One of the most impressive names in the annals of American Revolutionary War leadership is that of General John Stark of New Hampshire. Few of his peers equaled him in fighting prowess, tenacity, and strength of character; and while his name may be unfamiliar today, this is only because he was an apolitical animal who scrupulously refused to seek the garlands of notoriety and fame.
His lineage and early life testify to his unbreakable character. His father, Archibald Stark, was a Scotsman from Glasgow who moved his family to New Hampshire in 1720. All of his children died of smallpox during the voyage to Boston; and as his ship was considered unsafe to land, it was diverted to Maine. There, near the village of Wiscasset, the elder Stark endured his first experience of a Maine winter. Stark eventually moved to what is now Derry, and there began a new family. His sons were William, John, Samuel, and Archibald; John Stark was born in 1728.
As a boy and a young man, John Stark became intimately acquainted with the practical arts of the New England woodsman. His family subsisted on hunting and trapping, and often came into direct contact with the Indian tribes of the area. One of the most notable incidents of Stark’s youth was his capture by a tribe of Native Americans, which we will now relate. In April of 1752, while accompanied by his brother William and two other hunters named Amos Eastman and David Stinson, Stark was exploring trapping grounds in the township of Rumney, near Baker’s River. While Stark was collecting traps, he was ambushed and captured by about ten St. Francis Indians, commanded by a chief named Francis Titigaw.
Stark was able to warn his comrades and assist their escape, but his bravery brought down on him the fury of his captors. He was beaten severely and carried off to St. Francis, where stayed during the summer of 1752. As a prisoner of the tribe, he learned their language and ways of warfare; these lessons would serve him well in his later military career. During this period of captivity, an event occurred that displayed Stark’s innate courage. The Indians decided to make their prisoner “run the gauntlet,” a ritual where Indian warriors arranged themselves in two facing rows, and forced a victim to run between them, while being struck with sticks, poles, or flails. Stark did as he was told, but while in the gauntlet, he yelled out, “I’ll kiss all your women!”; he then seized one of his tormentor’s poles, and swung it back upon him. On another occasion, when he was forced to hoe corn, Stark threw his hoe into a river, and told the Indians that it was not a warrior’s job to hoe corn.
Instead of becoming enraged by Stark’s bravery, the Indians actually were impressed by it. No white captive had ever behaved as he did; soon they began to call him “Young Chief.” He was even adopted by the tribe and allowed to come and go as he pleased. So it is that bravery under duress always confers honor. To the end of his life, Stark had good things to say about the Indians, and in some ways considered them superior to the colonists in their conceptions of compassion and justice.
Stark, along with his brother William, served with distinction as a lieutenant in Major Robert Roger’s Rangers in the French and Indian War of 1754—1763. In one engagement of the war, Stark’s unit was to conduct operations against his adopted tribe, the St. Francis Indians; Stark declined to participate, due to his ties to the tribe. No one held it against him. At the war’s end he returned to Derryfield, New Hampshire.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Stark immediately sought military service; in April 1775 he accepted the rank of colonel in the New Hampshire militia. We will not chronicle here his many wartime exploits; it is enough for us to note that he was a combat soldier of the first rank, and distinguished himself wherever he saw action. Stark is most famous for his role in the Battle of Bennington, which took place in New York in August 1777. Unlike many of his officer peers, who were political appointees, Stark had years of experience as a woodsman and frontier fighter. His style of warfare, learned from the Indians and perfectly adapted to conditions in America, was one based on stealth, ambushes, and night movement.
It is his character and practical wisdom that concern us here. Stark did not grovel before superiors; he knew what he was worth, and was unwilling to suffer either fools or disrespect. Washington valued him highly, but could not protect him from local politics. When Stark learned in 1777 that he had been ridiculously passed over for promotion in favor of a New Hampshire colonel with political connections but no combat experience, he resigned in disgust. His letter of resignation is worth reading:
To the Honorable Council and House of Representatives for the State of New-Hampshire, in General Court assembled:
Ever since hostilities commenced, I have, so far as in me lay, endeavored to prevent my country from being ravaged and enslaved by our cruel and unnatural enemy. I have undergone the hardships and fatigues of two campaigns with cheerfulness and alacrity, ever enjoying the pleasing satisfaction that I was doing my God and country the greatest service my abilities would admit of; and it was with the utmost gratitude that I accepted the important command to which this State appointed me.
