Dear Sir: Congress having determined upon an Expedition of an extensive nature agt. the hostile tribes of the Indians of the six Nations, the command is offered to Majr. General Gates as senior officer, but should he decline, it is my wish it should devolve upon you. That no time may be lost by General Gates's non-acceptance, I have put this letter under cover to him, and have desired him to forward it to you, should that be his determination. Should it therefore be sent to you, I must request you to set out as speedily as possible after the Rect. of it to Head Quarters, as the Season is already far advanced. "
Having made it known to the addressee that he was not his commander-in-chief's first choice to lead the expedition, General Washington awaited word as to which of his Generals would accept command. As perhaps Washington anticipated, General Gates declined -citing age and infirmity - and General Sullivan accepted. Thus the campaign against the Iroquois was entrusted not to the "Hero of Saratoga" but a man with a decidedly checkered military career.
Major General Sullivan had been despised in his hometown of Durham, NH, where as the town's first lawyer he had what was widely viewed as the pernicious habit of suing his neighbors and foreclosing on their debts. The son of an Irish redemptioner, he was vain and ambitious and politically calculating, switching his support from his friend the British colonial governor to the Massachusetts radicals as relations between the colonies and the crown worsened in the early 1770s. A delegate the 1st and 2nd Continental Congress, he was appointed Brigadier General in 1775. He lead a relief force to Canada in the Spring of 1776 but arrived only to preside over the Colonial retreat. Promoted to Major General, he was 2nd in command at the Battle of Long Island and captured by the Hessians. No stranger to intrigue, before he was exchanged he carried peace proposals from the British to Congress that prompted John Adams to deride him as a "decoy duck whom Lord Howe had sent among us to seduce us into a renunciation of our independence."
Sullivan fought well at the victory over the Hessians at Trenton, but later failed in an effort to capture Staten Island. He then commanded a Division at Brandywine (in which division my New Jersey ancestors were brigaded) and Germantown, both colonial defeats. While at Valley Forge he apparently fraternized but was not outwardly implicated in the affair of the Conway Cabal, a group of dissident statesmen and soldiers who undermined and criticized Washington in ill-advised letters. His subsequent command in the Battle of Newport Rhode Island was an outright failure, and little else of note happened in his Revolutionary career until Washington's letter in March of 1779 offering him command against the Iroquois if Gates would not take it.
Washington's later Instructions to Sullivan for the campaign were detailed and explicit. Urging the need for secrecy, preparation and haste on Sullivan may have exceeded the general's capabilities, for while considered recklessly brave and an able administrator, alacrity and guarded speech were not among the qualities Sullivan possessed. Washington made it clear:
"(The) immediate objects are the total distruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible...So soon as your preparations are in sufficient forwardness, you will assemble your main body at Wyoming and proceed thence to Tioga, taking from that place the most direct and practicable route into the heart of the Indian settlements. You will establish such intermediate posts as you think necessary for the security of your communication and convoys, nor need I caution, you, while you leave a sufficiency of men for their defence, to take care to diminish your operating force as little as possible. A post at Tioga will be particularly necessary, either a stockade fort or an intrenched camp; if the latter, a block-house should be erected in the interior. I would recommd. that some post in the center of the Indian Country should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provision; whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner; that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed . I need not urge the necessity of using every method in your power to gain intelligence of the enemy's strength motions and designs; nor need I suggest the extraordinary degree of vigilance and caution which will be necessary to guard against surprises, from an adversary so secret desultory and rapid as the Indians... It should be previously impressed upon the minds of the men when ever they have an opportunity, to rush on with the warhoop and fixed bayonet. Nothing will disconcert and terrify the indians more than this."
Thus far Washington gave Sullivan considerable discretion in how he carried out the campaign - so long as it was swift and well coordinated- and the need to make war on the countryside and its resources as well as its hostile inhabitants. But from the outset, he held out hope that the defeated Iroquois might be convinced to remain pacified and perhaps even provide support to the Patriots as their Oneida and Tuscarora brethren had done.
"After you have very thoroughly completed the destruction of their settlements; if the Indians should shew a disposition for peace, I would have you to encourage it, on condition that they will give some decisive evidence of their sincerity by de livering up some of the principal instigators of their past hostility into our hands. Butler, Brandt, the most mischievous of the tories that have joined them, or any other they may have in their power that we are interested to get into ours. They may possibly be engaged, by address, secrecy and stratagem, to surprise the garrison of Niagara and the shipping on the lakes and put them into our possession. This may be demanded as a condition of our friendship and would be a most important point gained. If they can render a service of this kind you may stipulate to assist them in their distress with supplies of pro visions and other articles of which they will stand in need, having regard to the expectations you give them to our real abilities to perform. I have no power, at present, to authorise you to conclude a treaty of peace with them but you may agree upon the terms of one, letting them know that it must be finally ratified by Congress and giving them every proper assurance that it will.
