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JOHN STARK, THE OLD SOLDIER OF
THE victory of Bennington made John Stark famous, and still more his short and telling speech to his troops before the battle joined. But this was only an incident in Stark's warlike career, which was long and distinguished, in both the French and Indian and the Revolutionary struggles.
His father was a farmer of Londonderry, New Hampshire, where the son was born August 28, 1728. The father removed to Derryfield, now Manchester, in the same State, in 1736, and here the boy passed his youth in farming and hunting till one day in 1752, when he was taken prisoner while on a hunting excursion by a party of Indians. While with them they forced him to run the gantlet, but he escaped injury by snatching a club from the hand of the nearest Indian and laying about him to right and left with such energy that hardly a blow fell upon him. This and other exhibitions of courage and alertness so pleased the savages that they adopted him into their tribe, under the title of the young chief.” After six weeks' detention he was ransomed and set free.
Three years later the war with the French and Indians began, and Stark at once joined the corps of rangers under Robert Rogers, a bold partisan who became famous during the war. Stark, already known as an able scout, was made a lieutenant in the corps, with which he took part in many of its daring deeds.
After the battle with and defeat of Baron Dieskau, in which Stark took part, the militia regiments were disbanded and he returned home. But he was quickly in the field again, in a new company recruited by Major Rogers, in which only rangers and hunters of courage and skill were admitted. Their duty was to act between the hostile hosts, to reconnoitre, surprise straggling parties, make false attacks, act as guides and couriers, and annoy the enemy in every available way. It was a service of constant adventure and danger, and Stark's life in the years that followed was one of ceaseless activity and frequent peril.
The rangers were kept in continual service, exploring the woods, lying in ambush for stragglers, and at times setting out on scouting expeditions in which they had to make their way “through vast forests and over lofty mountains.” A party of Stockbridge Indians joined them, but their skill as woodsmen was in no degree superior to that of the rangers, whose lives had been spent on the frontier.
In January, 1757, the company of rangers went north on a long scouting expedition over the icy surface of Lake George, and on reaching a point on Lake Champlain half way between Crown Point and Ticonderoga, took some prisoners, from whom they learned that there was a strong force of French and Indians at Ticonderoga. A retreat at once began, but they had been seen and found themselves intercepted by a party of the enemy about two hundred and fifty strong. The rangers numbered only seventy-eight and a number of them were soon disabled by the fire of the enemy, Major Rogers among them. In this dilemma Stark took command and declared that he would shoot the first man who fled, telling them that they were in a good position and that a retreat would be fatal. The
fight was kept up till night, when the fire of the enemy ceased and they began their retreat.
A number had been killed and there were several severely wounded who had to be taken off. This rendered their progress slow, and a large fire in the woods forced them to make a wide circuit in the night. The fire, as was found out afterwards, was kindled by a wounded member of their own party who had made his way down the lake.
Reaching a point forty miles from Fort William Henry, the wounded men were unable to go further, and Stark with two companions set out on snow-shoes for the fort, the snow being four feet deep on a level. Despite their exhaustion from the fight and retreat they reached the fort by evening, and the next day returned with a sleigh and a small party. That evening the surviving rangers-fifty-four in numberreached safety at the fort.
We give this incident as an example of the kind of work the rangers were expected to perform, and of the valor and efficiency of Lieutenant Stark. But for his resolute will the party would have lost their lives in a panic flight, and he well deserved the promotion to the rank of captain which he received.
We cannot give all the stirring incidents in which the rangers were concerned in the district around Lake George, but must mention that Stark was engaged in that hotly-contested fight in which Major Putnam, as stated in our sketch of the latter, was taken prisoner by the Indians and narrowly escaped with his life from the cruelty of the savages.
Stark took part in Abercrombie's disastrous attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758, and in the following year joined Amherst's army and was present at the reduction of the French strongholds of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. The success of the Anglo-Americans in the year 1760 brought the war, in that part of the field, to an end, and Stark retired from the army, with the promise to return if his services were needed. During the fourteen years that followed he was quietly engaged as a farmer on the rocky New Hampshire soil.
The sound of the guns that shot down the patriots at Lexington fairly seemed to be heard throughout the country, so quickly did the event become known. We have told how Putnam left his plow in the furrow in his eagerness to reach Boston. His old fellowranger Stark was not less prompt. Within ten minutes after the news reached him he was on his horse and on the way to the scene of conflict, having directed the volunteers of the neighborhood to rendezvous at Medford, near Boston. Two regiments were formed, of one of which Stark was unanimously elected colonel.
On the memorable 17th of June, 1775, Colonel Stark's regiment formed the left of the American line behind the rail-fence that formed part of the lines at Bunker Hill. Here they held their ground firmly and repelled the enemy with great loss, until the fourth British charge was made and the lack of ammunition forced the Americans to retreat. In the heat of the action a soldier came to Stark with the report that his son, a youth of sixteen who was with him in the field, had been killed.
“This is not the moment to talk of private affairs,” was the grim reply; “ go back to your post.”
As it proved, the report was false, and young Stark served as a staff-officer through the war.
Stark continued in the army at Boston until its fall and then followed Washington to New York, whence he was sent with his regiment to take part in the illstarred expedition against Canada. The retreating army reached Ticonderoga on the 7th of July. Here on the following day the Declaration of Independence reached the army and Colonel Stark had the satisfaction, on the scene of his former exploits, to hear the proclamation read to the cheering troops. The hill on which he was encamped was given the name of Mount Independence, and he was soon after ordered to clear and fortify this hill, then a wilderness.
A detachment from the northern army, including Colonel Stark's regiment, was later on sent to reinforce General Washington. It reached his camp, on the west bank of the Delaware, on December 20, increasing his army to about seven thousand men. Soon after arriving Stark had a conversation with General Washington, in which he said:
Your men have long been accustomed to place dependence upon spades and pickaxes for safety. But if you ever mean to establish the independence of the United States, teach them to rely upon their firearms.”
Washington replied: “That is what we have agreed on. We are to march to-morrow upon Trenton; you are to command the right wing of the advanced guard and General Greene the left."
“ You could not give me a more acceptable station," replied Stark.
The story of the brilliant affair at Trenton does not need to be retold. Stark did his full share towards the success and subsequently fought sturdily at Princeton, but an event was soon to take place which would deprive the army of his valuable services.
He was sent in March, 1777, to recruit the ranks of his regiment, and while there the news came to him