Sullivan's Expedition Against the Iroquois

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Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois

SULLIVAN'S EXPEDITION AGAINST THE IROQUOIS. The Sullivan expedition, or the Sullivan-Clinton expedition, is the name given to the Continental army's invasion of the Iroquois homeland, conducted between May and November 1779. George Washington designed the campaign to punish the British-allied Iroquois nations for a series of frontier raids the year before (including the Wyoming Valley massacre) and to force the Iroquois out of the war. Major General John Sullivan commanded the main body of the troops, which entered Iroquoia via the Susquehanna Valley, while a smaller column of troops under Brigadier General James Clinton entered Iroquoia through the Mohawk Valley. After defeating the only organized resistance it faced at Newtown, the Sullivan expedition proceeded to destroy Iroquois towns and cornfields. The expedition devastated the Iroquois League and, because of the tactics used, remains controversial into the twenty-first century.


In the summer of 1778, British irregulars under John Butler and British-allied Iroquois warriors launched a series of raids against Patriot communities on the Pennsylvania and New York frontiers, including the Wyoming Valley massacre (June 1778) and the Cherry Valley massacre (November 1778). Accounts of the massacres circulated widely on the American side, and public pressure on the Continental army to respond to these attacks was high. In the winter of 1778–1779, Washington began to plan a campaign to take Fort Niagara. Its strategic significance was multifold: it controlled a major choke point between British Canada and the United States and it also served as a main distribution point for British trade goods and arms to their Iroquois allies. Washington soon realized that taking Niagara would probably be beyond the realm of possibility for the operation he was planning. Because of the constraints of manpower and supply, he planned a more modest expedition that would attack the British-allied Iroquois directly. Attacking Niagara was retained as a secondary objective.

Washington initially offered the command of the Iroquoia invasion to Major General Horatio Gates, who turned it down on account of his age. Washington's offer then went to New Hampshire's Major General John Sullivan in March 1779. Washington made the ultimate objectives of Sullivan's operations clear in a letter of 31 May 1779. Sullivan was to attack "the hostile tribes of the Six Nations" and insure "the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible." Washington also explained to Sullivan that it was "essential to ruin their crops now in the ground" and to prevent them from "planting more." Washington suggested that Sullivan enter Iroquoia through the Susquehanna Valley, establish a fort at Tioga (at the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers), and then proceed into the lands of the Seneca following the Chemung River. Washington also ordered Brigadier General James Clinton to the town of Canajoharie, in the Mohawk Valley, to support Sullivan's operations. Initial planning envisioned Clinton entering Iroquoia from the east, but he moved his troops through Otsego Lake into the Susquehanna Valley and rendezvoused with Sullivan at Tioga. A five-hundred-man force under Colonel Gose Van Shaick did use the eastern route, however. Van Shaick left Fort Stanwix in April 1779 and attacked and destroyed the town of Onondaga. Finally, Washington ordered the commander at Fort Pitt, Colonel Daniel Brodhead, to lead a small body of troops up the Allegheny River to harass Iroquois communities on the northern stretches of the river. Although Washington doubted that Brodhead could rendezvous with Sullivan and Clinton, he kept that option open.


Sullivan's troops began assembling at Easton, Pennsylvania, in early May; Sullivan arrived there on 7 May. His troops did not begin to move until 18 June and did not leave the Wyoming Valley until 31 July. Sullivan reached Tioga on 10 August 1779 and immediately began the construction of Fort Sullivan. A small party under Captain John Cummings traveled up the Chemung River and reconnoitered the Iroquois village of Chemung on 11 August. A somewhat larger detachment under General Edward Hand attacked and destroyed the village the next day. (The village had been evacuated by the Iroquois and the British before Hand's arrival.) Clinton began his preparations in June, completing his portage from the Mohawk Valley to Lake Otsego on 17 June. Clinton departed Otsego on 9 August, made contact with General Enoch Poor (whom Sullivan had ordered up the Susquehanna to find Clinton) on 19 August, and arrived at Tioga on 22 August.

Combined at Tioga, Sullivan's and Clinton's forces numbered about six thousand combatants and support personnel. Combat troops number about four thousand. The troops were composed of fifteen regiments of infantry and one regiment of artillery. The sixteen regiments were organized into four brigades under the command of Clinton, Hand, Poor, and General William Maxwell. The expedition included a small cavalry division of about seventy-five horses, commanded by Colonel Thomas Proctor. The expedition also employed a small number of Oneida, Tuscarora, and Stockbridge Mochian Indians as guides and scouts. The expedition's numbers were further augmented by noncombat support personnel, estimated to be two thousand in number. These included the "women of the army" (often called camp followers), whose numbers included nurses, cooks, and washerwomen. The expedition also employed boat crews, engineers, chaplains, surveyors, pioneers, and teamsters. The expedition carried its boats and other equipment with it. All of this served to slow its pace.


John Butler, the British commander at Fort Niagara, was aware of all aspects of the expedition: Van Schaick's April raid; the movement of Brodhead up the Allegheny; and the advance of Sullivan's columns to Tioga. Lacking a regular army of any size in his department, Butler could do little to halt Sullivan's advance. Butler consulted with Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and planned to gather a force of British rangers, Loyalists, and British-allied Iroquois warriors to harass Sullivan's column as it moved up the Chemung River. Butler was astonished by the size of Sullivan's expeditionary force, and he feared that Fort Niagara was Sullivan's ultimate target. Butler and Brant planned to make their first attempt to slow Sullivan at Newtown (modern Elmira, New York).


