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The Life of
General John Sullivan
by Diane Janowski, Elmira City Historian ©2003

General John Sullivan was one of Battle of Newtown's most prolific figures. Sullivan was born in Somersworth, New Hampshire on February 17, 1740, the third son of Irish immigrants. Sullivan studied law in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He married Lydia Remick Worcester in 1760. In 1764, he bought three acres on the Oyster River in Durham, New Hampshire and become the town's first lawyer. The determined young Sullivan’s ambition led him into trouble. He regularly foreclosed on debts owed him and sued his neighbors. Soon, much of Durham hated him and Durhamites considered him the reason of their financial difficulties. On several occasions, his debtors brutally attacked him. On February 23, 1766, fifteen angry men with assorted weapons tried to kill Sullivan who was hiding at the house of Joseph Cilley’s house in Nottingham.1 

General John Sullivan Battle of Newtown

A petition signed by 133 citizens of Durham on June 1, 1766, was presented to the New Hampshire General Court, asking for relief from Sullivan’s oppression and on the next day a small mob broke into Sullivan’s house intending to kill him. Somehow, Sullivan assuaged the mob. In the lawsuit against Sullivan in General Court, with several favorable depositions from his friends, Sullivan talked the court into dismissing the petition and then sued his prosecutors unsuccessfully for libel. Sullivan increased his holdings in the Durham area and gradually improved his relations with the town's residents. In the late 1760s Sullivan supported Britain and became a favorite of Royal Governor John Wentworth.Because of his friendship with Wentworth, Sullivan was commissioned as a major in the militia in November 1772. Now a proven success, Sullivan bought some black slaves to daily row him back and forth the Piscatqua River to Portsmouth. At around the same time was born his first child, Margery, who soon died, followed by the births of Lydia, John, James, and George.

As relations between Britain and America eroded, Sullivan joined the ranks of the dissidents. On July 21, 1774, the First Provincial Congress of New Hampshire met in Exeter, New Hampshire. Sullivan was a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While there, Sullivan enjoyed Philadelphia’s ebulent upper class. He also became involved in many issues, generally aligning himself with the radicals from Massachusetts.

Sullivan joined the Seacoast New Hampshire uprising at Fort William and Mary in 1774, then served in many failed battles. Early in 1775, Sullivan was elected to the Second Continental Congress. At Philadelphia, the delegates voted to take on the regulation of the army and chose Sullivan as their seventh brigadier general.

Already, John Sullivan had established a pattern of behavior that would follow the rest of his military course. He was brave almost to the extent of folly.2 George Washington sent Sullivan to Canada in May 1776 where Sullivan took command of the remnants of the army that had earlier invaded Canada. Sullivan told Washington that he was hold out but he soon retreated. Again, Congress severely criticized Sullivan for the retreat, but on August 9 it promoted him to the rank of major general. Washington described Sullivan as vain and popular.

In August 1776, Sullivan joined Washington, who was facing the British General Howe in what is now Brooklyn, New York. On August 20, he received command of Long Island, but three days later Washington took back part of Sullivan’s command away after the burning of some buildings by the Americans. The disaster that followed was due partly to the poor definition of the division of command. The British and Hessians attacked the Americans from both sides. On August 27, Sullivan, with a pistol in each hand, engaged the Hessians in a running battle in a cornfield and was captured.3 Reports showed that Sullivan’s men made their way to safety. Sullivan's leadership enraged Lieutenant Daniel Brodhead who stated, “Upon the whole, less Generalship never was shown in any Army since the Art of War was understood.”4

As a prisoner of war, Sullivan served as an unsuccessful intermediary between General Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, and the Continental Congress, carrying the admiral’s peace proposals. Negotiations collapsed almost immediately and Sullivan was again criticized by Congress as being Howe’s decoy. Sullivan was eventually exchanged for a British officer in American captivity.

After Sullivan’s release, he rejoined Washington in New Jersey. On December 25, 1776, the American forces crossed the Delaware River and hit the Hessians in Trenton. Sullivan’s command captured a bridge across the Assanpink Creek and sealed the mercenaries into Trenton finally giving Sullivan a military victory. His good luck continued through the early part of January 1777, as his forces helped push the British out of Princeton.

