he passed through the towns, he was joined by many other New Hampshire men eager to resist the British. Soon the New Hampshire troops were organized, and formed into three regiments commanded by Colonels Stark, Reed and Poor, with headquarters at Medford. Stark’s regiment was probably the largest in the army as it consisted of thirteen companies.
Stark at Bunker Hill. — The night before the Battle of Bunker Hill, a party under Colonel Prescott was sent across Charlestown Neck to make a fortification. Two hundred of Stark’s men were detailed to help in this work. The rampart which they raised was so unskillfully made that it was impossible for the defenders to fire, as the enemy advanced up the hill, without exposing themselves. Stark in derision called it a pound. Early in the morning, he sent two hundred men under Wyman, his lieutenant-colonel, to aid in the defense, and he, with Major McClary, went forward to view the situation.
It is said that General Gage, when he was reconnoitering the redoubt from Boston, was asked if the Americans would stand before the advance of the British regiments, and that he replied: “They will if one John Stark is among them, for he is a brave fellow and served under me at Lake George.”
At two o’clock in the afternoon, Stark’s whole regiment was ordered to the front and he hastened back to lead their advance. Each of his men was given a gill of powder, fifteen bullets and one flint; but their guns were of different sizes, and many of the men had to pound the bullets into the right shape for their barrels. They marched across Charlestown Neck, where they were exposed to a heavy fire from the British ships. Captain Dearborn, afterwards major-general, who was near Stark, suggested that they move faster.
“Dearborn,” Stark replied, “one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued,” and he continued to advance in the same cool way. Stark was joined soon after by the two hundred men who, the night before, had helped raise the fortification. The men under Wyman were by themselves on the right wing commanded by General Putnam. Stark took his position on the left, between the fortification and the Mystic River.
The British forces, commanded by General Howe and General Piggott, landed under the protection of a tremendous fire from the British ships and from the artillery on Copp’s Hill. Stark, seeing the engagement to be imminent, made a short speech to his men and ordered them to march quickly to a rail fence extending to the Mystic. There they gathered up the grass that had recently been mowed and raked into windrows, and placed it behind the fence. This, while no protection from the bullets of the enemy, served to deceive them.
Stark coolly advanced about thirty paces in front of his line, and carefully drove a stake into the ground. He then said, “If any man dares fire before the redcoats reach this stake, I will knock him down.” The terrible work accomplished by the men behind the rail fence is well known. Twice the British forces retreated under the tremendous fire of the backwoodsmen, and it required all of Stark’s authority to keep his men from following.
During the battle, word was brought to Stark that his oldest son, a lad of sixteen years, had been killed. The brave colonel replied: “This is not a moment to talk of private affairs when the enemy is in front,” and he ordered the messenger back to his station. Fortunately, it was a false report, for the lad was not killed, but lived to serve throughout the war.
Shortly afterward the fortification having fallen into the hands of the British, Stark ordered a retreat. All ammunition was gone and the Americans would have been at the mercy of the enemy, had not a supply of powder arrived from New Hampshire just in time to prevent a rout. It was the powder that had been captured at Fort William and Mary and stored at Durham. It had been brought over the hills to Charlestown by old John Demeritt, in his ox-cart, from the little New Hampshire town sixty miles away. With this ammunition, Colonel Stark was enabled to cover the retreat of the flying troops who had occupied the redoubt, and the entire force passed over Charlestown Neck in safety.
Expedition against Canada. — A portion of Stark’s men, under the command of Captain Dearborn, joined the expedition which Arnold led up the Kennebec against Canada, but Stark himself remained at Winter Hill until the evacuation of Boston, March, 1776, when, under orders from General Washington, he went to New York, where his troops were engaged in strengthening the defenses of that city.
In May Stark was ordered to proceed to Canada by way of Albany and to join the American army. This he succeeded in doing, but the Canadian expedition was a failure, and the Americans retreated to Chimney Point, on Lake Champlain. Here Stark thought that it was best for the army to make a stand in defense of the neighboring settlers, but General Schuyler ordered a retreat to Ticonderoga. The day after they reached the fort, word was received of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which caused great rejoicing among the men.
