Sunday, December 19, 2021

ARP230 Sullivan Campaign

Over the summer and fall of 1779, the Continental Army, in concert with New York militia, embarked on a campaign of destruction against the Iroquois.  It became known as the Sullivan Expedition, after the commanding officer, General John Sullivan.  The goal of the expedition was to wipe out the remaining Iroquois villages in update New York that had been supporting raids against settlers.

The Americans had already gone on a similar mission against one of the Iroquois tribes, the Onondaga.  This action was focused primarily against the Seneca and Cayuga tribes, the two western most tribes in the Confederacy.  The Mohawk had already largely been displaced, and the Oneida and Tuscarora were mostly allied with the Americans.  The Seneca was the largest of the Iroquois tribes, making up nearly 50 percent of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Seneca land, on the western part of the Iroquois Confederacy, had historically faced the brunt of most warfare, leading to a reputation of the Seneca being particularly ferocious warriors.

The Continental Congress’ Board of War had proposed a similar campaign for 1778, with Horatio Gates leading the assault, and including the capture of Fort Detroit.  Gates, however, was never able to get the resources and never even really even began efforts to execute such an expedition.  

Iroquois Raids

Joseph Brant, 1776

The Iroquois, under leaders such as Joseph Brandt and Cornplanter, and with loyalist support from leaders like John Butler and his son Walter Butler, conducted regular raids throughout upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, including what became known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre.  These raids were designed to force settlers to withdraw from the area, and to return lands to the Iroquois, who would operate under crown protection from Quebec.  Iroquois and loyalists killed or captured numerous settlers, destroyed property and food, hoping that the survivors would move to safety, further to the south and east.

The settler population did decrease, but many remained, living near one of the many numerous small forts that were built to defend against the constant threat of raids and surprise attacks.  Those settlers who lived in harm’s way, appealed to the state government and to the Continental Army for protection and assistance against the attacks.

American Response

Washington had discussed the Iroquois problem at length with the Continental Congress during his visit to Philadelphia over the prior winter. Initially, initially, Gates was offered the command of the expedition in 1779, but he declined.  Washington then turned to General John Sullivan.

Sullivan, by this time, was a reliable veteran of several campaigns, most recently the assault on Newport, Rhode Island.  In May 1779, George Washington gave orders to General Sullivan to assemble an army of annihilation.

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.

So Washington's made very clear here, he was not talking just about attacks against hostiles.  He was talking about wiping out all of the Indian settlements in the region that might be able to provide any assistance to enemies going forward.  In doing that, they were to destroy their homes, destroy their food, destroy everything, and force them to leave the area.

The plans called for a three-pronged attack.  General Sullivan would assemble an army at Easton, Pennsylvania, and move north up the Susquehanna River.  Sullivan’s Continentals included New Hampshire and Massachusetts regiments under the command of General Enoch Poor, The New Jersey Brigade under William Maxwell, and Pennsylvania regiments under General Edward Hand.

A second force under Brigadier General James Clinton would move from Otsego Lake, down the Susquehanna to meet up with Sullivan at Tioga.  A third division under Colonel Daniel Broadhead would leave Fort Pitt, in Pennsylvania, moving north into western New York.  Eventually, the plan called for all three Armies to merge and attack Fort Niagara.  However, the main goal was for these to destroy all enemy towns and villages, and to kill or capture any members of hostile tribes that they encountered.

Slow Start

Washington had hoped that the armies would begin marching in spring.  General Sullivan delayed as he called for more food and supplies to support his army of over 3000 men while on the march. Sullivan arrived in Easton on May 7.  He remained there for about six weeks before leaving in mid-June.  He marched north for a few days before reaching the Wyoming Valley, where he camped again and awaited more supplies.  

 Gen. John Sullivan

Sullivan complained that the food shipped to his army was moldy or otherwise inedible.  Supplies of clothing were inadequate.  Even the cattle were so weak that they could not walk.  Sullivan also complained that he still did not have enough men.  Even though 3000 was a large number, Sullivan had to leave behind men to guard his rear, meaning his forces would already be depleted before they could reach the enemy.  He had been promised another 750 Pennsylvania Rangers who never arrived.  Sullivan even bypassed Washington to write President John Jay directly with his concerns.

Finally, Sullivan departed Wyoming for New York on July 31.  By that time, he was so laden down with supplies that his soldiers complained that it was nearly impossible to get all the wagons through the wilderness trails.

