John Stark: Patriot & Revolutionary
Editor's note: What follows is a keynote address presented by John Resch, professor of history, University of New Hampshire, on the occasion of the rededication of the Stark family gravesite. The ceremony, on Sept. 14, 2014, was the culmination of years of hard work and effort of a great many people. It is fitting, then, as we launch a newly redesigned website, that John's words will serve to christen our blog as its first post.
Today we honor the memory of General John Stark. Why? Because, through rituals of remembrance, like the one today, we define ourselves as a nation. For the United States is unique among the nations of the world. As historian Gordon Wood has stated, unlike other nations we are not defined by ethnicity, not defined by a single religion, not defined as a tribe and tribal territory. The celebration of John Stark’s life and times should remind us that we are nation defined by a few simple yet profound ideas – natural rights, equality, individual liberty, self-governance, rule of law, and as Lincoln put it, government of the people, by the people and for the people. Alexis Tocqueville, the 19th century French observer of American Democracy put it this way: Throughout the world there are people who embrace these ideals, but it is in America that people get to live them. So in remembering John Stark today we honor American ideals and principles.
As we celebrate the American Revolution through the life of John Stark, we should be reminded that the Founders viewed America as an experiment – a work in progress - or as Lincoln said at Gettysburg during America’s bloodiest trial, “whether…any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” So, we meet today as part of a journey – an unfinished experiment - that reconnects us to our past and guides us toward our future.
What do we learn from General John Stark? Born in 1728, a contemporary of Washington – born 1732 – the two men’s lives illustrate many contrasting features of the emerging American experiment. Washington was formally educated, an ambitious Virginian planter and slave holder who aspired for greater wealth, who sought political prominence within the British Empire, and above all wanted a commission in the regular British Army. Stark, by contrast, was uneducated. He was the son of Scot-Irish immigrants who carved out farms on the New Hampshire frontier. Unlike Washington, his family’s prominence was local, and his military training limited to the rag tag militia. He lacked Washington’s ambition to be a big wheel in the British Empire. Both would serve Britain in the French and Indian War, 1754-1763.
During that war, Colonel Washington of the British Colonial Army was seen in Boston wearing a tailored military uniform, accompanied by aides, and two black servants who were his slaves. Captain John Stark, on the other hand, wore leathers and work clothes fighting a bloody guerrilla war of close combat and scalp taking as part of Robert Rogers’ Rangers – a reckless, often undisciplined and blood thirsty group of scouts serving the British Army. In some ways Washington and Stark represent the yin and yang of what would become American culture.
Unknown at the time, the French and Indian War served as a prelude to the War for Independence. Washington and Stark learned the art of war as recruiters, commanders in combat, and as survivors of their mistakes that cost others their lives. They, like many of the English colonials recruited as auxiliaries to the regular British Army, experienced a culture shock that would inform their view of Britain and Imperial policies during the crisis that led to the civil war between England and its citizens living in North America.
Stark’s encounter with the British military exposed him to the realities of a class-based society governed by a hereditary elite; where upper class officers ruled ordinary men with the whip. He also experienced the British presumption that their fellow citizens in America were inferior to Englishmen. This is why the English called men like Stark Americans. British viewed Americans as crass, crude, and unpatriotic because they did not rush to enlist in the war against France unless paid. British officers were appalled that colonial troops left camp as soon as their enlistment contracts expired. British commanders were shocked that colonial enlistees demanded that their lieutenants and captains be elected by the men and accountable to them, a practice that was part of the colonial militia.
During the Imperial Crisis, 1763-1776, British and Americans discovered that while technically they were one nation, they had become two different peoples. Those differences became reality after the war for independence. Americans created a peaceful and profound revolution in political values, principles, and institutions that was capped by the adoption of the Constitution in 1788 – NH being the deciding vote.
During this period, General John Stark was both a patriot and a revolutionary. His life illustrates how individuals can shape history. In 1774 and 1775 he was part of Colonial resistance to British policies which leaders claimed were oppressive because they denied citizens their rights as Englishmen. He was aware of the Continental Congress’s efforts to negotiate peace. He also was part of Congress’s order to prepare for war. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Stark’s regiment of nearly 600 men joined the 15,000 militiamen who swarmed around Boston where they besieged British troops. He was part of what historian Charles Royster called the rage militaire. This was the idealistic phase of the war when citizens became soldiers. The war was cast as a conflict between liberty and tyranny. The citizen-soldier believed that courage and virtue would be sufficient to defeat a professional army that waged war on behalf of despotism.
Stark fit this mold of amateur citizen-soldier. He rejected the pomp of his rank as Colonel, permitted lax discipline, and led by example. Stark was a fighter who could act rashly guided by his battle-honed instincts. Lacking political ambition and tact – accentuated by vanity – Stark’s homespun qualities got him into trouble with civil and military superiors, but made him a champion among his men.
Stark served his country for seven years. He was with Washington during the darkest days of the war and participated in the General’s brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton. Stark is best known as a central figure in two of the most significant battles of the War for Independence - Bunker Hill and Bennington. After 1777, soldiers like Stark and his homespun troops faded in importance as the Continental Army assumed the burden of combat. In 1782, General Stark returned home – here – due to poor health caused by the hardships of war.
