United States - Scott #657 (1929)

The Battle of Newtown in General Sullivan’s Scorched Earth Campaign

United States - Scott #657 (1929)
United States – Scott #657 (1929)

Growing up, I wasn’t particularly interested in the American Revolutionary War. I spent most of my youth living in Texas, Tennessee or Kansas and so the U.S. Civil War (usually from the Confederate perspective) was predominant in my studies of history. At this late stage, it is difficult to recall which aspects of the 1775-1783 conflict I learned first at school or from stamps. During this period of my life, the USPS was in the middle of its Bicentennial stamp issuance program.

It wasn’t until relatively recently that I had more than a passing interest in the earlier portion of American history and it took a reminder from my younger sister for me to really delve into details of the Revolution. I’d forgotten that we have a familial connection to the Revolution. While there are a few names on my mother’s family tree mentioned as participants, there is one direct ancestor whose story has led me to unexpected findings. Our ancestor was a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Battalion of Lancaster County militia during the war and later became the mayor of Alexandria, Virginia.  Philippus Balthasar Marsteller was with George Washington at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1777-1778, leading to a friendship that lasted until Washington’s death in 1799. In fact, Philip Marsteller was the only non-Mason pall-bearer at the Commander in Chief’s funeral.

It was this connection that led me to extensively read about all aspects of the Revolution. While I knew from school about the battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill (although the fact that is was a British victory seems to have escaped me), of key players such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington and events such as the Boston Tea Party and the surrender of Cornwallis (more from stamps than from teachers), it was only in the last month that I read about the American defeats at Long Island (through Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Eliis) and on the Penobscot River (via a novel by Bernard Cornwell). Thankfully, the battle featured today was won by the rebels.

Map of the Newtown battlefield
Map of the Newtown battlefield

The Battle of Newtown on August 29, 1779, was a major battle of the Sullivan Expedition, an armed offensive led by General John Sullivan that was ordered by the Continental Congress to end the threat of the Iroquois who had sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War. John Butler and Joseph Brant did not want to make a stand at Newtown, but proposed instead to harass the enemy on the march, but they were overruled by Sayenqueraghta and other Indian chiefs.

The 1779 Sullivan Expedition, also known as the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, was an extended systematic military campaign during the against Loyalists (“Tories”) and the four Nations of the Haudenosaunee which had sided with the British.

The campaign ordered and organized by George Washington and his staff was conducted chiefly in the lands of the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Longhouse Confederacy) “taking the war home to the enemy to break their morale”, and the expedition was largely successful in that goal as they destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages and stores of winter crops, breaking the power of the six nations in New York all the way to the Great Lakes, as the terrified Indian families relocated to Canada seeking protection of the British. Today this area is the heartland of New York State, and with the military power of the Iroquois vanquished, the events also opened up the vast Ohio Country, the Great Lakes regions, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky to post-war settlements.

The previous Battle of Chemung (August 13, 1779) was the only other major battle of the Sullivan Expedition where the Continental force lost six dead and nine wounded.

The view from the summit of Sullivan Hill -- site of the Battle of Newtown -- looking into Hoffman Hollow. Photo taken on September 7, 2008.
The view from the summit of Sullivan Hill — site of the Battle of Newtown — looking into Hoffman Hollow. Photo taken on September 7, 2008.

The engagement on August 29, 1779, occurred along a tall hill, now called Sullivan Hill and part of the Newtown Battlefield State Park. The hillside, running southeast to northwest next to the Chemung River, was a mile long at its crest, which rose 600 feet (180 m) above the road at its base leading into Newtown. The slope of the hill was covered with pine and dense growth of shrub oak. Hoffman Hollow, a marshy area of small hillocks and thick stands of trees, was just to the east of the hill. A small watercourse, called Baldwin Creek, ran through the hollow and emptied into the Chemung River (referred to as the Cayuga branch in Sullivan’s reports). The creek followed the hill northwest on the opposite side from the river and had steep western banks.

The British and Indian forces had placed themselves in horseshoe-shaped camouflaged earthworks about 150 feet up the southeast spur of the hill, within musket range of the road. The hill was used by the British as both an observation point and a barrier to the approach of the Continentals against the Cayuga towns of Nanticoke and Kanawaholla, situated on the site of the present-day Elmira, New York.

On August 26, 1779, Sullivan left Fort Sullivan, where the two columns of his army had converged, with an estimated five thousand well armed and now freshly provisioned troops. They marched slowly up the Cayuga branch of the Susquehanna to destroy the towns and crops of the Six Nations in western New York. On Sunday, August 29, just ten miles upriver from Fort Sullivan, the advance guard, three companies of riflemen formerly with the Provisional Rifle Corps of Colonel Daniel Morgan, reached the area at mid-morning. Suspecting an ambush, they halted and scouted the area. Between eleven and eleven-thirty they discovered the hidden breastworks and immediately notified Brigadier General Edward Hand. He dispatched his light infantry to take up firing positions behind the bank of Baldwin Creek and fire into the breastworks, prompting the defenders to make several unsuccessful attempts at luring the Continentals into an ambush. As the extended army continued to arrive and assemble, Sullivan called a council of war with his brigade commanders, which began at three in the afternoon. Together they devised a plan of attack.

