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First Name: John

Last Name: Sullivan

Birthplace: Somersworth, NH, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Continental Army (1775 - 1784)

Date of Birth: 17 February 1740

Date of Death: 23 January 1795

Rank: Major General

Years Served:
John Sullivan

•  Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)


John Sullivan
Major General, Continental Army

John Sullivan was born on 17 February 1740 in Somersworth, NH, the third son of a schoolmaster.

Sullivan read law with Samuel Livermore of Portsmouth, NH, and began its practice in 1764 when he moved to Durham. He annoyed many neighbors in his early career, when he was the only lawyer in town, with numerous suits over foreclosures. But by 1772, he was firmly established and began work to improve his relations with the community. In 1773 Alexander Scammel joined John Sullivan's law practice.

He was sent by Durham to the colony's general assembly, and built a friendship with the royal governor John Wentworth. As the American Revolution grew nearer, he began to side more with the radicals. In 1774 the first Provincial (or rebel) Congress sent him as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. After Paul Revere alerted the Portsmouth militia of a rumored British movement toward Fort William and Mary in December 1774, Sullivan was one of the leaders of the militia force who raided the fort for its military provisions on 14 December.

In 1775, he was returned to the Second Continental Congress, but when they appointed him a Brigadier General in June, he left to join the Army at the siege of Boston.

Revolutionary War

After the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1776, Washington sent General Sullivan north to replace the fallen John Thomas as commander in Quebec. He took command of the sick and faltering invasion force, sent some of those forces on an unsuccessful counterattack against the British at Trois-Rivières, and withdrew the survivors to Crown Point. This led to the first of several controversies between Congress and General Sullivan, as they sought a scapegoat for the failed invasion of Canada. He was exonerated and promoted to Major General on 9 August 1776.

Long Island

Sullivan rejoined Washington and was placed in command of the troops on Long Island to defend against British General Howe's forces about to envelop New York City. But then, on 23 August, Washington split the command between Sullivan and General Israel Putnam. Confusion about the distribution of command contributed to the American defeat at the Battle of Long Island four days later. Sullivan's personal bravery was unquestioned, as he engaged the Hessian attackers with a pistol in each hand; however, he was captured.

General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, managed to convince Sullivan that a conference with members of the Continental Congress might lead to peace, and released him on parole to deliver a message to the Congress in Philadelphia, proposing an informal meeting to discuss ending the armed conflict between Britain and its rebellious colonies. After Sullivan's speech to Congress, John Adams cynically commented on this diplomatic attempt, calling Sullivan a "decoy-duck" and accusing the British of sending Sullivan "to seduce us into a renunciation of our independence;" others noted that it appeared to be an attempt to blame Congress for prolonging the war. Congress did agree to a conference, which accomplished nothing.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania

General Sullivan was released in a prisoner exchange in time to rejoin Washington before the Battle of Trenton. There his division secured the important bridge over the Assunpink Creek to the north of the town. This prevented escape and ensured the high number of Hessian prisoners captured. This route is now the main road in Ewing Township, NJ, and is called "Sullivans Way." In January 1777, Sullivan also performed well in the Battle of Princeton.

In August, he led a raid on Staten Island. Again, Congress found fault, but he was exonerated by the court of inquiry. This was followed by American losses at Brandywine and Germantown. Congress was frustrated by the continued British occupation of Philadelphia, but since Washington was the only man holding the Army together, they made Sullivan the scapegoat.

Rhode Island

In early 1778, he was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led troops intended to work together with a French Navy fleet to assault or besiege British-occupied Newport. The attempt was called off when the French fleet was scattered and damaged by a storm, and the British then sortied, forcing the inconclusive Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.

Expedition Against the Iroquois

In the summer of 1779, Sullivan led the Sullivan Expedition, a massive campaign against the Iroquois in western New York. During this campaign, troops destroyed a very large Cayuga settlement, called Coreorgonel, on what is now the southwest side of Ithaca, NY. To reach the enemy homeland, Sullivan's Army took a southerly route to western New York through northeast Pennsylvania, which required creating a new road through lightly inhabited areas of the Pocono Mountains, which still exists and is known as Sullivan's Trail.

He pushed his troops so hard that their horses became unusable, and killed them on this campaign, creating the namesake for Horseheads, NY. The lukewarm response of the Congress was more than he could accept. Broken, tired and again opposed by Congress, he retired from the Army in 1779 and returned to New Hampshire.


At home Sullivan was a hero. New Hampshire returned him as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1780. But he still had opponents there. In 1781 when he borrowed money from the French minister to Congress, they accused him of being a foreign agent. He resigned from the Congress in August 1781.

Back home again, he was named the state's attorney general in 1782 and served until 1786. During this same time he was elected to the state assembly, and served as Speaker of the house. He led the drive in New Hampshire that led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution on 21 June 1788. He was elected President of New Hampshire (now Governor) in 1786, 1787 and 1789.

When the new federal government was created, President George Washington nominated him on 24 September 1789, to be the first federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, created by 1 Stat. 73. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on 26 September 1789, and received his commission the same day. Although his health prevented his sitting on the bench after 1792, he held the post until he died on 23 January 1795, aged 54, at his home in Durham.


Counties in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Missouri were all named for him, as was Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The General Sullivan Bridge spanning Little Bay near his home town of Durham, NH, as is Sullivan's Trail, a road through northeast Pennsylvania that in many areas follows the road made by Sullivan's Army in 1779. Towns in Illinois, New Hampshire, and New York are named after him.

Death and Burial

Major General John Sullivan died on 23 January 1795 in Durham, NH. He is buried at the Sullivan Family Burial Ground in Durham.

Honoree ID: 3129   Created by: MHOH




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