Sullivan’s Expedition

In 1713 at the end of Queen Anne’s War in which the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy stayed neutral at the request of France, the British and their Cherokee allies evicted the Tuscarora Indians from present day North Carolina. The Iroquois Confederacy accepted the now vehemently anti-British Tuscarora refugees as the Sixth Nation of the Confederacy. The Tuscarora settled on their southern lands to prevent settlers out of New York and Pennsylvania from encroaching on Confederacy lands and hunting grounds. For the next sixty years the Confederacy maintained a delicate balance of aggressive neutrality between the empires of Great Britain and France in order secure cheap, but superior, British trade goods from the colonies, while preventing France’s First Nation allies from raiding their lands and hunting grounds.

In 1778, the Iroquois could no longer maintain their neutrality between Britain and France’s ally, the United States of America. Since 1775, the elders at the Council Fire at Onondaga avoided war by simultaneously pledging fealty to their “Great Father” George II and claiming they could not wage war against their “brothers” in the colonies. (This was a diplomatic coup for the Americans, had the Iroquois thrown in with the British against the Americans in the militarily disastrous year of 1776, the war would have been drastically different for the fledgling American nation.) After the winter of 1776/7, colonial trade goods were scarce, upon which the Iroquois, with no manufacturing capability of their own, were completely dependent as their old ways were forgotten, and forced the Iroquois to choose sides. The British promised to supply them from Fort Niagara, and if they won, enforce the Proclamation of 1763, which limited colonial settlers to land east of the Appalachians. The British negotiators, whose most effective advocate was Molly Brant, the common law wife of British Chief of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson and brother to Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant, brought the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations to the British. Under the influence of half black-half Abenaki, French Catholic, adopted Mohawk, Oneida war chief Joseph Louis Cook (get all that) and Presbyterian minister Samuel Kirkland , two of the frontier fixers and traders that dominated American colonial diplomacy with Indian nations in the 18th century, the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans. Thus began the Iroquois civil war.

1777 and 1778 were disastrous years for the Oneida, Tuscarora and settlers on the American frontier. The Battle of Oriskany showed the dubious value of militia used as line infantry against Indian and Loyalist irregulars. Only the successful American counterattack from Fort Stanwix, by its regular garrison which lifted its siege, prevented Barry St Leger from invading New York through the Mohawk Valley in support of Burgoyne. The Oneida and Tuscarora homelands were overrun and occupied, and the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers were set ablaze. Hundreds of homesteads were raided, and the Cherry Valley and Wyoming Valley massacres made international headlines.

The Continental Congress authorized an expedition in the spring of 1778 against the Iroquois but it was too late in the season to muster the supplies necessary for a campaign in the frontier wilderness. Any large body of troops would starve, and any small body would be destroyed by the Iroquois. Furthermore, Washington’s regulars were fresh from Valley Forge and chased Sir Henry Clinton’s redcoats back to New York. Every Continental was needed for a showdown with Clinton if he sortied from New York and sought battle. Limited raids against Iroquois towns with militia were all that could be managed. As any settler could tell you, counterattack was the only viable option for defense on the frontier; sitting and waiting out an Indian raid in a stout farmstead, blockhouse, or fort provided only temporary reprieve if, and only if, and relief force was immediately dispatched. In any case, passive defense did nothing to prevent its reoccurrence. Since the Onondaga were the “Keepers of the Council Fire”, the Americans invaded their homeland in 1778 and fired their “castle” or fortified village, where for centuries the chiefs of the five nations met. The Iroquois elders just moved to Genesee, the primary Seneca castle. Furthermore, the raid just rallied the remainder of the four nations of the Iroquois Confederacy against the Americans. Any invasion of the Iroquois homeland had to break the Seneca, the largest and most militant of the Six Nations, whose warriors comprised nearly 2/3’s of Iroquois’ military might.

