George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 16 April 1779

From Major General John Sullivan

Mill Stone [N.J.] April 16 1779.

Dear General

As your Excellencey has honoured me with an appointment to Command the Intended Expedition1 I must beg Leave to Lay my Sentiments before you in writing as words used in Conversation may vanish in Air & the Remembrance of them be Lost while writing will remain Either to Justify my opinion or to prove that it was Erroneous The variety of Reasons which I urged yesterday for passing with the main Body up the Mohawk River & Down by wood Creek to the Cayuga Lake Still have their weight in my mind2 but as General Schuyler writes that they cannot be Supplied with provisions This Plan Must be given up & that of passing with the Main Body up the Susquehannah adopted.3 The force which I have Requested for that Quarter is three thousand Effective men after all proper Deductions are made for Guards at the Several Posts for Boat men hospital Guards Tenders &ca That these Should be Collected before we Enter the Indian Country appears to me Essentially Necessary as it is Supposed that the principal opposition we Shall Meet will be between Wyoming & Teago. Should this be the Case as Seemed to be the General opinion in Council Yesterday we can Derive no advantage from the party on the Mohawk River as they are not to Join us untill we have Established a post at Teago Should they attempt to Join us before they must be Defeated in passing Down the Susquehannah & Should our Numbers be Such as will admit of a Defeat before we arrive at Teago as we can have no Communication with the other party & they are to Regulate themselves by a Plan fixed before we March They will Remain Ignorant of our Defeat & of Course proceed at the time appointed & in all probability fall into the hands of the Enemy. If we are to Expect the principal opposition before we arrive at Teago it is Absurd to Reckon for part of our force Troops who are not to attempt Joining us before we have passed the principal Danger. Indeed I have no great Dependance upon the advantage to be Derived from So Small a party in that Quarter. It was yesterday Said that we might Expect fourteen hundred Indians to oppose us in our march yr Excelley will permit me to Say that 1400 Indians perfectly acquainted with the Country Capable of Siezing Every Advantage which the Ground can possably afford perfectly Acquainted with the use of Arms Enured to war from their youth & from their manner of Living Capable of Enduring Every kind of Fatigue are no Desgreeable Enemy when opposed to three thousand Troops Totally unacquainted with the Country & the Indian Manner of fighting—& who though Excellent in the field are far from having that Exactness with fire Arms or that alertness in a wooden Country which Indians have. As So many facts have Contributed to prove this it will be unn[e]cessary for me to Say more upon the Subject—If I was not a party Concerned in this Expedition, & my opinion was asked of the force necessary to Insure Success I Should give it that the force of Each party Should be Equal to the highest Estimate of the Enemys force in that Country that they might be able to form a Junction at all Events & put the matter beyond a possibility of Doubt & after that they would be Enabled to Detach & Conquer the Country in an Eighth part of the time that they would if oblidged for their own Security to keep in a Body. I know that the Estimated force of the Indians is Small but when I Consider that underrating the Number of the Enemy has been a prevailing Error with us Since the Commencement of the war that we have had persons from among them both Inhabitants & Deserters & have had the proceedings Debates & Calculations of parliament before us & Yet have Repeatedly mistaken their Numbers more than one half I cannot Suppose but that we are Still Liable to fall into the Same Error where we can have no Evidence & Every thing told us Respecting them is meer matter of opinions—In addition to this Let me Repeat what I observed yesterday which is the probability of a force being Sent from Canada to prevent our passing into Canada by way of Lake ontario I also beg Leave to observe that when our advancement upon the Susquehannah is known it will probably be Conjectured that our Intention is agains[t] Niagara which will Induce the Enemy Strongly to Reinforce that Post This they may do in a Fortnight as it is but 110 miles from Montreal to Oswegachia & their vessels can take troops from thence to Niagara in three or four Days & when they find that our Intention is against the Indian Settlements these troops will undoubtedly Join them. from these Considerations it must appear that the Demand I have made is far from being unreasonable Even Exclusive of the party Sent on their flanks. I well know that Continental Troops cannot be Spared for this purpose but good Militia Should undoubtedly be Called for. The Expedition is undertaken to Destroy those Indian Nations & to Convince others that we have it in our power to Carry the war into their Country whenever they Commence hostilities Should we fail in the attempt the Indians will Derive Confidence from it & grow more Insolent than before I beg Leave further to Mention That in my opinion the Troops Selected for this Expedition are by no Means Equal to Those they must Expect to Encounter Especially the Pensylvania Troops as they are made up principally of old Country men who are totally unacquainted with that kind of fighting which they must adopt I have Conversed with General St Clair upon this head who is fully of my opinion. the best Troops in my opinion for this Expedition are Genl Poors Brigade which are all Marksmen & Accustomed to the Indian Mode of fighting. I think the Jersey Troops good the York Troops I know nothing of the other Broken Corps I can Say nothing about only that when they come to Act in a Body with others Much cannot be Expected from them.4

