A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1775
July 26, 2015

JOHN STARK, PART-TIME HERO

MONTPELIER – In recent years, against my better judgment, I’ve been becoming a blurber: one of those people whom you kind of know who writes brief blurbs of praise to print on the outside back covers of paperbacks. Trouble is, you can’t write a blurb about something you haven’t read. As a result, the volume of my reading has increased dramatically.

Recently I was asked to read and comment briefly on an illustrated paddlers’ guidebook to the Champlain Valley. Two mature ladies have explored all the tributaries to Lake Champlain and recorded not only their experiences, but information valuable to others following in their wake. It’s a really good book, and I had no hesitation in saying so. Then I noticed that the publisher, Black Dome Press of Delmar, New York, had sent along a thank-you gift: a new book, Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General. It’s by Richard and John Polhemus, a pair of brothers originally from the hills along the New York-Connecticut border.

By coincidence, I had just driven through Stark Village, a 45-mph choke point on New Hampshire Route 110 in Coos County named for the old general. A tiny hamlet of stark white clapboarded buildings and a covered bridge, it seems appropriately spartan to represent the grumpy old general who commanded the American troops and militia at the Battle of Bennington in 1777.

John Stark also gave New Hampshire its famous state motto. Too old and sick to attend an 1809 reunion of survivors of the pivotal battle, he sent a toast – “Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.” The sentiment accorded so well with the flinty, independent nature of Granite Staters that it became almost a mantra, and in 1971 replaced “Scenic” on New Hampshire license plates. During the tenure of Meldrim “Ax the Tax!” Thomson as Governor (1972-1978), a Jehovah’s Witness was charged with defacing his plates by taping over “...or die.” But the Supreme Court upheld his position. What was he doing, after all, but living free?

During the so-called French and Indian War, we Americans were British subjects. As such, we fought for the Crown in its effort to control North America. On the other hand, as pioneers on what was still a frontier, Americans had learned a thing or two about what we now call guerrilla warfare – sniping from cover, ambush, mobility, and surprise. The British still fought as they had for centuries in Europe: in massed, serried ranks and bright red uniforms. Their savviest commanders soon learned the superiority of the colonists’ methods, and formed regiments of “rangers,” typically dressed in earth tones and given to moving fast and cautiously, rather than massively and carelessly. They were used as scouts and shock troops. Stark was appointed a second lieutenant in Rogers’ Rangers. Almost illiterate (the words in letters he wrote himself are so phonetically spelled that you can almost hear his accent), never a clothes horse, more than a little prickly and critical of bumblers in command, he nevertheless learned well the art of warfare. After witnessing the carnage of the British assault on well-designed defenses at Fort Carillon, he never sent his own men into similar situations.

Most of us, I suspect, were taught the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War as discrete events. Even Fred Anderson’s superb The Crucible of War leaves that impression. But the Polhemus brothers, following the life of this one soldier from the fishing weirs at Amoskeag Falls to a settled life as a sawmill owner in the soon-to-be State of New Hampshire trace the transition seamlessly. The slights of British officers rankled in the colonial nose; the promotion of incompetent leaders over colonials who’d proved themselves many times over; and the ever-present whipping post on parade grounds were irritants that slowly grew intolerable. All it took were a few powerful speakers to articulate the objections to the increasingly tin-eared British government, an expedition to collect some arms and ammunition stored at Concord, and a frontal assault on a hill beside Boston Harbor to complete the commitment to independence.

Through all of this run-up to war, John Stark was in and out of service, dividing his time between various campaigns and the demands of his growing family and enterprises back home. In spite of his successes in recruiting and managing soldiers during his active phases, he had a tense and difficult relationship with his commander-in-chief, General Washington.

Which brought him at last, in August of 1777, to the battle at Bennington. General Burgoyne, sailing and marching south in the Champlain-Hudson Valley, feared for his flank, threatened by New Englanders “like a gathering storm on my left.” Low on supplies and hearing there were plentiful stores at Bennington, he sent a force of Hessians, Indians, and Loyalists eastward to secure them. His field commander, a Colonel Baum, marched into a bees’ nest of angry colonials, twice the number of his own troops and under the command of John Stark.

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations attributes this pre-battle speech to Stark: “My men, yonder are the Hessians. They were bought for seven pounds and ten pence a man. Are you worth more? Prove it. Tonight, the American flag floats from yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow!” That sounds a bit flowery to me, and who took the time to write it down while the colonial forces, split into four groups, routed poor Colonel Baum’s troops. Burgoyne, crippled by the effects of the storm on his left, never regained his equilibrium. The subsequent surrender of his army near Saratoga ended the British threat to the northern colonies, and after a few more battles and skirmishes with his superiors, the ailing, grumpy old soldier finally went home to New Hampshire.

Photo by Willem lange