American Revolution: Major General John Sullivan

John Sullivan in the American Revolution
Major General John Sullivan. Photograph Source: Public Domain

A native of New Hampshire, Major General John Sullivan rose to become one of the Continental Army's most tenacious fighters during the American Revolution (1775-1783). When the war began in 1775, he departed his role as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress to accept as commission as a brigadier general. The next five years would see Sullivan briefly serve in Canada before joining General George Washington's army. A veteran of the fighting around New York and Philadelphia in 1776 and 1777, he later held independent commands in Rhode Island and western New York. Leaving the army in 1780, Sullivan returned to Congress and advocated for additional support from France. In his later years he served as Governor of New Hampshire and a federal judge.

Early Life & Career

Born February 17, 1740 in Somersworth, NH, John Sullivan was the third son of the local schoolmaster.  Receiving a thorough education, he elected to pursue a legal career and read law with Samuel Livermore in Portsmouth between 1758 and 1760. Completing his studies, Sullivan married Lydia Worster in 1760 and three years later opened his own practice in Durham. The town's first lawyer, his ambition angered Durham's residents as he frequently foreclose on debts and sued his neighbors. This led the inhabitants of the town to file a petition with the New Hampshire General Court in 1766 calling for relief from his "oppressive extortive behavior."

Gathering favorable statements from a few friends, Sullivan succeeded in having the petition dismissed and then attempted to sue his attackers for libel. In the wake of this incident, Sullivan did begin to improve his relations with the people of Durham and in 1767 befriended Governor John Wentworth. Increasingly wealthy from his legal practice and other business endeavors, he used his connection to Wentworth to secure a major's commission in the New Hampshire militia in 1772. Over the next two years, Sullivan's relationship with the governor soured as he moved increasingly into the Patriot camp. Angered by the Intolerable Acts and Wentworth's habit of dissolving the colony's assembly, he represented Durham at the First Provincial Congress of New Hampshire in July 1774.


Chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, Sullivan traveled to Philadelphia that September.  While there he supported the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress which outlined colonial grievances against Britain. Sullivan returned to New Hampshire in November and worked to built local support for the document. Alerted to British intentions to secure weapons and powder from the colonials, he took part in a raid on Fort William & Mary in December which saw the militia capture a large quantity of cannon and muskets. A month later, Sullivan was selected to serve in the Second Continental Congress.  Departing later that spring, he learned of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution upon arriving in Philadelphia. 

Brigadier General

With the formation of the Continental Army and selection of General George Washington its commander, Congress moved forward with appointing other general officers. Receiving a commission as a brigadier general, Sullivan departed the city in late June to joined the army at the Siege of Boston. Following the liberation of Boston in March 1776, he received orders to lead men north to reinforce the American troops which had invaded Canada the previous fall. 

Not reaching Sorel on the St. Lawrence River until June, Sullivan quickly found that the invasion effort was collapsing. Following a series of reverses in the region, he began withdrawing south and was later joined by troops led by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. Returning to friendly territory, attempts were made to scapegoat Sullivan for the invasion's failure.  These allegations were soon shown to be false and he was promoted to major general on August 9.


Rejoining Washington's army at New York, Sullivan assumed command of those forces positioned on Long Island as Major General Nathanael Greene had fallen ill. On August 24, Washington replaced Sullivan with Major General Israel Putnam and assigned him to command a division. On the American right at the Battle of Long Island three days later, Sullivan's men mounted a tenacious defense against the British and Hessians.

Personally engaging the enemy as his men were pushed back, Sullivan fought the Hessians with pistols before being captured. Taken to the British commanders, General Sir William Howe and Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe, he was employed to travel to Philadelphia to offer a peace conference to Congress in exchange for his parole. Though a conference later occurred on Staten Island, it accomplished nothing.

Return to Action

Formally exchanged for Brigadier General Richard Prescott in September, Sullivan returned to the army as it retreated across New Jersey. Leading a division that December, his men moved along the river road and played a key role in the American victory at the Battle of Trenton. A week later, his men saw action at the Battle of Princeton before moving into winter quarters at Morristown. Remaining in New Jersey, Sullivan oversaw an abortive raid against Staten Island on August 22 before Washington moved south to defend Philadelphia. On September 11, Sullivan's division initially occupied a position behind the Brandywine River as the Battle of Brandywine commenced.

As the action progressed, Howe turned Washington's right flank and Sullivan's division raced north to face the enemy. Attempting to mount a defense, Sullivan succeeded in slowing the enemy and was able to withdraw in good order after being reinforced by Greene. Leading the American attack at the Battle of Germantown the following month, Sullivan's division performed well and gained ground until a series of command and control issues led to an American defeat. After entering winter quarters at Valley Forge in mid-December, Sullivan departed the army in March of the following year when he received orders to assume command of American troops in Rhode Island.

Battle of Rhode Island

Tasked with expelling the British garrison from Newport, Sullivan spent the spring stockpiling supplies and making preparations. In July, word arrived from Washington that he could expect aid from French naval forces led by Vice Admiral Charles Hector, comte d'Estaing. Arriving late that month, d'Estaing met with Sullivan and devised an attack plan. This was soon thwarted by the arrival of a British squadron led by Lord Howe. Quickly re-embarking his men, the French admiral departed to pursue Howe's ships. Expecting d'Estaing to return, Sullivan crossed to Aquidneck Island and began moving against Newport. On August 15, the French returned but d'Estaing's captains refused to stay as their ships had been damaged by a storm. 

As a result, they immediately left for Boston leaving an incensed Sullivan to continue the campaign. Unable to conduct a protracted siege due to British reinforcements moving north and lacking the strength for a direct assault, Sullivan withdrew to a defensive position at the northern end of the island in the hopes that the British might pursue him. On August 29, British forces attacked the American position in the inconclusive Battle of Rhode Island. Though Sullivan's men inflicted greater casualties in the fighting the failure to take Newport marked the campaign as a failure.

Sullivan Expedition

In early 1779, following a series of attacks and massacres on the Pennsylvania-New York frontier by British rangers and their Iroquois allies, Congress directed Washington to dispatch forces to the region to eliminate the threat. After command of the expedition was turned down by Major General Horatio Gates, Washington selected Sullivan to lead the effort. Gathering forces, Sullivan's Expedition moved through northeast Pennsylvania and into New York conducting a scorched earth campaign against the Iroquois. Inflicting major damage on the region, Sullivan swept aside the British and Iroquois at the Battle of Newtown on August 29.  By the time the operation ended in September, over forty villages had been destroyed and the threat greatly reduced.

Congress & Later Life

In increasingly ill health and frustrated by Congress, Sullivan resigned from the army in November and returned to New Hampshire. Hailed as a hero at home, he rebuffed the approaches of British agents who sought to turn him and accepted election to Congress in 1780. Returning to Philadelphia, Sullivan worked to resolve the status of Vermont, deal with financial crises, and obtain additional financial support from France. Completing his term in August 1781, he became New Hampshire's attorney general the following year. Holding this position until 1786, Sullivan later served in the New Hampshire Assembly and as President (Governor) of New Hampshire. During this period, he advocated for ratification of the US Constitution.

With the formation of the new federal government, Washington, now president, appointed Sullivan as the first federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. Taking the bench in 1789, he actively ruled on cases until 1792 when ill health began to limit his activities. Sullivan died at Durham on January 23, 1795 and was interred his family cemetery.   

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General John Sullivan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Major General John Sullivan. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General John Sullivan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).