Stark’s Advice to Washington. — After the disaster at New York, General Gates was ordered to send reinforcements to General Washington, and Stark’s regiment was included in the detachment sent for that purpose. Stark became impatient at the lack of active fighting and said to Washington: “Your men have too long been accustomed to place their dependence for safety upon spades and pickaxes; if you expect to establish the independence of these States, you must teach them to place dependence upon their firearms and their courage.” Washington replied: “This is what we have agreed upon. We are to march to-morrow upon Trenton; you are here to command the right wing of the advance guard and General Green the left.” Stark replied that the position exactly suited him. The attack was a great success, for several cannon and a large number of small arms were captured, and nearly a thousand men were taken prisoners, while the American loss was about ten men.
Just before the battle of Princeton, the term expired for which his men had enlisted, but Colonel Stark, seeing that important work was soon to be done, succeeded in persuading them to reënlist for a period of six weeks. Such was their faith in their colonel that not one of them failed to respond, which is the more remarkable as the hopes of the American army were then at the lowest ebb, and men were constantly deserting.
Stark Returns to New Hampshire. — As this new enlistment was only for a short time, it became necessary for Stark to return to New Hampshire to recruit men for the campaign of 1777. By March, his regiment was full, and having reported that fact to the council of New Hampshire and to General Washington, he went to Exeter to await further orders.
While at home, Stark learned that a new list of promotions had been made out, and that his name had been omitted, while inferior officers had been set above him. He immediately notified the council and Generals Sullivan and Poor that he considered his treatment so unjust that he must surrender his commission. They tried to dissuade him but he replied: “An officer who will not stand for his own rights ought not to be trusted to stand for the rights of his country.”
Although Stark considered that his dignity required his resignation from the army, he still took great interest in the cause and warned Sullivan and Poor of the defenseless condition of Fort Ticonderoga and of the northwestern frontier. At the same time he declared his willingness to return to the army when his country should need him. The council and house of delegates gave him a vote of thanks for his attachment to the cause of liberty. On his return home, he enlisted in the Continental army all the members of his family who were old enough to serve.
Burgoyne’s Invasion. — In 1777 Burgoyne with a large number of American Tories, Indians, Canadians and Germans, started from Canada to join Howe at New York, and thus cut the Continental forces into two parts. The Americans had been easily driven out of Fort Ticonderoga, Washington had met with many and severe reverses, and the whole country was in a state of gloom and despondency. The Committee of Safety of the New Hampshire Grants applied to the legislature of New Hampshire for aid, but as the treasury was empty no assistance could be given. In this extremity, John Langdon, a Portsmouth merchant, and speaker of the assembly, thus addressed that body:
“I have three thousand dollars in hard money; I will pledge my plate for three thousand more; I have hogsheads of Tobago rum which shall be sold for the most it will bring. These are at the service of the state. If we succeed in defending our firesides and homes, I shall be remunerated; if we do not, the property will be of no value to me. Our old friend Stark, who so nobly maintained our honor at Bunker Hill, may be safely trusted with the conduct of the enterprise, and we will check the progress of Burgoyne.”
Stark is Given Independent Command. — Langdon’s generosity enabled the state to raise a force of men which Stark was asked to lead, but he refused to serve under any officers whom he had formerly commanded; and finally, rather than lose his services, the legislature gave him command of all the forces of New Hampshire, and agreed that he should be entirely independent of the national officers.
When Stark arrived at Manchester, Vermont, the advantage of this power was shown, for there he was met by General Lincoln, who ordered him to march to the west side of the Hudson. Much incensed, Stark asked “By whose authority do you give this command?” Lincoln replied, “By the order of General Schuyler.”
Stark thereupon asked Lincoln to tell General Schuyler that he (Stark) was able to command his own forces, and also gave to him copies of his independent commission and orders from New Hampshire. Schuyler brought this to the notice of Congress, which passed a resolution of censure upon the state of New Hampshire for giving authority without its permission.
Stark’s purpose was to protect the New Hampshire Grants, and the only way of accomplishing his object was to remain on the east side of the Hudson and attempt to cut off Burgoyne’s supplies from Canada, which plan afterward met with the hearty approval of Washington.
Battle of Bennington. — Burgoyne, believing that there were many Tories in the New Hampshire Grants, sent out a large detachment of Hessians, Tories and Indians under Colonel Baum to obtain provisions and possibly recruits. On the 14th of August, Stark received information that this force had arrived at Cambridge, about ten miles northwest of Bennington, and that they were intending to capture a large quantity of flour, stored at a mill near the town. He immediately marched his forces in that direction, and at nightfall met the enemy.
