John Sullivan: Neither the Charm Nor the Luck


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General John Sullivan during the Revolutionary War.On January 23, 1795, John Sullivan, Revolutionary War general, two term governor, and the namesake of counties in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as numerous other places and landmarks, died at his Durham, New Hampshire home at the age of 55.

Despite his many accomplishments, only a handful of friends and his family braved the New England winter to bury him.

John Sullivan was born in Somersworth, New Hampshire on February 17, 1740, and his school teacher father soon moved the family across the Salmon Falls River to South Berwick, Maine, where they lived on an 80-acre farm.

Sullivan’s boyhood was not that of a typical Maine farm boy. He learned to read and write, to appreciate classical literature, and to value the pursuit of knowledge. According to Dr. Karl F. Stephens, who in 2009 wrote the most definitive biography of Sullivan’s life, entitled “Major-General John Sullivan: Neither the Charm Nor the Luck,” a teenage Sullivan arranged to “split the wood, take care of the house, and attend to the gardening at the home of a busy Portsmouth, New Hampshire lawyer, Samuel Livermore, in exchange for a chance to read a little law under his instruction. Given the opportunity, Sullivan proved to be an intelligent and ambitious student-worker.”

Sullivan was victorious in his first court appearance, a civil case he won with great aplomb despite not yet having reached his twentieth birthday. In 1760, he established his own law practice, and enjoyed considerable success as the only attorney in Berwick, eventually moving his office to Durham, New Hampshire, where he became close friends with the Royal Governor, John Wentworth. Despite that relationship, he found himself siding more and more with the New England’s radical elements as the Revolutionary War approached.

He represented New Hampshire at both the first and second Continental Congress and when Congress decided to take charge of the army forming around Boston following the engagements at Lexington and Concord, appointing George Washington as Commander–in-Chief, Sullivan was one of several commissioned as Brigadier Generals. In July of 1775, he joined the Continental Army in the siege of Boston and escorted Washington into the city following the British withdrawal.

Washington sent him to Quebec where he and a ragtag army failed in an attempt to invade Canada, and then to Long Island, where he was not only unsuccessful in battle, but was captured by the British, later to be released in a prisoner exchange. In between those commands he was promoted to Major-General, and following his release from British custody he joined Washington for the battles at Trenton and then Princeton, performing well in both.

He was with Washington at Valley Forge during the storied winter of 1778, and at least one historical account – interestingly not by Stephens, his most admiring biographer — credits Sullivan with helping save the army from starvation by taking advantage of an early shad run that March, ordering his men into the Schuylkill on horseback and thrashing about the water, driving huge numbers of shad into crudely constructed nets to be feasted on by the haggard army.

A command in Rhode Island followed, but the lack of success — through no fault of his own – in a joint effort with the French to take Newport led to a straining of relations between the two allies. Following a series of deadly raids by Tories and Iroquois on the frontier settlements of New York, including at least two in the Upper Delaware region, Washington reluctantly decided to move against the perpetrators, and he chose Sullivan to lead the effort.

The raids were disrupting the Continental Army’s critical food supply chain, as well as endangering civilian lives, and Washington knew this had to stop. He was further aware that much of the British food supply came from the fields of the three Iroquois tribes who had allied with them, the Seneca, Mohawk and Cayuga. His orders to Sullivan were clear and direct.

“The expedition you are appointed to command is directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents,” Washington wrote to Sullivan. “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and preventing their planting more… [The Indian country] is not merely to be overrun, but destroyed.”

Sullivan led some 3,000 men on his mission, at times driving their horses so relentlessly that they became useless and had to be killed, one mass slaughter giving rise to the name of the community of Horseheads, NY. The scorched earth campaign was mostly successful, but Congress was not impressed, and for not the first time during the War, they called on Sullivan to account for his actions. He resigned his commission instead.

He returned to New Hampshire, but not before the British approached him and several other American Generals — Moses Hazen, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold among them — about switching sides. Only Arnold agreed.

John Sullivan was twice elected Governor of New Hampshire and also served as the state’s Attorney General. Washington appointed him a federal judge. Most viewed him as a hero, and counties in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Missouri are named for him, as is Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village and at least two bridges and a roadway. Still, his legacy is clouded, and some have gone so far as to call him a war criminal.

At the risk of being accused of hagiography, Stephens is not one of these, labeling Sullivan “the American Revolution’s most controversial — and interesting — General,” and concluding in no uncertain terms that Sullivan was “a better man than most.”

Photo: General John Sullivan during the Revolutionary War.

One thought on “John Sullivan: Neither the Charm Nor the Luck

  1. Steve Adams

    I assume the “war criminal” charge relates to the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779. Learning about the campaign in isolation I at first kinda thought so, too. But after learning more about what life was like on the New York frontier during the war (OK, I read Drums along the Mohawk) I thought otherwise. It was a desperate time, with calamities and cruelty enough to go around.

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