In the days that followed Sullivan's Staten Island Raid, while the General marched his division to rejoin Washington's Army at Philadelphia, some of his officers wrote bitterly to their friends and patrons that he had bungled the whole affair. Sullivan - with a Nixonian nose for enemies within - assembled his field commanders and let them know he was aware that some of them had written to Congress about his conduct. The other officers had agreed to keep silent, but Colonel Samuel Smith of the 4th Maryland, who had been officer of the day and was not aware of this pact; stood up and told Sullivan that he had, indeed written to his uncle in Congress and then "in the strongest terms, but in polite language, gave a full view of the errors which he considered to have been committed."
Sullivan advised his officers, in particular General DeBorre, to keep silent about the matter until he had had the chance to have a hearing and defend his actions, but the horses had already left the barn. Major John Taylor of the 2nd Canadian Regiment, which had lost 8 of its officers captured on Staten Island, wrote first to his superior Colonel Moses Hazen, and then brought formal charges against Sullivan that prompted Congress on September 1st to order a court martial.
At Washington's subsequent request this hearing was delayed several weeks due to the dire military situation as the Royalist forces moved on Philadelphia, and when proceedings resumed Sullivan faced new charges of maladministration stemming from his questionable performance at the Battle of Brandywine. On September 17th, Washington wrote;
"Tho' I would willingly pay every attention to the Resolutions of Congress, yet in the late instance respecting the recall of Genl Sullivan, I must [beg leave to] defer giving any order about It, [till I hear further from that Honble. Body.] Our Situation at this time is critical and delicate, and nothing should be done to add to its embarrassments. We are now most probably on the point of another Action, and to derange the Army by withdrawing so many General Officers from it, may and must be attended with many disagreeable, if not ruinous, Consequences. Such a proceeding at another time, might not produce any bad effects, but How can the Army be possibly conducted with a prospect of Success, if the General Officers are taken off, in the moment of Battle? Congress may rely upon it, such a measure will not promote, but injure the service. It is not my wish to prevent or to delay a proper inquiry into Genl Sullivan's Conduct, a single instant, when the Circumstances of the Army will admit; But now they prohibit it, and, I think, the suspension in his command also."
The proceedings of this Court of Inquiry are among the few from this conflict where documents relating to the testimony and deliberations not only survive but are available online. They have featured prominently in the documentation I have drawn upon in writing this series. Rather than repeating evidence previously cited, I will briefly summarize the proceedings and then turn to the verdict.
The Court Martial was convened on Washington's order with Major General Alexander Lord Sterling presiding. Sterling was the division commander whose men fought on the right of Sullivan's Division at Brandywine, and like Sullivan he had been captured in 1776 during the Battle of Long Island. The other members of the tribunal included Brigadier Generals Alexander McDougall and Henry Knox, Colonels Oliver Spencer of New Jersey and Thomas Clark of the 1st NC, with Timothy Pickering as A.G.
They received oral and written testimony from thirteen officers. Maj. Edward Sherburne's was given on September 6th, but he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Germantown before the Court Martial had concluded its deliberations. Some officers were unavailable to appear in person and gave their testimony in written form. Some of these were cross examined, and others not.
The charges dealt both with the plan of attack and its execution. Questions were raised about the ability for Sullivan's Division and Col. Ogden's force to support each other at a distance of over 10 miles during their separate landings and engagements, and the wisdom of marching Sullivan's men to Old Blazing Star Ferry to link up with Ogden rather than returning to the Jersey shore by the shorter route they had followed when they crossed over to the Island. Charges of rampant looting and poor control over the troops were levelled at Sullivan, particularly during the withdrawal to Old Blazing Star, and during embarkation with the three boats that were available for the return to New Jersey. His decision not to bring cannon to support the raid, and to march more than 20 miles the day before and as much again during the fighting without giving the men time to rest and refresh themselves was also part of the charges.
General Sterling summarized the evidence and after due consideration, the Court Martial released its findings on October 12th, 1777 clearing Sullivan of wrongdoing in the Staten Island Raid.