Thus have I Submitted my Sentiments to Your Excellencey & trust that my Reasoning upon the Subject must prove that Three Thousand good & Effective men at Least will be Necessary to March from Teago Exclusive of those which yr Excellencey may think proper to Direct to operate on the other Flank of the Enemy I have the honor to be with the most Lively Sentiments of Esteem & Respect your Excellenceys most Obedt Servant

Jno. Sullivan

P:S: Since writing the above I have Shewn it to Genl St Clair who Says that his Sentiments Correspond with mine in Every particular.


ALS, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in Sullivan to John Jay, 21 July 1779, DNA:PCC, item 160; copy, enclosed in Sullivan to Timothy Pickering, 26 July 1779, PharH: Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, 1775–1790; copy, enclosed in GW to John Jay, 15 Aug. 1779, DNA:PCC, item 166; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169.

1On 25 Feb. 1779, Congress resolved that GW should prepare and launch an offensive operation against the Indian tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations. GW, who already had been gathering military and geographical information about the northwestern frontier from Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler and others, appointed Sullivan to command the proposed expedition after Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates declined to take charge. Sullivan arrived at headquarters on 10 April and attended a Council of War that GW convened on 15 April to consider the expedition’s organization and objectives (see GW to Gates, 6 March; GW to Sullivan, 6 March; and Gates to GW, 16 and 24 March). For GW’s official instructions upon the expedition’s departure, see his two letters to Sullivan of 31 May [1] [2].

2Sullivan enclosed a copy of his observations to GW at their conference of 15 April in his letter to John Jay of 21 July: “I have examined and compared the several Maps with the written accounts of the Indian Country, which were laid before me by your Excellency, and have considered the plan of the Expedition proposed, & beg leave to make the following observations viz.

