Author details battle days of ‘Maverick General' John Stark

Tuesday August 20, 2013


County News Editor

BENNINGTON -- Gen. John Stark, the victorious general at the Battle of Bennington, was a maverick somewhat in the mold of World War II Gen. George Patton -- and similarly successful.

Author Ben Z. Rose spoke at the Bennington Museum on Sunday about his book "John Stark: Maverick General," one of a number of Battle Day weekend events in town.

Rose, who lives in Lincoln, Mass., is not a degreed historian; by day he is a financial analyst.

"My passion has always been early American history," he said. "I've always had an interest in biography, in particular the founders of the country." He is inspired by works by popular historians of the period like David McCullough and Joseph Ellis.

"In particular I was always interested in what the motivations were of the people who decided they could sacrifice so much for the creation of the United States, in particular the sacrifices that were made during the Revolutionary War," Rose said. "And in the flurry of books that I had come across on the founders I felt that a very important figure that had been neglected was John Stark."

Stark played a key role not only in the Battle of Bennington but earlier in the war at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Besides being a innovative and bold commander, Stark was also very quotable. During the heat of battle here Stark immortalized his wife Molly with the words "There they are, boys! We beat them today or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight!" Later, writing to a group of Bennington veterans who wanted him to attend a reunion, he coined the phrase: "Live Free or Die, death is not the worst of evils."

Several years ago, Rose noted that there hadn't been much written about Stark in several decades, "so I took upon myself the two-fold challenge of writing a book that would illustrate the significant accomplishments that Stark was responsible for in the course of the war, but also to bring him to light as an important character, trying to identify the people that were closest to him, people that influenced his thinking."

In his research, he found much written about Stark's military record but much less about his personal life and the events between the major battles. "What I came across very early on that intrigued me in the research and really drove me to complete the book was a very lively and in many ways contrary character, which led me to subtitle the book ‘Maverick General.'"

Rose said he hoped to give examples of Stark's maverick tendency, "why I think he is to be remembered for being such a remarkable thinker, a man of free conscience, really what I would consider an out-of-the-box-thinker -- he thought very creatively not only about military circumstances but political circumstances as well."

Stark was born in 1728 in Londonderry, N.H., the offspring of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had come from Northern Ireland to settle in New Hampshire. The region was just coming out of a series of wars with the local Indian tribes and it was a time of prosperity and freedom for such settlers.

In his early 20s, Stark was on a trapping mission with his brother and a couple of friends in northern New Hampshire and he was captured by Abenaki Indians after a battle in which one of Stark's friends was killed. Stark's older brother fled the scene. "The Abenakis would take settlers into captivity and often ransom them back to the authorities," Rose said.

During his captivity, Stark learned much about Indian warfare and by all accounts enjoyed his interaction with the Indians, Rose said.

Eventually Stark was redeemed for a pony valued at about $103; his friend was redeemed for a similar animal valued at $60. "So you can imagine they might have had quite a bit of discussion as to who was worth more on the way back to the New Hampshire colony," he said.

With the outbreak of the French and Indian War in the mid 1750s, Stark was one of the first recruits by Robert Rogers into the famed unit Rogers' Rangers, "in effect special forces group of the British army that fought against the French and the Indians. The unit was a forerunner to the U.S. Army Rangers," Rose said.

Stark learned the ways of wilderness warfare in this unit, which "fought in difficult circumstances along the banks of Lake Champlain. They acted as scouts. During the winter months, they would often battle on snowshoes," Rose said. "Stark got a lot of invaluable military training during the French and Indian War."

Rose believes a pivotal incident for Stark occurred when some of the Rangers were caught dipping into the rum supply of the British Army. Two of them were publicly whipped by the British officers to set an example that such behavior would not be tolerated.

"Intriguingly, I think this drove home the point to Stark and perhaps even to Robert Rogers that they were in a sense second-class citizens within the British Army," Rose said. "And even though Stark did continue his service under the British through the end of the French and Indian War, which was 1759, he came away I think very much influenced by the incident."

Between 1759 and up to the Revolutionary War, Stark returned to New Hampshire, married Elizabeth "Molly" Page, the sister of one of Stark's fallen comrades in Rogers' Rangers. Stark began a successful timber business and the couple raised eight children.

After the start of the war in 1775, Stark was among the first to make their way to Cambridge, Mass., where the patriot army was gathering. "Within a month of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Stark had not only received his commission from Artemus Ward who was one of the three key commanders at Cambridge, but had raised a battalion of 600 or 700 New Hampshirites."

In the Battle of Bunker Hill, Stark was called upon late in the day. He reacted quickly, possibly disobeying an order, and created a "very clever ambush," helping prevent the left flank of the patriot forces from falling to the British.

"Stark, despite the confusion of the day, emerged as one of the signal military leaders of the patriots," Rose said.

In the spring of 1776, Stark was dispatched on his most difficult mission to help Gen. John Sullivan, also from New Hampshire, take French Canada. An outbreak of smallpox helped make this mission unsuccessful. However, at this time Stark met Seth Warner, who was also fighting in Canada.

Stark next led a "remonstrance" against the closing of the Fort at Crown Point on the southern end of Lake Champlain. "Stark thought this was a terrible idea both strategically and militarily and led this group of colonels who protested vehemently against this decision. This was done over the heads of command in the region, including Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates.

"And the letter got to the desk of George Washington, who on the one hand was appalled by the lack of discipline that would allow such a letter to be written over the head of the commanders in the unit; on the other hand he sort of sympathized with the sentiment that was expressed questioning whether this was a good decision," Rose said.

The decision to close this fort stood, however.

Stark participated in the Battle of Trenton. In the spring of 1777, the Continental Congress did not promote Stark from colonel to general and he resigned from the Continental Army, expressing the view that he thought he should have been made a general. But three of four months later, the news came that Gen. John Burgoyne was coming down with more than 9,000 troops from Canada along Lake Champlain toward Albany.

Some thought they would turn east and attack New Hampshire or Massachusetts. Stark came out of retirement; was commissioned by the New Hampshire Legislature as a general "to lead a group of New Hampshire citizens to the area to really protect and defend the colony of New Hampshire."

This was done outside the jurisdiction of the Continental Army. Stark was essentially a militia general and through the force of his personality raised a force of about 1,500 New Hampshire men in 30 days. In Manchester, N.H., he met up with Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, the regular army commander. Lincoln tried to take over command of Stark's unit. "John Stark didn't like that very much; he gave Benjamin Lincoln a piece of his mind," Rose said.

The Continental Congress censured Stark for his behavior in not turning over the command of his troops to Lincoln. But Stark kept his command, and within a couple weeks Stark had made an encampment around Bennington with a view that it would be smart to hang on the flank of the Burgoyne army traveling from north to south.

Stark had his chance when Burgoyne sent out a scouting mission to Bennington, which was known to hold both food and military stores that could be seized and brought back to his main army. Needless to say, Stark's battle plan and decisions on Aug. 16, 1777 worked very well. Historians credit the outcome of the Battle of Bennington with weakening the British forces and raising American morale, contributing to the surrender of Burgoyne's northern army after the Battles of Saratoga in September and October of that year.


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