The delay also meant that any element of surprise was lost.  British General Frederick Haldimand in Quebec had received reports about Sullivan’s Army.  He did not send any forces to engage though.  Haldimand believed that the Americans would move to assault Fort Niagara and then march into Quebec. So the British mostly reinforced their defensive positions in Canada and awaited that attack.

As Sullivan’s army made its way up the Susquehanna, they found abandoned Indian villages, which they pillaged and burned.  Although the Indians could not assemble the numbers to challenge the Continentals, they did make their presence known.  On July 15, they killed and scalped one man and wounded another who were driving horses to the army.  Two days later, they killed and wounded two more.  Soldiers had to stay on alert at all times, and keep together as much as possible.  Several other soldiers died of heat exhaustion or drowning during this difficult march.

By mid-August, Sullivan reached his first goal, Tioga.  There, they built a fort with a stockade.  As Sullivan awaited the arrival of General Clinton’s division, he sent a scouting party to the Indian village of Chemung, a dozen miles to the north.  The scouts reported several hundred Indian warriors. 

Sullivan took the bulk of his army to surround the village, but found it deserted.  The Indians had abandoned the village to the superior force.  The Continentals burned the forty houses in the village, as well as crops growing in the field.  General Hand led a brigade further north in search of the Indians.  He ran into an ambush but, with his larger numbers, quickly overwhelmed his attackers.  The natives abandoned the attack after killing seven Continentals and wounding thirteen more.

Clinton’s March

James Clinton
General James Clinton had assembled his force of about 1600 Continentals and militia at Otsego, near modern day Cooperstown.  While he waited, he had his men dam the river.  On August 9th, as he prepared to march, his men destroyed the dam, sending flood waters down the Susquehanna.  Clinton had built 200 small boats carrying his supplies, which rode the flood waters downriver, at the same time destroying riverside villages and planting fields along the way.

The soldiers marched behind the flooding river, burning, looting, and destroying the villages that they found in their path.  After about ten days of marching Clinton’s forces met up with about 1000 men under General Poor that Sullivan had deployed in search of Clinton.  The combined force marched back to Tioga, arriving on August 22.  With Clinton’s arrival, Sullivan had an even larger force of about 4500 men under his command.


This enlarged Army left camp on August 26, leaving a small garrison at Tioga, in the new Fort Sullivan. Sullivan deployed his army’s four divisions.  Hand’s division took the lead, including three companies of riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan.  Maxwell marched on the left flank and Poor on the right flank.  Clinton’s division marched in the rear.  Movement was slow as the men worked their way through the wilderness.  Moving ammunition wagons proved particularly frustrating.  Soldiers had cut up their tents to make canvas bags so that they could carry flour and other provisions on their backs rather than relying on wagons.

As they approached the Iroquois village of Newtown, scouts reported that the enemy was concentrating forces there.  Loyalist Colonel Walter Butler had combined his roughly 250 Butler’s Rangers with a 1000 man force of mostly Seneca warriors led by Sayenqueraghta [phonetically rendered as Kaieñãkwaahtoñ] and others Iroquois under Joseph Brandt and Cornplanter.

As Sullivan had slowly assembled his army all spring and summer, the loyalists and Iroquois tried to assemble an army to oppose them.  Without the cooperation of British Regulars though, the best they could do was a force that was somewhere between one-third and one-fourth size of the Continentals.  The Iroquois determined they would make their stand just outside of Newtown.  They built a redoubt at the top of a hill on the road leading to Newtown, giving them a view of the approaching enemy.  They also extended the defenses in a U shape down each side of the road, inside the forest line.  The hope was that the Continentals would approach the redoubt and begin battle.  Warriors would then emerge against the rear of the column on both sides of the road, throwing the Continentals into chaos and panic.

Battle of Newtown

The Americans approached Newtown on August 29.  Using a common tactic, Iroquois warriors fired on the front of the column, then retreated quickly down the road. They hoped to get the Americans to chase after them, leading them into that larger ambush.  The lead forces, however, under General Hand, experienced with Indian fighting, suspected a trap. They had Iroquois scouts of their own, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Stockbridge warriors who predicted such a trap.  

Instead, Hand brought up a number of small field artillery to fire on the enemy redoubt from a distance.  At the same time, the two flanking divisions attempted to move around the enemy and surround the loyalist forces.  One flank would attack first as a feint, drawing more warriors to that side.  Then the other flank would strike the weakened other side and roll up the enemy.

It was a good plan, but did not execute very well.  The wilderness terrain made advancing slow and difficult.  The loyalists managed to see the trap unfolding in time to make their escape.  Most of the loyalist militia and Iroquois warriors escaped through a swampy area where the Americans did not follow.

