Live Free or Die

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For over two hundred years, Americans have acknowledged British General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at the October 1781 Battle of Yorktown as the official end of the War of Independence. Together with French land and sea forces, the Continental Army surrounded the British Army and after days of bombardment forced Cornwallis to admit defeat. British leaders were then finally compelled to grant the United States its independence. If Americans want to know the origins of that ultimate victory, however, they must look to the Battle of Saratoga, New York four years earlier. It was there the Continental Army struck a fatal blow to British military fortunes by capturing General John Burgoyne’s army, precipitating an alliance between France and the United States. The victory at Saratoga though would not have been possible without the heroic efforts of an American officer a month prior to the climactic fight. This officer served in some of the Revolution’s most crucial engagements, and his fearlessness in battle earned him the respect of his subordinates and superiors alike. His name was John Stark. This is the story of how he won a stunning triumph at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont in August 1777 that paved the way for Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga two months later.

John Stark first attracted national attention with his service in the French and Indian War. He was born in the frontier village of Londonderry, New Hampshire in August 1728 to Scotch-Irish immigrants and spent his early life traversing the New Hampshire wilderness. In 1752 he spent six weeks as an Indian captive, where he earned universal respect for remaining defiant in the face of torture. In 1755 he signed on with a company of rangers led by his close friend Robert Rogers and joined the fight against the French and their Native American allies. He primarily saw action in New York’s Lake Champlain valley. Stark skillfully scouted enemy garrisons and waited for the chance to prove his prowess as a warrior. The opportunity came in January 1757 when, along with his comrades, he was ambushed by the French and Indians while crossing ice-covered Lake George. Refusing to panic, Stark deployed his troops along a hilltop and fought off attacks on the company’s flanks and rear, which allowed the remaining soldiers to escape annihilation. Two months later, he demonstrated similar fortitude when he repulsed a French force attempting to destroy Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George. He spent late 1757 and early 1758 patrolling the region, and in July he participated in the British Army’s bloody assault on the French bastion at Fort Ticonderoga. A second attack in 1759 drove the French out of the region just as other forces were conquering Canada, effectively ending the fighting in North America. With the war over, Stark retired from military service and returned home. In the years to come, however, he shared his countrymen’s outrage as British tyranny mounted. Determined to never submit, he donned his uniform again, this time to fight his former allies.

Learning of the Battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, John Stark and one thousand New Hampshire militiamen marched to Cambridge, just outside Boston, where they joined the emerging Continental Army. On June 17th he defended Bunker (actually Breed’s) Hill from British attack. When the Americans ran out of ammunition, it was Stark and his regiment who covered the withdrawal of the American troops. He spent the remainder of the year besieging the British Army in Boston. After the enemy departed the town in March 1776, he led his men north to upstate New York where he joined the remnants of the American Army that had invaded Canada the year before. With the rest of the army, the gallant colonel fortified Fort Ticonderoga, which had been captured by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold in May 1775, and prepared to stop a British drive south. By late 1776 such an invasion had not occurred, so Stark rejoined the main Continental Army in time to cross the Delaware River with George Washington on Christmas night. The next morning he was in the forefront of the charge as the Continental Army swept into Trenton, New Jersey. In a matter of minutes, he and his comrades had captured 900 Hessians. He also participated in attacking the British garrison headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey on January 3, 1777. Shortly thereafter, Stark left the army for personal reasons and returned home to New Hampshire. He did not remain inactive for long, however, as British commanders were planning a new campaign — one in which John Stark was to have a starring role in defeating.

In June 1777 Stark learned the long-anticipated British thrust from the north had begun. In the weeks to come, he followed reports of General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s march south from Canada down Lake Champlain. Burgoyne intended to capture Albany, New York and the entire Hudson River Valley, thereby severing New England from the rest of the country and ending the “rebellion” in one swift stroke. At first, all went according to plan. By early July, Burgoyne had reached Fort Ticonderoga where American General Arthur St. Clair and two thousand men blocked his path. To the horror of Stark and many Americans, however, St. Clair abandoned the fort after the British placed artillery on nearby Mount Defiance, which the Americans had left undefended. As British forces pushed deeper into the interior, American forces tried to slow the British advance by felling trees and destroying bridges, but despite these efforts, Vermont and New Hampshire remained vulnerable to British attack. The greatest threat came from British raiding parties sent out to gather food for the army. Vermonters knew local militias were not enough to defend the region and appealed to New Hampshire for assistance. New Hampshire officials voted to raise two brigades of militia and to appoint Stark a brigadier general to lead the forces. He was ordered to protect inhabitants in both states and to engage the enemy when possible. Stark eagerly accepted the position and set about enlisting and equipping nearly 1,500 troops. All preparations were completed by the start of August, and on August 3, 1777 he led his small army into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Upon arriving in his new theatre of operations, Stark marched to Bennington, but he soon learned 800 German mercenaries, Redcoats, and American Loyalists led by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum were also advancing on the town with the aim of capturing a supply depot. The general initially attempted to lure Baum into a fight, but the German commander refused to take the bait when he was outnumbered. Instead, Baum sent a request back to General Burgoyne for reinforcements, but while he waited for them to arrive, he foolishly decided to divide his troops into three separate groups. Commanding British regulars and German soldiers, Baum defended a bridge over the Walloomsac River facing the Americans while the remaining Germans manned a hilltop several hundred yards up. A third contingent comprising 200 Loyalists was stationed on high ground across the river to protect the roads heading south. Local inhabitants carried this news to Stark. The American commander saw an opportunity to destroy Baum piece by piece and secure a stupendous victory for the American cause.