CANNON CAPTURED AT BENNINGTON
WAR RELICS OF BATTLE OF BENNINGTON
As the ground was unsuitable for an immediate attack, Stark withdrew his army about a mile and prepared for battle on the following day. The next morning he moved to attack the British, but it began to rain so heavily that he was forced to return to his camp. This delay unfortunately gave Baum time to throw up entrenchments in a strong position and to send to Burgoyne for aid.
On the morning of the 16th, the Americans were reinforced by the Berkshire militia, those from Pittsfield being led by their pastor, the Reverend Thomas Allen. This gentleman advanced to the log cabin where Stark had his headquarters and addressed the General as follows: — “We, the people of Berkshire, have been frequently called upon to fight, but we have never been led against the enemy. We have now resolved, if you will not let us fight, never to turn out again.”
General Stark asked, “Do you wish to march now, while it is dark and rainy?”
“No,” was the answer.
“Then,” continued Stark, “if the Lord should once more give us sunshine, and I do not give you fighting enough, I will never ask you to come again.”
Shortly after the arrival of the Berkshire militia, Stark sent Nichols and Herrick with a detachment of five hundred men to form at the rear of Baum’s entrenchment, and also sent to the right a flanking party of two hundred men.
The stolid German commander was entirely unsuspicious of these movements. He took no notice whatever of the little squads of farmers who passed by his camp dressed in their rough homespun, for, to his mind, no man could be a soldier unless clothed in uniform. He was destined later to change his opinion. The Indians, however, were not at all deceived, and held an entirely different view of the matter. They quietly deserted the British camp, complaining that the woods were full of Yankees.
The weather cleared up in the course of the day, and Stark advanced toward the fortification. Having placed his troops in position, about three o’clock in the afternoon he ordered an attack. Advancing in front of his troops and pointing to the enemy, he exclaimed, “See, men! There are the redcoats! We shall beat them to-day, or ‘Molly’ Stark will be a widow!”
For more than two hours the fight raged, as Stark afterwards said, “hotter than he had ever experienced.” The New Hampshire troops advanced repeatedly within gunshot of the intrenchments and with accurate aim picked off the Hessian gunners.
At last Stark rallied all his forces and led a final charge upon the works of the enemy. Then followed a hand to hand encounter, in which both sides fought stubbornly and well. Stark’s men were greatly handicapped by lack of bayonets, but in spite of it they, with their clubbed muskets, repeatedly drove back the charges of the British. Finally Baum fell mortally wounded, and shortly after his forces surrendered. The Hessian prisoners were treated civilly, but the Tories were fastened to a long rope two by two, the end of which was hitched to the tail of an old horse, and in disgrace they were marched through the town of Bennington.
While the Americans were still engaged in plundering the Hessian camp, at about six o’clock in the afternoon, a large force of the enemy, under Colonel Brayman, came suddenly upon them. They had been sent by Burgoyne as a reinforcement for Baum. Although his men were tired out by the former battle, Stark rallied his troops and again ordered an attack. After a short but very severe engagement, during which he was reinforced by a company of Green Mountain Boys under Warner, the enemy were compelled to retreat, leaving behind all their artillery.
Here we have a case in which a man fought two battles in one day. In the first, he captured the entire army opposing; and in the second, put the enemy to rout. The following is an extract of Stark’s account of the battle, forwarded by a messenger to the legislature of New Hampshire:
“Our people behaved with the greatest spirit and bravery imaginable. Had they been Alexanders or Charles of Sweden, they could not have behaved better. The action lasted two hours, at the expiration of which time we forced their breastworks at the muzzles of their guns, took two pieces of brass cannon, with a number of prisoners; but before I could get them into proper form again, I received intelligence that there was a large reinforcement within two miles of us on their march, which occasioned us to renew our attack. But lucky for us, Colonel Warner’s regiment came up, which put a stop to their career.
