General John Stark commanded New Hampshire troops during the American Revolutionary War. He fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and led the American forces to victory at the Battle of Bennington.
Biography of John Stark
John Stark was born on the New Hampshire frontier in 1728. At a young age, he learned how to handle himself in the woods and forests. He was captured by Abenaki warriors and carried off to Canada, where he impressed them with his boldness and bravery. His time living with the Abenaki increased his frontier skills, and he joined Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War. Stark fought in the Battle of the Snowshoes and the Battle of Fort Carillon. When the war ended, he went home to New Hampshire. In April 1775, word reached him that the British had fired on Americans at the Battle of Lexington. He gathered volunteers and marched to Boston to join the Army of Occupation in the Siege of Boston. In the first two years of the war, he participated in the defense of New York, the American retreat from Canada, and served under Washington at the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. In 1777, the British launched an invasion from Canada and Stark dealt them a significant blow at the Battle of Bennington. Two months later, the British were beaten at the end of the Saratoga Campaign, which convinced the French to recognize the United States as an independent nation and to provide military support. Stark served through the rest of the war in the Northern Department. He lived a long life and died on his farm in 1822.
This illustration depicts Stark leading the American forces at the Battle of Bennington. Stark is on horseback, pointing to Baum’s entrenchments on the hill. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Quick Facts for Kids About John Stark
- John Stark was born on August 18, 1728, in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
- His father, Archibald Stark, was born in Scotland. His mother, Eleanor Nichols, was born in Ireland. Stark moved to Ireland, where he met Eleanor. They married in 1714.
- The Starks emigrated to America in 1720.
- In 1752, he was taken captive by Abenaki warriors and lived with their band near St. Francis in Canada for some time.
- He married Elizabeth Page in 1758 and they had 11 children together. Their oldest child, Caleb, served in the Continental Army, participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill with his father, and became a state senator.
- During the French and Indian War, Stark served under Robert Rogers in Rogers’ Rangers.
- Stark commanded the 1st New Hampshire Regiment during the early part of the American Revolutionary War. He was promoted to Brigadier General by Congress in October 1777 for his actions at the Battle of Bennington. On September 30, 1783, he was promoted to Major General.
- When the American Revolutionary War ended, Stark retired and did not enter politics like many of his fellow officers.
- Stark died on May 8, 1822, in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was buried on his farm, on the bank of the Merrimack River.
- Stark’s famous slogan is, “Live Free or Die,” which was adopted by New Hampshire as its state motto.
Early Life, Education, and Career
Stark’s father, Archibald Stark, emigrated to the New Hampshire frontier from the north of Ireland. He owned a significant amount of land around the area of Amoskeag Falls and was an original proprietor of Dunbarton, which, at the time, was called Starkstown.
Due to the family’s frontier life, Stark’s education came in agriculture, hunting, and trapping. It allowed him to develop a keen mind and strong body. Outside of those pursuits, his education was limited.
Captured by Abenaki Warriors
In March 1752, Stark went on a hunting expedition in the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. He was with his older brother, William Stark, Amos Eastman, and David Stinson.
On April 27, they noticed signs of Native American Indians in the area and decided to leave. The next day, John, who was the youngest of the group, was sent out to collect the group’s traps. Around sunset, he was attacked by a group of Abenaki warriors from the band that lived near St. Francis. They captured him and tried to force him to tell them where his brother and the others were, but he refused.
William Stark, Stinson, and Eastman went looking for John on the 29th. Stark and Stinson floated down Baker’s River in a canoe, while Eastman walked along the shore. As they searched, they fired their guns. It is unclear why they fired, but the sound told the Abenaki where they were.
The Abenaki found them and captured Eastman. Then they told John to call to his brother and Stinson in the boat and tell them to come to the shore. John yelled to them and told them that he and Eastman were captured by the Abenaki and told them to move away as fast as they could. The Abenaki came out of hiding and raised their guns to fire on the canoe. Stark rushed them and tried to knock as many of the guns down as he could. However, some of them were still able to fire at his brother and Stinson. Stinson was killed, but William Stark was able to escape.