“That tho’ the number of Indians in that Country appears from information to be but about 2000, yet under rating the number of the Enemy has been a prevailing error with the Americans since the commencement of the War. This is ever a source of misfortune, & has to some Armies proved fatal. As in no instance it could be more dangerous than in the present intended Expedition, it will be necessary to consider whether there is not a probability of the Enemy being more numerous than General Schuylers account makes them. It is indeed probable he might have obtained nearly a just account of the number of Indians in each Tribe, but it is impossible that he should gain an accurate account of the number of Tories & french Volunteers who have joined the Parties commanded by Butler and their other Leaders. I therefore conclude that his account can only respect the Indians inhabiting the part of the Country to be invaded: if so, the number of the Enemy which may be expected to oppose our force must far exceed his account. The Enemy are now possessed of an opinion that an Expedition is intended against Canada, by way of Lake Ontario. This may probably induce them to send all the force they can possibly spare from Canada to act in conjunction with the Armed Vessels, to oppose our passing from Mohawk River into the River Iroquois through the Lakes; but should the demonstrations in the Cohass Country puzzle and perplex them it can only serve to keep them in Canada, untill the real intention is known, which, will happen as soon as the main body of the Army is found in the Susquehanna. They will then undoubtedly turn their whole force to defeat that party which passes up the Mohawk River, that they may be the better enabled to combat the other which advances by the Susquehanna. Should therefore the party which advances by the Mohawk River be small, they must, if they advance far into the Country be cut off; and if they do not advance, little or no advantage can be derived from it. I am therefore clearly of opinion that the main body shd advance by that rout, and the smaller party by the Susquehanna, though this last party, should, in my opinion be, at least, equal to the estimated force of the Indian Nations. If this is the case they must carry conquest before them, as they can have no other force to engage, but what is derived from the Indians themselves, and probably not all that as the advancement of the other party must demand the attention of some of them to that quarter. The force of the other party should be nearly equal to the collective force of the Indians & that of the Britons & Tories, which may probably be detached from Canada: I say nearly equal, because it cannot be doubted, but the advancement of the party up the Susquehanna will demand the attention of some of those Nations who live nearest Tioga. It has been objected that the retreat of the main body may be cut off, if they pass up the Mohawk River, and down to the Cayuga Lake; but this objection will apply with a much greater force and propriety to the sending a small party that way. It has been said that in case of misfortune, a retreat may be better made by the Susquehanna than by the Mohawk River. This is an argument much in favor of the smaller body passing that way. But the main body should be of sufficient force to command Victory wherever they go, and to form a junction with the Susquehanna party at all events. The largeness of the party will much distract the Enemy, as they cannot know untill it arrives at the fork of the River near Lake Ontario, whether the real design is against Canada, or the Indian Nations. The party advancing by the Susquehanna may probably be considered as a party destined to make a feint, to keep the Indians at home, but should it be considered in the only remaining light, which is, that of destroying the Indian Country, it will keep those Nations at home, give the main body an opportunity to defeat with ease all parties which may be sent against it, from Canada, & form a junction with the Susquehanna party, between Cayuga Lake, & Chemung, which two places are but 40 Miles distant from each other. There will be an additional advantage in the main body coming this way, as it will come in the rear of the Enemy, & prevent their retreat to Niagara. But should the main body advance by Susquehanna it will come in front of the Enemy, and give them an opportunity to retreat to any part they may think proper, especially, as the smaller part of the Army, should it advance by Mohawk River, must move with great caution, and deliberation, least their retreat should be cut off, or the party be subjected to a total defeat. But should the main body advance that way, confident of its own superiority, they will move with that necessary firmness, which that consciousness of superiority seldom fails to inspire, and of course, will be more likely to cut off the retreat of the Indians, and give them a fatal blow. The smaller party being sure of a retreat, may move without that danger, to which, it would be exposed in the other rout, and much sooner co-operate with the main body. Besides this let me observe, that as the party which advances by the Mohawk River will have the Enemy on all sides, it would be the height of bad policy, as well as contrary to every military rule, to suffer that party to be the smallest. The number of Troops to be sent by the Susquehanna should, in my opinion, be 2500, which, when the posts for Magazines &c. are established at Augusta, Wioming, Wyalusing, & Tioga will be reduced to less than 2000. The party sent by Mohawk River should consist of 4000, which by draughts for Boatmen, Provision Guards & a detachment to make a feint at Cherry Valley will be reduced nearly to 3000. With this force the business may be effectually done, and with such expedition as will prevent the Enemy from escaping, & in the end will be attended with much less expence than a smaller party. As this Expedition is intended to cut off those Indian Nations, and to convince others that we have it in our power, to carry the War into their own Country, whenever they commmence hostilities, it will be necessary that the blow should be sure & fatal; otherwise they will derive confidence from our ineffectual attempts, and become more insolent than before. If therefore the circumstances of the Army & Country will not admit of a proper force, it will be much better not to make the attempt, than to make an ineffectual one. With respect to supplies by way of Albany I have no doubt, as it is a great flour Country, & a sufficiency of live Stock may be procured from Connecticut & other parts & forage may be had with as little difficulty there as by way of Susquehanna. Besides this, as the Army must embark on the Susquehanna at Augusta, it will not be so long a rout from a well inhabited Country on the Mohawk River, to the centre of the Indian settlements, as from Augusta to Chemung.

“In order that the main Army may suffer as little as possible, from a deduction of force, I would propose that in addition to the force already mentioned, Poors Brigade should be taken from Connecticut, where they are not wanted, and Glovers from Providence, the place of which may be supplied by State Troops stipulated by the New England States. And in addition to those, some Malitia might be ordered for three Months to compleat the number proposed” (DNA:PCC, item 160. This copy is undated, but docketed 15 April; another copy of Sullivan’s observations, undocketed and undated, is in PHarH: Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, 1775–1790. The latter copy had been enclosed in Sullivan’s letter to Timothy Pickering of 26 July).

3In his letter to GW of 1–7 March, Major General Schuyler had estimated that 1,650 Indians, 200 Tories, and 150 British troops from the garrison at Fort Niagara would be available to oppose the projected expedition.

4GW had ordered Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor’s brigade to reinforce Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall in the Hudson Highlands (see GW to Israel Putnam, 6, 16, and 17 March; and Putnam’s first letter to GW of 22 March). He subsequently ordered the brigade to join Sullivan at Easton, Pa. (see GW to Alexander McDougall, 3–4 and 14 May; for a journal of the brigade’s march, see Journals of the Sullivan Expedition description begins Frederick Cook, ed., and George S. Conover, comp. Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 With Records of Centennial Celebrations. Auburn, N.Y., 1887. description ends , 178–80). In his observations of 15 April (see note 2), Sullivan specifically requested the assistance of Brig. Gen. John Glover’s brigade posted at Providence. GW’s subsequent orders for Glover’s brigade to prepare to march infuriated the government of Rhode Island, probably spurred on by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates (see GW to Gates, 17 April, and n.2 to that document).

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