On the morning of August 16, 1777, Stark gathered his officers and outlined a strategy whereby two groups would attack the flanks of the German force on the hill above the river while another detachment struck the Tories across the river. Stark himself would lead the main attack against Baum’s troops at the bridge. As the other groups moved into position, the general paraded his men in front of the bridge to give the impression he led a mighty host. It was said he drew his sword and pointed it at the enemy before shouting to his men that he intended to either take the entire army prisoner or die in the attempt. Finally, by mid-afternoon, he was told all his units were in position. Unsheathing his sword, the fearless general ordered two musket shots to signal the attack. Riding at the head of the column, Stark and his men reached the enemy ranks in a matter of moments. Baum and his soldiers were stunned by Stark’s audacity, but they immediately put up fierce resistance. As Stark and his comrades engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, they listened for the sounds of musketry that would prove the other elements of the attack were unfolding as desired.

Suddenly, gunfire erupted from the hill above. Looking up, Stark saw the German troops there were just as surprised by the attack as those defending the bridge. They attempted to hold off the attack, but American sharpshooters killed many as the troops stood to fire. With a shout, men from New Hampshire and Vermont swept into the fortifications forcing the Germans to flee. Sensing the enemy was being overpowered, Stark ordered his men to double their efforts. From his position near the bridge, Stark watched with fire in his eyes as his German counterpart was felled by a musket ball in his abdomen. With their commander dying, the remaining troops fled. Jubilantly, the militiamen took off after them, killing those who resisted and sparing those who surrendered. Among those being rounded up, Stark observed a number of Loyalists, convincing him the attack on the bastion across the river had also been a success. The general was pleased, but he could not rest on his laurels as scouts sighted the reinforcements Baum had requested. He reformed his troops, and, with the help of Continental soldiers who had just arrived, he fended off an enemy attack. By this time, darkness was falling, so both sides withdrew. A significant element of the British thrust into the heart of America had just been eliminated. Though he did not realize it, John Stark had enabled Americans to take the first steps in defeating General John Burgoyne, and ultimately Britain itself.

In the years following Bennington, Stark continued to serve on the northern frontier. He commanded New Hampshire troops during the Battle of Saratoga, New York, and it was he who ensured General Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender by blocking the only escape route. His efforts won him promotion to brigadier general in the Continental Army. In 1779 he helped free Newport, Rhode Island from British control, and in early 1780, he participated in the last major engagement of the war in the north — repulsing a Hessian attack on Springfield, New Jersey. Later that same year, Stark served as one of the officers at the trial of British Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s co-conspirator in delivering the American fort at West Point to the British. His final act of service to his country was to command the Northern Department while George Washington marched his army south to Yorktown, Virginia to force Lord Charles Cornwallis to surrender, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. When Britain finally recognized American independence in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the war officially ended, and John Stark went home to New Hampshire, resuming his life as a farmer and lumberman. Despite never serving in public office after the war, he did provide one lasting contribution when in 1809 he was asked to attend a celebration commemorating his great victory at Bennington. Although he declined the offer, he did offer a toast to remember the sacrifice he and other Americans made — “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” Today, it is New Hampshire’s state motto. John Stark died in May 1822, the last general in the Continental Army to quit the field of action in this world.

Throughout his life, John Stark never shied away from a fight. Whether it was battling the French and Indians or humbling Europe’s most professional soldiers, he saw his duty clearly and plainly. It was a rare combination of fearlessness, combativeness and cunning intelligence that allowed Stark to take on and defeat the British-German army outside Bennington, Vermont and in a similar manner force John Burgoyne to capitulate. Ever the patriot, he lived out his immortal words — “Live free or die” — with unwavering devotion to the cause, living proof that one man can make a difference.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Live Free or Die

  1. Great job Jake! Yet another superbly crafted take on our nation’s history. I had no idea that John Stark was responsible for the “Live free or die” motto. What a warrior he was. Thank you for your tireless efforts.

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