“Soon we rallied, and, in a few minutes, the action began very warm and desperate, which lasted until night. We used their own cannon against them, which proved of great service to us. At sunset we obliged them to retreat a second time. We pursued them until dark, when I was obliged to halt for fear of killing my own men in the darkness. With one more hour of daylight, we would have captured the whole body. We recovered two pieces more of their cannon, together with all their baggage, a number of horses, carriages, etc., and killed upwards of two hundred of the enemy in the field of battle. The number of wounded is not yet known, as they are scattered about in many places. I have one lieutenant-colonel, since dead, one major, seven captains, fourteen lieutenants, four ensigns, two cornets, one judge-advocate, one baron, two Canadian officers, six sergeants, one aid-de-camp, one Hessian chaplain, three Hessian servants and seven hundred prisoners.
Signed, JOHN STARK,
The effect of this victory was electrical. It was the first link of a chain of victories which led to the overthrow of the British. After the reverses of our army in Pennsylvania, it aroused the entire country to new hope. Recruits came pouring in.
When news of the battle was brought to Washington, he exclaimed, “One more such stroke, and we shall have no great cause for anxiety as to the future designs of Britain.” Congress, when the news came, was about to “read New Hampshire out of the Union,” but, instead, this resolution was passed:
“Resolved, that the thanks of Congress be presented to General Stark of the New Hampshire militia, and the officers and troops under his command, for their brave and successful attack upon, and their signal victory over the enemy in their lines at Bennington; and that Brigadier Stark be appointed brigadier-general in the army of the United States.” Years afterwards, President Jefferson wrote General Stark a letter in which he stated that the battle of Bennington was the culminating point in the fortunes of the colonists.
Burgoyne, having advanced beyond Ticonderoga, had placed his reliance upon foraging parties like Baum’s to bring in provisions. The battle of Bennington proved that this was impossible, and his forces were thus cut off from all supplies.
Stark remained a month at Bennington and then rejoined General Gates at Bemis Heights, but the enlistment of his men having expired he returned with them to New Hampshire. In a short time he was given a larger command, and he now carried out his former policy of harassing Burgoyne’s rear and of preventing any supplies reaching him from Canada. By this means he became an important factor in the final surrender of Burgoyne.
Stark Given Command of the Northern Department. — In the campaign of 1778, Stark was given the command of the northern department with headquarters at Albany. It was a difficult position, for while there was not much hard fighting, the country was full of Tories, who needed constant watching.
Later, he was ordered to join General Gates in Rhode Island, where he was engaged in reconnoitering the coast. When Gates went to New Jersey to reinforce Washington, Stark accompanied him, but the army soon went into winter quarters, and Stark returned home to raise recruits and supplies for the spring campaign.
It was with great difficulty that the New Hampshire legislature could be prevailed upon to provide sufficient clothing for their soldiers. One of the members of this body, named Ephraim Adams, an old campaigner in the French and Indian War, repeatedly called the attention of the legislature to their negligence in this direction, but his words produced little or no effect. Finally, on a bitterly cold winter’s day, the old man arose, and in a most impressive manner thus addressed the legislature: — “Gentlemen, our soldiers are in the field fighting for the protection of our homes and families, and I would move, Mr. President, that they be allowed the privilege of growing wool upon their backs to protect them from the bitter cold.” It is said that from this time on the New Hampshire soldiers were the best clothed regiments in the army.
In May Stark returned to New Jersey, and was present at the battle of Springfield, but he soon went back to New Hampshire for more recruits. He had such success that he was able in a short time to take reinforcements to West Point, where he left them, while he joined the army at Morristown. After Arnold’s treachery, Stark was ordered to relieve General St. Clair at West Point, and to serve on the court-martial of Major André.
In 1781 Stark was again given the command of the northern department and stationed at Saratoga, where he was occupied principally with police duties, as the country was overrun with spies and traitors, and as robberies were of frequent occurrence. After the surrender of Cornwallis Stark dismissed the militia, and thanked them for their bravery and loyalty. He then returned to New England by way of Albany, and spent the winter in raising troops for the campaign of 1782. His long years of exposure had brought on a severe attack of rheumatism, and he was no longer able to take the field himself, but he did all in his power to aid the cause of liberty.
In appearance Stark was a man of medium size, well proportioned, and of great strength and endurance. It is remarkable that in all his years of hard service and in his many severe battles, he had never received a wound. In character he was kind, honest, frank and hospitable. He died at the advanced age of ninety-four, and was buried at Manchester, New Hampshire. After his death, there was left but one general who had taken part in the Revolutionary War.