In 1777, Sullivan argued with George Washington, the Continental Congress, and others over commands and promotions. Sullivan failed to capture Staten Island, and in September he commanded the right flank at the disastrous Battle of Brandywine. A court of inquiry absolved him of any blame for the failure at Staten Island, but his enemies in Congress made him the scapegoat of Brandywine.

In October, Sullivan and his troops were in Germantown, Pennsylvania after which he went to an inconsequential command in Rhode Island in 1778. Washington called on him again in the spring of 1779 to wipe out all Native American settlements that threatened colonists in New York and Pennsylvania. “Sullivan’s March” devastated Indian populations there by destroying all native housing and crops driving them away. The Battle of Newtown was the sole conflict involving the whole army of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.5 He resigned from military service November 30, 1779, three months after the Battle of Newtown, at the end of a long campaign defeating the Iroquois Nation and their British Loyalist allies, because of poor health.

“It is with the deepest regret I find myself compelled to request from Congress liberty to retire from the Army. My health is so much impaired by a violent bilious disorder, which seized me in the commencement and continued during the whole of the western expedition that I have not the smallest hope of a perfect recovery.”6

Sick and without money, Sullivan and returned to New Hampshire as a hero, and the state reelected him to the Continental Congress. In need of money, Sullivan accepted a loan of 68 guineas from the French minister at Philadelphia, the Chevalier de la Luzerne. His enemies in Congress were quickly on his back with charges that he had taken a bribe and been on the French payroll. Sullivan survived the embarassing investigation and returned to New Hampshire.

There, he became a member of the 1782 Constitutional Convention. He served as New Hampshire’s Attorney General from 1782 to 1786 and as its Speaker of the House in 1785. Sullivan was elected President of New Hamphire in 1786, and reelected in 1787. A year later, Sullivan was Chairman of the state convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States, and he was reelected Speaker of the House. In 1789, Sullivan was again elected President of New Hampshire, while also being appointed U. S. District Judge of New Hampshire. In Durham, Sullivan busied himself with politics. He served as attorney general and as speaker of the house. He and John Langdon led the long legislative campaign that resulted in New Hampshire becoming the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. Also in 1789, Washington appointed him as a federal judge for the district of New Hampshire. Sullivan’s appointment was something of a personal endorsement as Washington only appointed men of outstanding potential and unquestionable loyalty. Sullivan never resigned his judgeship although his health prevented him from sitting on the bench after May 1792. He held this judgeship until his death.

Sullivan’s last years were painfully miserable. He went into debt and grew senile. His daily drinking irritated an ulcer and he also suffered from a disease “contracted during public service.”7 Forsaken by all except his family and a few friends, he died in his home on January 23, 1795. He lies buried in the family plot at Durham.

Sullivan’s portrait hangs in the State House Building on the Second Floor in the Executive Council Chambers in Concord, New Hampshire. The New Hampshire town of Sullivan in Cheshire County and the county of Sullivan are among the many places dedicated in his name. Many other honors have been given to General John Sullivan. Among them are a granite monument near his home in Durham, New Hampshire and a steel span across the Piscataqua River from Newington to Dover Point named in his honor. In 1929, the United States Post Office issued a commemorative postage stamp bearing his likeness in honor of his New York expedition against the Indians. The State of New York honored him in 1879 with a monument at Ithaca, New York. Epping, New Hampshire has a Masonic lodge called “Major General John Sullivan Lodge No. 2., F. & A.M.” The General John Sullivan House (at 23 New Market Road in Durham) was listed on the National Register and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972. Both the historical marker and the General John Sullivan House are within the Durham Historic District that was listed on the National Register in 1989.

Sources:\ Winter 2003 NH Gov Web Site. Winter 2003 Seacoast Search. Winter 2003 of Freedom - John Sullivan.Winter 2003 MAJOR GENERAL JOHN SULLIVAN . Winter 2003



1 Whittemore, Charles P., A General of the Revolution John Sullivan of New Hampshire. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), p.4.

2 ibid., p. 24.

3 ibid., p.39.

4 ibid., p 39.

5 ibid., p. 141.

6 Rising, Oscar E. A New Hampshire Lawyer in General Washington’s Army. (Geneva, NY: Press of W.F. Humphrey, 1915), p. 113.

7 Amory, Thomas C. The Military Services and Public Life of Major-General John Sullivan of the American Revolutionary Army. Port Washinton, NY: Kennikat Press,1868), p. 245.

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