Major General John Sullivan, a distinguished officer in the Continental Army. Printmakers include Asher B. Durand, Henry Bryan Hall, Albert Rosenthal and Max Rosenthal. Draughtsmen include David McNeely Stauffer (NYPL NYPG94-F149-419970)
Major General John Sullivan, a distinguished officer in the Continental Army. Printmakers include Asher B. Durand, Henry Bryan Hall, Albert Rosenthal and Max Rosenthal. Draughtsmen include David McNeely Stauffer (NYPL NYPG94-F149-419970)

The 1st New Jersey Regiment, commanded by Colonel Matthias Ogden, was detached from Brigadier General William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade and sent west along the Chemung River to execute a flanking maneuver on the Loyalist-Indian forces. Similarly, the New York Brigade of Brigadier General James Clinton and the New Hampshire Brigade of Brigadier General Enoch Poor were dispatched together eastward, along a circuitous route through Hoffman Hollow, with the mission of approaching the hill’s eastern flank and then facing left in preparation for a full ahead assault upon the enemy. Meanwhile, the unified forces of Sullivan’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey brigades remained behind at the ready, bolstered by a provisional regiment composed of all the light infantry companies in the expedition. At the end of the first hour, the artillery of ten guns posted on a rise near the road, would open fire on the breastworks and the areas between them. These guns would signal General Hand to feint an attack with that provisional regiment upon the center of the horseshoe, at which time the brigades to the east would swing inward, assault the summit of the hill and turn their attack to the left and rear of the breastworks. When the guns of Poor’s and Clinton’s attack were heard by Hand, his brigade would storm the works, supported by Maxwell’s brigade, putting the defenders in a crossfire.

The plan was complex and conceived on short notice but executed with vigor. The ultimate result was a resounding defeat for both the British Loyalists and the Iroquois at their side. Crossing the swampy marsh (which Sullivan termed a “morass”) in Hoffman Hollow slowed the advance of Poor’s and Clinton’s brigades, disrupting the timing of the plan, and this provided just enough delay to allow the joint Loyalist-Iroquois forces to escape encirclement.

Nearly all of the Continentals’ casualties occurred in the attack of Lieutenant Colonel George Reid’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment. Assigned to the extreme left of Poor’s assault formation, it climbed where the slope was steepest and lagged considerably behind the rest of the brigade. Joseph Brant led a counterattack of Indians and nearly encircled Reid. The next regiment in line, the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment of 28-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn, about-faced, fired two volleys and attacked down the hill. Clinton, whose brigade was climbing the hill below and slightly to the right of Poor, sent his 3rd and 5th New York Regiments to help, and the counterattack was crushed.

Map showing the route of Sullivan's army in the vicinity of the Battle of Newtown, August 29, 1779.
Map showing the route of Sullivan’s army in the vicinity of the Battle of Newtown, August 29, 1779.

After razing three more towns and destroying all foodstuffs in the vicinity, Sullivan’s army marched north during the next three weeks against demoralized opposition and successfully completed their campaign.

Historian Allan W. Eckert wrote:

The Battle of Newtown had certainly not been a bloody battle compared to others, but it was most certainly a significant one. This was the battle that broke the back of the Iroquois League…and the hearts of the people of the Six Nations.

Today, the Newtown Battlefield National Historic Landmark encompasses nearly 2,100 acres (8.5 km²) in the towns of Ashland, Chemung and Elmira in the southern tier of New York State. In 1973, the landmark was established by the federal government, recognizing its significant history.

In a drive to incorporate the Newtown Battlefield site into the National Park System, Congressional resolution H.R. 6866 was introduced in 2008. The resolution directed Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to conduct a special resource study to evaluate the significance of the Newtown Battlefield and the suitability and feasibility of its inclusion in the National Parks System. It has been put forth for consideration.

The site of the battle is today the Wellsburg exit of Interstate 86 and New York State Route 17. Several roadside signs in the vicinity of the interchange mark various troop locations. A tall monument now stands in a state park on a hillside near the position taken by Clinton and Poor’s brigades. This hillside area, which overlooks the interchange, is now managed as the 372-acre (1.51 km²) Newtown Battlefield State Park.

Newtown Battlefield Monument photographed on September 7, 2008.
Newtown Battlefield Monument photographed on September 7, 2008.

Because the present day battlefield is quite heavily wooded and obscured to the casual passerby on the highway below, a narrow column of white granite known as the Newton Battlefield Monument sits atop the hill where this historic battle once took place in Elmira, in Chemung County. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. On January 19, 2010, New York State Governor David Paterson proposed closing the park to reduce the state’s growing budget deficit. However, the park was allowed to remain open after budget adjustments were made throughout the state’s park system.

John Sullivan was born on February 17, 1740, in Somersworth in the Province of New Hampshire, Sullivan was the third son of Irish settlers from the Beara Peninsula in County Cork. One of his brothers, James Sullivan, became Governor of Massachusetts. while another, Benjamin, served in the Royal Navy but died before the American Revolution. On February 14, 1781, a landing party from HMS Allegiance kidnapped another brother, Captain David Sullivan, who later died from disease.

The family emigrated to York, Maine, in 1723, where John married Lydia Remick Worster of Kittery, now in Maine. John and Lydia Sullivan had six children, Margery, who died in infancy, Lydia, John, James, George and another Margery, who lived only two years. Sullivan read law with Samuel Livermore of Portsmouth, New Hampshire between 1758 and 1760 and began the practice of law in 1763 at Berwick, now in Maine, continuing in the practice when he moved to Durham, New Hampshire in 1764. He annoyed many neighbors in his early career, when he was the only lawyer in town, with numerous suits over foreclosures and was threatened with violence at least twice in 1766. But by 1772, he was firmly established and began work to improve his relations with the community. He also expanded his interests into milling from which he made a substantial income.