The size of Sullivan's force dictated slow and deliberate movement. His full force left Tioga on 26 August, traveled up the Chemung River and camped at the ruins of Chemung on 28 August, and finally approached the village of Newtown on the morning of 29 August. Newtown was located at a bend in the Chemung River below a substantial hill; the ground was suitable for an ambush. Butler's Iroquois were stationed in an ambuscade on a small hill outside Newtown. The Iroquois attempted to lure Sullivan's men into an ambush, but the first parties to encounter them—Major James Parr's riflemen and infantry under General Hand—did not give chase. Sullivan then ordered Colonel Thomas Proctor's artillery regiment forward. Proctor's artillery devastated the Iroquois position, precipitating the retreat of Butler's forces from the battlefield and from Newtown itself. Their withdrawal was so precipitous that the brigades of Poor and Clinton, attempting a flanking maneuver, did not have time to get into position before the British-Iroquois retreat. Sullivan had won what would be the one pitched battle of the entire invasion of Iroquoia. Newtown was burned to the ground after the battle was over.


For the remainder of their campaign, Sullivan's troops would not meet the kind of organized, sustained resistance they encountered at Newtown. In keeping with Iroquois traditions of war making, in which pitched battles were to be avoided and casualties minimized, the British-allied Iroquois opted to remove from their towns with the plan to return after the Americans had passed through. The move kept casualties to a minimum but gave Sullivan free reign to destroy towns and cornfields. Fearing that Sullivan's ultimate objective was Niagara, Butler attempted to organized additional ambuscades to slow Sullivan. However, the extended nature of Sullivan's supply lines and the consequent slowness of his march always gave the Iroquois time to retreat further.

Sullivan's troops destroyed the Seneca settlement called Catherine's Town, south of Seneca Lake, on 1 September. By 7 September, Sullivan's forces had reached the northern end of Seneca Lake, where they occupied and destroyed the village of Candasaga, or Seneca Castle. Sullivan's troops then moved westward to attack the Seneca town of Genesee Castle, also known as Little Beard's Town. On the night of 12-13 September, a party under Lieutenant Thomas Boyd, sent to reconnoiter the area near Genesee Castle, was ambushed by the Senecas. Most of the party, which numbered twenty-three men, were killed; only Boyd and a private were captured alive, and they were killed the next day. The destruction of Boyd's party caused the highest number of losses suffered by Sullivan during any one engagement of the expedition. On 14 September, Sullivan entered Genesee Castle without opposition and burned it to the ground the following day.

Sullivan then turned his expedition back east. Between his departure from Genesee Castle and his arrival back at Tioga on 30 September, Sullivan sent several detachments of his forces through Iroquoia to commit further acts of destruction. William Butler was dispatched to destroy the towns of the Cayuga along Cayuga Lake. Colonel Peter Gansevoort was sent eastward into the Mohawk country to destroy the Lower Mohawk Castle on his way to Albany. Smaller detachments were dispatched to destroy villages throughout the Finger Lakes region. The total devastation was enormous. Numbers vary from account to account, but at least 40 Iroquois villages were burned to the ground and at least 160,000 bushels of Iroquois corn were destroyed. Sullivan's troops destroyed the fort at Tioga on 3 October and arrived in the Wyoming Valley on 8 October.


Although casualties suffered by both sides during the Sullivan expedition itself were fairly light, a severe impact on the Iroquois was felt soon after. The winter of 1779–1780 was exceptionally cold and harsh, and with most of their food stores destroyed, the British-allied Iroquois found subsistence a difficult prospect. Many did not survive the winter. Most Iroquois reconstituted their villages around Fort Niagara. The destruction of their home villages prompted many Iroquois to leave New York altogether and resettle inside Canada. Governor Haldimand endorsed this migration when he granted Mohawk leader Joseph Brant rights to a large reserve along Ontario's Grand River in 1784.

Although Sullivan succeeded in bringing devastation to Iroquoia, this destruction did not achieve the goal of knocking the Iroquois out of the war. Ironically, since the British-allied Iroquois removed to the area near Niagara after the expedition, the effect was to push them into closer alliance with the British. By late 1780, Iroquois were fighting alongside British troops in the western theater once more. Modern military historians have seen the Sullivan expedition as a failure, since it did not accomplish its strategic objectives. Modern American Indian historians have been even less generous, lamenting the destruction of Iroquois culture and civilization the Sullivan Expedition exacerbated. Although the Six Nations survived the Revolutionary War, they never regained the preeminent political and diplomatic position they had held for over a century before the American Revolution. Finally, the Sullivan expedition, and the orders of George Washington that set it into motion, remain a source of controversy and anger for many modern members of the Iroquois nations. For most Americans, George Washington is remembered as the "father of the country," but for most Iroquois, he is known as the "town destroyer" because of the actions wrought by the Sullivan expedition.

SEE ALSO Butler, John; Clinton, James; Newtown, New York; Sullivan, John.


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

Spiegelman, Robert, et al. "The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, 1779–2005." Website, CD-ROM, and book.

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

                           revised by Leonard J. Sadosky

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Sullivan's Expedition Against the Iroquois

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