General John Stark

John Stark (August 28, 1728 – May 8, 1822) was a New Hampshire native who served as an officer in the British Army during the French and Indian war and a major general in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He became widely known as the “Hero of Bennington” for his exemplary service at the Battle of Bennington in 1777

Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1728. When he was eight years old, he and his family moved to Derryfield (now 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 Canada but not before warning his brother William 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

Stark served as a second lieutenant under Major Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. His brother William Stark served beside him in Rogers’ Rangers. As a member of the daring Rogers’ Rangers, Stark gained valuable combat experience and a detailed knowledge of the northern frontier of the American colonies. While serving with the rangers in 1757, Stark went on a scouting mission toward Fort Carillon in which the rangers were ambushed.

General Jeffery Amherst, in 1759 ordered Rogers’ Rangers to journey from Lake George to the Abenaki village of St. Francis, deep in Quebec. The Rangers went north and attacked the Indian town. 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, whom he had married the previous year. At the end of the war, Stark retired as a captain and returned to Derryfield, New Hampshire.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, signaled 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 Breed’s Hill, a high point on the Charlestown peninsula near Boston. On the night of the 16th, American troops moved into position on the heights and began digging entrenchments.

As dawn approached, lookouts on HMS Lively, a 20-gun sloop of war noticed the activity and the sloop opened fire on the rebels and the works in progress. This in turn drew the attention of the British admiral, who demanded to know what the Lively was shooting at. Subsequent to that, the entire British squadron opened fire. As dawn broke on June 17 the British could clearly see hastily constructed fortifications on Breed’s Hill, and British Gen. Thomas Gage knew that he would have to drive the rebels out before fortifications were complete. He ordered Major General William Howe to prepare to land his troops. Thus began the Battle of Bunker Hill. American Col. William Prescott held the hill throughout the intense initial bombardment with only a few hundred 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 Bunker 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’s company and others to follow him down a 9-foot-high bank to the edge of the Mystic River. They piled rocks across the 12-foot-wide beach to form a crude defense line. After this fortification was hastily constructed, Stark deployed his men three-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 maneuver. 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.

Among the notable men who served under Stark was Captain Henry Dearborn, who later became Secretary of War under President Thomas Jefferson.

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