Sullivan built a friendship with the royal governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth, who had assumed the office in 1767. In November 1772, Wentworth appointed Sullivan a major in the militia. As the American Revolution grew nearer, Sullivan turned away from Wentworth and began to side more with the radicals. On May 28, 1773, at the urging of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the New Hampshire Assembly established a Committee of Correspondence. Hoping to thwart the committee, Wentworth adjourned the Assembly the next day.

On December 16, 1773, colonists in Massachusetts destroyed tea worth 15,000 pounds at the Boston Tea Party to protest taxes under the Tea Act. The British Parliament responded with the Boston Port Act, effective March 21, 1774, which closed the Port of Boston until restitution for the destroyed tea was made to the East India Company. Parliament went on to pass the Massachusetts Government Act, which removed many functions of government from local control, the Quartering Act, which permitted quartering of troops in towns where there was disorder, and the Quebec Act, which established the Catholic religion and French civil law in that province.

Wentworth called a new Assembly, which began meeting on April 7, 1774. On May 13, news of the Boston Port Act reached the Assembly. On May 27, the Assembly provided for only five men and an officer to guard Fort William and Mary at Portsmouth harbor. A new committee of correspondence was selected the next day. By the time Wentworth dissolved the Assembly on June 8, 1774, in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the Assembly from sending delegates to a continental congress, Sullivan was firmly in favor of supporting the Massachusetts radicals.

In response to Wentworth’s action dismissing the Assembly and the call for a continental congress to support Boston after the British sanctions against it, on July 21, 1774, the first Provincial Congress of New Hampshire met at Exeter, New Hampshire, with John Sullivan as Durham’s delegate. That assembly sent him and Nathaniel Folsom as delegates to the First Continental Congress. The assembly adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances on October 14, 1774. By November 8, Sullivan and Folsom were back in New Hampshire to work for acceptance of the Declaration and the Association of the colonies to support economic measures to achieve their objectives.

Specific detail of a plaque erected by the state of New York in 1929 commemorating The Sullivan Expedition. Detail shows General John Sullivan and General James Clinton. Photo taken on January 3, 2009.
Specific detail of a plaque erected by the state of New York in 1929 commemorating The Sullivan Expedition. Detail shows General John Sullivan and General James Clinton. Photo taken on January 3, 2009.

On October 19, 1774, a royal order in council prohibited the export of powder and arms to America and Lord Dartmouth secretly wrote to the colonial governors to secure gunpowder, arms and ammunition in the provinces. After Paul Revere was sent by the Massachusetts committee to warn the Portsmouth militia of a rumored British movement toward Fort William and Mary, that militia raided the fort and seized gunpowder on December 14, 1774. Sullivan, who was not present on this first raid, was one of the leaders of the militia force who made the second raid on the fort for its cannon, muskets and munitions on December 15. Sullivan and his men took 16 cannons, about 60 muskets and other stores but were prevented from returning for other cannon and supplies by the arrival of the man-of-war Canceaux, followed two days later by the frigate Scarborough. Wentworth refrained from seeking to arrest Sullivan and others because he thought he had little popular support and the militia would not act.

In January 1775, a second Provincial Congress at Exeter voted to send Sullivan and John Langdon to the Second Continental Congress. Sullivan, supported by Folsom and Langdon, persuaded the assembly to petition Wentworth to call a New Hampshire Assembly that he would not dissolve. Wentworth responded by dismissing Sullivan from the militia and further postponing the meeting of the assembly. Since Wentworth believed he had little power to arrest Sullivan and other leaders of the extra–legal assembly, Sullivan and Langdon started traveling to Philadelphia. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Sullivan joined those who argued that war had been started by the actions at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and that the colonies should proceed with it.

Congress soon decided that they must take charge of the army forming around Boston. They appointed George Washington as commander in chief and several other generals, including John Sullivan as a brigadier general. On June 27, 1775, Sullivan left Philadelphia to join the army at the siege of Boston.

After the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1776, Washington sent Brigadier General Sullivan north to replace the fallen John Thomas as commander in Quebec. He took command of the sick and faltering invasion force, sent some of those forces on an unsuccessful counterattack against the British at Trois-Rivières, and withdrew the survivors to Crown Point. This led to the first of several controversies between Congress and General Sullivan, as they sought a scapegoat for the failed invasion of Canada. He was exonerated and promoted to major general on August 9, 1776.

Sullivan rejoined Washington and was placed in command of the troops on Long Island to defend against British General Howe’s forces about to envelop New York City. But then, on August 23, Washington split the command between Sullivan and General Israel Putnam, with Putnam being the senior general. Confusion about the distribution of command contributed to the American defeat at the Battle of Long Island four days later. Sullivan’s personal bravery was unquestioned, as he engaged the Hessian attackers with a pistol in each hand; however, he was captured.

General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, managed to convince Sullivan that a conference with members of the Continental Congress might lead to peace, and released him on parole to deliver a message to the Congress in Philadelphia, proposing an informal meeting to discuss ending the armed conflict between Britain and its rebellious colonies. After Sullivan’s speech to Congress, John Adams cynically commented on this diplomatic attempt, calling Sullivan a “decoy-duck” and accusing the British of sending Sullivan “to seduce us into a renunciation of our independence”; others noted that it appeared to be an attempt to blame Congress for prolonging the war. Congress did agree to a conference, which accomplished nothing.

General Sullivan was released in a prisoner exchange (for captured British officer Richard Prescott) in time to rejoin Washington before the Battle of Trenton. There his division secured the important bridge over the Assunpink Creek to the south of the town. This prevented escape and ensured the high number of Hessian prisoners captured. In January 1777, Sullivan also performed well in the Battle of Princeton.

