No sooner had General John Sullivan returned from his unauthorized raid on Staten Island, than he launched a new campaign to recast its mixed results to his own advantage with an audacity that would make a modern spin doctor blush. He waited over a week before writing his after action report to the President of Congress, but two days after he was back in camp in Hanover, NJ, with well over 200 of his men and 22 officers captured, he sent a letter to his Commander-in-Chief wrongly accusing a subordinate, Lt. Col. Antill, of desertion to the enemy. The letter contained further bombshells;
"Hanover 24th Augt 1777
I have to Inform yr Excellencey that Colo. Antill gave us the Slip Day before yesterday & went over to the Enemy—his Brother officers Say they have Long Since Suspected his Intentions from the whole Tenor of his Conduct—I found a Number of p<apers> of Intelligence among the Baggage of the office<rs> which Shall take Care to forward to yr Excellencey as Soon as Sorted—among the Rest is a paper of Information from the Quakers at their yearly meeting at Spank Town held the 19th Instant giving an Account of Our Army where it Lay & the force in the Several Departments—I Shall march tomorrow & Join yr Excy with all possible Expedition—I hope yr Excy will Defer beating Howes Army that my Division may have a Share of the honor. Dr General I am with much respect your Excys most obedt Servt
Washington was not taken in by Sullivan's smoke and mirrors, replying on August 27th;
"It is unfortunate, that an affair which had so prosperous a beginning should have terminated so disagreeably, as in a great measure to defeat the good consequences that might have attended it. I am however, glad to hear, that the Officers and Men distinguished themselves by their good behaviour; and if there are any who behaved more remarkably well, than others, I should be happy to take all the notice of them, consistent with propriety, that their conduct may appear to merit. I am not sufficiently acquainted with circumstances to form a certain judgment, of what might have been expected from this expedition; but from the view I have of them, and from your own representation of the matter, the situation of the Enemy seems to have been such, as afforded an opportunity of reaping much more decisive advantages, than were in fact gained."
Washington makes no mention of either the charges against Lt. Col. Antill or those levelled against the Quakers. At least one recent academic paper wrongly concludes that these supposedly incriminating documents were found in the effects of the captured Lt. Col. Antill, but Sullivan extends and expands his charges against Quakers as an entire class of people in a letter to John Hancock the following day in which it is clear that he meant the papers were found among the spoils of war. As this letter is not fully available online, I reproduce it here in its entirety.
“Dear Sir. Among the baggage taken on Staten Island the 22nd Instant I find a Number of Important papers a Copy of these I Inclose (sic) for the Perusal of Congress - The one from the yearly meeting at Spank Town held the 19th Inst I think worthy the attention of Congress. I have often heard that the Quakers at their meetings Collected Intelligence & forwarded to the Enemy. This I made no Difficulty in beleiving (sic) as it Exactly Corresponded with the whole Tenor of their Conduct – but The paper Referred to puts it beyond Doubt in my mind – if this be the Case That those people under pretense of worshiping the Deity employ their time in Collecting intelligence for the Enemy I will venture to pronounce them the most Dangerous Enemies America Knows & Such as have it in their power to Distress the Country more than all the Collected Force of Britain while they are Themselves in no kind of Danger being always covered with the Hypocritical Cloak of Religion under which they have with Impunity so long acted the part of Inveterate Enemies of their country. Congress will pardon me when I give it as my opinion that This Extensive Continent can never be Defended while Such a Channel of Intelligence is open to the Enemy an Army equal to those raised by the princes of persia would not be Sufficient to guard Against the attacks of an Army So Inconsiderable as Mr. Howe’s if he always knew where to Strike with Safety our only Security Lays in his not knowing where to Strike with Certainty; but if those persons are Suffered to meet & give Information he can be at no Loss – for at Those meetings they have persons from almost Every State & almost every County on the Continent. Each one knows the weakness of the part he comes from, knows what Troops are in motion & what in Garrison & how Situated So that by Comparing accounts and Summing up the whole they have the whole force of the Continent before them at one view – This being Communicated to the Enemy they know where to make their attacks with a moral certainty of Success – To prevent this in future I think worthy the attention of the guardians of American Freedom — I have a great aversion to Interfering with the Religious principles of any Set of men but when we find That their Religious meetings are Prostituted to the Base purposes of Betraying their Country Every principle of Policy & the laws of self preservation dictate that those pernicious meetings Should not be Suffered in future at least while we are at war with a people whose cause they Espouse & to whom they openly express the most Sincere friendship.
As outrageous as the idea of Quaker 5th columnists may seem to modern eyes, in those troubled times with Howe's invasion force at Head of Elk and poised to threaten Philadelphia, Sullivan's conspiracy theory and the so-called "Spank Town" papers were taken seriously by Congress.
