Brigadier John Sullivan

This son of Irish indentured slaves, one of the first generals named by Congress, became the governor of New Hampshire.

Condensed excerpts from James Francis Smith’s Irish in the Revolutionary War

Sullivan became involved early on:
It was illegal for the colonies to cut down white pine trees marked with a broad arrow by the king’s surveyors. Inability to harvest their native lumber angered New Hampshire’s citizens more than either the Stamp Act or the tax on tea. All paid except Ebenezer Mudgett. Who was arrested. Sullivan and the others returned in disguise, attacked the sheriff and deputy, hitting them—one blow for every tree Mudgett was accused of taking. Their horses’ ears were cut off, and their tails shaved before Sheriff Whiting and his assistant Quigley were run out of town. Sullivan and his chums began to envision themselves as heroes, calling their brief encounter The Pine Tree Riot, and had a red flag made with a white field encasing the symbol of a pine tree in the upper left corner to symbolize their effort.
From this humble beginning, Sullivan was made a colonel in New Hampshire’s militia and a delegate to the Continental Congress.
Before Lexington and Concord, the first armed battle of the insurrection.
Sullivan’s stay in Philadelphia was rudely interrupted. Paul Revere alerted the militia that the British intended to dismantle Fort William and Mary and take its weapons. As colonel of the militia, Sullivan, whose military experience was nonexistent, joined 400 men from Portsmouth, Rye, and New Castle to save the 98-barrels of gunpowder. The following night, Sullivan and a small party retrieved some military supplies and 16 small cannon. A brief struggle ensued, but tension calmed down with the arrival of the sloop Canceaus and the Scarborough, a 40-gun frigate. The English Navy arrived too late to prevent the munitions from being scurried away.
With only this brief engagement under his belt Sullivan was named the 7th brigadier general by Congress.
Author’s note: I took some liberty here by having Sullivan
travel to Boston with Washington. Washington’s questions
enabled me to insert matchless information into the tale.
This didn’t detract Washington from his purpose of having Sullivan along. “Tell me about the New England militia. What can I expect?”
A little taken back by the question, Sullivan pondered how to phrase his reply. “The militias are composed of the most independent men who exist on this earth. They elect their own officers and get rid of those who don’t find their measure. They’ll fight like all get-out if they perceive an insult or a danger. On the other hand, they approach fighting like farmers. When the sowing is finished … they leave. That’s what happening now. Their blood was up, patriotism and all that, when they finally took stock of the British. Now that there’s little fighting, they want to go home, plant their crops, and are leaving by the fistful.”
That was all Washington asked before going into a thoughtful mood and staying silent for hours, following which, he asked what Sullivan had heard about Ticonderoga. With his own private thoughts disrupted, Sullivan took a few moments before replying. “I know only the gossip that made its way around Philadelphia. Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys snuck up on the defenders and caught them in their sleep. The enemy commander was captured in his night clothes. Allen didn’t bother to clear his plans with the New York leaders, so their noses are out of joint. There’s been bad blood over the territory called Vermont; both New York and New Hampshire claim it. Allen even has a price on his head, placed by the New Yorkers.”
“Tell me about Benedict Arnold.”
Sullivan delayed while framing an answer. “I’ve never met the man, but heard he’s young, about his mid-thirties, wealthy, intelligent, and ambitious. I’ve been told he arrived at Hand’s Cove, about two miles from the fort at Ticonderoga and immediately appointed himself in charge, which, of course, didn’t sit well with Ethan Allen.”
“What have we gained by capturing Ticonderoga?”
This time Sullivan was prepared. “The fort itself is dilapidated, but there’s artillery … and plenty of it. If we could get it transported to Boston, we could use it to force the English to surrender. Maybe even end the war.”
“Once the British situation in Boston is secure, Congress wants me to invade Canada. What’s your opinion on that?”
Sullivan almost asked, Why me? Instead, the son of indentured servants from Ireland allowed his prejudice to show. “You may know that I’m a Catholic. And many, if not most citizens of Canada, are also Catholic. They see how we papists are treated in Protestant America. Therefore, it seems to me, they’re more likely to support the English than any invading army from here. In my view, an invasion’s not worth the gamble.”
The questions turned to Boston. “What are the British options?”
Sullivan answered immediately. “They have two. Either attack us in force and occupy Dorchester Heights, or leave Boston and occupy New York’s island. The weather’s better there and agriculture is plentiful.”
Washington’s only response was another nod. Scrambling to find a way out of being the respondent to the General’s incessant whims, Sullivan asked if Washington would share his experiences in the French and Indian War. Which to his surprise, the General seemed delighted to accommodate.
“When the French encroached on Virginia’s territory in the Ohio Valley, I was sent to ask them to relinquish their claim and was given authority to treaty with the Indians. Neither of my instructions proved to be successful. The French wouldn’t leave, and the Indians wouldn’t treaty. Furthermore, I received a French threat. They would seize any Englishman caught trading on the Ohio or its branches and send them to Canada.”
“I made my biggest blunder and learned a valuable lesson, when in my brashness, without waiting for reinforcements from North Carolina and Maryland, I led my regiment to erect a fort at the conflux of the Allegheny and Monongahela. We were defeated at Laurel Hills and forced to lay down our arms.”
Then Washington’s self-reflection, or perhaps self-confession, continued. “I experienced firsthand bush-fighting by Indians, who scatter when they fight, and fire only when protected by trees. Since this wasn’t the manner of fighting on the continent, few of rank paid me any mind.
