The Last General

Introduction

The history of Rome inspires the imaginations of those who enjoy looking into the past.  Rome existed for around 1,100 years, beginning about 625 B.C.  That is such a long period of time that historians feel compelled to study Rome in three phases: The period of kings (625 – 510 B.C.), Republican Rome (510 – 31 B.C.), and Imperial Rome (31 B.C. – A.D. 476).

The challenge of studying early Roman history is its lack of written records.  If there are no written records — all we have to consider is legend and conjecture, taken mostly from archeological studies.  These are interesting, of course, but it isn’t history.  One of the early Roman legends surrounds the life of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (c. 519 – c. 430 B.C.).  We warrant to Cincinnatus what we believe is the most valuable (but seldom achieved) trait of human society: selflessness in serving the needs of the community.  We call this civic virtue.  Without getting into the politics of the day, Cincinnatus was widely known for his wisdom, his courage, his leadership, and his selflessness.  Despite his old age, he worked his small farm outside Rome.  It was enough to put food on his table.  When Rome was threatened with invasion by the Etruscans of Northern Italy, Roman officials approached Cincinnatus and asked him to assume the mantle of a dictator, which gave him complete control over the state.  After achieving victory in only sixteen days, Cincinnatus relinquished his power and returned to his farm.

This man, if he existed, was so respected by Revolutionary War Era Americans that a society was created and named in his legendary memory.  The Society of the Cincinnati is a fraternal society founded in 1783 to commemorate the American Revolutionary War — presumably because men stepped forward to serve, at great risk to themselves, and then returned to their regular lives at the end of the crisis.  Membership is restricted to the descendants of military officers who served in the Continental Army.  One of these men was John Stark — although he may never have been part of the Society of Cincinnati.

John Stark

Major General John Stark

John Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire (present-day Derry) on 28 August 1728.  He was the son of Archibald Stark (1693 – 1758), an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland.  John married Elizabeth (Molly) Page, with whom he sired eleven children.  The eldest of these offspring, Caleb Stark, served under his father in the Revolutionary War eventually reaching the rank of major, and later, served as a state senator in New Hampshire.  John Stark was one tough American pioneer.  In 1752, while hunting and trapping along the Pemigewasset River, Abenaki warriors captured Stark and a hunting companion and took them as prisoners to the Indian camp.  As part of the ritual, the Indians forced John and Amos Eastman to run a gauntlet.  Angry, Stark grabbed one of the implements away from a warrior and attacked him with it.  The chief was sufficiently impressed by Stark’s heroics that he adopted him into the tribe.  In the following year, Massachusetts authorities pay a ransom of $103 Spanish dollars for Stark’s return, but he remained partial to his Abenaki family for the rest of his life.

John Stark’s record of service and his selflessness began long before the American Revolution.  Stark may have been emblematic of the American in 1754.  He was a farmer in New Hampshire, where people are known to speak their minds in short sentences.  Today, we might refer to these people as “rough cut.”  Or, perhaps, as folks that hold too tightly to their bibles and guns. 

During the French and Indian War, John served in the ranging company led by Robert Rogers, known as Rogers’ Rangers (along with his brother William) as a second lieutenant.  It was a valuable experience teaching him about combat and the northern frontier.  At this time, Rogers served under the command of General Jeffery Amherst, a man well-known for his hatred of the American Indian.  It may have been Amherst who instilled within Stark his deep contempt for the British army officer.  He did not believe that a king’s commission made anyone a gentleman — and in Stark’s opinion, Amherst was no gentleman.

As a member of Rogers’ ranging company, Stark would have learned how to fight in the most barbaric manner.  In all likelihood, Stark cut a few throats in that nasty business.  At the end of the Seven Year’s War, like Cincinnatus, Captain John Stark returned to his farm and his family — and there he remained until he heard of the fighting at Lexington Green.

On 23 April 1775, John Stark rejoined the militia and was commissioned a colonel commanding the First New Hampshire Regiment.  By the beginning of June, the regiment was serving with the Continental Army in Boston.  At Bunker Hill, Stark’s regiment formed the rear guard in the Army’s retreat.  He subsequently served during the ill-fated invasion of Canada, and at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  Afterward, he returned to New Hampshire to recruit more men for Washington’s army. When local politicians tried to use the war and Stark’s recruiting efforts to advance their own political ambitions, he resigned his commission in disgust and went home.

