Try not to envy: I’m writing this listening to waves crashing on beach, minutes after sunrise, to the aroma of morning coffee.
The sun rises early over the placid beach in New Hampshire’s picturesque seacoast. A narrow thirteen miles of beaches, marshes and rocky shore is all that separates Massachusetts and Maine’s long and storied coastlines.
Everybody’s from somewhere, and I’m from that little spit of New Hampshire seacoast. My brother still lives there and—not as often as I’d like—I venture from Georgia to visit.
This visit, we spent some time in Boston, specifically Bunker Hill, an historic battleground of the American Revolution. The date was June 17, 1775.
Col. William Prescott, of the newly-minted Continental Army, had begun fortifying Breed’s Hill (adjacent to Bunker’s Hill), drawing the notice—along with cannon fire—of the British navy.
From British-held Boston just a thousand feet away across the Charles River, only two days shy of two months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, British Major General William Howe started his attack on Prescott’s small cadre. As Howe’s men landed in Charlestown, Prescott called for reinforcements. Seeing a crowd atop Bunker’s Hill, the redcoats decided to have lunch and wait for additional men instead of immediately attacking. This proved disastrous.
Charlestown sits almost like an island at the mouth of the Charles River, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, which the British continuously pounded with cannon fire. While some commanders refused to cross, Col. John Stark calmly formed up his 1st New Hampshire Regiment—less than 200 men—and marched into battle. He positioned his men along a fence north of Breed’s Hill to defend against a British flanking maneuver.
Stark was a stubborn man. Legend has it that when Abenaki tribesmen kidnapped the 30-year-old Stark for ransom and forced him to run a gauntlet of warriors with sticks, he grabbed the first man’s stick and attacked him with it, surprising the chief, who adopted him.
Waiting for low tide, Stark placed a marker 100 feet in front of his men, telling them not to fire until the British passed it. Rising and firing as one, his men decimated the redcoats. After three failed charges, the British abandoned their attack on Stark’s position. Howe suffered over 1,000 casualties and lost nearly a quarter of his officers taking Breed’s Hill: a very costly victory.
After two more years of fighting, Stark resigned in protest when he learned that Enoch Poor—whom Stark considered a coward because he refused to fight at Breed’s Hill—was promoted to brigadier general.
Stark returned home to become a brigadier general of the New Hampshire Militia. His force of nearly 1,500 citizens, armed with their personal weapons, refused to answer to Continental Army orders. Even so, his men made important contributions to the defeat of the British at Saratoga, one of the main turning points of the war. The Continental Army finally granted Stark the rank of brigadier general on October 4, 1777.
At the war’s end, Stark returned to his lifelong home in Manchester, leaving the military for good. In 1809, at 81, he closed a letter to his former military comrades with the phrase: “Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.” That phrase “live free or die” so resonated New Hampshire’s stubborn spirit of independence that it became the state’s motto, still emblazoned on its license plates.
As I watched the sun’s steady climb out of the sea this morning, I was reminded that our freedom was bought—and continues to be paid for—by the sacrifice of calm and serious men like John Stark. It may be New Hampshire’s motto, but the spirit of “live free or die” resonates loudly in every state–everywhere in America where freedom and courage are valued.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of Springfield, Massachusetts; Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells of Marietta, Georgia; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt of Russellville, Arkansas and Sgt. Carson Holmquist of Grantsburg, Wisconsin died defending our liberty at the hands of an ideology that’s a worse evil than death.
When CNN wrote
Authorities are still trying to piece together why Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez killed the four at a Navy operational center in the southeastern Tennessee city, which is thousands of miles from any war zone.
they suffered what engineers call a “failure of imagination.” The war zone is here. To liberty-hating Islamic death-lovers, the war zone is anywhere we are. At home, in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere in the world.
Military officers who value their own consciences would do well to honor John Stark’s actions: resign in protest, and fail to obey the commands of cowards who refuse to call Islamic terrorism exactly what it is. This country does not deserve such men when our rulers celebrate their own yellow backsides.
(adapted from my column in the Houston Home Journal July 18, 2015)