When many of us think of the American Revolution, we remember important battlefields in places like Massachusetts and Virginia. We picture colonial “minutemen” opposing British soldiers at Lexington and Concord or George Washington accepting the surrender of the British army at Yorktown. These battles occurred in the war’s eastern theatre, which was undoubtedly the main focus of the action, but there was also an important strategic battle being waged on the western front. The menace posed by the British and their Native American allies endangered the entire western flank of the country. The Continental Army officer charged with confronting this threat was John Sullivan. This is his story of taking the fight to the enemy and engaging in total war.
John Sullivan found himself a participant in the American Revolution in the typical way. Born in February 1740 in Somersworth, New Hampshire, he grew up to be a lawyer. He was friendly with Royal Governor John Wentworth, but his sympathies were, from the start, clearly with the patriots. He served in both New Hampshire’s First Provincial Congress and the First Continental Congress before returning to New Hampshire in December 1774 where he led a raid on Fort William and Mary and seized arms and ammunition. He had a mixed record of victory and defeat following the outbreak of war in April 1775. After being commissioned a brigadier general by the Second Continental Congress, he helped General George Washington expel the British from Boston. Then he had the dubious honor of commanding the American withdrawal in the wake of the ill-fated invasion of Canada. Promoted to major general, he rejoined the main American army in August 1776 and was placed in charge of the American army’s left flank on Long Island. During the British attack, he watched his troops flee just moments before he was captured. He spent the next few months as a prisoner, but he was released (by way of a prisoner exchange) in time to join Washington in attacking the garrisons at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. At the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, however, he was once again outflanked by the British and forced to withdraw. After surviving the winter at Valley Forge, he led an unsuccessful campaign against the British at Newport, Rhode Island. While he was licking his wounds, his eyes were drawn to another battle happening several hundred miles away.
Throughout 1778 the American Revolution spread from the eastern battlefields around New York City and Philadelphia to the western frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania. Native American tribes, particularly the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, understood what an American victory would mean for them. White encroachment onto their land would intensify as the nation expanded. As a result, several tribes from the Iroquois nation, most notably the Seneca and the Mohawk, chose to ally with the British in hopes such a possibility could be prevented. With the encouragement of British commanders, warriors under the command of Joseph Brant, an Anglicized Mohawk, joined John Butler’s Tory militiamen in attacking frontier farms and settlements. They stole livestock, including cattle, and other foodstuffs to supply themselves and simultaneously to deal a blow to the American army. The British allowed their allies a free hand in their operations. This ensured that sometimes Indians gave no quarter to their foes. The most graphic example came at Cherry Valley in New York where Seneca warriors massacred thirty-three civilians. Word of this atrocity spread throughout the region, and frontier inhabitants pleaded with Congress and Washington for relief. Since few Continental soldiers were in the region, a large expeditionary force had to be assembled. To command this army, Washington turned to “the most active of the Rebel Generals,” as a future opponent called him.
In March 1779 Washington sent word to General Sullivan that he was needed to lead an expedition “directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians.” He was instructed to march up the Susquehanna River into the heart of Seneca territory and drive the Indians away from the frontier, all the way back to Fort Niagara on the Canadian border if possible. He was further ordered “to make rather than receive attacks, attended with as much impetuousness, shouting, and noise as possible.” There were few limitations placed on his authority. With these orders in hand, he travelled to Easton, Pennsylvania where the expedition was assembling. He found six thousand regular soldiers divided among sixteen regiments, fifteen of infantry and one of artillery. This constituted nearly one-third of the entire Continental Army. In addition to these elite troops, he also had the services of scouts from the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes, two Iroquois tribes who chose to side with the Americans. Washington hoped for a spring offensive, but logistical concerns delayed the campaign until late July. Once under way, however, Sullivan rapidly marched his troops through Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, never once trying to hide his ultimate objective — to absolutely demolish the Indian threat. He reached Tioga, now the town of Athens, Pennsylvania, at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers on August 11th and began building Fort Sullivan. He left a small garrison inside to prevent its capture and began the final advance into Iroquois territory.