The warriors beat Stark and took him and Eastman to Haverhill on the Connecticut River where they joined the rest of the Abenaki hunting party.
From there, the group split up. Three warriors took Eastman with them and went to St. Francis. Stark stayed with the rest while they continued to hunt. They allowed Stark to hunt during the day and were impressed with his skill.
Stark and the warriors arrived at St. Francis on June 9. Once Stark arrived, he and Eastman were forced to “run the gauntlet,” which is described by Caleb Stark — John Stark’s grandson — in the “Memoir and Official Correspondence of John Stark.”
“When the prisoners arrived at St. Francis, they were compelled to undergo the ceremony of running the gantlet. The young warriors of the tribe arranged themselves in two lines, each armed with a rod or club to strike the captive, as he passed them…and bearing in his hands a pole six or eight feet long, with a skin of some bird or animal attached to one end of it.”
Eastman ran through first and was badly beaten. When he reached the end, he fell, exhausted, but survived.
When it came Stark’s turn, he fought his way through with his pole. Caleb Stark says, “he turned his pole right and left, dealing a blow at each turn, and made his way without much injury, his enemies making way for him to avoid the sweeping blows dealt by his pole.”
The Abenaki were impressed and put him to work hoeing corn and cutting it up. Eventually, Stark refused to perform the manual labor and threw his hoe into a nearby river. He told the Abenaki the tasks were not appropriate for a warrior. His bravery and boldness impressed them. He was adopted by the sachem — chief — and treated as a member of their band. They even gave him the nickname “the young chief.”
In July, two agents from Massachusetts were sent into Canada to retrieve colonists who were being held as prisoners. Although Stark and Eastman were not from Massachusetts, the agents bargained for their release. By August, Stark and Eastman had returned home to Derryfield.
Stark’s experience living as a captive among the Native American Indians would prove to be valuable in the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War.
French and Indian War
By 1755, Stark had gained a considerable reputation for his frontier knowledge and skill. Benning Wentworth, the Governor of New Hampshire, appointed his a Lieutenant in Rogers’ Rangers, under the command of Major Robert Rogers. Over the course of the war, Rogers and his men gained fame for their wilderness exploits and success against the French and their Native American Indian allies. Stark served in the campaigns around Lake George and Lake Champlain.
In 1756, Rogers chose Stark as his Second Lieutenant. The Rangers spent most of their time spying on the movements of their French and Indian enemies in the area around Crown Point and Ticonderoga. In August 1756, Rogers received reinforcements, which increased the number of men under his command to around 300.
Stark served under Major Robert Rogers for a portion of the French and Indian War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Battle of the Snowshoes
In January 1757, Rogers and his men were sent on a scouting mission. They left Fort Edward on January 15 and stopped at Fort William Henry on January 17, where they acquired provisions, including snowshoes to help them through the snow.
On January 21, they spotted a sled carrying provisions to a French fort. Rogers sent Stark and some men to capture it. However, more French arrived on sleds and saw Stark. The Rangers attacked the sleds and were able to capture some prisoners.
Rogers interrogated the French and then decided the Rangers needed to return to their camp, before returning to Fort Edward. Rogers and his men reached their camp in the afternoon, safely, but some of the French that had escaped earlier in the day had made their way to Fort Carillon. They had informed the French commander, Paul-Louis de Lusignan, about the presence of Rogers and his men and de Lusignan sent a raiding party to ambush Rogers. The French force included Canadian militia and Native American Indian warriors, most of who were from the Ottawa Tribe.
Rogers and his men broke camp. Stark and his men were in the rear. They were about three miles from Ticonderoga the French force ambushed them. In the fierce fight, Rogers was wounded twice. Stark took command and managed to organize the Rangers — who had an advantage due to their snowshoes.