I shall write to Congress on the subject and endeavour to obtain more ample and definitive authority. But you will not by any means, listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected. It is likely enough their fears if they are unable to oppose us, will compel them to offers of peace, or policy may lead them to endeavour to amuse us in this way to gain time and succour for more effectual opposition. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us; [the distance to wch. they are driven] and in the terror with which the severity of the chastizement they receive will inspire them. Peace without this would be fallacious and temporary. New presents and an addition of force from the enemy, would engage them to break it the first fair opportunity, and all the expence of our extensive preparations, would be lost.
When we have effectually chastized them we may then listen to peace and endeavour to draw further advantages from their fears. But even in this case great caution will be necessary to guard against the snares which their treachery may hold out. They must be explicit in their promises give substantial pledges for their performance and execute their engagements with decision and dispatch. Hostages are the only kind of security to be depended on. Should Niagara fall into your hands in the manner I have mentioned, you will do every thing in your power for preserving and maintaining it, by establishing a chain of posts in such a manner as shall appear to you most safe and effectual and tending as little to reduce our general force as possible. This however we shall be better able to decide as the future events of the campaign unfold themselves. I shall be more explicit on the subject hereafter."
It is difficult to assess the degree to which Washington believed it would be possible to secure a lasting peace with the Iroquois. A veteran of Braddock's disastrous defeat during the French and Indian War and well aware of the outrages that had been perpetrated on the frontier in Tory/Indian raids, Washington's order does not sound like a strong endorsement of peace with the Iroquois as a likely aim of the campaign. Denying the British and their loyalist sympathizers the use of their Indian allies and the breadbasket of their fields and food stores by bringing war to the Iroquois heartland were more clearcut objectives and the ones that Sullivan devoted himself to accomplishing.
Sullivan would have four brigades of veteran continental troops for his expedition - Maxwell's, Poor's, Hands and Clinton's, the latter to rendezvous with the rest of the column after traveling down the Susquehanna from Canajoharie in the Mohawk Valley. The rest of his order of battle included a detachment of Morgan's Riflemen under command of a Major; a regiment of artillery under Colonel Proctor and an additional detachment from New York Colonel Lamb's Regiment, Major Burchardt's German Battalion, and two companies of Wyoming militia. All told he could count on about 4,000 soldiers for his drive into the Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga home territory, and there was hope that an additional column under Col. Daniel Brodhead might cooperate in an independent movement starting from Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.
The New Jersey Regiments in Maxwell's Brigade are of personal interest. The 1st New Jersey was commanded by Col. Matthias Ogden, a collateral ancestor of mine whose previous war service included accompanying Benedict Arnold on his march to Quebec as a volunteer Captain of Grenadiers. His wife, Hannah Dayton, was the daughter of the commander of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, my six great-grandfather Col. Elias Dayton. Dayton was an old Indian fighter who had served during the French and Indian War as a Lieutenant in the "Jersey Blues" and was with Wolfe at Quebec. During Pontiac's War as Captain he lead his company to Detroit, and in 1776 as commander of the 3rd NJ served in the Mohawk Valley, rebuilding Fort Stanwix and erecting Fort Dayton at Herkimer. These men had experience in frontier fighting and the perils of wilderness marches.
Other ancestors served as staff officers on the expedition. Col. Dayton's son Jonathan, later a signer of the Constitution, was a Captain in his father's regiment detached as 2nd Aide de Camp to Sullivan. Col. Ogden's younger brother and my direct ancestor Aaron Ogden was a Captain in the 1st New Jersey but called by the honorific "Major" as he served in the capacity of Brigade Major and on this campaign was General Maxwell's A.D.C. Both men had fought at Brandywine and Germantown and endured the winter at Valley Forge. This was their first taste of Indian fighting.
Also on Sullivan's staff was Lieutenant Colonel Francis Barber, whose first wife had been the sister of Matthias and Aaron Ogden, marrying a cousin of theirs after her death. Lt. Col. Barber was on detached service from Col. Dayton's regiment as the Adjutant General of the Expedition and kept Sullivan's Orderly Book. The Colonel of another New Jersey regiment in Maxwell's Brigade was Oliver Spencer, married to yet another Ogden sister.
These Jersey men were all from Elizabeth Town, many from distinguished if not tremendously wealthy families. They were esteemed in their communities and were considered gentlemen. Elizabeth was long past the days when it was vulnerable to Indian raids, but depredations by Tories was another matter. This community, the first English settlement in New Jersey, was juts across the channel from Staten Island, a Tory stronghold from which the British and their sympathizers regularly launched raids. Some of the most notorious Tories were their fellow townsmen, and Col. Dayton's house and lands had been burned when the British overran most of New Jersey in 1776. Maxwell's Brigade was stationed near Elizabeth when it was ordered to march for Easton, Pennsylvania and from their to Wyoming to join up with Sullivan. They would have been conscious of marching against the Tory/Indian threat on the New York frontier while leaving their kinfolk and property vulnerable to Tories at home, but were veterans of long service and under an officer familiar to them as commander of their old division. We'll check in on my ancestors as we follow Sullivan's forces upriver and into the wilderness in a subsequent post.