I should have served with the greatest pleasure, more especially at this important crisis, when our country calls for the utmost exertions of every American; but am extremely grieved that I am in honor bound to leave the service, Congress having thought proper to promote junior officers over my head: so that, lest I should show myself unworthy of the honor conferred on me, and a want of that spirit which ought to glow in the breast of every officer appointed by this Honorable House, in not suitably resenting an indignity, I must (though grieved to leave the service of my country) beg leave to resign my commission; hoping that you will make choice of some gentleman, who may honor the cause and his country, to succeed.
Your most obliged, humble servant,
Four months later, however, Stark was offered a brigadier generalship in the New Hampshire militia. He accepted under the express condition that he be permitted to conduct his own independent operations. His assertiveness had ultimately paid off. The reader of Stark’s correspondence is impressed by his directness and lack of guile. When the Revolutionary War ended, Stark was one of the very few military figures to return to a quiet civilian existence. In his elder years, Stark became known as a resolute patriot in the mold of the early republican Romans. He neither sought accolades from the public nor promoted himself. Here is a charming exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson:
To General Stark. Monticello, August 19th, 1805.
Respected General—I have lately learned, through the channel of the newspapers, with pleasure, that you are still in life, and enjoy health and spirits. The victories of 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.
Permit me, therefore, as a stranger who knows you only by the services you have rendered, to express to you the sincere emotions of pleasure and attachment which he felt on learning that your days had been prolonged—his fervent prayer that they still may be continued in comfort, and the conviction that whenever they end, your memory will be cherished by those who come after you, as one who has not lived in vain for his country. I salute you, venerable patriot and general,
With affection and reverence, THOMAS JEFFERSON.
Stark wrote Jefferson this philosophical response, wise with the experience of age:
Derryfield, October 1805.
Your friendly letter of August 19th came to hand a few days since; but, owing to the imbecility inseparably connected with the wane of life, I have not been able to acknowledge it until now. I have been in my 77th year since the 28th of August last; and, since the close of the revolutionary war, have devoted my time entirely to domestic employments, and in the vale of obscurity and retirement, have tasted that tranquility which the hurry and bustle of a busy world can seldom afford. I thank you for the compliment you are pleased to make me, nor will I conceal the satisfaction I feel in receiving it from a man who possesses so large a share of my confidence.
I will confess to you, sir, that I once began to think that the labors of the revolution were in vain, and that I should live to see the system restored which I had assisted in destroying. But my fears are at an end; and I am now calmly preparing to meet the unerring fate of men, with, however, the satisfactory reflection that I leave a numerous progeny, in a country highly favored by nature, and under a government whose principles and views I believe to be correct and just.
With the highest considerations of respect and esteem, I have the honor to be, sir, your most obed’t serv’t,
Perhaps the most famous thing Stark ever wrote was his proclamation, “Live free or die—death is not the worst of evils.” Few are aware, however, of the exact context in which General Stark made his celebrated utterance. The letter that accompanied his statement is a wonderfully concise articulation of a philosophy of government. The occasion was Stark’s receipt of a letter requesting his attendance at a gathering of war veterans in 1809. The letter of invitation reads as follows:
To General Stark
July 22, 1809
Honored and Respected Sir:
You can never forget that, on the memorable 16th of August, 1777, you commanded the American troops in the action called Bennington battle, and that, under divine providence, astonishing success attended our arms. Our enemy was defeated and captured, and this town and its vicinity saved from impending ruin. It has been usual to hold the day in grateful remembrance, by a public celebration. On Thursday last, a large and respectable number of leading characters in this and the neighboring towns, met to choose a committee of arrangements for a celebration on the 16th of August next. More than sixty of those who met were with you in the action.
They recollect you, sir, with peculiar pleasure, and have directed us to write and request you, if your health and age will permit, to honor them with your presence on that day. All your expenses shall be remunerated. No event could so animate the brave “sons of liberty,” as to see their venerable leader and preserver once more in Bennington; that their young men may once have the pleasure of seeing the man who so gallantly fought to defend their sacred rights, their fathers and mothers, and protected them while lisping in infancy.