The fight lasted for several hours and came to an end when the sun went down and it was too dark to see. Stark led the Rangers on a march through the night and they reached Lake George around 8:00 the next morning. The wounded were too exhausted to continue on, so Stark traveled 40 miles to Fort William Henry — through snow four feet deep — to retrieve sleighs.
By January 23, all of the survivors of the scouting mission had made their way to Fort William Henry.
Battle of Fort Carillon
In 1758, Major General James Abercrombie took command of the British forces in North America. His second in command was Lord Viscount Howe. They planned to attack Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga. On July 5, an army of around 16,000 men crossed Lake George and headed in the direction of the fort.
From July 5 to July 7, the British forces attacked the French lines, but with little success. On the 7th, Stark and some of the Rangers went with Abercrombie to survey the French defenses. Stark insisted the defenses were strong, and Abercrombie needed to use artillery to attack. However, a British engineer disagreed. Abercrombie ignored Stark’s recommendation and launched an attack on the fort on July 8. Lord Howe, who Stark had become friends with, was killed in the attack. The French withstood the assault and Abercrombie ordered the British to retreat.
Marriage to Elizabeth Page and Return Home
Stark went home on furlough and on August 20, 1758, he married Elizabeth Page, who was the daughter of Captain Caleb Page.
Stark returned to the military in 1759 and served under General Jeffrey Amherst. After the British defeated the French at the Battle of Quebec in September 1759, Stark returned home to Derryfield.
American Revolutionary War
For 12 years, Stark spent his time farming, operating a sawmill, and teaching his sons the same things he had learned as a boy. As the colonies and Britain moved closer to war, Stark was appointed as a member of the Committee of Safety.
Leads New Hampshire Volunteers to Join the Siege of Boston
When news of the Battle of Lexington reached him, he was working at his sawmill. He stopped his work and went home where he changed clothes and mounted his horse. He started toward Boston and called for volunteers along the way to meet in Medford, just outside of Boston. When the men assembled, they chose Stark to lead the regiment. The vote for Stark was unanimous. Isaac Wyman was elected Lieutenant Colonel and Andrew McClary as Major.
Battle of Chelsea Creek
The Battle of Chelsea Creek occurred in May 1775, during the Siege of Boston. Although it was a small engagement, it was the first battle that took place after the siege started.
Artemas Ward sent Stark to the islands northeast of Boston to remove livestock, hay, and anything else that could be used by the British for supplies during the siege. Stark and his men successfully raided Noddle’s Island but were spotted by the British when they set fire to hay in the barns on Hog’s Island. The British sent marines and ships, including the HMS Diana, to stop Stark and his men.
Stark was reinforced by men led by Israel Putnam and they attacked the Diana. Although the ship was badly damaged, the crew was able to escape. The Americans eventually overwhelmed the Diana and stripped it of weapons, munitions, supplies, and valuables. Then they set the ship on fire before returning to Boston.
Battle of Bunker Hill
On June 17, 1775, Stark was stationed about three miles north of Boston. From there, he had a complete view of Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. When he saw the British were going to attack the redoubt on Bunker Hill, he marched his men there and Stark reported to Colonel Wiliam Prescott.
Prescott allowed Stark to take whatever position on the battlefield he felt was best, and Stark deployed his men behind the redoubt, along a wooden fence. The New Hampshire men formed the left wing of the American line and were positioned behind a wooden rail fence, facing the Mystic River. Stark ordered them to stuff the gaps in the fence with hay, grass, and whatever else they could find to use. They also piled rocks up to help extend the line down toward the river.
British troops landed on the small beach and advanced on Stark and his men. The troops were the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who were considered to be some of the best infantry in the British army. The Americans held their fire as long as possible. When the British were about 80 yards away, the Americans fired on them. They inflicted heavy losses and forced the British to scatter.