Framingham, Massachusetts
Sully couldn’t believe it when young Henry Knox, a former bookseller, arrived in Framingham, 20-miles from Boston, with 58-cannons. Guns he had retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga. That night, Knox told of how the mortars were lugged from the southern end of Lake Champlain and down a partially frozen Lake George to Albany, some 300-miles from Boston. Steaming hot coffee, with a shot of brandy to warm the kindles of the heart, was liberally served throughout Knox’s discourse.
Boston
To distract the Brits by staging a possible invasion of Boston, Washington had ordered the city to be bombarded two nights prior to the taking of Dorchester Heights. In addition, troops under General Sullivan were assembled at Cambridge to act as a decoy and force Howe to maintain a force in Boston. If, on the off chance, Howe attacked Dorchester heights, Sullivan was to invade Boston.
Long Island
After observing the terrain, Nathaniel Greene agreed with Sullivan that the defense of Long Island would be key to defending New York. He stationed the sharp-shooting Pennsylvania Line, composed mostly of Scot-Irish, on the river bluffs near Brookland.
While Washington waited on York Island, Sullivan defended the left flank’s Flatbush Road Pass with 1,000 and the Bedford Road Pass with his remaining 800. He wished he had 10,000, but did with what he had been assigned. To warn of any activity, he stationed five mounted scouts at the lesser-known and lightly-regarded Jamaica Pass, which was the furthest east and was not expected to feature in the upcoming battle.
Along with Washington’s entire army, on July 9th, Sullivan proudly saluted as the General read “The Declaration of Independence.”
With the rebels attention on Grant, Von Heister and his 5,000-Hessians, after constant shelling, were to attack Sullivan in the center. Next came the killing stroke, directed personally by Howe. Clinton, with Cornwallis trailing, was to march nine miles, swing the 10,000 around the rebels’ left flank, then move along Gowanus Ridge and attack Sullivan from the rear, cutting any colonial regiments to pieces as they went.
Three hundred of Sullivan’s men were killed and 1,600 captured. Sullivan managed to evacuate the remainder as rapidly as he could toward the safety of Brookland Heights. While making certain the last of his men made the trek, he himself was captured.
Knowing he wasn’t a favorite of Congressman Adams, and not caring, the POW Sullivan was delighted to be exchanged and rejoin Washington.
Standing at his commander-in-chief’s side, looking across the Hudson from Fort Lee’s palisades, a despondent Sullivan could only watch. Some badly needed 3,000-regulars, bound for prison ships in the New York Harbor, were marched from Fort Washington.
Washington had only 6,000 fit. He had, however, Greene, Stirling, Sullivan, Knox, and Glover, field commanders as good as any.
The Battle of Trenton
The crossing from McConville’s Ferry, which was scheduled to take two hours, instead took four before the entire contingent, including horses and cannons, made it to the Jersey side. Sullivan got his men safely ashore and immediately headed south on River Road, while Greene went north before turning.
Germantown, Pennsylvania
Sullivan smiled with glee after learning of Washington’s audacity when the general outlined his plan for an attack on the British encamped in Germantown, situated 25-miles northwest of Philadelphia. Sullivan and Wayne, flanked by Irish-born Thomas Conway, were to enter Germantown by way of Chestnut Hill.
Presuming the others had kept to his schedule, Washington ordered Sullivan to begin the attack.
As the morning fog dissipated, reinforcements under Cornwallis arrived to drive Sullivan off, forcing Greene to disengage. As he withdrew, Sullivan realized that if the hundreds of Continentals—occupied for three hours trying to rout Musgrave from Cliveden House—had held true to their original orders, Washington would have succeeded before Cornwallis’s men arrived.
Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island
A despondent Sullivan considered the recent happening. His untamed joy erupted when in July a French warship was spotted off New York. Sullivan sent out a call for Rhode Island and the surrounding states to send their militia. They arrived by the thousands. Speed was of the essence, for units of the British Navy sailed under Lord Howe, and Sullivan’s militia wouldn’t be staying long. d’Estaing had begun landing his 4,000 troops on Conanicut Island. All seemed to be in order.
It was August 24th, the day after Sullivan released a series of angry letters to his fellow officers condemning the failure of French Admiral Count Charles Henry d’Estaing to put ashore the 4,000-soldiers he had promised. Furthermore, d’Estaing’s refusal to delay his fleet’s departure for merely one or two days to bombard the British-held Newport further infuriated him.
Sullivan stared through the opening of his tent at the militia departing to return home to Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He no longer could defend Aquidneck Island and had to move what remained of his army to Tiverton and Bristol.
The destruction of Indian habitats

On orders from Congress, Indian villages became Sullivan’s target. To accomplish this journey, his engineers constructed what is now route 611.
When Sullivan got his first look at a now-deserted Indian village, he was shocked and sickened. Instead of rawhide tents, these supposed savages lived in wooden buildings with glass pane windows. Their land was cultivated and their orchards flourished. It took over a month to cut the trees in the apple and pear orchards, during which, some 40-villages were destroyed, their farms and granaries leveled, graves and altars desecrated, and with inhabitants hunted and killed like wild animals. While Sullivan’s men conducted their dastardly deeds, the Indians retaliated by invading the provincial towns and settlements; as a result the destruction was mutual.
The sick feeling Sullivan received on day one of this endeavor not only remained, but intensified. Upon his return, he learned that it was Congress, and not General Washington, who had ordered the destruction of the Indian habitats. His report included his resignation. He returned to Connecticut to sit out the remainder of the country’s struggle for independence.

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