Have you ever thought about why we celebrate the battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775? Bunker Hill was a British victory. British troops succeeded in routing the defenders of the fort and chasing American troops out of Charlestown. A third of the 1200 Americans were killed, wounded, or captured. The answer can found in the story of the battle which is not just about arms but also about psychology and arrogance of power. The British wanted to crush the rebellion and to extinguish the hope for victory by demonstrating that citizen-soldiers were no match for a super-power’s professional army. British generals were going to teach this lesson to the bumpkins on Bunker Hill.
The British had planned to flank the hastily constructed earth works on Bunker Hill by sweeping down the shore of the Mystic River and then enveloping the redoubt through its unprotected rear. Had that been done, 1,200 American militia would have been cut off and captured. The effect on the morale of amateur troops and leaders advocating independence could have been devastating. The uprising could have been crushed then and there. However, Stark and Reed from New Hampshire stopped the flanking action. Stark had seen the vulnerability of the earth works, moved his men to the shore, constructed a low wall and commanded his men to fire when the British were within 25 yards of their position. The volleys cut down proud British officers and troops like harvested wheat. Stopped on the flank the British eventually conducted a frontal assault on the redoubt arrogantly thinking that their European tactics would cause the defenders to run. They didn’t and the results were devastating. Overall, the British suffered 1200 causalities. General Clinton wrote that another victory like this one would ruin British forces. After that battle British commanders vowed never to make a frontal assault on an American entrenched position.
The legacy of Bunker Hill actually saved Washington and his Continental Army in September 1776. Washington’s army was trapped at Brooklyn Heights. Rather than finishing them off with a frontal assault, the British waited for Washington to surrender the next day. That night, taking advantage of fog, Washington evacuated the army to Manhattan – the war would continue. Washington was saved by the British military’s “excessive caution” not to have another Bunker Hill. Had the army been captured at Brooklyn Heights we would be carrying British passports or recognizing Queen Elizabeth as head of our commonwealth country.
Despite being saved it was downhill for the Continental Army as it retreated through New York and New Jersey, to Pennsylvania. By December 1776 only a small force remained under Washington. It was about to collapse as men prepared to go home when their enlistments expired on December 31. Stark heard Thomas Paine’s immortal words that Washington had ordered read to the men around their campfires. Paine wrote:
“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered;”
Stark was no sunshine patriot – he was with Washington’s army when it crossed the Delaware to win battles at Trenton and Princeton. Minor skirmishes from a military point of view; they were enormous psychological victories that produced new recruits and a new army that would change citizen soldiers into professional fighting men.
Stark is best known then and now as the hero of the Battle of Bennington, Vermont. Victory at Bennington helped to stop the British offensive in New York aimed at cutting off New England from the rebellion. At Bennington, New Hampshire militia under Stark’s independent command captured nearly 1,000 German and Tory troops sent there to get food and fodder for the British army at Saratoga. Without those supplies, the encircled army was forced to surrender. This defeat sent shock waves through the British government, who concluded that the rebellion in America could not be put down with military might. The American victory at Saratoga brought France into the war as an ally. France sent men, material, money and ships to support the cause. Later Spain joined France in fighting Britain. What had begun as a civil war in 1775 had become in 1778 a world war engaging England against her continental rivals. America became a sideshow in Britain’s struggle. Thomas Jefferson would later praise the victory at Bennington as “the first link in the chain of successes” that eventually led to American independence. Little did Stark and his New Hampshire militia realize that their actions on August 16 in a small town in Vermont would change the course of war and geopolitics.
Stark continued to serve his country until he returned to his farm 1782. He served as a citizen-soldier and retired as one, not seeking special privileges or honors. Nevertheless, his fame continued to glow. In 1805 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Stark: “The victories at Bennington – the first link in the chain of successes which issued in the surrender at Saratoga – are still fresh in the memory of every American, and the name of him who achieved them dear to his heart…your memory will be cherished by those who come after you.” Stark replied that he felt satisfaction living in a country “highly favored by nature, and under a government whose principles and views I believe to be correct and just.” In 1809, unable to attend the celebration of the victory at Bennington, Stark wrote more about his revolutionary beliefs to those planning the event. “As I was then, I am now, a friend of the equal rights of man, of representative democracy, of republicanism, and the Declaration of Independence, the great charter of our national rights and of course a friend to the indissoluble union, the enemy…of tyranny, and devoted to Liberty.” This is what Stark had in mind when he ended with his famous toast: “Live Free or Die; Death is not the worst of Evils.”
In closing, we should keep in mind the meaning of Stark’s reply to Jefferson to understand his toast to the veterans of Bennington. Although Stark couldn’t quote philosophers as Jefferson could, nevertheless, it was self-evident to Stark that the war he helped to win had ushered in a revolution in political ideals, social values, and an experiment in equal rights, self-governance, and liberty. It is up to us to renew and sustain this revolution Stark helped to create and to fulfill Lincoln’s challenge "that any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can endure."