John Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire[?] in 1728. When he was eight years old, he and his family moved to Derryfield (now part of Manchester), where he lived for the rest of his long life.
Stark enlisted as a second lieutenant under Major Robert Rogers[?] during the French and Indian War. As part of the daring Roger's Rangers[?], Stark gained valuable battle experience and knowledge of the Northern frontier of the American colonies. At the end of the war, Stark retired as a captain and returned to Derryfield.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 15, 1775 signalled the start of the American Revolutionary War, and Stark returned to military service. On April 23rd, 1775, Stark accepted a Colonelcy in the New Hampshire Militia and was given command of the First New Hampshire Regiment. As soon as Stark could muster his men, he ferried and marched them south to Boston to support the blockaded rebels there.
On June 16th, the rebels, fearing a preemptive British attack on their positions in Cambridge and Roxbury, decided to take and hold the high ground surrounding the city, including Dorchester Heights, Bunker Hill, and Breed's Hill. Holding these positions would allow the rebels to oppose any British landing (at the time, Boston proper was almost an island and the British soldiers garrisoned there would have to travel by sea to attack the outlying towns). The positions could also be used to emplace cannon which could threaten the British ships blockading the harbor (although no cannon were available to the rebels at this time).
When the British awoke on June 17th to find hastily constructed fortifications on Breed's Hill, British Gen. Thomas Gage knew that he would have to drive the rebels out before fortifications were complete. He ordered the HMS Lively, a 38-gun frigate, to begin shelling the rebel positions immediately and ordered Major General William Howe to prepare to land his troops. Thus began the Battle of Bunker Hill (which should have been called the battle of Breed's Hill). American Colonel William Prescott held the hill throughout the intense initial bombardment with only a few hundred untrained American militia. Prescott knew that he was sorely outgunned and outnumbered. He sent a desperate request for reinforcements.
Stark and his 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 Breed's 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. They extended the fence by throwing up a crude stone wall. After this fortification was hastily constructed, Stark deployed his men 3-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.
While the British did eventually take the hill that day, their losses were so great (especially among the officers) that they could not hold the positions. This allowed General George Washington, who arrived in Boston two weeks after the battle, to place his cannon on Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights. This placement threatened the British fleet in Boston Harbor and forced General Gage to withdraw all his forces from the Boston garrison and sail south.
As Washington prepared to return south to fight the British there, he knew that he desperately needed experienced men like John Stark to command regiments in the Continental Army. Washington immediately offered Stark a command in the Continental Army. Stark and his New Hampshire regiment agreed to attach themselves temporarily to the Continental Army. Stark and his men traveled to the New Jersey colony with Washington and fought bravely in the battles of Princeton and Trenton.
After Trenton, Washington asked Stark to return to New Hampshire to recruit more men for the Continental Army. Stark agreed, but upon returning home, he learned that while he was fighting in New Jersey, a fellow New Hampshire Colonel named Enoch Poor had been promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army. In Stark's opinion, Enoch Poor had refused to march his militia regiment to Bunker Hill to join the battle, instead choosing to keep his regiment at home. Stark, an experienced woodsman and a fighting commander, had been passed over by someone with no experience and apparently no will to fight. On March 23rd, 1777, Stark resigned his commission in disgust, although he pledged his aid to New Hampshire should it be needed.
Four months later, Stark was offered a commission as Brigadier General of the New Hampshire militia. He accepted on the strict condition that he would not be answerable to Continental Army authority. Soon after receiving his commission, he was ordered by Brigadier General Philip Schuyler[?] to depart from Charlestown, New Hampshire[?] to reinforce the Continental army at Saratoga, New York. Stark refused and instead led his men to meet the British at the Battle of Bennington. Before engaging the British and Hessian troops, Stark prepared his men to fight to the death, shouting There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!
Stark's men, with some help from the Vermont militia, routed the British forces there and prevented British General John Burgoyne from resupplying. Stark's action contributed directly to the surrender of Burgoyne's northern army at the Battle of Saratoga some months later. This battle is seen as the turning point in the Revolutionary War, as it was the first major defeat of a British general and it convinced the French that the Americans were worthy of military aid.
Stark became widely known as the "Hero of Bennington." After serving with distinction throughout the rest of the war, Stark retired to his farm in Derryfield. It has been said that of all the Revolutionary War Generals, Stark was the only true Cincinnatus because he truly retired from public life at the end of the war. In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered to commemorate the battle. General Stark, then aged 81, was not well enough to travel, but he sent a letter to his comrades, which closed "Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils." The motto Live Free or Die became the New Hampshire state motto in 1945.
Many places in the United States were named after John Stark and his wife Molly. Among them are:
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