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Langdon, Stark, Bennington, and the Triumph of a Private Army, Part 2

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At the end of June, Burgoyne struck south with more than 7,000 men: 3,700 British regulars, 3,000 German mercenaries, 470 artillerymen, 400 Indians, and approximately 250 Canadian and American loyalists, and with the optimistic hope of gaining more Indian and loyalist troops as they went. As his forces approached the fort at Crown Point — which they took without a fight on June 27 — he issued a pronouncement to his troops that read in part, “This army must not retreat.”

At first, it was the Americans who did the retreating, from Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Independence, and then Fort Anne; Fort Edwards was captured on July 30. These early successes, some of which were hard won, earned the Englishman promotion to lieutenant general. But they also brought about a false sense of the extent of his success. Writing to Sam Adams on July 27, 1777, Richard Henry Lee said,

The success of Burgoyne thus far, I own I did expect, if he made the attempt…. But I am also inclined to think that if our Cards are well plaid, it may prove his ruin. There is nothing so delusive as prosperity, and I take Burgoyne’s mind to be one of those most likely to be injured by its impressions; he may therefore be hurried into some fatal mistake provided we are ready to profit from his errors.

Burgoyne’s most important mistake, perhaps, was his under-estimation of the reaction of New Englanders to his invasion. Such names as “Crown Point” and “Ticonderoga” were important — almost mythical — to New Englanders. Originally the site of a French fort, Crown Point was burned by their retreating forces in 1759. Rebuilt by the British, and perhaps the largest British fort in colonial America at that time, it became the central hub of military operations in an area where many New England militiamen had served during the French and Indian War. In 1757, 1,800 Massachusetts militiamen were raised, the first to serve under British officers, and many of those men were stationed at Fort Edward.

Fort Ticonderoga’s fall, probably more than any other, galvanized New Englanders into action. The fort was first famous for a major and bloody defeat of British and New England forces there in 1758 against the French under the Marquis de Montcalm. Massachusetts raised approximately 7,000 militiamen that year, and most of them served under the British general James Abercromby at Ticonderoga. With a total of about 12,000 men, Abercromby assaulted the fort, held by approximately 3,000 defenders, on July 8. According to Fred Anderson in A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers & Society in the Seven Years’ War,

Nearly five hundred of them never returned from the series of frontal assaults Abercromby launched against the French field works…. At the end of that botched and brutal day, Abercromby ordered a withdrawal that soon became a pell-mell retreat…. Anglo-American morale was shattered…. Montcalm’s successful defense of Ticonderoga was the last significant French victory of the war.

Ticonderoga also held more recent significance to the New Englanders. The story of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys” — a rowdy bunch of Vermont militiamen — is part of American folklore. They took the fort virtually without a fight on May 10, 1775, and Crown Point the next day. They captured 100 cannon and ammunition from Ticonderoga. George Washington’s chief artillery officer, Henry Knox, would accomplish the amazing feat of transporting those cannon across 300 miles of countryside to take part in the siege of Boston.

The fall of these important American forts sent panic through New England. While it would be Gen. Horatio Gates, commander of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, to whom Burgoyne would eventually surrender in mid October, the role played by two prominent New Hampshire citizens, and the actions they took in July and August 1777 in response to Burgoyne’s invasion, would play an inestimable part in the defeat of an entire British army.

John Langdon

Long before the American Revolution, the name “John Langdon” was well known in New England. The Langdon family had emigrated from Cornwall to the Piscataqua region of New Hampshire in the mid 1700s. By age 22, John was captain of a cargo ship and within a few years had become a merchant with his own fleet of vessels carrying slaves, crops, and manufactured goods. By 1770, he and his brother, Woodbury Langdon, were among the wealthiest citizens in Portsmouth, the colonial capital.

When colonists in the area learned from Paul Revere that British troops were on their way north to reinforce Fort William and Mary at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, they acted swiftly. Led by the 33-year-old Langdon and John Sullivan (later a general in the Continental Army), a large group of Portsmouth, Rye, and New Castle militiamen raided the fort on the night of December 14, 1774 — four months before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord — and seized all of the gunpowder. Spiriting it upriver on transport boats called gundalows, this powder was kept hidden from British authorities and was later sent to Boston for use in the siege.