Two days after leaving Fort Sullivan, the army had its first taste of combat at the Battle of New Chemung. Sullivan heard reports of an Indian village to his front and dispatched a squad of soldiers to investigate. The soldiers reported back that Tory militiamen and Delaware warriors were inside the village. Deciding to attack immediately, Sullivan ordered one brigade to cut off the northern escape route while the other three brigades moved in from the west, south and east. The army arrived to find the camp abandoned, but sounds alerted them the enemy was not far away. One group charged forward into the face of enemy fire. Six soldiers were killed and nine more wounded. The rest of the command promptly spread out and maneuvered into a position to outflank the enemy. Firing from their new position, they inflicted serious losses and forced their opponents to withdraw. Sullivan congratulated his men on the victory, and then he ordered them back to the village to destroy it. It would only be the first encampment to suffer Sullivan’s wrath. As the smoke billowed behind them, he ordered the advance to continue north. He wanted to make sure the Iroquois knew there was nothing they could do to stop him. He outnumbered them nearly four to one. Still, his adversaries were determined to resist as best they could.
The Indians saw the only way to stop the advance was to engage the Americans in battle. The first tactic was utilizing ambushes, with small bodies of warriors hiding in the underbrush and sniping at soldiers on the edges of the column. Sullivan and his troops cautiously pushed forward. Meanwhile the main force of Indians and Tories built fortifications along Baldwin’s Creek, not far from the village of Newtown, site of present-day Elmira, New York. The plan called for an attack on Sullivan’s front, flank and rear in hopes of forcing the army to abandon their supply wagons. The battle began on the afternoon of August 29, 1779 when the two sides sighted each other. Musket shots rang out, and the Indians withdrew. Sensing a trap, the army inched along until they came within sight of the fortifications. Riflemen laid down a covering fire while other units formed up behind them. At the same time, three artillery pieces were positioned on a high knoll and began shelling the fortifications. Sullivan then ordered two brigades to attack the Indians’ left flank and rear. The brigades charged up the ridge with bayonets, only to be met with a volley of musketry. The soldiers were momentarily stunned but quickly regrouped and charged forward again, this time shattering the center of the line. In fear of being cut off, Iroquois and Delaware warriors fell back, leaving their Tory allies to hold off the Americans as long as they could before they too withdrew. The battle was a stunning victory for Sullivan and his army and virtually ended the military threat to the campaign.
Although there would be one more skirmish outside present-day Groveland, New York where the enemy enjoyed a small victory, the Battle of Newtown effectively destroyed the will of the Iroquois to deter Sullivan’s advance. The army marched straight into the heart of Iroquois country around Seneca Lake and then west to the Genesee River. Along the way, Sullivan and his men burned forty towns and destroyed 160,000 acres of corn and fruit trees. What was not destroyed was distributed among the troops to supplement their dwindling rations. By the time Sullivan arrived at the Genesee River and decided to turn back, he had spectacularly achieved his mandate from Washington. He had marched 255 miles into enemy territory and left it desolate. With no other option, the Indians sought the sanctuary of British-held Fort Niagara. Filled with pride, Sullivan marched back down the scorched valley to Tioga and on to Easton. With his arrival on October 15th, the Iroquois campaign of 1779 was over.
The Indian campaign was John Sullivan’s last military command. The long months of fighting had worn him down, and he was soon forced to resign from the army. In the ensuing years, he served as a delegate in the Continental Congress, as New Hampshire’s attorney general, twice as governor, head of the state’s ratification convention for the Constitution, and New Hampshire’s U.S. district judge under President Washington. Throughout the remainder of his life and in each of these roles he kept watch over events on the frontier. He had the satisfaction of knowing his campaign had weakened the Iroquois’ strength sufficiently to force the British abandonment of their lands to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris. He then watched other American commanders continue to utilize his tactics in their military operations against the Indians. These operations met with their ultimate success when General “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. John Sullivan died in January 1795, content that America’s western frontier was finally secured.
Contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution was not confined to one geographic location. Continental soldiers had to face their opponents on battlefields far removed from the eastern seaboard. Those battlefields extended to the widespread backwoods of Pennsylvania and New York. British and American commanders alike sometimes regarded the frontier as a sideshow, but in reality it was of utmost strategic importance, particularly in light of future expansion. Had the British not been pushed out of the western region, the United States may have been confined to a narrow strip of land on the east coast. In a display of martial ability, General John Sullivan overpowered his enemies, marched with impunity from one end of Iroquois territory to the other, and laid waste to the enemy’s home country in one of the first examples of total war. It was the same concept of warfare practiced by Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman against the South in the Civil War and against the Central Plains Indians a few years after that. While not a pretty thought, it is the reality of war and the fastest way to end the slaughter. John Sullivan, American patriot and Indian fighter, was perhaps the first to fully understand and utilize the concept.