George Washington was keen on an invasion of the Iroquois Confederacy, particularly Seneca lands, to relieve the pressure on his precarious logistical situation. The productive farms on the frontier couldn’t feed the Continental Army if they were under constant assault. The army had to be seen doing something about the Iroquois and “asway public outrage” over the raids and depredations. The biggest problem was the Seneca villages were the farthest away from any potential Continental Army assembly areas in Pennsylvania and New York. In late 1778 and early 1779, Washington turned to his most experienced frontier commander, Major General Philip Schuyler and he devised a plan. Then Washington’s most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene approved and modified it. The campaign would be one of logistics and Greene as the Continental Army’s Quartermaster General would have to supply it. In order to have adequate troops to defeat the Iroquois, Loyalists and British, any invading army must carry the majority of their provisions with them. Every previous Indian expedition failed because it was either too small to do any good or the army melted away when the supplies ran out. Schuyler and Greene eventually recommended a three prong invasion with the main effort up the Susquehanna Valley with supporting efforts up the Allegheny Valley from Fort Pitt and another from the Mohawk Valley in the east then south through the Susquehanna Valley. Instead of multiple small forts connected by wagon roads protecting the lines of communication, as was standard during the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War and Lord Dunmore’s War, the expedition would build just a single defensible depot deep in Iroquois territory and carry most of their supplies on pack horses. This reduced the amount of troops siphoned off the main attack, sped up the main column since they couldn’t have to build roads, and allowed “flying columns” to raid Iroquois villages not along the main route of advance. The idea was to overwhelm the Iroquois by attacking in force at multiple points. (If this sounds like Napoleon’s Corps system, you wouldn’t be wrong.) Finally the regulars from the Continental Army itself would conduct the campaign and the unreliable militia would guard the frontier.

In early 1779, Washington’s spies learned that Clinton was going to invade Connecticut to try and lure Washington into a battle, bait for a trap he wasn’t going to take. Clinton’s Connecticut foray however did provide the opportunity to release a few brigades for operations against the Iroquois. Washington took it one step further – almost one third of the Continental Army was tasked to the invasion of the Iroquois Confederacy. Initially, command of the invasion was offered to the victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, but he begged off ostensibly for health reasons, much to Washington’s relief. Washington then offered the command to John Sullivan, who reluctantly accepted.

Sullivan had a mixed record so far in the war and is the prime example of American generals having to learn their profession the hard way. As one of Washington’s division commanders, he did well at Trenton, Princeton, and Long Island, where he was captured and then paroled, and at Brandywine. But Sullivan was surprised at Germantown, led an unsuccessful raid on Staten Island, and damn near severed the Franco-American alliance after its first battle. Sullivan and French Admiral Comte d’Estang led a joint operation against Newport, Rhode Island, but a storm scattered the French fleet which then retired to Boston. This left Sullivan’s army vulnerable and had to retreat after the British garrison sortied. Sullivan accused the French of cowardice. Sullivan was a solid commander and tactician but had problems managing and coordinating with his peers. An independent command was perfect, but not one that most thought destined to fail.

Sullivan also knew this was his last shot as one of Washington’s trusted subordinates. The Continental hard core that emerged from Valley Forge demanded competent and aggressive commanders. This wasn’t 1776 when Washington relied on anyone with any military experience to command. This was 1779 when the cream had already floated to the top, the likes of Schuyler, Greene, Knox, Wayne, Stark, Morgan and amazingly competent foreigners like Von Steuben, Lafayette, Pulaski, de Kalb and Kościuszko all wanted a piece of Washington’s time in 1779. Problematic leaders such as Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, Horatio Gates and others were all marginalized by Washington by 1779; Sullivan was dangerously close to being part of the latter group. The Iroquois expedition was Sullivan’s last chance.