"The Court...are Unanimously of opinion that the expedition against the enemy on Staten Island was eligible and promised great advantages to the cause of America. That the expedition was well concocted, and the orders for the execution proper, and would have succeeded with reputation to the General and Troops under his command had it not in some measure been rendered abortive by accidents which were out of the power of the General to forsee or prevent. - That General Sullivan was particularly active in Embarking the Troops to the Island and took every precaution in his power to bring them off - That he made early provision at Elizabethtown for refreshing the Troops of his Division when they returned to Jersey, and that upon the Maturest consideration of the evidence in possession of this Court, General Sullivan's conduct in planning and executing was such in the opinion of this Court, that he merits the approbation of his Country, and not its censure. the Court therefore are Unanimously of opinion that he ought to stand honorably acquitted of any unsoldierlike conduct in the expedition to Staten Island."
Sullivan was soon thereafter cleared of the charges brought against him for Brandywine (aided by the resignation of his inept subordinate DeBorre). He was gleeful about the verdict, and wrote yet another gloating and vindictive letter to Congress on October 17th in which he stated that "Congress must be at some loss to know how it was possible for Lt. Col. Smith and Maj. Taylor to write so warmly against me to their friends in Congress when there was no Colour in it." He then proceeded to lay out yet another conspiracy theory that there was bad blood between these officers and his now deceased Deputy Adjutant General Maj. Edward Sherburne, aided by the now disgraced DeBorre.
Sullivan knew how to deflect criticism and assign blame to his subordinates, and he also knew how to intimidate them. With regard to his second Court Martial, he demanded that the officers of the regiments under his command sign politically motivated letters that were essentially loyalty oaths. Sullivan sought a similar endorsement from the officers who served under him in 1779 during his more successful campaign against the Iroquois, but did not secure the signatures of all of them (Matthias Ogden demurred). Examples of the letters from 1777 are also compiled online with the Court Martial proceedings. That of the Delaware Regiment (absent, it will be observed, the signature of Captain Enoch Anderson) will stand for the whole:
"Sir - Agreeable to your request in the order of this day, informing the officers of your Division, that you were Inform'd in the hearing of His Excellency, that the officers were Universally dissatisfied with your Command, and had no confidence in you, as an officer. - We the subscribers officers in the Delaware Regiment, in Justice to you and ourselves, do declare, that we repose the highest Confidence in you as an officer, and are entirely satisfied with your Command, and do not wish to be succeeded by any other."
The best he could secure from the disgruntled 2nd Canadian regiment was the following letter from Lieutenant John Erskine;
"Sir - I have just now been informed by Maj. Taylor, that you have been told by some Persons, that all the officers of this regiment are very uneasy at being under your Command, that you were desirous to know their minds on the subject - I have only to observe for my own part, that if I could reconcile myself as well to the Conduct of the Officers with whom I am more immediately concerned (I meant the Filed officers of Colo Hazen's Regimt) I could live in the Army as happy as I could wish."
Sullivan knew how to win support with flattery as well as through intimidation. His after action report to Congress singles out Colonel Matthias Ogden, who with his men "behaved with equal bravery" to the troops in Sullivan's sector, and forwarded Ogden's recognition of those of his men who preformed with zeal and activity. Ogden, for his part, wrote a supportive letter to Sullivan and praised his handling of the raid (the idea for which he may well have been presented to the General). Sullivan was also sure to praise the brave stand made at the landing by the captured Majors Tillard and Stewart, who were not available to give evidence conflicting with his own about the way he handled things on the return to New Jersey.
Perhaps we should give Captain Enoch Anderson the final word. Writing to his nephew years after the war, the old soldier observed;
"The Jersey Troops got much spoil, - fair game. The Delaware regiment got nothing, save what was taken by my company. One of the officers in my troops gave me a share of his spoils, but it was not much."
[I am grateful to the kind assistance of Todd Braisted and Tim Terrell who generously shared access to documentation that was of critical importance in writing this series.]