In August, he spoke out against the neutrality of Quakers in the American Revolution, and led a raid on Staten Island. Again Congress found fault, but he was exonerated by the court of inquiry. This was followed by American losses at Brandywine and Germantown. During the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, he and his troops were bivouacked at Brinton’s Ford adjacent to Brinton’s Mill. Sullivan’s men were attacked and sent into retreat by a surprise flanking attack at Brandywine but were eventually able to leave the field in good order when they were reinforced by troops under the command of General Nathanael Greene. In the initial attack at Germantown, Sullivan’s men routed British light infantry. Fog, a friendly fire incident, and delayed troop movements due to wrong turns, ruined Washington’s plan and sent both Sullivan’s troops back under unexpected friendly fire and Greene’s men back due to the absence of some subordinate commands.

A French military map prepared for the Marquis de Lafayette showing American troop positions on August 30, 1778, after the Battle of Rhode Island.
A French military map prepared for the Marquis de Lafayette showing American troop positions on August 30, 1778, after the Battle of Rhode Island.

In early 1778 Sullivan was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led Continental troops and militia. It was intended he work together with a French Navy fleet to assault or besiege British-held Newport which was regarded as extremely vulnerable since France’s entry into the war. The attempt was called off when the French fleet of Admiral d’Estaing was scattered and damaged by a storm. Owing to the damage to his ships, and discouraged by the arrival of a British fleet under Lord Howe, D’Estaing withdrew to Boston. The British garrison of Newport then sortied, forcing Sullivan into retreat after fighting the inconclusive Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.

The failure to defeat what appeared to be a very vulnerable garrison, and the manner in which the campaign collapsed, provoked a major rift in Franco-American relations. Sullivan wrote a letter to D’Estaing protesting what he saw as treachery and cowardice and describing it as “derogatory to the honor of France”. The failed campaign sparked an international incident between the two allies, and was followed a year later by another unsuccessful attack on a British garrison at the Siege of Savannah. The debacle did not badly affect Sullivan’s career, and he was considered as a potential commander for a possible invasion of Canada.

Map of the Five Nations, 1730. Part of the Darlington Map Collection housed in the Archives Service Center, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
Map of the Five Nations, 1730. Part of the Darlington Map Collection housed in the Archives Service Center, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

When the American Revolutionary War began, British officials as well as the colonial Continental Congress sought the allegiance (or at least the neutrality) of the influential Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations divided over what course to pursue. Most Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas chose to ally themselves with the British. But the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, thanks in part to the influence of Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland, joined the American revolutionaries. For the Iroquois, the American Revolution became a civil war.

The Iroquois homeland lay on the frontier between the Province of Quebec and the provinces of New York and Pennsylvania. After a British army surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga in upstate New York in 1777, Loyalists and their Iroquois allies raided American Patriot settlements in the region, as well as the villages of American-allied Iroquois. Working out of Fort Niagara, men such as Loyalist commander Colonel John Butler, Sayenqueraghta, Mohawk military leader Joseph Brant, and Seneca chief Cornplanter led the British-Indian raids. Commander-in-chief General George Washington never allocated more than minimal Continental Army troops for the defense of the frontier and he told the frontier settlements to use local militia for their own defense.

On June 10, 1778, the Board of War of the Continental Congress concluded that a major Indian war was in the offing. Since a defensive war would prove to be inadequate the board called for a major expedition of 3,000 men against Fort Detroit and a similar thrust into Seneca country to punish the Iroquois. Congress designated Major General Horatio Gates to lead the campaign and appropriated funds for the campaign. In spite of these plans, the expedition did not occur until the following year.

On July 3, 1778, Loyalist commander Colonel Butler led his Rangers accompanied by a force of Senecas and Cayugas (led by Sayenqueraghta) in an attack on Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley (a rebel granary and settlement along the Susquehanna River near Wilkes-Barre), practically annihilating 360 armed Patriot defenders lured out of their defenses at Forty Fort.

In September 1778, revenge for the Wyoming defeat was taken by American Colonel Thomas Hartley who, with 200 soldiers, burned nine to twelve Seneca, Delaware and Mingo villages along the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania, including Tioga and Chemung. At the same time, Butler’s Rangers attacked German Flatts in the Mohawk Valley, destroying all the houses and fields in the area. Further American retaliation was soon taken by Continental Army units under William Butler (no relation to John Butler) and John Cantine, burning the substantial Indian villages at Unadilla and Onaquaga on the Susquehanna River.

Map of the Sullivan campaign
Map of the Sullivan campaign

On November 11, 1778, Loyalist Captain Walter Butler (the son of John Butler) led two companies of Butler’s Rangers along with about 320 Iroquois led by Cornplanter, including 30 Mohawks led by Joseph Brant, on an assault at Cherry Valley in New York. While the fort was surrounded, Indians began to massacre civilians in the village, killing and scalping 16 soldiers and 32 civilians, mostly women and children, and taking 80 captive, half of whom were never returned. In vain, Brant, who was blamed for the attack, actually tried to stop the rampage. The town was plundered and destroyed.

The Cherry Valley Massacre convinced the American colonists that they needed to take action. In April 1779, American Colonel Van Schaick led an expedition of over 500 soldiers against the Onondaga, destroying several villages. When the British began to concentrate their military efforts on the southern colonies in 1779, Washington used the opportunity to launch a larger planned offensive towards Fort Niagara. His initial impulse was to assign the expedition to Major General Charles Lee, but he, Major General Philip Schuyler, and Major General Israel Putnam were all disregarded for various reasons. Washington first offered command of the expedition to Horatio Gates, the “Hero of Saratoga,” but Gates turned down the offer, ostensibly for health reasons. Major General John Sullivan, fifth on the seniority list, was offered command on March 6, 1779, and accepted. Washington’s orders to Sullivan made it clear that he wanted the Iroquois threat completely eliminated:

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters (Wallace House, New Jersey) May 31, 1779

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. 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 prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

Engraving depicting American Revolutionary War general James Clinton. First published in Mary L. Booth's History of New York (1st ed. 1861, 2nd ed. 1880).
Engraving depicting American Revolutionary War general James Clinton. First published in Mary L. Booth’s History of New York (1st ed. 1861, 2nd ed. 1880).