The end result was what could have been a major bloody battle ended up with casualties of a skirmish.  Out of thousands engaged, the loyalists suffered only 17 killed, 16 seriously wounded and 2 captured.  The Americans suffered 11 killed and 32 wounded.  The bulk of the loyalists and Iroquois escaped, ceding the field to the Americans, but suffering few battle casualties.

The Americans then proceeded into Newtown, destroying all of the buildings, supplies, and surrounding fields.  After the battle, the loyalist forces were unable to regroup for another fight.  So, the Americans continued on their march, destroying more Iroquois towns and food supplies.

Broadhead Expedition

Around the same time as the battle of Newtown, Colonel Broadhead had left Fort Pitt and was marching up the banks of the Allegheny River into New York. 

Initially command of this expedition was going to fall to General Lachlan McIntosh.  You may recall that McIntosh had been involved in much of the early war events in Georgia.  After he killed Button Gwinnett, the President of Georgia, in a duel, Washington ordered McIntosh north to avoid any revenge attacks against him by Gwinnett allies.  McIntosh spent the winter in Valley Forge, then had taken command at Fort Pitt, where he had hoped to organize a campaign against Fort Detroit.

By the spring of 1779 though, when the Sullivan Expedition was getting organized, the British had captured Georgia and Washington had to recall General Robert Howe and replace him with Massachusetts General Benjamin Lincoln.  Washington decided that Georgia needed back its top officer in the Continental Army and sent McIntosh to serve under General Lincoln in the southern theater.

That left Colonel Broadhead in command at Fort Pitt.  Initially, General Washington wanted to call off the offensive from Fort Pitt entirely.  He wrote to Brodhead in April ordering the Colonel to remain at Fort Pitt and just be prepared to act against any Indian attacks against the settlers in Western Pennsylvania.  The Mingo Indians in that area were allied with their Seneca neighbors and quite hostile to the western settlers.   You may recall that this was right after the Americans had abandoned Fort Laurens in Ohio, when hostile local tribes had forced the withdrawal back to Fort Pitt.

As it turned out though, following the capture of British Governor Henry Hamilton, the Pennsylvania frontier seemed to settle down.  Violence continued, but only in relatively small and disorganized groups.  Brodhead made use of local militia to pacify the area around Fort Pitt for miles.  He informed Washington of the success he was having.  In July, Washington responded by giving approval for a move northward, hoping his raid would add continued distraction for the Indians already facing Sullivan’s offensive.

Brodhead left Fort Pitt in mid-August with about 600 or 700 soldiers, including allied warriors from the Delaware tribes, as well as companies from Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments.  Most of the Mingo had already received word of the Continental offensive in the region and had fled their homes.  Broadhead’s men encountered multiple abandoned villages, which they burned, along with the fields of growing food.  

The forward companies of the detachment did encounter a few dozen enemy warriors at Thomson’s Island.  There was a brief skirmish where perhaps five enemy were killed and a few wounded.  This may have just been a large hunting party that they had stumbled across.  That was really the only real resistance that he encountered. 

Brodhead continued his march of devastation, but never made it into New York.  He returned to Fort Pitt via a different path, plundering and burning more native villages during his return.  By the time he reached Fort Pitt in mid-September, his month-long expedition had levelled at least a dozen villages.  The raiders also returned with plundered supplies that would sell for over $30,000.


Although Broadhead’s successful raid was relatively short, General Sullivan continued to reign destruction throughout upstate New York through most of September.  Following Newtown, the Army marched northward, through the Finger Lakes region, continuing to plunder and destroy more villages.  After Newtown, they did not even encounter even minor attacks against them.  The warriors had had enough and had retreated toward Quebec.

In late September General Clinton’s division moved east, into Mohawk Territory.  They entered a village known at Teantontalago which was populated by Mohawk Indians who had pledge to remain neutral.  Not recognizing their neutrality, the Continentals ordered the male inhabitants arrested and sent to Albany to be held in custody.  

Peter Gansevoort

Most of the soldiers involved were local New York soldiers under Colonel Peter Gansevoort.  Many of them had friends or family who had been left homeless from prior Indian raids.  The Mohawk farms at Teantontalago were not burned.  Instead, the Americans allowed dispossessed settlers to take over these farms in this relatively safe and secure region of the state.  Buildings, horses, cattle, and crops were all made available to settler families who needed them.

