The citizens of Boston awoke near dawn to the thunder of cannon on June 17, 1775 as British troops attacked hastily-entrenched Americans on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown. In far off Dublin, workmen repairing the roof of the Meetinghouse heard the guns, echoing against the granite of nearby Mount Monadnock.
But the sound of cannon at what would be called the Battle of Bunker Hill was not all that brought what would be an arduous and frustrating fight for independence home to New Hampshire. On the beach at Charlestown that day, a Londonderry, New Hampshire citizen named John Stark led a force of New Hampshire militia against the British, along with the gunpowder seized at New Castle in December 1774 in the first overt act of the American Revolution and stored in the powder house still standing in Exeter.
Abigail Adams could hear the guns, too, from her farm in Quincy. In a letter to her husband John, hard at work in Philadelphia, she reported that the siege began a 3 in the morning. Within hours she would see the smoke rising from the cannonading of Charlestown that set what one eyewitness called a “pretty town,” ablaze. On the heights of Breed’s Hill (mistaken in the dark for the higher Bunker Hill), the Americans waited, a force of hundreds against thousands of British regulars.
The Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 4th Foot “King’s Own” Regiment advanced from where they landed on the beach along the Mystic River. Watching them march slowly and deliberately toward his troops behind a barricade of stones and fence rails, John Stark waked out to the point where he judged his men’s shots would be accurate and planted a wooden stake. He then called out to the waiting troops under the command of Captain John Moore, “Don’t a man fire til the redcoats come up to that stake; If he does I will knock him down.”
While Charlestown burned to the right, and observers watched from the rooftops of Boston the assault advanced cautiously, with the rebels famously holding their fire and conserving their meager supplies of shot and gunpowder, until they could see “the whites of their eyes.” Stark’s New Hampshiremen held the beach on the American left flank.
General Howe had hoped to make an impression on the Americans, but his result was not what he hoped for. Stark biographers Richard and John Polhemus record that eyewitness Amos Farnsworth (who described “the pretty town” of Charlestown as “nothing but a heap of ruins”) suggested, “All America will avenge our cause.” From the Mystic Beach to Bennington VT and on to Saratoga, John Stark marched until the cause was won.
Like Henry V’s men, the New Hampshire militia counted themselves lucky not to have been “a-bed” on this morning in June. In 1809 when the Bennington veterans planned a reunion of their brothers in arms, they tried to draw their former commander out of retirement. But Stark sent his regrets, along with a toast that remains New Hampshire’s rallying cry. He wrote, “Live free or die – death is not the worst of evils.”
A fine June day is perfect for a call on John Stark's gravesite, where he is memorialized on horseback in John Stark Memorial Park in Manchester NH.