Washington instructed General Sullivan and three brigades to march from Easton, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania and to follow the river upstream to Tioga, now known as Athens, Pennsylvania. He ordered General James Clinton to assemble a fourth brigade at Schenectady, New York, move westward up the Mohawk River Valley to Canajoharie, and cross overland to Otsego Lake as a staging point. When Sullivan so ordered, Clinton’s New York Brigade was to march down the Susquehanna to meet Sullivan at Tioga, destroying all Indian villages on his route. Sullivan’s army was to have totaled 15 regiments and 5,000 men, but his Pennsylvania brigade entered the campaign more than 750 men short, and promised enlistments never materialized. In addition, the third regiment of the brigade, the German Battalion, had shrunk by casualties, sickness, and desertion (the three-year term of enlistment of its soldiers had expired on June 27) to only 100 men, and was parceled out in 25-man companies as flank protection for the expedition. Armand’s Legion was recalled by Washington to the Main Army before the campaign began. Because of these and other shortages, Sullivan’s army, including two companies of local militia totaling only 70 men, never exceeded 4,000 troops.

The main army left Easton on June 18, marching 58 miles to an encampment on the Bullock farm in the Wyoming Valley, which it reached on June 23. There they awaited provisions and supplies that had not been sent forward, remaining in the Wyoming Valley until July 31. The army marched slowly, paced by both the mountainous terrain and the flatboats carrying the army’s supplies up the Susquehanna, and arrived at Tioga on August 11. They began construction of a temporary fort at the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers they called Fort Sullivan.

Sullivan sent one of his guides, Lieutenant John Jenkins, who had been captured while surveying the area in November 1777, with a scouting party to reconnoiter Chemung. He reported that the village was active and unaware of his presence. Sullivan marched the greater part of the army all night over two high defiles and attacked out of a thick fog just after dawn only to find the town deserted. Brigadier General Edward Hand reported a small force fleeing towards Newtown and received permission to pursue. Despite flankers, he had gone only a mile when his advance guard was ambushed with six dead and nine wounded. The entire brigade assaulted but the ambushers escaped with minimal if any casualties. Sullivan’s men spent the day burning the town and destroyed all of its grain and vegetable crops. During the afternoon the 1st New Hampshire Regiment of Poor’s brigade was fired on, either from ambush or possibly by fire from other troops, inflicting another soldier killed and five wounded. Ambushes also occurred on August 15 and August 17, with combined casualties of two killed and two wounded. On August 23, the accidental discharge of a rifle in camp resulted in one captain killed and one man wounded.

Monument at the site of General Clinton's dam at the source of the Susquehanna River on Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. Photo taken by R.A. Nonenmacher on May 29, 2006.
Monument at the site of General Clinton’s dam at the source of the Susquehanna River on Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. Photo taken by R.A. Nonenmacher on May 29, 2006.
Plaque on the monument for General Clinton's dam at the source of the Susquehanna River in Cooperstown, New York. Photo taken by R.A. Nonenmacher on May 29, 2006.
Plaque on the monument for General Clinton’s dam at the source of the Susquehanna River in Cooperstown, New York. Photo taken by R.A. Nonenmacher on May 29, 2006.

After two-weeks’ portage of supplies, Clinton’s brigade set up camp on June 30 at the south end of Otsego Lake (now Cooperstown, New York), where he waited for orders that did not arrive until August 6. The next day he began his destructive march of 154 miles (248 km) to Tioga along the upper Susquehanna, taking all of his supplies with him in 250 bateaux. The actions at Chemung made Sullivan suspicious that the Iroquois might be trying to defeat in detail his split forces, and the next day he sent 1,084 picked men under Brigadier General Enoch Poor north to locate Clinton and escort him to Fort Sullivan. The entire army assembled on August 22.

On August 26, the combined army of approximately 3,200 men and 250 pack horse teamsters left Fort Sullivan, garrisoned by 300 troops taken from across the army and left behind under Colonel Israel Shreve of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment. Marching slowly north into the Six Nations territory in central western New York, the campaign had only one major battle, the Battle of Newtown, fought on August 29. It was a complete victory for the Continental Army. Later a 25-man detachment of the Continental Army was ambushed, and all but five captured and killed at the Boyd and Parker ambush. On September 1, Captain John Combs died of an illness.

Sullivan’s forces reached their deepest penetration at the Seneca town of Chenussio (also called Little Beard’s town, Beardstown, Chinefee, Genesee, and Geneseo), near the present Cuylerville, New York, on September 15, inflicting total destruction on the Iroquois villages before returning to Fort Sullivan at the end of the month. Three days later the army abandoned the fort to return to Morristown, New Jersey, and go into winter quarters. By Sullivan’s account, forty Iroquois villages were destroyed, including Catherine’s Town, Goiogouen, Chonodote, and Kanadaseaga, along with all the crops and orchards of the Iroquois.

Appointed the British governor of Quebec in 1778, Frederick Haldimand, while kept informed of Sullivan’s invasion by Butler and Fort Niagara, did not supply sufficient troops for his Iroquois allies’ defense. Late in September, he dispatched a force of about 600 Loyalists and Iroquois, but by then the expedition had successfully ended.

