Sunday, May 31, 2015

John Stark, live free or die

    In 1809, a group of American veterans decided to gather to commemorate the anniversary of the American victory on August 16, 1777, in the Battle of Bennington, Vermont. Led by Major General John Stark, the Americans routed two battalions of British and Hessian soldiers who were invading the colonies from Canada. The America soldiers wrote Stark, 81, asking him to attend. He wrote a letter declining the invitation, citing his health. He encouraged them, however, and ended his missive, "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils."
     In 1945, at the end of a world war to protect liberty throughout the world, his home state of New Hampshire adopted "Lie Free Or Die" as its motto.
     Born in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on August 28, 1728, Stark grew up in Derryfield, New Hampshire. On April 28, 1752, members of the Abenaki tribe captured him during a hunting and fishing expedition.
     During the attack, the Indians killed a friend, David Stinson, but Stark was able to warn his older brother, William Stark, who escaped unharmed. The Abenaki took John Stark to Canada, where they forced him and Amos Eastman to run a gauntlet of warriors who would beat them. Stark took the first warrior's stick and killed him, which greatly impressed the chief. The tribe welcomed John Stark as a member. They wintered with the Indians before the colony of Massachusetts paid a ransom of 103 Spanish dollars for him and 60 for Eastman.
     Stark and his brother joined Rogers' Rangers and fought in the French and Indian War. However, ordered in 1759 to attack an Abenaki village, John Stark refused, even though he was second in command, as he considered the Abenaki family. He quit the army and went home to his wife, Molly, whom he had married on August 20, 1758. They had 11 children.
     When the Revolutionary War began, Stark joined the patriots as a colonel and recruited 400 men. They saw action in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, filling a hole in the American defense. Historian Jack Kelly wrote, “If the British had gotten into the rear, the patriots would have been routed, so Stark saved the day at Bunker Hill.”
     Stark's New Hampshire line fought alongside General Washington in Princeton and Trenton in December 1776 and January 1777. In his absence, New Hampshire promoted five colonels to brigadier general ahead of him. On March 23, 1777, he resigned the army again and went home to Molly again. Equally angered over the incident, Benedict Arnold resigned the Continental Army.
     But unlike Arnold, Stark  remained loyal to the colonial fight for independence. Military duty soon called Stark back into service. His New Hampshire soldiers long with Colonel Seth Warner and members of the Green Mountain Boys went to head off British General John Burgoyne's invasion from the north.
     Warner represented the Republic of Vermont, which had declared its independence from New York on January 15, 1777, as the Republic of New Connecticut, but at a convention that June, the republic adopted the name Vermont. It remained independent for 14 years until joining the union as the 14th state on  February 18, 1791. However, Vermonters still march to the beat of a different drum, perhaps influenced by one-quarter of its population having French ancestry, although more likely the woods and mountains protect it from the noise of the rest of the nation.
     The troops of Stark and Warner confronted the British and the Hessians on August 16, 1777, at Bennington, Vermont, but not before Stark gave a rousing speech to his men, ending "There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!"
     The men knew Molly well because she had nursed many of the soldiers during a smallpox epidemic, serving at age 40 as a surrogate mother for many of the young troops. She would never sleep a widow, however, as her husband led the charge and became the Hero of Bennington, defeating troops et by German lieutenant colonels Friedrich Baum and Heinrich Breymann, who led their soldiers slowly through the woods. Stark knew the territory as well as any Indian, and in fact was an adopted Indian.
     "He employed a tactic of double envelopment. 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 their  heart when their commander, Baum was mortally wounded by a musket ball in the abdomen," historian Donald N. Moran wrote.
     When Breymann's troops finally arrived, he ordered a successful retreat, only to be captured later.
     "As a commander of New England militia Stark had one rare and priceless quality: he knew the limitations of his men. They were innocent of military training, undisciplined, and unenthusiastic about getting shot. With these men he killed over 200 of Europe's vaunted regulars with a loss of 14 Americans killed," historian Mark M. Boatner wrote.
     One problem British Colonel Banastre Tarleton brought upon himself at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, on January 17, 1781, was tiring out his troops in moving from battle to battle. This helped General Daniel Morgan devastate Tarleton's forces, sending the young officer fleeing the battlefield and scurrying 60 miles on horseback to escape capture.
     John Stark's heroics helped gain him promotion to brigadier general on October 4, 1777. Perhaps his resignation was for the better because it allowed him to remain north, which gave the continentals leadership to stem the northern British invasion.
     After the war, he retired to his farm never to engage in politics again. He was a true Cincinnatus, who had come to the aid of his fellow countrymen twice in war, never indulging in the fame that ordinarily accompanies such heroism. Indeed, like General Morgan, he was an uneducated, unrefined and uncouth man who never wrote a memoir. The love of his men -- his band of brothers -- never diminished. Indeed, when many of them re-settled in northern Ohio, they named their county in his honor -- Stark County -- whose county seat is Canton. There is a Molly State Park on the land that once housed a tuberculosis sanitarium also named in honor of the woman who treated her "boys" who were stricken with smallpox. A cannon named Old Molly stands in New Boston, New Hampshire.
     Molly died at age 77 in 1814, and on May 8, 1822, John Stark, the man who lived free, died at age 94, the last surviving Revolutionary War general. George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen -- but John Stark ran a close second in the state of New Hampshire and the Republic of Vermont.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. Been reading up on our Revolution, clearly. Great job recounting it, too.

  2. I was born and raised in Canton, Ohio. I've been a history buff all my life, with a particular interest in Ohio's early history. I never knew of John Stark. What an incredible story. Thanks for sharing it. ~Casca