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History's headlines: Sullivan's march of 1779

History's Headlines: Sullivan's March

The American Revolution was based on ideals of liberty and freedom.

But along with being a struggle for independence, it was also a civil war of Americans against Americans that divided families, neighbors and communities.

Patriot leader John Adams admitted that at the start of the American Revolution at least a third of the colonists wanted to avoid taking sides. But "it is the special agony of civil wars that such indifference cannot be allowed by the contending forces," notes Donald W. Meing in his book, "Atlantic America 1492-1800."

Few better examples of this exist than Sullivan's March of 1779, a military expedition by the Continental Army under direct orders from General George Washington. It was launched from Easton into central Pennsylvania and New York against the pro-British Tories and their Native American allies, the Indian federation- known as the Six Nations or Iroquois.

Designed to prevent colonists from being attacked, Sullivan's March remains controversial to this day. Some historians argue that despite destroying large numbers of Indian villages, which led to the deaths by starvation of many of their innocent woman and children, it only increased the ferocity of the Native American raids that followed. Others claim by this "scorched earth" policy Sullivan ended forever the power of a British ally, saving lives and shortening the war. 

It was on May 7, 1779 that Major General John Sullivan of the Continental Army arrived in the Easton. He probably knew he was not George Washington's first choice to lead the expedition. As a matter of fact he was his fifth. Sullivan, an attorney and native of New Hampshire, had a knack for being contentious and offending the Continental Congress. When looking around for a scapegoat, the politicians seemed to find him an easy target.

One of the charges brought against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that he "has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

By 1779 settlers on the Pennsylvania-New York border had long been subject to attacks by the Native American allies of the British. In one sense for the Indians it was also a civil war.  Four of the Six Nation Iroquois tribes- the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas and Senecas-joined the British. The two remaining- the Oneidas and the Tuscaroras- sided with the Americans.

Whatever their feelings about it, the settlers were not given much choice of being neutral. Some of their neighbors had actively joined the British, which they saw as loyalty to king and country against treason, and were fighting beside the Iroquois. To win and keep the "hearts and minds" of the settlers was at least in part what was behind Washington's reason for launching Sullivan's expedition.

On May 31, 1779 Washington issued his orders. "The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their (the Indians) settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible," Washington wrote. The Iroquois' land should "not be merely overrun but destroyed," adding, "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."

Sullivan's army left Easton on June 18th. The roughly 4,000 Continental Army troops were plagued by bad roads, limited supplies and rough terrain. Some men barely had uniforms. One officer noted in his diary the dangers of a sheer 180 foot mountain trail in the wilderness on the upper Susquehanna River. It was "not more than one foot wide…one misstep must inevitably carry you from top to bottom without the least hope or chance of recovery." The same officer described with prose that bordered on poetry the beauty and fertility of the landscape they passed through and the Native American villages they had been ordered to destroy.

Sullivan's force did have some things going for it. The British leadership could not believe the Americans would attempt something as audacious as a raid so deep into the Six Nation's territory. By the time they did, they could not organize a really powerful force against them. The only major confrontation was the battle of Newtown, an American victory near what is now Elmira, New York.

Although Sullivan's army had hopefully been expected to carry the fight to the British stronghold of Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, they were too exhausted to continue. What they did do was shatter Native Americans villages, ruin their crops and force them into even more dependence on the British. Famine killed many of them that winter, mostly women and children. Eager for revenge the Indians launched even more savage raids on the settlers.

But when peace came in 1783, the British made no provision for them. Sullivan hoped for a hero's welcome but Congress was not about to give him one. He resigned his commission. However in New Hampshire he was a war hero. He went into politics, was elected to many posts, including governor, and died in 1795 at age 54. By then much of the fertile land that had once been that of the Six Nations was under the plow of white farmers and the Iroquois who had sided with the British were seeking refuge in Canada.

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