Commemorative plaque erected by the state of New York in 1929 of The Sullivan Expedition depicting the routes of the armies of General John Sullivan and General James Clinton. The plaque stands in Lodi, New York just of Rt. 414. Photo taken by Brian Adler on January 3, 2009.
Commemorative plaque erected by the state of New York in 1929 of The Sullivan Expedition depicting the routes of the armies of General John Sullivan and General James Clinton. The plaque stands in Lodi, New York just of Rt. 414. Photo taken by Brian Adler on January 3, 2009.

Further west, a concurrent expedition was undertaken by Colonel Daniel Brodhead. Brodhead left Fort Pitt on August 14, 1779, with a contingent of 600 men, regulars of his 8th Pennsylvania Regiment and militia, marching up the Allegheny River into the Seneca and Munsee country of northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York. Since most native warriors were away to confront Sullivan’s army, Brodhead met little resistance and destroyed about 10 villages, including Conewango. Although initial plans called for Brodhead to eventually link up with Sullivan at Chenussio for an attack against Fort Niagara, Brodhead turned back after destroying villages near modern-day Salamanca, New York, never linking up with the main force. Washington’s letters indicate that the cross-country trek east to the Finger Lakes region was considered too dangerous, limiting this smaller expedition to a raid north.

The final operation of the campaign occurred September 27. Sullivan sent a portion of Clinton’s brigade directly back to winter quarters by way of Fort Stanwix, under Colonel Peter Gansevoort of the 3rd New York Regiment. Two days after leaving Stanwix, near their origination point of Schenectady, the detachment stopped at Teantontalago, the “Lower Mohawk Castle” (also known as Thienderego, Tionondorage and Tiononderoga) and carried out orders to arrest every male Mohawk. Gansevoort wrote “It is remarked that the Indians live much better than most of the Mohawk River farmers, their houses [being] very well furnished with all [the] necessary household utensils, great plenty of grain, several horses, cows, and wagons”. The male population was incarcerated at Albany until 1780 and then released.

 Correspondence from Major General John Sullivan to Shreve on September 25, 1779. Sent from Headquarters in Connawolowhalley.
Correspondence from Major General John Sullivan to Shreve on September 25, 1779. Sent from Headquarters in Connawolowhalley.

The action dispossessed the Mohawks of their homes. Local white settlers, homeless after Iroquois raids, asked Gansevoort to turn the homes over to them. Both actions were criticized by Philip Schuyler, then a New York representative to the Continental Congress, because all the Mohawks of Lower Mohawk castle had rejected fighting with the British, and many supported the Patriot cause. Ironically, Schuyler had been Washington’s personal preference for command of the expedition, but his relief of command of the Continental Army’s Northern Department had led to private service with the army until he could resign his commission, which he did in April 1779.

While the campaign had only one major battle, at Newtown, the expedition severely damaged the Iroquois nations’ economies by burning their crops, villages, and chattels, thus ruining the Iroquois technological infrastructure. With the Amerindians’ shelter gone and food supplies destroyed, thereafter the strength of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken. The death toll from exposure and starvation dwarfed the casualties received in the Battle of Newtown, in which about 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists were decisively defeated by an army of 3,200 Continental soldiers.

Descriptive map of the Sullivan Expedition, 1779
Descriptive map of the Sullivan Expedition, 1779

Sullivan’s army carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout the Finger Lakes region of western New York, to put an end to Iroquois and Loyalist attacks against American settlements as had occurred the previous year of 1778, such as the Cobleskill, Wyoming Valley and Cherry Valley massacres. The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees who fled the region to shelter under British military protection outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death, despite strenuous attempts by the British authorities to import food and provide shelter via their limited resources.

The Sullivan Expedition devastated the Iroquois crops and towns and left them dependent upon the mercy of the British for the harsh winter of 1779. With the Iroquois population decimated by disease and battle, the Indian morale never fully recovered, and the Iroquois thereafter mostly limited their incursions into the new United States to isolated hunting parties, the main populations having permanently migrated north of the border.

Sullivan pushed his troops so hard that their horses became unusable, and killed them on this campaign, creating the namesake for Horseheads, New York. The lukewarm response of the Congress was more than he could accept. Broken, tired and again opposed by Congress, he retired from the army in 1780 and returned to New Hampshire. Around this time, Sullivan was approached by British agents who tried to persuade him to switch sides. This was part of a concerted effort of approaches to other Generals such as Moses Hazen, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold who it was believed were unhappy with their treatment by Congress and had lost their faith in the goal of American independence. It was a strategy with mixed results — but which produced the notable defection of Arnold.

Iroquois warriors and Loyalists continued to periodically raid the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys during 1780 and 1781, causing widespread devastation of property and crops, and killing more than 200 settlers. The destruction of Minden on August 2, 1780, was the most destructive raid of property in the course of the four-year civil war. The last significant raid devastated a 20-mile swath of the lower Mohawk Valley in October 1781, but was defeated at the Battle of Johnstown on October 25, 1781. Walter Butler was killed in battle on October 30 at West Canada Creek during the Tory retreat.

Historical marker at Kirkwood, New York. Photo taken on August 11, 2016.
Historical marker at Kirkwood, New York. Photo taken on August 11, 2016.

At home, Sullivan was a hero. The New Hampshire legislature selected him as a delegate to the Continental Congress for one year to start in November 1780, against his wishes. Although most of the delegates to Congress were new, Sullivan still had opponents there. Nonetheless, he accepted the position in order that New Hampshire be represented in the controversy concerning claims to Vermont under the New Hampshire Grants. In the absence of other delegates from New Hampshire except the soon to depart Nathaniel Folsom, Sullivan was seated early, on September 11, 1780. Immediately, Sullivan and Folsom had to deal with the question of whether Vermont would be part of New York or New Hampshire or would be independent. Ultimately, since possible negotiation of Vermont with the British to become a part of Canada was threatened, on August 3, 1781, Sullivan seconded appointment of a committee to negotiate with Vermont on becoming a separate state.