Should this request be inconsistent with your health, we should be happy in receiving a letter from you, on that subject, that we may read it to them on that day. Sentiments from the aged, and from those who have hazarded their lives to rescue us from the shackles of tyranny, will be read by them with peculiar pleasure, and remembered long after their fathers have retired to the silent tomb. Accept, sir, our warmest wishes for your health and happiness, and permit us, dear general, to assure you that we are, with great esteem,
Your cordial and affectionate friends, GIDEON OLIN, JONATHAN ROBINSON, DAVID FAY (Committee).
Stark’s letter in response is shown below. It is a remarkable insight into the mind of a true patriot, a man who understood the dangers that factionalism and disunity posed to the functioning of republican government:
At Derryfield, 31st of July, 1809.
My Friends and Fellow Soldiers:
I received yours, of the 22d instant, containing your fervent expressions of friend ship, and your very polite invitation to meet with you to celebrate the 16th of August in Bennington. As you say, I can never forget that I commanded American troops on that day at Bennington. They were men who had not learned the art of submission, nor had they been trained to the arts of war; but our “astonishing success” taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves.
Nothing could afford me greater pleasure than to meet your brave “sons of liberty” on the fortunate spot; but, as you justly anticipate, the infirmities of old age will not permit it, for I am now more than fourscore and one years old, and the lamp of life is almost spent. I have of late had many such invitations, but was not ready, for there was not oil in the lamp. You say you wish your young men to see me; but you who have seen me can tell them I never was worth much for a show, and certainly cannot be worth their seeing now.
In case of my not being able to attend, you wish my sentiments. These you shall have, as free as the air we breathe. 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 a friend to the indissoluble union of these States. I am the enemy of all foreign influence, for all foreign influence is the influence of tyranny. This is the only chosen spot of liberty—this the only republic on earth. You well know, gentlemen, that at the time of the event you celebrate, there was a powerful British faction in the country (called Tories), a material part of the force we contended with.
This faction was rankling in our councils, until it had laid a foundation for the subversion of our liberties; but, by having good sentinels at our out posts, we were apprised of the danger. The sons of freedom beat the alarm, and, as at Bennington, they came, they saw, they conquered. These are my orders now, and will be my last orders to all my volunteers, to look to their sentries; for there is a dangerous British party in the country, lurking in their hiding places, more dangerous than all our foreign enemies; and whenever they shall appear, let them render the same account of them as was given at Bennington, let them assume what name they will.
I shall remember, gentlemen, the respect you and the inhabitants of Bennington and its neighborhood have shown me, until I go to the “country from whence no traveler returns.” I must soon receive marching orders.
With this letter, General Stark included a note that read: “Live free or die—death is not the worst of evils.”
The values that emerge from Stark’s correspondence are these. First, service to one’s nation is and remains an obligation of citizenship. Second, a commander cannot accept what John Paul Jones called “half-confidences,” that is, a lukewarm faith in the abilities of the man chosen for command. If there is not an assignment of full confidence, a commander is probably better off resigning. Certain types of humiliating snubs cannot be accepted. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Stark warns that nothing is more destructive to the national purpose as factionalism, which sets men against each other and is often fomented by hostile foreign forces. It is the discord that eats away at the bonds of civil amity. Fourth and finally, nothing is more precious than freedom. For there was little doubt in Stark’s mind that prolonged factionalism and selfishness, and the attendant paralysis of the national authority, would be fatal to the freedom birthed by the American experiment.
We will close with the poem “The Tomb of General Stark,” written by one Herrick:
No trappings of State their bright honors unfolding,
No gorgeous display mark the place of thy rest;
Yet the granite points out where thy relics lie mould’ring,
And the wild rose is shedding its sweets o’er thy breast.
The zephyrs of evening shall sport with the willow,
And play through the grass where the sweet flow’rets creep,
Where the thoughts of the brave as they bend o’er thy pillow,
Shall hallow the spot of the hero’s last sleep.
As from glory and honor to death thou descendedst,
It was mete thou shouldst lie by the Merrimack’s wave;
It was well thou shouldst sleep ‘mongst the hills thou defendedst
And take thy last rest in so simple a grave.
Therefor ever thou ‘lt sleep, and tho’ ages roll o’er thee,
And crumble the stone o’er thine ashes to earth,
The sons of the free shall with reverence adore thee
The pride of the mountains that gave thee thy birth.
Read more on the destructive effects of factionalism and domestic discord in Sallust: