American Revolution: Sullivan Expedition

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

Sullivan Expedition - Background:

During the early years of the American Revolution, four of the six nations that comprised the Iroquois Confederacy elected to support the British.  Living across upstate New York, these Native American groups had built numerous towns and villages that in many ways eclipsed those constructed by the colonists.  Dispatching their warriors, the Iroquois supported British operations in the region and conducted raids against American settlers and outposts.  With the defeat and surrender of Major General John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga in October 1777, these activities intensified.  Overseen by Colonel John Butler, who had raised a regiment of rangers, and leaders such as Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, and Sayenqueraghta these attacks continued with increasing ferocity into 1778. 

In June 1778, Butler's Rangers, along with a force of Seneca and Cayugas, moved south into Pennsylvania.  Defeating and massacring an American force at the Battle of Wyoming on July 3, they compelled the surrender of Forty Fort and other local outposts.  Later that year, Brant struck German Flatts in New York.  Though local American forces mounted retaliatory strikes, they were unable to deter Butler or his Native American allies.  In November, Captain William Butler, the colonel's son, and Brant attacked Cherry Valley, NY killing and scalping numerous civilians including women and children.  Though Colonel Goose Van Schaick later burned several Onondaga villages in retribution, the raids continued along the frontier.

Sullivan Expedition - Washington Responds: 

Under increasing political pressure to better protect settlers, the Continental Congress authorized expeditions against Fort Detroit and Iroquois territory on June 10, 1778.  Due to issues of manpower and the overall military situation, this initiative was not advanced until the following year.  As General Sir Henry Clinton, the overall British commander in North America, began to shift the focus of his operations to the southern colonies in 1779, his American counterpart, General George Washington, saw an opportunity for dealing with the Iroquois situation.  Planning an expedition to the region, he initially offered command of it to Major General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga.  Gates declined the command and it instead was given to Major General John Sullivan.

Sullivan Expedition - Preparations:

A veteran of Long Island, Trenton, and Rhode Island, Sullivan received orders to assemble three brigades at Easton, PA and advance up the Susquehanna River and into New York.  A fourth brigade, led by Brigadier General James Clinton, was to depart Schenectady, NY and move via Canajoharie and Otsego Lake to rendezvous with Sullivan's force.  Combined, Sullivan would have 4,469 men with which he was to destroy the heart of Iroquois territory and, if possible, attack Fort Niagara.  Departing Easton on June 18, the army moved to the Wyoming Valley where Sullivan remained for over a month awaiting provisions.  Finally moving up the Susquehanna on July 31, the army reached Tioga eleven days later.  Establishing Fort Sullivan at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers, Sullivan burned the town of Chemung a few days later and suffered minor casualties from ambushes.

Sullivan Expedition - Uniting the Army:

In conjunction with Sullivan's effort, Washington also ordered Colonel Daniel Brodhead to move up the Allegheny River from Fort Pitt.  If feasible, he was to join with Sullivan for an attack on Fort Niagara.  Marching with 600 men, Brodhead burned ten villages before insufficient supplies forced him to withdraw south.  To the east, Clinton reached Otsego Lake on June 30 and paused to wait for orders.  Not hearing anything until August 6, he then proceeded to move down the Susquehanna for the planned rendezvous destroying Native American settlements en route.  Concerned that Clinton could be isolated and defeated, Sullivan directed Brigadier General Enoch Poor to take a force north and escort his men to the fort.  Poor was successful in this task and the entire army was united on August 22.

Sullivan Expedition - Striking North:

Moving upstream four days later with around 3,200 men, Sullivan commenced his campaign in earnest.  Fully aware of the enemy's intentions, Butler advocated mounting a series of guerrilla attacks while retreating in the face of the larger American force.  This strategy was adamantly opposed by the leaders of villages in the area who wished to protect their homes.  To preserve unity, many of the Iroquois chiefs agreed though they did not believe making a stand was prudent.  As a result, they constructed concealed breastworks on a ridge near Newtown and planned to ambush Sullivan's men as they advanced through the area.  Arriving on the afternoon of August 29, American scouts notified Sullivan of the enemy's presence.

Quickly devising a plan, Sullivan used part of his command to hold Butler and the Native Americans in place with dispatching two brigades to encircle the ridge.  Coming under artillery fire, Butler recommended retreating, but his allies remained firm.  As Sullivan's men commenced their attack, the combined British and Native American force began to take casualties.  Finally recognizing the danger of their position, they retreated before the Americans could close the noose.  The only major engagement of the campaign, the Battle of Newtown effectively eliminated large-scale, organized resistance to Sullivan's force.  

Sullivan Expedition - Burning the North:

Reaching Seneca Lake on September 1, Sullivan began burning villages in the area.  Though Butler attempted to rally forces to defend Kanadesaga, his allies were still too shaken from Newtown to make another stand.  After destroying the settlements around Canandaigua Lake on September 9, Sullivan dispatched a scouting party towards Chenussio on the Genesee River.  Led by Lieutenant Thomas Boyd, this 25-man force was ambushed and destroyed by Butler on September 13.  The next day, Sullivan's army reached Chenussio where it burned 128 houses and large fields of fruits and vegetables.  Completing destruction of Iroquois villages in the area, Sullivan, who mistakenly believed that there were no Seneca towns west of the river, ordered his men to begin the march back to Fort Sullivan.

Sullivan Expedition - Aftermath:   

Reaching their base, the Americans abandoned the fort and the majority of Sullivan's forces returned to Washington's army which was entering winter quarters at Morristown, NJ.  During the course of the campaign, Sullivan had destroyed over forty villages and 160,000 bushels of corn.  Though the campaign was considered a success, Washington was disappointed that Fort Niagara had not been taken.  In Sullivan's defense, a lack of heavy artillery and logistical issues made this objective extremely difficult to achieve.  Despite this, the damage inflicted effectively broke the Iroquois Confederacy's ability to maintain their infrastructure and many town sites.  

Displaced by Sullivan's expedition, 5,036 homeless Iroquois were present at Fort Niagara by late September where they sought assistance from the British.  Short on supplies, widespread famine was narrowly prevented by the arrival of provisions and the relocation of many Iroquois to temporary settlements.  While raids on the frontier had been halted, this reprieve proved short-lived.  Many Iroquois who had remained neutral were forced into the British camp by necessity while others were fueled by a desire for revenge.  Attacks against American settlements resumed in 1780 with an increased intensity and continued through the end of the war.  As result, Sullivan's campaign, though a tactical victory, did little to greatly alter the strategic situation. 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Sullivan Expedition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Sullivan Expedition. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Sullivan Expedition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).