The British regrouped and attacked again, and were met with heavy fire from Stark and his men. Once again, the British attacked and they were pushed back for the third time and broke off the attack on the left wing.
When the British overwhelmed Prescott and the Americans in the redoubt, Stark and his men provided covering fire for the retreat. Finally, Stark joined the retreat and led his men back across Charlestown Neck. Afterward, the New Hampshire men dug entrenchments on Winter Hill.
This illustration identifies the position of Stark and his men at the Rail Fence (top, center) during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Defense of New York
After the Siege of Boston ended in March 1776, Stark marched to New York in command of two regiments to help defend the city from the expected British attack.
In May 1776, his regiment was sent to Canada with five others to help support the Continental Army, which was retreating from Quebec. Stark met the retreating Americans at Fort St. John.
By that time, what was left of the force that had invaded Canada was under the command of General John Thomas. Soon after, Thomas died from smallpox and General Benedict Arnold resumed command. Then Arnold was accused of selling military goods for his own profit and was replaced by General John Sullivan.
General Sullivan decided to send an expedition to Three Rivers, which Stark was opposed to because he felt the British were too strong there. Stark was right. The American force was defeated and General William Thompson was taken prisoner.
The Americans had been forced to retreat from Quebec by a British force under the command of General Guy Carleton. Carleton’s army was closing in on St. John and Sullivan order his men to retreat to Isle aux Noix. The boat Stark was on was the last to leave the fort and they saw the British in the distance as they cast off.
Sullivan continued the retreat to Crown Point. Stark’s regiment took up quarters at Chimney Point on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. They stayed there until Sullivan gave the order to fall back to Fort Ticonderoga.
Declaration of Independence at Fort Ticonderoga
The army reached the fort over two days, July 6 and 7. On July 8, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read to the men, who approved with shouts of praise and applause.
Not long after, General Horatio Gates was placed in command and he assigned Stark to fortify Mount Independence.
Later in the fall, the British advance on Fort Ticonderoga was slowed by Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island. General Carleton was forced to return to Canada. When the Americans knew the British were not going to attack, some of the regiments were sent to New York, including Stark’s.
Trenton and Princeton
Stark took his men to Newtown, Pennsylvania, where they joined General George Washington and his army in late December. The situation with the Continental Army was poor. Morale and provisions were low, and many of the men were miserable. Their enlistments were set to expire on January 1. Washington and his officers decided to launch the attack on the Hessians at Trenton before the enlistments expired.
Stark led the advance guard of General Sullivan’s division during the Battle of Trenton, which ended in an American victory.
He was also with Washington when the Americans beat the British at the Battle of Princeton a few days later.
Passed Over by Congress
In March 1777, Congress promoted several junior officers but did not promote Stark. He was offended and submitted his resignation to the House of Representatives of New Hampshire. Stark was called before the House, where they accepted his resignation and thanked him for his service.
Battle of Hubbardton
By late June, the British had returned to Fort Ticonderoga. Their plan, which had been designed by General John Burgoyne, was to take the fort and move down into New York and Albany. This would allow them to cut New England off from the Southern Colonies.
On July 2, the Siege of Fort Ticonderoga started. The American commander, Arthur St. Clair was outnumbered. A few days later, on July 6, he evacuated the fort and allowed it to fall into the hands of the British without a fight.
Americans were shocked and upset that such an important asset as Fort Ticonderoga had been given up without a fight. Since the time it had been captured by Ethan Allen on May 10, 1775, it had served as an important symbol of the American spirit to fight the British.
St. Clair’s army continued its retreat into the New Hampshire Grants — present-day Vermont.
People living in the New Hampshire Grants fled from their homes in the face of the advancing British army. At the Battle of Hubbardton on July 7, the Americans slowed down the advance of the British and gained a strategic victory.
Battle of Bennington
In New Hampshire, the leader of the House of Representatives, John Langdon, offered to pay to raise a brigade. He was certain that Stark would lead it, and would be victorious over Burgoyne and the British.
