Historical Markers
Sullivan Campaign Historical Marker
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Sullivan Campaign

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Knox Ave. (SR 2025, former PA 115) just N of Easton

Dedication Date:
August 5, 1947

Behind the Marker

Major General John  Sullivan Distinguished officer of the Continental Army   mesotint,  [London] : Publish'd as the Act directs by Thos. Hart, 1776 Augt. 22.
"Major General John Sullivan, A distinguished Officer of the Continental...
Sullivan's Campaign of 1779 was the Continental Army's major search-and-destroy expedition of the Revolutionary War. Proposed by Gen. George Washington in the aftermath of the bloody Wyoming Massacre, the expedition was led by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, whose orders were to destroy the heart of Iroquois territory in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley and western New York, and to capture Fort Niagara, a critical British supply base.

When the main theater of the Revolutionary War slipped south to Georgia and the Carolinas in the summer of 1778, the headquarters for both the British and Continental armies remained in the north. While the British leadership stayed in New York City, Washington's Continentals lay along an arc between southwestern Connecticut and the mouth of the Raritan River in New Jersey. Both sides watched each other, often hoping to take decisive offensive action but hesitating to do so.

Instead, they waited for news of decisive victory at sea or in the south, or for political and diplomatic developments that would break the stalemate. Civilians, both ordinary and eminent, seemed to lose interest in the war, as price inflation, graft, corruption, political intrigue, and war weariness blossomed. It was a trajectory that would lead directly to Benedict Arnold's treason in 1781 and the mutinies in the Continental Line in 1780 and 1781.
Map of the Sullivan campaign
Map of the Sullivan campaign, circa 1780.

On the northern frontier, Indians, Loyalists, and a few regular British ranger units grew more aggressive. The chronic clashes and resentments among Pennsylvanians, Yankees, and Indians in the upper Susquehanna, or Wyoming Valley, exploded in late 1778 in the crushing losses by the revolutionary side at the markerBattle of Wyoming. Political pressure mounted to do something to break the stalemate, and especially to repulse Indian threats on the frontier.

In late 1778, Washington decided to mount a punitive expedition into the heart of "Iroquoia," the Iroquois territory in the north. Geographically, the Six Nations Confederacy began along the Mohawk River Valley west of Albany, continued to the settlement of Tioga, in the Susquehanna Valley near the New York/Pennsylvania border, and from there extended west into the Great Lakes region. Washington then chose General John Sullivan of New Hampshire to lead the expedition.

Sullivan assembled 2,500 men at markerEaston, planning to march northwest through Wyoming into Iroquoia during the early spring of 1779. There he would meet and cooperate with two other wings of the expedition. Gen. James Clinton's forces were to advance from the Mohawk Valley southwest to meet Sullivan near Tioga, and Pennsylvania Col. Daniel Brodhead's smaller force was to travel up the Allegheny River from markerFort Pitt to meet the main body of troops in the Genesee country west of the Finger Lakes. Collectively, these three forces totaled approximately 5,000 men and reflected Washington's fondness for complex, multi-pronged strategic operations.
Oil on canvas of Joseph Brandt in colorful native American clothing and a head dress that includes a band and several green and white feathers. Small amounts of war paint adorn his cheeks.
Brant Thayendanegea, by Charles Willson Peale, 1797.

Sullivan spent more than a month at Easton, working on the logistical plans for the expedition before he took to the field in mid-June. It took his men more than a month to reach Wyoming. Clinton's troops were also delayed, being forced to dam Otsego Lake just to get their supplies and munitions to Tioga. Plagued by supply and morale problems, Brodhead's force never reached the front. Beginning in late August, however, Sullivan and Clinton conducted a successful "scorched earth" operation through the heart of Iroquoia, burning more than forty Iroquois villages and seizing or destroying enormous quantities of food.

Their focus on the ecological destruction of Iroquoian society was not accidental. Washington's planning made it clear that he wanted to cripple Indian tribes in order to eliminate them as a factor of war. In this sense, American tactics reverted to the kind used in the large Anglo-Indian conflicts in Virginia and New England during the first generations of cultural contact in the seventeenth century. Helpless to resist the invasion, the Indians withdrew, offering only sporadic guerilla resistance. There were few major battles, and casualties were relatively light on both sides.

Although he failed to secure Fort Niagara, and thus allowed the Iroquois to retain their links with the British in present-day Ontario, Sullivan returned from the expedition confident that he had achieved his objectives. The hardships in Indian country were considerable. Parts of Iroquoia lay in ruins. Thousands of Indian refugees besieged the Redcoat stronghold at Fort Niagara, where the British had to feed them during the subsequent winter, one of the harshest in the eighteenth century. Crops failed, and the Hudson River froze at New York City.

Battered, but their spirits unbroken, the Iroquois in late 1780 renewed their raiding in the Mohawk and Susquehanna Valleys, although with less intensity or success than before. On October 22, 1784, the Americans demanded that the Iroquois abandon all claims to territory in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and western New York in an agreement they called the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Predictably, the Iroquois Confederation rejected the treaty. Defrauded of their best lands by the United States government in subsequent treaties, the Iroquois moved to Canada or were herded onto a few small reservations by 1800. In the northwest, Seneca continued to mount raids, destroying Hannastown in the early 1780s.
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