Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General

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Book Review:  Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General by Richard Polhemus and John Polhemus (Black Dome Press, 2014).

2015 marks the 240th anniversary of the beginning of American Revolution.   With the passage of time, many of the seminal figures that fought in those epic battles that led to American independence have either been forgotten or relegated to footnote status in books focused on the larger war effort.  Fortunately, the last few years have witnessed a renaissance in Revolutionary War scholarship and one of the most definitive biographies to be produced during this timeframe is “Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French and Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General” by Richard and John Polhemus.

The Polhemus brothers have written a lively and well documented account of Stark, a man best known for writing the immortal words later to become New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live free or die.” By utilizing an extensive array of primary and secondary sources, they shed detailed light on a citizen-soldier who devoted over twelve years of his life to defending the people of New Hampshire and the United States.

One of the overall strengths of the book is the compelling narrative that captures the unique life experiences of Stark. Starting from his boyhood, the authors portray Stark as a young man who lived for being in the outdoors. This environment, where farming, lumbering, fishing, and adventuring in the woods were the dominant activities, taught him the importance of self-reliance, physical fitness, and teamwork. All of these traits would serve him well when he served his first stint as a soldier during the French and Indian War.

Stark’s four years of frontier service with Robert Rogers’ unconventional force covers many significant locations during the war, to include exploits around Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Crown Point, Fort William Henry, and Fort Edward. The privations experienced by Stark and his comrades during this timeframe were numerous but they persevered in their multiple missions of conducting reconnaissance, gaining intelligence on French and Indian positions and taking prisoners.

This gritty and difficult existence is best described by the orders that Rogers received in 1756 to make war on civilians and the French enemy. “…from time to time, to use my best endeavours to distress the French and their allies, by sacking, burning and destroying their houses, barns, barracks, canoes, battoes, etc. and by killing their cattle of every kind; and at all times to endeavour to way-lay, attack and destroy their convoys of provisions by land and water, in any part of the country where I could find them.” Rogers’ Rangers became so successful that the British soon created more company level elements and Stark progressed in rank to become a captain.   Following the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, Stark decided it was time to retire from the Rangers and go back to New Hampshire. However, he would soon volunteer once again to protect his home from being overrun by another foreign enemy.

Stark’s leadership during the American Revolution is the most compelling portion of the book. His achievements as a commanding officer at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, and Bennington reveal a warrior leader whose aggressive nature, ability to lead from the front, and determination made him one of the best leaders in the cause for liberty. However, these same character traits caused problems for Stark, most notably when resigned his commission in the Continental Army in 1777 after being passed over for promotion.   His headstrong demeanor and independent streak exemplify the challenges associated with citizen soldiers of the era so it should come as no surprise that his greatest triumphs as a military leader, Bunker Hill and Bennington, came when he was in charge of militia units.

While this volume is a compelling read, it does have a couple of shortcomings. The first is the glaring omission of first rate maps. The maps in the middle of the book, for both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, are rudimentary at best.   Since the authors spend time writing about the strategic and operational context of both conflicts, they could have taken the time to produce cartographic products that would have enhanced their analysis. Most importantly, maps showcasing troop movements and other key events would enable the reader to better understand Stark as a combat leader.

Another drawback of the book is the exclusion of order of battle charts. The inclusion of an appendix showcasing the various organizational relationships, especially for the battles at Bunker Hill and Bennington, would have given the reader a better appreciation for Stark’s innate ability to maneuver and control large numbers of troops. However, these oversights don’t detract from the overall value of the book.

This volume deserves a place on the bookshelf of any historian or general reader interested in learning more about John Stark, his contributions to the War of Independence, the campaigns of the Northern Department of the Continental Army and the history of New Hampshire. It is an important contribution to American Revolutionary War scholarship and will be a valued resource for many years to come.

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3 Comments

  • You make a very good point that Stark’s most important military contributions came when he was leading militia units. While Stark’s battlefield tactical abilities were among the best in the Patriot forces, he was not the most politically gifted officer. Along with Daniel Morgan at Saratoga and Cowpens, Stark’s presence of mind to secure the American left flank on Breed’s Hill preventing the Patriots rom being surrounded and his execution of a complex five unit assault against an entrenched enemy at Bennington are among the most impressive small unit tactical battle management of the war.

    However, Stark did become more politically saavy through serving as commander of the Northern Department at the end of the war. He successfully negotiated the politics of General Schuyler, Governor Clinton and the independent minded Vermont residents. In the end, both NH and Vermonters venerated Stark’s contributions with the naming of mountains and places.

    TJ, does this new book offer any new evidence or new sources that extends our knowledge of Stark and his motivations?

    • Gene, thanks for the feedback. Your question on Stark is a great one, especially since his correspondence was not as voluminous as other major figures of the era. The bibliography lists recent books on battles and campaigns that Stark was involved in (Michael Gabriel, The Battle of Bennington: Soldier and Civilians, 2012 to name one) and it is my opinion that the authors data mined as much as they could from dispatches and previous books.

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