A messenger was sent to inform Stark he was needed and Stark appeared in front of the Assembly to hear what they had to say. Stark told them he would accept the commission, but only if he had complete authority over his men. He would not take orders from any other officer. The Assembly agreed to his terms.
Stark raised his volunteers and then marched to Bennington for weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Afterward, Stark marched to Manchester where he met with Colonel Seth Warner and his men, who were known as “Warner’s Regiment.” Warner and many of his men had been Green Mountain Boys and were with Ethan Allen when Fort Ticonderoga was captured. Warner had played a key role in helping slow down the British at the Battle of Hubbardton, and his Regiment was added to Stark’s army, which marched to Bennington. Stark arrived there on August 9.
At Bennington, Stark received orders from General Philip Schuyler to march to Stillwater and join the main army. Stark refused the orders and went about the business of setting up defenses around Bennington. Stark sent letters to Schuyler and explained his plan. He intended to cut Burgoyne off from his supplies and attack the British army in the rear and anywhere else he could.
By that time, Burgoyne had divided his forces to attack Fort Stanwix and capture supplies. Burgoyne sent a force toward Bennington under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum. Baum’s army was made up of German regulars, British infantry, dragoons on foot, Native American Indian warriors, and Loyalists. Baum had about 500 men with him, and two field pieces. Colonel Philip Skene was with them, acting as a scout. On August 12, Baum learned that reinforcements were on their way to him, under the command of Brigadier General Simon Fraser.
Baum received instructions from Burgoyne that explained he was to seek out and capture supplies, then wait for reinforcements. Once the reinforcements arrived, he was to march to Albany. Burgoyne warned him that Warner and his men were in the area, and he should expect them to engage. Baum’s army was important to Burgoyne’s operation, so much so that Burgoyne wrote, “your corps is too valuable to let any considerable loss be hazarded on this occasion.”
As Baum made his way to Bennington, the local militia units attacked, including an estimated 1,800 from Bennington. The British camped west of Bennington. On August 15, there were heavy rains that lasted until around noon on the 16th.
Stark prepared his men for the attack, and legend has it he told his men, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
The Americans attacked and were able to breach the British defenses, despite intense hand-to-hand fighting. The Americans overwhelmed the British and Baum was mortally wounded. Many of Baum’s men — the Loyalists and Indians — fled from the field. British reinforcements arrived, but they also suffered heavy casualties.
Around 100 of the 1,000 British forces escaped. The rest were killed or captured. The Americans also captured cannons and weapons. The loss of so many men and guns weakened Burgoyne’s army.
Baum was unable to secure the provisions that were so important to Burgoyne’s plan. He died soon after and said Stark and his men “fought more like hell-hounds than soldiers.”
Washington commented on the victory and called it “the great stroke struck by General Stark near Bennington.”
Two months later, the Americans defeated Burgoyne at Saratoga.
This painting from the Bennington Museum depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Bennington. Stark is on the right, on his horse.
Promotion to Brigadier General
On October 4, 1777, Stark was finally recognized by Congress for his bravery and service to the American cause. He was appointed Brigadier General and thanked for his actions at Bennington.
Service in the Northern Department
Stark remained in the army until the end of the war and served in the Northern Department. He served as the head of the department on three occasions and commenced a brigade at the Battle of Springfield in 1780. He also was a judge at the court-martial of Major John André, where André was found guilty and hanged as a spy for his role in conspiring with Benedict Arnold to turn West Point over to the British.
Later Years and Death
After the war, Stark retired to his farm. He lived long enough to see the United States grow through the early years under the Articles of Confederation and then establish the republic under the Constitution.