Sullivan wasn’t going to waste it, much to Greene and Washington’s frustration. When Sullivan arrived at Easton, Pennsylvania in early spring to take command, he found the troops woefully undersupplied. Furthermore, the rangers, guides, and “go-betweens” promised by the Pennsylvania legislature were nowhere to be found. If the expedition departed when Washington demanded, no later than 1 May, the expedition was doomed to failure. 1779 was the culmination of the Continental Army’s systemic supply inefficiencies and difficulties, and Greene was doing the best he could, but it wasn’t enough for Sullivan and his priority campaign.

Sullivan began a vicious writing campaign to Washington, Greene, the Pennsylvania legislature and eventually the Continental Congress about the perceived lack of support, mostly in vain. New roads were cut to the Wyoming Valley, 1500 pack saddles manufactured, tents sewn to equip the whole expedition, and enough bateaux built and competent bateaux men hired to accompany the expedition along the rivers. Still, the difficulties persisted. Greene, to his credit, managed to supply enough to begin the campaign, with promises of continual supply throughout the summer until the expedition’s completion. Sullivan departed Easton on 18 June for the Wyoming Valley where he stayed for the next month amassing supplies and men. Though 5000 troops were allocated by Washington, Sullivan was never in direct command of more than 4000 or so due to expiring enlistments and other requirements by Washington. Sullivan considered it barely enough to contend with the Iroquois.

In 1779, the remaining Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had a combined population of just 13,000, or less than half the population of Philadelphia at the time. (In today’s terms the entirety of the Iroquois population was just a bit more than the population of the neighborhood I grew up in, Carrick in Pittsburgh.) Theoretically, of those 13,000, the Four Nations could put about 3,000 warriors into the field against Sullivan augmented by about 300 loyalists. Brant and Butler also knew that their men were much better fighters in the forests than the Americans, and routinely outfought twice their number of American militia. However the size and composition of Sullivan’s expedition convinced many warriors to evacuate their families to Fort Niagara ahead of the invasion. Unlike the Continental Army, Brant’s warriors’ option to stay were strictly voluntary. His warriors could come and go as they pleased. Thousands departed to pack up their villages and escort their families to Fort Niagara. Brant and Butler had but 1000 Iroquois warriors and 250 loyalist rangers to oppose Sullivan. All the British and Iroquois could do was launch counter raids to distract from the massive build up. Sullivan wasn’t going to get his climactic big battle with the Iroquois that Washington wanted, and he was going to find empty villages.

Every measure was taken to keep the build up a secret, but the immensity of the expedition precluded any such possibility. The British, loyalists and Iroquois knew of the buildup. However, Joseph Brant, a Mohawk Pine Tree war chief, but generally accepted leader of the Iroquois warriors (a “Pine Tree” war chief was an elected position because according to Iroquois law, only Seneca could be formal war chiefs of intertribal war bands) and John Butler, command of the loyalist Butler’s Rangers who have been harassing the American frontier for two years, could do little about it. The British governor of Quebec was convinced of an American invasion of Canada in 1779 and no British regulars were spared for the defense of the Iroquois homeland or Fort Niagara. Even worse, the sheer size of Sullivan’s Expedition, 3000 in the Wyoming Valley, 1500 in the Mohawk Valley, and 1000 in the Allegheny Valley, convinced many Iroquois that the homeland must be evacuated.

Schuyler and Greene might have written the plan, but Washington had some very specific commander’s intent and guidance. In May, Washington reiterated the plan and emphasized the objectives to Sullivan. There could be no mistake since they were in the very first paragraph of the letter,

“Sir,
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…”

Washington and Sullivan needed those villages captured intact with their inhabitants. Hostages were needed for prisoner exchanges and to ensure any Iroquois compliance with a peace treaty. (On the 18th century frontier, any treaty with an Indian tribe that did not involve hostages was unenforceable due to the relationship between individual warriors and the personal leadership of their chief) Sullivan was not authorized to conclude a peace treaty, only the Continental Congress could do that, he was allowed to suspend operations if the Iroquois handed over Butler, Brant and several other chiefs and warriors involved in the frontier raiding. The only caveat was that Sullivan could only do so after “the total ruin of their settlements is effected”. The expedition’s objective was to break the Iroquois with the added effect of forcing them to seek support from the British and overburdening the British supply system in Canada. There would be no peace with the Iroquois until their homeland was “not merely overrun, but destroyed”.

