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Narratives of Sullivan’s Expedition, 1779

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Narratives of Sullivan’s Expedition, 1779
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Author(s): John L. Hardenbergh, William McKendry, William Elliott Griffis & Simon L. Adler
Date Published: 2010/11
Page Count: 176
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-396-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-395-3

A decisive campaign of the American War of Independence

The fast moving political situation of the latter part eighteenth century in America impacted upon the indigenous Indian tribes of the eastern woodlands as old loyalties and allegiances were fractured by the wars between European powers. The French in North America had but lately been deposed by the British when a new war broke out between the American colonists and the Crown. The Iroquois had remained loyal to the British but now the six nations were divided. Four tribes, the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas and Senecas, remained faithful to their British allies whilst the Tuscaroras and Oneidas allied themselves to the new nation of the United States. Now Iroquois fought Iroquois. Nevertheless the power of the four nations, especially operating as guerrilla troops combined with Tory troops and Rangers could not be ignored as a substantial threat. In 1779 Congress decided to break the influence of the Iroquois decisively and forever. General John Sullivan and his troops of the Continental Army embarked on a scorched earth campaign which destroyed numerous Indian villages and brought the Indians and Tories to defeat at the Battle of Newtown. The action all but put an end to attacks by Loyalists and Indians. The survivors reeled back into Canada, but the hardship caused to the tribes by this crushing defeat resulted in many deaths by starvation and cold in the following winter. This history of the Sullivan Campaign is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

An occasional rifle shot, or the arrival within the lines of a backwoodsman who had barely escaped death and scalping alone told of their proximity. On August 12th, they appeared in some force near the present village of Chemung and firing on General Hand’s brigade at short range killed six men and wounded twelve. They were immediately charged and disappeared in the forest. From this time the army proceeded with much greater caution and it was this alone that prevented an ambuscade which might have checked the expedition at Newtown, near the site of Elmira. Here the decisive battle of the expedition was fought. The British and Indians had carefully chosen their ground and masked their position with shrub oaks, cut the night before. The position was well selected and the enemy determined; and had the army marched blindly along the trail it probably would have been cut to pieces.<br>
But by means of climbing tall trees and surveying the path for a considerable distance ahead, the riflemen in advance discovered the works of the enemy in time. General Sullivan called a council of his officers and a plan to dislodge the Indian and Tory forces was agreed upon. Its wisdom was justified by its complete success. Every effort of the Indians to draw the American forces in front to an attack, before the flanking divisions which had been sent out to the right and left had attained their positions, failed.<br>
When all was in readiness the cannon which had been advantageously placed began to play upon the enemy’s works and the advance was begun. The Indians fought with a remarkable steadiness and bravery, when we remember that the roar of cannon and the bursting of shells is most terrifying to Indian ears. When they found that they were practically surrounded they began a masterly retreat about seven hours after the first gun was fired; and succeeded in carrying off the greater part of their killed and wounded.<br>
The American loss, three killed and thirty-nine wounded, was remarkably small considering the number of men engaged, and the length of the battle. It has been impossible to ascertain the British and Indian loss, but it must have been much greater. There have been various estimates made of the numbers engaged on either side. The British say that they had in the fight from four to six hundred Indians and two hundred English, which probably is fewer than there were; while Sullivan’s estimate of their numbers at fifteen hundred is undoubtedly too great.<br>
This estimate is made from the number of men it would take to man their works. To have properly defended the long line which they occupied would need many more men than they had so that they concentrated their force at certain points in the line, leaving the intervening spaces barely protected. The number of Americans engaged seems also to be uncertain, but a conservative estimate is thirty-two hundred men.<br>
After Newtown the army continued its march practically unmolested. The Indians seemed to feel the hopelessness of staying its progress. It appeared at times as if a well directed attack would seriously cripple the army, passing as it did with difficulty through narrow defiles in a long and slender line of march and seriously encumbered with the beasts of burden and provisions. On September 1st, the army was in a swamp and Lieutenant Barton wrote in his diary,<br>
Had the savages availed themselves of this opportunity, it must have proved very fatal to us, for they might with ease have destroyed a great part of our provisions with a party very inconsiderable.<br>
Another officer wrote at about the same time:<br>
I am sure that a few men of spirit might exceedingly retard our movements.<br>
But the Indians had been badly beaten, and they believed the invading army which advanced with the greatest caution and whose numbers they exaggerated, was invincible. The fresh bands of warriors which occasionally joined them were eager to engage the army, but the fighting spirit of those who had been at Newtown was for the time utterly broken, and their tales of defeat effectually cooled the ardour of the new men. Nor did complete harmony of purpose exist in the Indian camp. There was a powerful faction which hoped to secure peace by taking a neutral stand; and it is said that some of the Indians, notably Red Jacket, then a young warrior, afterwards to become famous as an orator, attempted to enter into negotiations to that end.
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