In 1809, when he was 81, veterans from the Battle of Bennington had a reunion. Stark was sick and unable to make the trip. However, he wrote a stirring letter and said, “As I was then, I am now – the friend of the equal rights of men, of representative democracy, of republicanism, and the Declaration of Independence, the great charter of our national rights: and of course the friend of our indissoluble Union and Constitution of the states.“
He closed his letter with these words, “I will give you my volunteer toast – Live free or die – Death is not the greatest of evils.”
The words, “Live Free or Die,” were adopted by the state of New Hampshire as its motto in 1945.
Stark lived to see the United States defeat Britain again in the War of 1812. In 1822, he died at the age of 94. He was buried on his farm, on the banks of the Merrimack River. When Stark passed, it left General Thomas Sumter as the last living American General who served in the American Revolutionary War.
- Some accounts of the Battle of Bunker Hill attribute the famous quote, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” to Stark.
- Stark’s regiment, the 1st New Hampshire Regiment, was the largest unit at Bunker Hill and in the Army of Occupation.
- Stark’s men were joined along the rail fence by men from Colonel James Reed’s 3rd New Hampshire Regiment and men from Connecticut under the command of Captain Thomas Knowlton.
- Captain Henry Dearborn was in Stark’s regiment and fought at the rail fence. Dearbo
- rn was positioned on Stark’s right, closer to the redoubt at the top of the hill.
- in 1818, Dearborn published his account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and he was critical of General Israel Putnam.
- The article created a controversy that involved members of political parties and veterans of the American Revolutionary War.
- Stark knew Putnam and they served together in Rogers’ Rangers.
- The New Hampshire Patriot interviewed Stark and reported he expressed his “disappointment” with Putnam.
- When Caleb Stark asked him about the Battle of Bunker Hill, his grandfather said, “All I know about that is, that we gained a victory.”
The Molly Stark Cannon
- The “Molly Stark Cannon” is one of the four cannons that was captured by Stark’s men at the Battle of Bennington.
- Stark had them inscribed with the words, “taken at Bennington, August 16, 1777.”
- During the War of 1812, the Molly Stark Cannon was used to help defend Fort Detroit against the British. When the fort was surrendered, the cannon was captured by the British.
- According to his grandson, Stark was “highly incensed at the loss of ‘his guns,’ as he termed them, and regretted that the weakness, incident to old age, prevented him from again taking the field for his country.’
- The British added a new line to the inscription, “retaken at Detroit, August 15, 1812.”
- The Americans recaptured the cannons in 1813 at the Battle of Fort George.
- In the early 1840s, Vermont asked the government to send the cannons to Vermont so they could be kept as a memorial to the efforts of the Green Mountain Boys in the American Revolutionary War. Congress agreed to send two of the lighter cannons to Vermont. The other two were sent to the United States Arsenal in New York for reconditioning.
- The Molly Stark Cannon, which was heavier, was given to the New Hampshire Militia by Stark.
- During the Civil War, the Molly Stark Cannon was hidden to it could not be melted down and used to cast new weapons.
The “Molly Stark Cannon.” From an old postcard.
Last Surviving General of the American Revolution
Many sources indicate that Stark was the last surviving general of the American Revolutionary War.
This may be attributed to Caleb Stark, who described his funeral: “His remains were interred with military honors in a cemetery upon his own estate, which had been inclosed, by his order, several years previous to his decease. The well disciplined company of light infantry, from Goltstown, performed, in satisfactory manner, the duties of military escort, and fired three volleys over the grave of the last American general of the revolutionary army, who surrendered his arms to his God.”
However, other sources say the last American general to die was Thomas Sumter of South Carolina. Sumter died in 1832 at the age of 97.
John Stark is important because he provided experienced, firm leadership to the New Hampshire Militia and Continental Army throughout the course of the American Revolutionary War. He held the line at the Battle of Bunker Hill and then led his men to victory at the Battle of Bennington. The victory at Bennington contributed to the American victories at Saratoga, which convinced the French to join the war and support the United States. In his later years, Stark coined the phrase, “Live Free or Die.”