On 31 July 1779, the Continental brigades of Enoch Poor, William Maxwell, and Edward Hand with his Light Corps in the lead departed Fort Wyoming to cannon salutes of its remaining garrison. The expedition had encamped among the charred ruins of the Wyoming Valley settlements which was a daily reminder of the reason for the campaign. The two miles long column had rotating advanced, flank, and rear guards with rangers, Oneida and Stockbridge Indians, and former Iroquois captives as scouts ahead. The column also contained 1500 packhorses, 800 head of cattle, a mobile blacksmith shop, and 200 “artificers” to repair equipment along the way. 200 boats and bateaux accompanied the column along the river and carried the majority of the expedition’s supplies. The eighty mile march to Tioga, at the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna rivers, was mostly without incident. The enormity of Sullivan’s command caused Butler and Brant to withdraw and issue desperate pleas to Niagara and local bands of Indians to concentrate deeper in the Confederacy interior.

Sullivan reached former Oneida, now abandoned Cayuga, castle at Tioga on 11 August where he was to meet James Clinton’s Continental Brigade (no relation to the British Commander in Chief in North America) coming down the Susquehanna from Canjoharie on Otsego Lake in the Mohawk Valley. Clinton’s 150 mile march was also surprisingly unimpeded. Clinton torched several former Tuscarora, now abandoned Onondaga and Mohawk towns, on the march. On 19 August, Sullivan sent Poor’s brigade out to meet Clinton as Butler and Brant finally began harassing the expedition and Sullivan was concerned that Butler was trying to defeat him in detail. Clinton linked up with Sullivan at Tioga on the 22th.

Sullivan wasn’t idle at Tioga while waiting on Clinton. Tioga was to be the logistics hub for the entire expedition. Though it wasn’t in the center of the Confederacy as Washington suggested, it was on the southern border of the Confederacy homeland and the perfect place to transfer supplies from boats, and eventually wagons once the road completed, to the pack horses necessary for an expeditious movement into the heart of the Iroquois homeland. “Fort Sullivan” was constructed upon the ruins of the Oneida castle on the Tioga peninsula. Three days after Clinton arrived, the entire army but a 300 man garrison of Fort Sullivan departed for the interior of the Iroquois Confederacy.

For the last few weeks, Butler and Brant were content to ambush and harass Sullivan’s massive force, but the Seneca war chiefs demanded Sullivan be stopped before his army reached the prosperous interior villages. Sullivan more than doubled Butler and Brant’s force, but they planned on ambushing the Americans as they had so effectively at the Battle of Oriskany two years before. The place they chose was the hill at Newtown which controlled the trails and Chemung River that served as the gateway to the Cayuga heartland. Butler and Brant’s 1200 loyalists and warriors built camouflaged earthworks on the southeast corner of the hill directly over the path of Sullivan’s approaching force. The position covered the fords near the confluence of Baldwin Creek and the Chemung River which ran north and south of the hill respectively. There they waited in ambush.

Unfortunately for the British and Iroquois, what worked two years prior against militiamen, did not work against trained and veteran Continental troops. The advanced guard consisted of three companies from Dan Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps, and they spotted the ambush immediately. Morgan quickly brought up the rest of Hand’s Light Corps and Sullivan’s artillery to fix Butler and Brant in the earthworks. In a battle drill that Sullivan’s formations had been practicing for months, Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade flanked right along the east bank of the Chemung while Poor’s New Hampshire and Clinton’s New York brigades did the same over the swampy “morass” along Baldwin’s Creek on the left. Hand’s brigade began its assault on the earthworks when Morgan observed Butler and Brant had already begun withdrawing from the untenable position, astonished by the rapidity and agility of the Continental attack. The Iroquois and loyalist force ran a gauntlet of fire from Poor’s and Clinton’s men in a running battle as they retreated. The only thing preventing a complete rout and encirclement of the Iroquois force was a counterattack by Brant on the far end of Poor’s brigade. Brant was eventually driven off by another quick and coordinated attack by nearby Continental regiments.

British Lt-Col John Butler and Chief Joseph Brant’s army disintegrated. The warriors who were convinced the Americans did not possess the capability and will to break into the Cayuga homeland, now had to face the inevitability of an American assault on the Seneca homeland. The Seneca were the “Keepers of the Western Door” of the Iroquois but there was nothing geographically preventing an attacker from laying waste to the Seneca from the east. For that, the Seneca relied on the other five nations. Though not very bloody in terms of casualties, less than a hundred on both sides, the Battle of Newtown was decisive. Sullivan’s victory laid bare the Iroquois heartland, and the entirety of the remaining Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy fled east to suckle at the British bosom around Fort Niagara for the winter. Brant and Butler continued to agitate Iroquois chiefs and the British commander at Fort Niagara for men. However after Newtown, the primary British concern was the continued occupation and successful defense of Fort Niagara, not the Iroquois homeland, and the Iroquois warriors were too concerned about feeding their families through the winter than fighting Sullivan’s massive army.

The only significant engagement for the rest of Sullivan’s Expedition was an ambush on 13 September of a 30 man patrol under Lt Thomas Boyd by Seneca chief Little Beard. Boyd and several of his men were captured, tortured and executed in retribution for the destruction caused by Sullivan’s army. As recorded by the British, Boyd was killed when he was tied to tree by his own intestines then forced to run around it until he died. Sullivan eventually burned down Little Beard’s village too.

With virtually no further resistance by Butler and Brant after Newtown, Sullivan’s army went about the grim business of eliminating the Iroquois’ ability to sustain themselves. As Sullivan pushed deeper into the Confederacy, battalion and brigade sized Continental “flying columns” struck out against remote Iroquois villages. American soldiers marveled at the size and prosperity of the long houses and cabins. Many had glass windows and were “larger and more elegant” than their colonial equivalent. Most of the villages rivaled their own villages in the east, and were more prosperous than many. In the Iroquois fields, the “Three Sisters”, corn, beans and squash, were ripe and ready to be eaten. Too green for the Iroquois women and children to pick and take with them to Fort Niagara in July and August, they provided vital sustenance for Sullivan’s columns. Despite all of the logistical preparation done by Greene the previous spring and summer, Sullivan was still forced to forage to keep up his momentum. Much to Washington and Greene’s chagrin, that Sullivan started so late actually significantly contributed to the successful conclusion of the campaign. What food not on the packhorses was provided by the Iroquois fields and what they couldn’t eat, was destroyed.

On 15 September 1779, Sullivan’s Expedition reached Little Beard’s Seneca castle at Genesee. It was abandoned like the rest of the Iroquois villages previously encountered. There they found Boyd’s tortured body around the tree and the rest of the captives mutilated nearby. Sullivan turned out the entire army to extinguish Genesee and its fields teeming with corn, beans, and squash. With the westernmost village of the Seneca destroyed, Sullivan did not have any plans to press on and capture Fort Niagara. There were no fat fields to forage off of in the eighty miles of untouched wilderness between Genesee and Fort Niagara (This area was a Seneca hunting ground). His men had marched hundreds of circuitous miles in the last few months, and still had to be back in winter quarters in New Jersey before the first major snowfall. There would be no mad snowy dash forward to capture British fort by surprise, as Montgomery and Arnold attempted at Quebec in 1775. His primary objectives mostly accomplished, though he had almost prisoners. Nonetheless, Sullivan turned his army around and returned to Tioga, and destroyed any villages he bypassed on his 136 mile trek through the Iroquois heartland.

In total, Sullivan’s expedition destroyed 40 Iroquois villages and approximately 160,000 bushels of food. This isn’t including Col David Brodhead’s expedition up the Allegheny River from Fort Pitt. His expedition destroyed a further “ten towns, 165 houses, 500 acres of corn, and $30,000 worth of produce”. Brodhead’s combined Delaware and Continental force (The Delaware were allies of the United States against the Iroquois and British since the Treaty of Fort Pitt in September 1778, America’s first foreign treaty) centered on the 14th Pennsylvania Regt but only carried 30 days’ worth of supplies. Brodhead departed Fort Pitt on 14 August and was back by late September, burning abandoned Seneca villages at the headwaters of the Allegheny River. Despite his orders to do so, Brodhead never came close to linking up with Sullivan.

The devastated lands of the former Four Nations were informally given over to the Oneida and Tuscarora nations. By mid-October, Fort Sullivan and Tioga were abandoned, and Sullivan’s brigades were marching back east. Hand’s New Yorkers unfortunately continued the devastation of the Iroquois homeland by arresting bands of friendly Mohawk in the lower Mohawk Valley on the way back. Since these Mohawk stayed neutral in the conflict, and didn’t assist the Sullivan Expedition, Hand turned their homes over to New York settlers. These incidents greatly soured the Oneida and Tuscarora on the United States and threatened to undo any goodwill between the nations and country.

In the west, Sullivan’s expedition strengthened the Delaware-American alliance, but not enough to prevent it from falling apart when the Americans demanded too much from the Delaware for the campaign against Detroit. George Rogers Clark did manage to secure treaties at Vincennes with the Shawnee and Wyandot after word reached of Sullivan’s success.

As for the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk, their land was destroyed, and they would never be able to challenge the United States again. Sullivan’s expedition did not put an end to the British and Iroquois raiding, and hundreds of loyalists and rangers descended on the American frontier with fury and vengeance in 1780. But they had to travel further and couldn’t stay as long. Furthermore, they had to travel through hostile Oneida and Tuscarora lands, increasingly stiffened by settlers who took land that the small Oneida and Tuscarora nations couldn’t possibly fully occupy.

Most of the refugee Iroquois settled on British reservations in Ontario where they stayed. At the end of the American Revolution, the British abandoned the Iroquois and they weren’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Some of the refugee Iroquois attempted to return to their devastated former homeland, only to find their lands occupied by Oneida, Tuscarora and American settlers. The fighting between them brought about the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. At Fort Stanwix that October, Seneca and Mohawk chiefs ceded most of the Iroquois land west of the Susquehanna, including all of the Allegheny Valley and all of the Ohio Country which the Iroquois still saw as their land by right of conquest during the Beaver Wars in the 17th century. The remaining Iroquois elders of the reestablished Council Fire at Buffalo Creek (present day Buffalo, NY) rejected the treaty as did the Western Confederation in the Ohio Country, whose former Iroquois subject nations bristled at the thought that they were still ruled by the Six Nations. But the influence wielded by the elders of the Iroquois Council Fire was a pale shadow of what it was five years before. For almost two centuries the Five, then Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy lived by the right of conquest, and in American eyes in 1784, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy died by the right of conquest.

The Iroquois Confederacy, once the arbiter of all Indian affairs for 200 years between the Atlantic and Mississippi, and the Great Lakes and the Ohio River was reduced to a few small disparate patches of land supposedly still under British protection.

“When your army entered the country of the Six Nations, we called you ‘Town Destroyer’: and to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers. Our counsellors and warriors are men, and cannot be afraid; but their hearts are grieved with the fears of our women and children, and desire that it may be buried so deep as to be heard no more.” – Seneca Chief Cornplanter to President George Washington. 1790

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