STARK, JOHN. (1728–1822). Continental general. New Hampshire. Son of a Scots-Irishman who came to New Hampshire in 1720, he was a woodsman and Indian fighter. In 1755 he participated in the operations leading to the defeat of Baron Dieskau and then served as a lieutenant and captain of rangers led by Robert Rogers. In January 1757 he walked forty miles through deep snow to bring assistance to the wounded, having previously been engaged in a day of fighting and an all-night march. After taking part in Amherst's campaign against Ticonderoga and Crown Point in 1759, he returned to central New Hampshire, where he helped establish a new township, originally called Starksville and later renamed Dunbarton.
On 23 April 1775 the New Hampshire house appointed Stark colonel of the first New Hampshire Regiment. He quickly raised fourteen companies, which he led to join Washington's army at Medford, Massachusetts. In the battle on 17 June he led his men and others under the command of Colonel James Reed to hold the American Line along the famous "rail fence" at Bunker Hill. Following the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776, Colonel Stark obeyed orders to lead his men to New York where, as colonel of the Fifth Continental, he helped prepare the defenses of New York City. In May he went with reinforcements to Canada, where he was in command at Montreal for a brief time during the summer. In early fall he marched his troops back to Crown Point, then to Ticonderoga, and then on to Pennsylvania, where he again joined Washington's camp as part of General John Sullivan's brigade. Stark's regiment participated in the crossing of the Delaware on 26 December 1776 and in the subsequent victorious battle at Trenton. While some New Hampshire men went home at the end of 1776, Stark crossed the Delaware again with Washington on 2 January 1777 and again faced the British at Trenton and on to secure Princeton, taking a significant number of Hessian prisoners. When Congress appointed Enoch Poor as its brigadier general from New Hampshire early in 1777, Stark felt that his previous experience, his age, and his seniority of command had been ignored. Stark returned to the state legislature meeting at Exeter, New Hampshire, in April, where he appeared before that body to resign his command.
As the British under General John Burgoyne threatened New England from Canada, the New Hampshire legislature on 18 July 1777 called upon Stark to accept the state rank of brigadier general to lead one of its two militia brigades to Vermont to stop the redcoats. Between 19 July and 24 July, Stark raised fifteen hundred men with whom he crippled Burgoyne at Bennington on 16 August 1777 and helped force British capitulation at Saratoga. At Bennington, Stark won one of the most spectacular and decisive successes of the Revolution.
When he left his post and returned to New Hampshire, after others whom he considered less qualified were promoted over him, Congress first to reprimanded him for his insubordination and then appointed him brigadier general on 4 October 1777. In the final stage of Burgoyne's offensive, he led the force that cut off Gentleman Johnny's last escape route. John Stark had an uncanny way of being at the critical and unexpected place to ruin British plans, first at Bunker Hill, then at Bennington, and finally at Saratoga. He remained on active duty for the rest of the war, twice commanding the Northern Department, being involved in the planned Canada invasion of 1778, serving under Gates in Rhode Island in 1779, and taking part in New Jersey operations in the summer of 1780. While serving at West Point, he sat on André's board of inquiry. Suffering from arthritis, he spent much time over the next few years at home in Dunbarton. Breveted major general on 30 September 1783, he retired from the army on 3 November of that year and went home. Unlike other war heroes, he stayed out of public life, finding enough to do managing his large farm and eleven children. He lived to be ninety-three years old, expiring on 8 May 1822 at home.
A man of medium height, bold features, keen light blue eyes, and compressed lips, John Stark was a man who generated legends. Most of them appear to have a kernel of truth. One rare quality that emerges from his picturesque battlefield remarks is an appreciation of the human factor in war. When he refused to hurry his men through an artillery barrage because "one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued men," he not only was saving energy but was calming down a body of inexperienced officers and men who were on the verge of panic. When he said, "Boys, aim at their waistbands," he was enunciating more military wisdom than meets the eye for an era when European soldiers usually aimed only in the general direction of the enemy. (In addition, the men would not fire too early if they waited until they could see their enemies' waistbands.)
At Bennington he reportedly said, "We'll beat them before night, or Molly Stark will be a widow." He apparently had a gift for making such memorable remarks. To Stark's discredit it must be said that except at Bunker Hill, he showed a consistently insubordinate character; but for his incredible luck, he would not be the national hero he remains. He refused to join the Order of the Cincinnati owing to his opposition to military organizations in principle.
A brother, William (1724–c.1776), served in Rogers's Rangers, fighting at Ticonderoga, Louisburg, and Quebec. He defected to the enemy when the Americans would not give him command of a regiment at the start of the Revolution and died after a fall from his horse. A son, Caleb (1759–1838), was a fifteen-year-old ensign in his father's regiment at Bunker Hill and finished the war as a brigade major. After becoming a Boston businessman, he moved to Ohio in 1828.
Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kidder, Frederick. History of the First New Hampshire Regiment in the War of the Revolution. 1868. Reprint, Portsmouth: Peter E. Randall, 1973.
Resch, John. Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Stark, Caleb. Memoir and Official Correspondence of General John Stark. 1860. Reprint, Boston, Gregg Press: 1972.
Upton, Richard Francis. Revolutionary New Hampshire. 1936. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1971.
Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983.
revised by Frank C. Mevers