Congress also had to deal with a financial crisis since the treasury was empty and the Confederation’s credit was poor. Sullivan served on a committee to deal with this problem.

In late 1780 or early 1781, Sullivan, who often claimed to be in financial straits, borrowed money from the French minister to Congress, probably with no intent or expectation of repayment. Sullivan already supported positions favorable to the French in Congress, but historian Charles Whittemore described Sullivan’s conduct as “ethically obtuse” and as tarnishing his reputation. Yet, Sullivan worked to help the country and government on several matters such as seeking French financial support for the United States. Later in the year, Sullivan worked to get people appointed as peace negotiators, especially Benjamin Franklin, who were favored by the French because they might not insist on western land claims and thereby help shorten the war by eliminating that issue. Of course, Sullivan alone could not have attained results on such matters without majority support. One of Sullivan’s last acts was to vote for Robert Livingston for appointment to the position of United States Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Having been seated early, and having dealt with the matters he believed he was required to deal with, Sullivan resigned from the Congress and departed from Philadelphia on August 11, 1781, a month before the expiration of a one-year term from the date he was seated.

Returning home to New Hampshire, he was named the state’s attorney general in 1782 and served until 1786. During this same time he was elected to the state assembly, and served as speaker of the house. He led the drive in New Hampshire that led to ratification of the United States Constitution on June 21, 1788. He was elected President of New Hampshire (now Governor) in 1786, 1787 and 1789. During his first term as governor, he put down the Exeter Rebellion.

When the new federal government was created, President George Washington nominated him on September 24, 1789, to be the first federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire, created by 1 Stat. 73. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and received his commission the same day. Although his health prevented his sitting on the bench after 1792, he held the post until he died on January 23, 1795, aged 54, at his home in Durham. He was interred in the family cemetery there.

He was first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire and had been a member of St. John’s Lodge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire since 1767.

Marker on the Sullivan Trail in southern New York State.
Marker on the Sullivan Trail in southern New York State.

Counties in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Missouri were all named for John Sullivan, as was Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The General Sullivan Bridge spanning Little Bay near his home town of Durham, New Hampshire, is named for him, as is Sullivan Trail, a road through northeast Pennsylvania that in many areas follows the road made by Sullivan’s army in 1779. Towns in Illinois, New Hampshire, and New York are named after him. Sullivan’s Bridge, a future bicycle and pedestrian bridge crossing the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge National Historical Park, is also named in his honor. Part of the march route into Trenton, New Jersey is named Sullivan Way.

Bostonians still celebrate the evacuation of British forces each year on Evacuation Day, which coincides with Saint Patrick’s Day. According to local legend, Sullivan used “Saint Patrick” as the official password the day he led Colonial troops into Boston.

The homelands and infrastructure of Iroquois life had been devastated by the Sullivan Expedition. In the long term, it became clear that the campaign broke the Iroquois Confederacy’s power to maintain their former crops and utilize many town locations; the expedition appeared to have caused little more than famine and dispersion of the Iroquois people. Following the war, much of the Iroquois land was secured by the United States government in the peace Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) agreed to by the six nations of the Iroquois League. This land was later absorbed by treaties with the State of New York.

Much of the native population of these lands would move to Canada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. In the wake of the Treaty of Paris (1783), European-Americans began settling the newly vacant areas in relative safety, eventually isolating the remaining pockets of demoralized Iroquois into villages and towns cut off under land treaties with New York State.

Illustration of General John Sullivan used for the design of the 1929 Sullivan Expedition Sesquicentennial stamp (Scott #657).
Illustration of General John Sullivan used for the design of the 1929 Sullivan Expedition Sesquicentennial stamp (Scott #657).

Scott #657 honors the 150th anniversary of Major General John Sullivan’s expedition against the Iroquois. It is a single 2-cent red stamp issued on June 17, 1929. Earlier, New York State had been successful in lobbying the Post Office Department for stamps commemorating the anniversaries of the Battle of White Plains in 1926 and the Burgoyne Campaign in 1927. In 1928, the Finger Lakes Association made a formal request for a stamp to mark the following year’s sesquicentennial of the Sullivan Expedition. This led to the passing of the following resolution in the New York State Legislature:

WHEREAS, There occurs this year the 15Oth anniversary of the Sullivan Expedition, which was projected by Governor George Clinton and Commander-in-Chief George Washington and authorized by Congress;

WHEREAS, This successful military enterprise was participated in by officers and troops of New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Massachusetts;

WHEREAS, The Sullivan Expedition weakened the Indian alliance with the English, cut off supplies of food, gave protection to frontier settlements, opened the western part of the State for settlement, and helped to win for the American Republic the rich interior of the continent: and

WHEREAS, The Legislature and Governor have made an appropriation for suitable exercises and historic monuments to observe the Sullivan Sesquicentennial;

RESOLVED (if the Assembly concur), That the Honorable Harry S. New, Postmaster General of the United States, be, and he is hereby, requested to cause to be jssued one hundred million postage stamps, of the denomination of two cents each, commemorative of the Sullivan Campaign of 1779 in New York and Pennsylvania.

RESOLVED, That a copy of this resolution be transmitted to the Postmaster General of the United States and to the Senators and Members of Congress from the State of New York, properly authenticated by the Clerks, respectively, of the Senate and Assembly.

