This Day in History: John Stark, the “Hero of Bennington”
On this day in 1822, a Revolutionary War hero is born. John Stark is perhaps best known for coining the motto, “Live Free or Die!”
Okay, so technically he wasn’t the first to use the phrase, but his usage was certainly memorable. “Live Free or Die,” he wrote in 1809. “Death is not the greatest of evils.” He hoped the line would be used as a toast at an anniversary celebration for the Battle of Bennington. But the phrase stuck in the public memory, and the New Hampshire state legislature later adopted it as a state motto.
Perhaps “Live Free or Die” was an unsurprising attitude from someone like Stark?
Stark took up arms immediately after the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord. He would serve at Bunker Hill, Trenton, and Princeton. Unfortunately, these events were followed by a promotion for another New Hampshire officer—but not Stark. The new Brigadier General Enoch Poor hadn’t even served at Bunker Hill.
Stark was pretty upset, to say the least. Some would see “personal pique” in the resignation that he subsequently offered. But others believe that he simply saw the danger of congressional intrigue—promoting less worthy men for political reasons—and he was raising a red flag.
Either way, Stark couldn’t stay away for too long. By the summer of 1777, he’d agreed to serve as a Brigadier General in the New Hampshire militia—but he served only on the condition that he would never take orders from the Continental Army. He would take orders from his state, and his state only.
A Continental Army officer soon learned that Stark was serious. He tried to order Stark toward Saratoga, but Stark refused! “Stark’s intransigence,” historian Richard Ketchum concludes, “was an important factor in determining what followed.”
Stark discovered that British General John Burgoyne was trying to seize supplies from a stockpile in Bennington, Vermont. Needless to say, Stark was ready and willing to deal with the problem.
What a fortuitous turn of events! Burgoyne had been led to believe that the stockpile was only lightly guarded; he had no idea that Stark was on his way to Bennington. The result would be disastrous for the British. The red coats would arrive in the area completely unprepared for what Stark was about to deliver.
Stark launched a multi-pronged attack on the British forces on August 16. Just the night before, he’d delivered an impassioned speech to his men. Reportedly, he told them: “Tonight our flag floats over yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
The battle raged for two hours. Just when it seemed that the conflict might wrap up, both sides received reinforcements and the battle began anew. Stark would later say that it was “the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed, resembling a continual clap of thunder.”
Finally, though, the British were forced into retreat. “[W]e pursued them till dark,” Stark later said, “when I was obliged to halt for fear of killing my own Men.”
The battle ultimately undermined Burgoyne at the all-important Battle of Saratoga. The British had simply lost too many men—and they’d failed to get the supplies that Burgoyne needed.
One contemporary would say of Stark that he “dealt death wherever he found resistance, and broke down all opposition before him.” British General John Burgoyne surely found that description to be true during those weeks.
Indeed, General George Washington himself was mightily impressed by Stark. The victory, he would say, was the “great stroke struck by Genl Stark near Bennington.”
General John Stark: His Genius and Achievements as Factors in the Accomplishment of American Independence (Proceedings of the New Hampshire Historical Society; 1902) (Vol. 3, Part 2)
John Frost, The American Generals: From the Founding of the Republic to the Present Time (1849)
Letter from John Stark to General Gates (Aug. 23, 1777)
Letter from George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam (Aug. 22, 1777)
“Live Free or Die” (The Big Apple: an etymological dictionary; April 23, 2011)
Michael P. Gabriel, The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers & Civilians (2012)
Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)