This was one of the most highly controversial components of the whole expedition, because it involved confiscating property from Indians who had broken with their fellow Mohawks in order to remain neutral.  Some may have even performed services for the patriot cause.  Former Continental General Philip Schuyler, who had negotiated with these tribes years earlier, was outraged at this action against noncombatant people who posed no threat to the patriots.  Despite Schuyler’s objections, the actions stood.  General James Clinton’s brother, NY Governor George Clinton allowed the Mohawk to be held in Albany for the winter and never returned their property to them.

Continentals Celebrate

Overall, the Sullivan Expedition was considered a success.  Washington had hoped it would be capped off with the capture of Fort Niagara, but since Sullivan’s army did not have any heavy artillery, this did not really seem possible.

Most people in New York and New England approved of this effort to remove the Iroquois as a great victory.  The Continental Congress, however, was less than enthusiastic.  Sullivan’s continued demands for more supplies and his going over Washington’s head directly to Congress did not win him any friends in that body.  Given the popularity among the people for the action, elected officials did not go after him directly, but neither did they give him much praise for his victory.

Hard Winter in Quebec

The total warfare in upstate New York had its intended effect.  By one estimate, the Expedition had destroyed over 160,000 bushels of corn and levelled 40 Iroquois towns and villages.  More than 5000 Iroquois men, women, and children fled to Quebec, seeking assistance from the British.  The British garrison at Quebec had nowhere near the resources to feed and house all these people.  Over the harsh winter of 1779-1780, hundreds of Iroquois died from starvation or exposure.

Loyalist forces had lost access to friendly villages in New York.  Future raids from Canada would become more difficult and require carrying more of their own supplies.  Although raids would continue the following spring, the Sullivan Expedition effectively broke the hold of the Iroquois over their traditional homeland in upstate New York.  Only a few members of friendly tribes remained in the region.  

The Iroquois gave George Washington the nickname: Conotocaurius (Town Destroyer). This nickname would apply to future US Presidents as well.

Next Week: the British in New York City continue to conduct raids on New Jersey, including one at Paulus Hook.

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Next Episode 231 Paulus Hook 

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Further Reading


The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign:

The Clinton-Sullivan Campaign of 1779:

Soodalter, Ron Massacre & Retribution: The 1779-80 Sullivan Expedition

Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois

Newtown, NY August 29, 1779:

Crytzer, Brady J. “Allegheny Burning: George Washington, Daniel Brodhead, and the Battle of Thompson’s Island” Journal of the American Revolution, May 12, 2015:

Brodhead’s Raid on the Senecas

Williams, Sherman. “THE ORGANIZATION OF SULLIVAN'S EXPEDITION.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 6, 1906, pp. 29–36.,


Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Cook, Frederick Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of the Iroquois, Knapp, Peck & Thomson, 1887. 

Craft, David The Sullivan expedition: an address delivered at the Seneca County Centennial Celebration at Waterloo, September 3, 1879, Waterloo, NY: Observer Book and Job Printing House, 1880. 

McKendry, William, Davis, Andrew McFarland, Winsor, Justin Sullivan's expedition against the Indians of New York, Cambridge: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1886. 

Rising, Oscar E; Hubley, Adam, A New Hampshire lawyer in General Washington's army; a biographical sketch of the Hon. John Sullivan, LL. D., major general in the Continental army, and an account of the expedition under his command against the Six Indian nations in 1779, Geneva, N.Y., Press of W. F. Humphrey, 1915.

Tiffany, Norton A. History of Sullivan's campaign against the Iroquois, Lima, NY: A.T. Norton, 1879. 

Tomlinson, Everett T. Marching Against the Iroquois, Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co. 1906. 

Trussell John B.B. Jr. The Sullivan and Brodhead Expeditions, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Boardman, Fon Wyman Against the Iroquois: The Sullivan Campaign of 1779 in New York State, H. Z Walk, 1978. 

Eckert, Alan The Wilderness War, Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2003. 

Fischer, Joseph R. A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign Against the Iroquois, July-September 1779, Univ. of SC Press, 1997. 

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois (Indians Of North America), Chelsea Press, 2005. 

Hardenbergh, John L., William McKendry, & William Elliott Griffis Narratives of Sullivan's Expedition, 1779: Against the Four Nations of the Iroquois & Loyalists by the Continental Army, Leonaur, 2010. 

Stephens, Karl F. Neither the Charm Nor the Luck: Major-General John Sullivan, Outskirts Press, 2009. 

Taylor, Alan The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 

Williams, Glenn The Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois, Westholme Publishing, 2005.

Williams, Marie Danielle Annette The Revolutionary War in the Adirondacks: Raids in the Wilderness, History Press, 2020. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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