Newtown, New York

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Newtown, New York

NEWTOWN, NEW YORK. 29 August 1779. In a move known as Sullivan's Expedition, Major General John Sullivan left Tioga on 26 August with 4,000 troops and advanced slowly up the left (east) bank of the Chemung River. Major John Butler, a Loyalist who had been watching Sullivan's buildup from Genesee, moved to join his son Walter fourteen miles from Tioga. Together they then pushed on with 250 Loyalists and 15 men of the British Eighth Foot and reinforced the 800 Indians and Loyalists under Joseph Brant near the destroyed village of Chemung. Against John Butler's judgment—the Indians insisted on making a stand—these forces prepared an elaborate ambush near Newtown, about six miles southeast of modern Elmira. A camouflaged log breastwork along a ridge parallel to the river had its left side anchored by a steep hill and right protected by a defile. The plan was not particularly original: throw Sullivan's column into confusion by surprise fire from the flank and then charge both ends. Brant and Captain John McDonnell (a Loyalist who had been with Brant at Cherry Valley) commanded the Indians and some Loyalists on the right, which was the least vulnerable sector. The left, under Walter Butler, and the center, under John Butler, contained mostly Loyalists and the sprinkling of regulars.

About 11 a.m. the advance guard of Sullivan's column approached the location. Alert members from the Rifle Corps spotted the trap. This warning let Sullivan halt the column and organize an attack. Major James Parr with his three companies of riflemen were attached to Enoch Poor's Brigade, and Poor was directed to envelop the enemy left. James Clinton's Division was to follow in support. The light howitzers and field pieces were to provide enfilade fire support.

In a well-managed maneuver through difficult terrain and against sporadic musket fire, Poor led his column onto the steep hill the Butlers had expected to protect their flank. The New Englanders charged with the bayonet, and the artillery opened up about the same time. According to John Butler, "the shells bursting beyond us made the Indians imagine the enemy had got their artillery around us and so startled and confused them that great part of them ran off."

Brant held a larger Indian force together, however, and put up a stiff fight against the much larger number of Continental veterans. Colonel John Reid's Second New Hampshire Regiment, on the right of Poor's Brigade, was hit on three sides by a savage counterattack but got prompt support from the Third New Hampshire Regiment and two of Clinton's New York regiments. Meanwhile, the brigades of Hand and Maxwell worked their way along the river and got on the enemy's right flank. The defenders, now at risk of annihilation, managed to break contact and retreat safely to Nanticoke, five miles away. Some of Sullivan's troops pursued less than half that distance.


The American losses were only 3 killed and 33 wounded. Sullivan reported to Congress that the total loss on the campaign only amounted to 40. Butler admitted the loss of 5 killed or captured and 3 wounded, and while these are probably well under the true numbers, they could not have been too great.


Newtown is an example of the flexibility of the tactical system implemented by Washington and Steuben since the majority of the infantrymen engaged here were not from the frontier. The enemy certainly had made blunders (that is, electing to fight at Newtown and failing to withdraw as soon as it became apparent that the ambuscade had failed) and Sullivan did hold a four-to-one superiority, but critics have charged that Sullivan failed because he did not pursue aggressively. This charge is faulty—he correctly chose to remain focused on the primary objectives of the campaign and followed Washington's instructions to avoid needless risk.

SEE ALSO Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois.


Fischer, Joseph R. A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign against the Iroquois, July-September 1779. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations. Edited by Frederick Cook. 1887. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

                          revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.