The Continuing Enigma: Revolutionary General John Stark

Stark Mountain Fayston VT

Stark Mountain Fayston VT

Book Review

Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, French & Indian War Ranger, Revolutionary War General by Richard V. Polhemus and John F. Polhemus, (Delmar, NY: Black Dome Press Corp., 2014)

The Polhemus brothers portray John Stark as a superb tactical battlefield commander, but one lacking political and emotional skills, which limit his overall contributions to the American War of Independence. Honed as a daring and independently operating ranger in the French & Indian War, his aggressive and attacking instincts on revolutionary battlefields led to a stunning victory at Bennington, Vermont as well as major contributions to the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton. However these combat strengths did not carry over into day-to-day operational and administrative dealings with fellow general officers and governing politicians. When not on the battlefield, character flaws including excessive pride, obstinacy and impulsiveness limited his contributions.

The Polhemus characterization of Stark is consistent with past biographers including Ben Z. Rose (Stark: Maverick General) and Clifton La Bree (New Hampshire’s General John Stark) who produced the most recent Stark biographies in 2007. The seminal biography of John Stark was self-published by Howard Parker Moore in 1949. Moore, an insurance company executive and an active member of the New York and New Hampshire Genealogist Societies wrote a meticulously researched and comprehensive account of Stark’s life.

The Polhemus brothers do a nice job of telling the story of John Stark’s life and contributions to the French & Indian and Revolutionary Wars. However, they do not present new sources or new interpretations of existing scholarship. They utilize the same sources as these previous biographers.

The Polhemus book is not a classic biography. It contains considerable extraneous background information. Interspersed between the events in Stark’s life are descriptions of French & Indian and Revolutionary War events unconnected to Stark. For example the events leading up to the execution of Nathan Hale are described and there is no relationship between Hale and Stark. The book’s readability could be greatly improved by eliminating these peripheral events and focusing more on the relationship of Stark to the overall war effort. The Polhemus book is more a survey of the American Revolution with an emphasis on John Stark rather than a focus on the life of John Stark and his influence on wider events. Readers can get lost as to what John Stark did, what he influenced and what others did around him.

Further, the Polhemus brothers leave unanswered interesting questions about Stark. For example, was he insubordinate?   There are three incidents that call into question his duty to obey orders:

  • During the siege of Boston in January 1776 he contributed to an assault on the New Hampshire paymaster for which he was forced to apologize.
  • Stark wrote a remonstrance in July 1776 protesting direct orders to abandon Crown Point on Lake Champlain at the end of the failed campaign to wrest control of Canada from the British
  • Stark disobeyed an order from General Benjamin Lincoln to join the Continental Army at Saratoga in August 1777

Another question is why so freely followed Stark into battle? He was a highly successful military recruiter and his troops unquestionably responded to his personal commands on the battlefield. Why were these men willing to fight and die along side of Stark while other Patriot leaders did not completely trust his loyalties? Stark had sons who fought on both sides and he was a life long friend of Robert Rogers, a notorious Loyalist. He was sympathetic to the uncertain plight of Vermonters and their desires to be independent of New York. At times George Washington had questions about Stark, but did recommend him for overall leadership of the Northern Department at the end of the war. More can be learned on Stark’s leadership methods, political views and loyalties to his New Hampshire neighbors as well as to the larger effort to create the United States.

Lastly, there are certain scholarship errors. For example, the book states that Stark wanted his Loyalist brother William dead and cites Moore as the source. However, the referred citation does not support this assertion. Also there are instances of direct quotes being cited from secondary sources without a reference to the underlying primary source.

However, in the end, the Polhemus brothers write an engaging survey of the American Revolution and the life of John Stark. They do not offer new scholarship or sources  extending our understanding of this complex and some times perplexing individual. They leave open important questions for others to unearth new sources and research. And in some cases, their scholarship could be tightened. However, the book is imminently readable and provides a valuable introduction to those not familiar with John Stark and the wars in which he fought.

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