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John Sullivan

leader of a camapign against the Iroquois in New York that ended their alliance with the British

John Sullivan

John Sullivan was born in Somersworth, New Hampshire, on February 17, 1740. After reading law, he moved to Durham, New Hampshire, in 1764 and became that town's first lawyer. A very ambitious man, he soon began buying land and working to build a fortune. His desire for wealth earned him a number of enemies, however, as he was quick to foreclose on debts owed him and to sue neighbors. In June of 1766, 133 of his fellow townsmen petitioned the General Court for relief from Sullivan, but Sullivan was able to talk the Court into dismissing the petition; he then sued the petitioners for libel, but lost that action. Despite his reputation, Sullivan still managed to win 35 actions between 1764 and 1772, and to gradually improve relations with his neighbors.

In the late-1760's, Sullivan was a supporter of Great Britain and became a favorite of Royal Governor John Wentworth, who commissioned him a Major in the New Hampshire Militia. Sullivan's support of Britain began to wane by the early 1770's, however, and he soon became one of the voices for revolution. On July 21, 1774, Durham sent him as its delegate to the First Provincial Congress of New Hampshire, which subsequently sent him as one of its delegates to the First Continental Congress. In Congress, Sullivan generally aligned himself with the radicals from Massachusetts.

After the First Continental Congress ended its session, Sullivan returned to Durham.On December 15, 1774, he and John Langdon, led a force of New Hampshire Militia against Fort William and Mary at New Castle, near Portsmouth, and carried away 100 barrels of gunpowder, 15 cannon, and a cache of small arms and stores. This action helped him gain status in New Hampshire, which subsequently elected him and Langdon to the Second Continental Congress. In June of 1775, Congress appointed him Brigadier General in the Continental Army, giving Sullivan the position of power he had been craving for. He subsequently commanded a unit on Winter Hill during the siege of Boston.

In March of 1776, after the British had been forced to evacuate Boston, General George Washington sent Sullivan with troops to reinforce the army besieging Quebec. He took command of the army upon the death of General Thomas on June 2, and then oversaw an orderly retreat after the siege fell apart. Despite being blamed by some for the failure of the siege, Congress promoted him to Major General. Joining Washington at New York in August of 1776, Sullivan was commanding a unit at the Battle of Long Island when he was captured by the British. He was released soon after during a prisoner exchange, but not before attempting to serve as an intermediary between Admiral Richard Howe and the Continental Congress by delivering a peace proposal from Howe. The proposal was quickly dismissed by Congress, and Sullivan gained a few enemies in the process. He subsequently rejoined Washington during the Continental Army's retreat through New Jersey. He gained much respect from Washington by performing well at Trenton and Princeton in January of 1777, but was unable to convince Washington that he deserved a position of higher command. In August of 1777, Sullivan led an unsuccessful attack against the British on Staten Island. In September, he commanded the right wing during the disastrous Battle of Brandywine. Although Congress absolved him of any blame for the failure at Staten Island, his enemies there made him the scapegoat for the loss at Brandywine. At Germantown in August of 1778, Sullivan had the upper hand and might have taken the field, but French General D'Estaing failed to cooperate and he was eventually forced to withdraw.

Sullivan's last campaign began on July 31, 1779, when he led about 3,000 soldiers up the Susquehana River on a mission to destroy the Iroquois Confederacy and its alliance with the British. Another 1,600 men, led by General James Clinton, joined the campaign at Tioga Point on August 22, and the "Sullivan Campaign" subsequently embarked on a scorched earth campaign. The only major battle took place at Chemung (now Elmira), New York, on August 29, when Sullivan's army defeated a combined force of Tories and Iroquois. The campaign succeeded in effectively ending the Iroquois-British alliance, but failed to end Iroquois aggression in the region. By the time Sullivan's campaign ended he was in poor health, and he resigned his commission in November of 1779 and returned to Durham.

route of the Sullivan Campaign

Retaking his seat in Congress in late-1780, Sullivan became one of that body's most vocal members. Among the many issues he spoke out on were New Hampshire's land claims in Vermont, Revolutionary finances, and peace with Britain. Like many of his fellow officers, Sullivan had received little to no pay during his years of service and was in dire financial straits, which led him to accept a loan from the French Minister at Philadelphia. Although the loan was a straight business arrangement, Sullivan's enemies immediately seized upon it to accuse him of accepting a bribe. An angry Sullivan left Congress for the final time in August of 1781, and once again returned to Durham.

Although Sullivan had made many enemies in Congress, he had managed to regain some favor in his hometown. He served as Attorney General of New Hampshire from 1782 to 1786, and as President (Governor) of the Commonwealth of New Hampshire from 1786 to 1789. With John Langdon, he led the long legislative campaign that finally resulted in New Hampshire becoming the ninth state to ratify the Constitutiion, on June 21, 1788. In 1789, President George Washington named him U.S. Judge of New Hampshire, a position Washington would have only given to someone he respected. Sullivan officially served in the latter position until his death, but poor health prevented him from actually sitting on the bench after May of 1792. He died in Durham on January 23, 1795.

George Washington

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Individual Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on January 22, 2018.