RESOLVED, That the States of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Massachusetts, whose officers and troops participated in the Sullivan Expedition, be invited by New York to endorse this request.

United States - Scott #657 (1929) plate block of 6 (top)
United States – Scott #657 (1929) plate block of 6 (top)

In January 1929, New York Representative Archie D. Sanders, then Acting Chairman of the United States House Committee on Post Office and Post Roads, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives directing Postmaster General Harry S. New, to issues a special series of stamps to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Sullivan Expedition. New wasn’t particularly happy that the request had come in the form of a Congressional bill when a simple letter or face-to-face meeting would have accomplished the same result. In fact, it antagonized him against the issuance of just such a commemorative. He refused the request when the New York State Historian, Dr. Alexander C. Flick, approached him soon before his resignation as Postmaster General.

Soon after Walter Folger Brown became Postmaster General on March 5, New York Representatives James M. Mead and Bertrand Snell were asked to become involved in requesting the desired stamp. Upon meeting his first meeting with Mead, Postmaster General Brown, brushing an alleged tear from his eye, told him,

“I have just this moment finished a chat with Bert Snell and he has convinced me that the State of New York will go to the “damnation bow wows” if you don’t get this stamp. Can you get a photograph of General Sullivan?”

A member of Representative Mead’s entourage, Charles A. Hamilton, accompanied by Chairman Sanders, immediately went to the Congressional Library to obtain several images of General Sullivan which were taken to the Post Office Department the following day. After about twenty minutes of waiting, Hamilton was asked to call on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for a designer. Postmaster General Brown suggested an equestrian portrait but the BEP designer pointed out that the small size of the stamp wouldn’t accommodate the horse. A portrait was then decided upon between Brown, Hamilton and the BEP designer.

United States - Scott #657 (1929) first day cover, Waverly postmark, Roessler cachet
United States – Scott #657 (1929) first day cover, Waverly postmark, Roessler cachet

The design by C. Aubrey Huston of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was approved by Assistant Postmaster General Riper the following day. The engraving work was executed by John Eissler, Edward M. Hall and E. Helmuth of the BEP and finished about three or four days after design approval. The first official announcement of the stamp was made on May 29, 1929, by Third Assistant Postmaster General R. S. Regar.

Postmasters and employees of the Postal Service are notified that the department is preparing to issue a special 2-cent postage stamp to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan expedition in New York State during the Revolutionary War. The new stamp is the same size as the regular issue, 75/100 by 87/100 inch, and is printed in red ink.

The central design is a three-fourths length portrait of Major General Sullivan in continental uniform over which in a semicircular panel appear the words UNITED STATES POSTAGE in white Roman letters, on a dark background with white edges. This panel is supported on either side by brackets of scroll work forming the upper part of a narrow panel and ending at the base in dark circles with white borders. Within the circles in each lower corner appears the numeral 2 in white Roman letters. Across the top of the stamp is a ribbon bearing the title SULLIVAN EXPEDITION in dark architectural Roman letters. Below, in similar lettering on either side on extensions of the ribbon panel are the dates 1779 at the left and 1929 at the right. A dark panel with white edges bearing the word CENTS in white Roman letters connects the circles inclosing the denomination numerals. Above this base in a ribbon panel appears the words MAJ. GEN. SULLIVAN in dark Gothic letters. The entire stamp is inclosed in a narrow white border.

United States - Scott #657 (1929) first day cover, Canajoharie Village postmark
United States – Scott #657 (1929) first day cover, Canajoharie Village postmark

The new Sullivan expedition commemorative stamp will first be placed on sale June 17, 1929, at the post offices of Auburn, N.Y., Binghamton, N.Y., Canandaigua, N.Y., Canajoharie, N.Y. Elmira, N.Y., Geneseo, N.Y., Geneva, N.Y., Horseheads, N.Y., Oswego, N.Y., Penn Yan, N.Y., Perry, N.Y., Seneca Falls, N.Y., Waterloo, N.Y., Waverly, N.Y. The stamp will be placed on sale at other post offices and the Philatelic Agency, Post Office Department, Washington, D.C., as soon thereafter as production permits.

The stamps were printed from flat plates in sheets of 400 subjects, cut along horizontal and vertical guide lines into panes of 100 and so distributed to the various post offices. There were eight plate numbers to each of the large sheets, two on each pane, over and beside the fifth stamp from the corner. Uneven wiping caused two distinct shades on the same pane, carmine rose and deep carmine rose. Nine plates were made of which only four were put to press — numbers 19783, 19784, 19785, and 19786. A total quantity of 51,451,880 copies of Scott #657 was issued.

As for my ancestor’s whereabouts in 1779, he wasn’t anywhere near the Sullivan campaign, although a detachment of riflemen from his militia regiment did accompany General Sullivan against the Iroquois in western Pennsylvania. Colonel Marsteller was, by that time, a paymaster and agent who oversaw the purchase of flour by the French that year. As assistant forage master in 1780, Marsteller received a letter of thanks from George Washington. After the war, Marsteller moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he and his son became merchants and auctioneers, becoming mayor of Alexandria in 1791. Philip Marsteller conducted business with George Washington for many years. It was through Marsteller’s assistance in 1786 that Washington acquired the services of the Overdonck family, who were indentured servants from Germany. The only one of Washington’s honorary pallbearers who was not a Mason, Marsteller was joined at Washington’s funeral by his son, Philip Marsteller, Jr., and his grandson, Samuel A. Marsteller. The elder Marsteller died at home in 1804.

Flag of the United States version, 1777-1795
Flag of the United States version, 1777-1795

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