In 1777, King George III appointed John Burgoyne to command British forces in a campaign to gain control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley.  Burgoyne’s plan was that he would lead his force across Lake Champlain from Quebec and capture Ticonderoga, advance on Albany, New York to meet with a British force moving north from New York City under General William Howe.  The idea was to divide and isolate New England from the middle and southern colonies.  If John Burgoyne was anything at all, he was over-confident in his own generalship.  Throwing all caution to the wind, he stepped off at the head of his force of just under 6,000 troops.  Unfortunately, General Howe didn’t deliver as expected because of confusing instructions dispatched from England.

In effect, Burgoyne ended up conducting the campaign single-handedly.  Worse, he didn’t know he was all alone until well into the campaign.  He misjudged the support he could obtain from native Americans and British loyalists; he misjudged the popular support rendered to defending Albany, and he underestimated the tenacity of the men fighting under General Horatio Gates — of which John Stark was one.

General John Burgoyne

Burgoyne’s movement was slowed by poor roads and natural and man-made obstacles along his route of march.  Because his supply line was stretched thin, Burgoyne was forced to forage along the route of march, and this brought his attention to Bennington, Vermont.  Burgoyne decided to divide his army — retaining his regular force under his direct command and sending his loyalist forces, native Americans, and German mercenaries to Bennington under Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum.

Baum’s movement was closely observed by the American militia, causing the Americans to withdraw toward Bennington while increasing their mass in defensive positions.  Baum sent a request to Burgoyne for reinforcements, facing as he the “uncouth militia.”  Apparently, Baum preferred an enemy accustomed to fighting in the European style.  Brigadier General John Stark, commanding those uncouth rebels, didn’t care about the European style of fighting.

Correctly anticipating Baum’s likely battle plan, Stark sent word for reinforcements from nearby American militia.  Colonel Seth Warner, a highly respected Continental regimental commander from Vermont, responded.  Likewise, loyalists began flocking to Baum.

Torrential rain fell on Walloomsac, New York, and Bennington, Vermont all day and night on 15 August 1777.  Colonel Baum hoped that the poor weather would hinder any American activity until reinforcements could arrive from General Burgoyne.  Baum kept his men busy constructing and improving a series of breastworks on a hill overlooking Walloomsac.  When the weather cleared on the following morning, one-thousand American militia assaulted Baum’s defenses (ten miles from Bennington).  To inspire his men, Colonel Stark reportedly told them, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats, and the Tories.  They are ours — or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”

Unfortunately for Colonel Baum, a large number of men entering his camp proclaiming themselves British Loyalists were actually American militia, sent by General Stark to infiltrate Baum’s defenses and send word back to Stark of what they observed.

After heavy fighting, General Stark’s Americans breached the enemy’s defenses.  Stark later claimed it was “the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed, resembling a continual clap of thunder.”  For some combatants, the fight was deeply personal — pitting American patriots against their loyalist neighbor.  In this context, perhaps it may be judged as America’s first civil war battle, which turned into a desperate struggle.

Within a short period of time, the American militia had Colonel Baum and his men surrounded.  Baum was himself mortally wounded but continued to lead his German mercenaries in resisting the American assault on the knoll, where they were eventually overrun.  Many of Baum’s native and Loyalist forces fled the vicious battle site.

The fighting continued until nightfall.  Unfortunately for Colonel Baum, Burgoyne’s reinforcements arrived too late to change the course of the battle.  Baum’s force gave up 200 dead and seriously wounded and 700 or more prisoners of war.  In contrast, General Stark suffered 70 killed or wounded.

Baum’s defeat put an unbearable strain on Burgoyne’s army, which, in addition to the loss of men and materiel, prevented Burgoyne from obtaining the supplies he so badly needed.  Having lost their confidence in Burgoyne, the native American forces deserted and melted away into the New York forests — which deprived Burgoyne of his best scouts.

Stark’s victory at Bennington was a precursor of Burgoyne’s eventual defeat at Saratoga, which turned the tide of war in favor of the American patriot militia.

John Stark is acknowledged as the individual who first coined the phrase, “Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils.”  He wrote these words 136 years before they became New Hampshire’s official state motto. On 30 September 1783, the U.S. Congress promoted Stark to major general.  With the end of the Revolutionary War, General Stark resigned his commission on 3 November and returned to his farm.  He passed away at the age of 94 years — the last surviving general officer of the Revolutionary War.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, New England, New Hampshire, New York, Pioneers, Politicians, Revolution, Vermont. Bookmark the permalink.

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