Sullivan, John

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Sullivan, John

SULLIVAN, JOHN. (1740–1795). Continental general. New Hampshire. Born of parents who had arrived about 1723 as redemptioners from Ireland, he became an "able, if somewhat litigious, lawyer" practicing in Durham, New Hampshire. In 1772 he was a major in his local New Hampshire militia unit and in September 1774 was seated in the Continental Congress. Home in December, he and John Langdon led a group of volunteers that captured Fort William and Mary at the entrance to Portsmouth harbor. He took his seat in the Second Continental Congress on 10 May 1775 and was appointed a Continental brigadier general on 22 June. During the Boston siege he commanded a brigade at Winter Hill, except for a period in October 1775 when he organized the defenses of Portsmouth. After the British evacuation of Boston he led a column of reinforcements to join the Canada invasion. Reaching St. Johns on 1 June 1776, he assumed command of the army when General John Thomas died the next day. Without adequate intelligence of enemy strength or position, Sullivan allowed Brigadier General William Thompson to join the force of Arthur St. Clair to attack a British force at Trois Riviéres. Thompson lost the element of surprise and, with most of his force, was taken prisoner. After the defeat at Trois Rivières on 8 June, Sullivan ordered the retreat up Lake Champlain.


His army was at Crown Point when Gates superseded him in command. Sullivan left the theater of operations with threats of resignation and took his grievance to Congress. He was prevailed on to remain in service, reached New York City on 21 July, and was appointed major general on 9 August 1776. On 20 August he succeeded Greene as commander on Long Island, but four days later Washington put Israel Putnam in top command. Captured in the Battle of Long Island on 27 August, Sullivan went to Philadelphia with a message for Congress from British General William Howe that led to the fruitless peace conference of 11 September 1776. He was exchanged for General Richard Prescott about 25 September and was back at Washington's headquarters on the 27th. Given command of a division, he took part in the remaining phase of the New Yorkcampaign.


At the start of the New Jersey campaign, Sullivan's division was on the Hudson as part of General Charles Lee's command. He succeeded Lee when the latter was captured and joined Washington west of the Delaware on 20 December with the remaining two thousand of the five thousand troops with which Lee had started. At Trenton he led the right column and rendered valuable service in the American victory. He commanded the main body in the advance on Princeton but contributed nothing significant to that success.

While the army was in winter quarters around Morristown during the first part of 1777, Sullivan commanded forces on outpost duty and was in the exposed position at Princeton when the British undertook the mystifying "June maneuvers" that started the Philadelphia campaign. He led an unsuccessful operation against Staten Island on 22 August and then hurried south in time to fight at Brandywine on 11 September. Meanwhile, he had made enemies in Congress by joining Greene and Knox in threatening to resign over the Tronson de Coudray affair, an action that politicians considered an attempt by generals to "dictate" to civil authority. In September 1777 a proposal was advanced in Congress to suspend him from command while an inquiry was made into his failure at Staten Island, and delegate Thomas Burke of North Carolina charged him with misconduct at Brandywine. Washington refused to relieve Sullivan, whom he regarded as one of his more valuable commanders, and Sullivan led a column at Germantown on 4 October. Meanwhile, he was cleared of charges in connection with the Staten Island expedition.


He spent the winter at Valley Forge. Sullivan may have been to some degree involved in the Conway Cabal. Freeman has said that Sullivan's "love of popularity had led him to seek the good will of parties to the controversy" (Freeman, vol. 4, p. 608). Early in 1778 he was named to succeed General Joseph Spencer as commander in Rhode Island, "not because of any special fitness for the post," according to Freeman, "but because the New Hampshire General happened to be more readily available than any other officer of appropriate rank" (ibid., vol. 4, p. 613). He turned out to be singularly unqualified for what Freeman has called the "puzzling experiment in cooperation," the Franco-American operation against Newport on 29 July-31 August 1778.

Perhaps in testimony to his previously good record, not to mention his political connections in New England, Sullivan's military career survived the Newport affair. In March 1779 he left Providence and led a force of 2,300 from its gathering place of Easton, PA, on 31 July 1779 on a punitive expedition against the Six Nations. Following the Susquehanna River to Wyoming, then to Tioga, they reached Chemung on 11 August joining an army under General James Clinton on 22 August. Sullivan's expedition fought its largest battle at Newtown where most of the enemy retreated successfully to the west. The army continued its march, destroying villages and crops in its wake, going northwest to Genesee Castle before returning to Easton on about 12 October. Indian raids continued much as they had prior to the expedition leading historians, like the Continental Congress, to question the value of the expedition. His health impaired by this experience in the out-of-doors, he resigned from the army on 30 November 1779. The canny Irishman did not leave his last command without, however, securing a semipolitical endorsement of his Iroquois expedition from his officers.


Sullivan promptly secured reelection to Congress. He was chairman of the committee appointed on 3 January 1781 to represent Congress in settling the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line. During this term in Congress his brother Daniel, who was fatally ill from his mistreatment on a British prison hulk, brought him a peace feeler from the enemy. Sullivan refused to have anything to do with the communication but referred it to La Luzerne, the French minister to the United States. Since Sullivan had borrowed money from the minister, post mortem charges were made that the general had been paid for this service. This accusation, however, has been completely discredited.

In 1782 Sullivan was a member of his state's constitutional convention, was elected attorney general, and was also elected as a member of the New Hampshire assembly; he was elected speaker of the assembly in the spring of 1785. In spring elections in 1786 he was elected President of the State and handled the paper money riots of that year firmly but coolly. Elected governor of New Hampshire in 1786, 1787, and 1789, he actively supported adoption of the federal Constitution. The last years of Sullivan's life were spent as a federal judge. He died on 23 January 1795. Sullivan's brother, James (1744–1808), was one of the most prominent lawyers in Massachusetts and a political figure of great power and wealth.

SEE ALSO Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Canada Invasion; Conway Cabal; Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Long Island, New York, Battle of; Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line; New Jersey Campaign; Newport, Rhode Island (29 July-31 August 1778); Peace Conference on Staten Island; Philadelphia Campaign; Princeton, New Jersey; Staten Island, New York; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Trenton, New Jersey; Tronson du Coudray, Philippe Charles Jean Baptiste.


Amory, Thomas C. The Military Services and Public Life of Major-General John Sullivan of the American Revolutionary Army. 1968. Reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968.

Daniell, Jere R. Experiment in Republicanism: New Hampshire Politics and the American Revolution, 1741–1794. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

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

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1951–1952.

Sullivan, John. Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army. 3 vols. Edited by Otis G. Hammond. Concord: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1930–1939.

Upton, Richard Francis. Revolutionary New Hampshire. 1936. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1971.

――――――. "John Langdon and John Sullivan: A Biographical Essay." In New Hampshire: The State That Made Us a Nation. Edited by William M. Gardner, Frank C. Mevers, and Richard F. Upton. Portsmouth: New Hampshire Bicentennial Commission on the United States Constitution and the New Hampshire Humanities Council, 1989.

Whittemore, Charles P. A General of the Revolution: John Sullivan of New Hampshire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983.

                                revised by Frank C. Mevers

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