Religious principles were a significant but complex factor during the struggle for American Independence. The Dutch Reformed Church split into factions opposed to control from Amsterdam and those fervent supporters of its authority that generally tilted them into the camps of Whig and Tory respectively. In the Episcopal Church with George III as Defender of the Faith, families and congregations divided over conflicting loyalties to Sovereign and native land.
For the pacifist Society of Friends, the path of neutrality made them suspect. West Jersey and the Philadelphia area was both a Quaker stronghold and fast becoming the seat of war. There were fighting Quakers - General Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island the most prominent - and according to historian Isaac Sharpless "about one-fifth of the adult male Friends in Philadelphia had joined the American army, or taken places in the revolutionary government." There were a few who were avowed loyalists, but the great majority adhered to the path of neutrality. Expelling members from Meeting who had taken up arms and publicly urging those of their faith to stay true to their non violent principles did nothing to endear them to the radical supporters of Rebellion.
Aside from the hyperbolic tone and McCarthyesque insinuations - not to mention what its suggests about Sullivan's character and psychology, this letter masterfully turned the attention of Congress toward a purge of disloyal citizens in Philadelphia rather than censure of Sullivan's disappointing and unsanctioned Staten Island Raid. The evidence that he did not at first provide to Washington, as he was preparing to send it to Congress, consisted of a list of questions about the strength and location of various elements of the American Army that could have been written by anyone, and inscribed "Information from Jersey, August 19th, 1777" and "Spank Town Yearly Meeting."
Congress took advantage of the opportunity to order the arrest without trial and the deportation of prominent Quakers and others in Pennsylvania and Delaware who were believed to be hostile to the cause of liberty. A list of more than 40 suspect persons was duly compiled, and about 20 of them, largely Quakers, were arrested in Philadelphia. They were sent first to Reading, PA and then to Virginia where they remained until the middle of 1778 protesting their treatment and decisively exposing as forgeries the documents presented by Sullivan as evidence of Quaker perfidy;
"indeed it is unfavourable for the contriver of this piece of business, that he had not obtained better information concerning our meetings in those parts, and attended a little more to the dates of events; and it is happy for us, deprived as we are of all opportunity of clearing up the matter by other evidence, that he has put into his composition several things which wholly destroy its credit...There is not, and never has been, a yearly meeting of our Society held at Spanktown, as the inventor of this affair might have known had he made the least inquiry. It is true that a quarterly meeting is held at Rahway, part of which place, we understand, is known by the nickname of Spanktown, but never so called in any of our proceedings. The paper published immediately before the extract of General Sullivan's letter, shows the manner in which that meeting is styled by the Society, to wit, "our quarterly meeting, held in Rahway." This meeting was held and finished on the 18th day of that month, and we are assured by one of our company now confined at Winchester, who attended it, at every sitting from beginning to end, that no paper, or intelligence of any public nature, kind, or tendency whatsoever, was made therein.
But lastly, the author of this counterfeited paper, besides his want of knowledge of the meetings, the times at which they are held, and the names by which they are called, has been guilty of an oversight in the date of his intelligence, equally fatal to the credibility of his work. He makes his newly constituted Yearly Meeting at Spanktown say, "It is said General Howe landed near the head of Chesapeake Bay, but cannot learn the particular spot, nor when." He dates this the 19th day of August. From the public papers we find that the fleet containing General Howe's army was on that day, at or near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, and that it did not arrive at Turkey Point, near the head of it, till the 22nd, of which the earliest intelligence was brought to Philadelphia on the 23rd, and might have reached Spanktown and Hanover on the 24th or 25th; before which time the paper in question could not have received its present form. How then can it be true that it was framed at Spanktown on the 19th, as itself imports, or that it was found on Staten Island on the 22nd, as General Sullivan has asserted!
We submit these facts to the consideration of the public, not doubting but they will acquit our Society of being the authors of it, whatever opinions they may entertain of any others."
Congress backed away from the Spank Town papers early on in this affair, as Sullivan faced not one but two subsequent courts martial for his actions at Staten Island and Brandywine, but the Quaker detainees were held for many more months until they were permitted to return to Philadelphia during the final month of British occupation of that city. Most were prisoners of conscience. Few were loyalists. Having refused to take loyalty oaths, they were suspect persons and they suffered for it.
As for Sullivan, none of the charges brought against him included the falsification of documents or the false incrimination of Quakers. The following year when he was operating against the British in occupied Rhode Island, Sullivan was still going after Quakers, stirring up the whole controversy over Quaker neutrality by arresting two of them for refusing military service. By then, his star was well tarnished, and out of favor with Washington.
We will conclude this series on Sullivan's Staten Island Raid with an overview of his court martial and consider the significance of the engagement for those who fought that August day and those caught up in its aftershocks.