Langdon served as a representative from New Hampshire in the First Continental Congress but resigned in June 1776 to return to Portsmouth to oversee the construction of three warships at his own shipyard, one of which, the Ranger, was captained by John Paul Jones, also a Portsmouth resident at the time.

John Langdon was a man who put his money where his mouth was. He always had an eye towards turning a profit, and outfitting privateers at his own expense proved a lucrative investment.

Another investment, however, he made in the hope of return only in the form of glory. With Burgoyne’s army marching south down the Hudson River Valley, Langdon used his own capital to fund a large expedition of soldiers who wanted nothing more than to march 300 miles from the tranquil seacoast of New Hampshire to take a good, honest crack at the British and check their advance toward Albany. Another prominent New Hampshire citizen would step forward to help him.

John Stark

John Stark was born on August 28, 1728, in Londonderry, New Hampshire. The Starks were of Scotch-Irish descent; John’s father, Archibald, emigrated from Scotland to Ulster, in the north of Ireland, as a child, and married Eleanor Nichols in 1714. Facing tough economic times, drought, and smallpox in Ireland, the pair set off for Boston with their three children in 1720. All three children died at sea.

Archibald and Eleanor started over again in the New World. Moving to New Hampshire, they joined a frontier community with a population of just 9,000 souls. Facing the threat of French and Indian invaders and the hazards of hacking life from an unforgiving wilderness, the pair prospered in a booming economy based on agriculture and timber. Within 20 years of their arrival, the population of New Hampshire had doubled. Archibald and Eleanor contributed to that explosion with eight more children of their own, four daughters and four sons. Initially a farmer and carpenter, Archibald would also invest in land and later distill turpentine made from pine trees.

In John Stark: Maverick General, author Ben Rose writes, “Little is known about John Stark’s childhood upbringing, education and other dimensions of family,” but “growing up in the wilderness,” he was no doubt “taught early how to load and fire a rifle, and there is every indication Stark became proficient in the use of firearms.” This education served him well when, during the French and Indian War, he fought with Rogers’s Rangers, taking part in the battle at Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. During the war he married Elizabeth Page, whom he later nicknamed “Molly.”

After the war, John received a grant of 100 acres from the town of Starkstown to build a sawmill, with the proviso that the mill be operational within one year. Stark had a 50 percent share, and soon grew it into a thriving timber business; over time he invested in more land, and became a successful farmer. John and Molly would have a total of 11 children.

Like so many other Americans, the Starks were outraged at attempts by the British government to expand their control over the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. Stark served on the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, but when tensions exploded into violence at Lexington and Concord he set off to take part in the siege of Boston, receiving a commission of lieutenant colonel from Artemas Ward, “commander in chief” of the Massachusetts Militia. “Within a week,” writes Rose, “John Stark raised a regiment of over eight hundred soldiers, more than half of whom rode from New Hampshire to join him.”

During the siege, Stark led the New Hampshire militia at the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” on June 17, 1775, using powder seized at Fort William and Mary by Langdon a few months earlier. Stark’s leadership at the battle is legendary: he delivered crippling volleys against advancing British soldiers and successfully held the line until his soldiers literally ran out of ammunition.

A fiercely proud and independent man, Stark had frequent run-ins with other officers and liberally cast aspersions on the “pack of damned tories at the head of the Congress.” Such conflicts made him few friends, and, feeling slighted by the New Hampshire legislature’s promotion of Enoch Poor and Benjamin Lincoln, rather than himself, to the rank of brigadier general, he resigned his post on March 22, 1777, after almost two years of service. “I have as far as in me lay Endeavored to prevent my country from being Ravaged and Enslaved by our cruel and unnatural Enemies,” he wrote in his resignation letter. Before the year was over, he would once more take up arms against a ravaging enemy, but this time on his own terms.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.