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The End Of The Iroquois
Sullivan’ s meticulously planned expedition of 1779 aimed to cripple once and for all the redskin allies of King George
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
It has often been written that the Iroquois country was “the granary of Niagara.” Although this was potentially true, the fact seems to be just the reverse. The Indians detested packing food on their backs to feed the white men. The summer of 1778 yielded a poor harvest, and the following winter was disastrous. Walter Butler wrote in midsummer 1779 from Kanadesaga (the present Geneva): “Last winter the Indians had to live on their cattle, failing that, on roots. … We must depend upon provisions being sent us from Niagara.”
The military situation depended, then, on supply. Niagara was provisioned, all too scantily, from Quebec and England. The Niagara commandant received a complaint from his superiors that his Indians ate too much, with the suggestion that if they were hungry they should raid the Mohawk Valley. Firearms and ammunition were also insufficient. Butler grumbled that “the Indians from the scarcity of Provisions consume more of it than ordinary by firing at every little Bird they see.”
Washington, well aware of the circumstances, proposed to defeat the enemy not by winning battles but by invoking the aid of war’s ancient ally, famine.
He made his dispositions as early as January, 1779. John Sullivan, the New Hampshire lawyer chosen to command the expedition, had proved his competence as an improvised major general. He was a handsome black-haired man to whom, said an acquaintance, “a slight corpulency when in his prime gave but an added grace.” He was ordered to assemble the main body of the troops in Easton, Pennsylvania, march to Wyoming, then go north up the Susquehanna River to Tioga Point, the present Athens, close to the New York state line. Meanwhile General James Clinton would start from Albany, reach the headwaters of the Susquehanna at Otsego Lake, and descend the river to meet Sullivan at Tioga. At the same time Colonel Daniel Brodhead would set out from Fort Pitt, or Pittsburgh, and travel north along the Allegheny River to join the two united armies somewhere in the Genesee country. Sullivan would have about 2,500 troops of the line; Clinton, 1,500; Brodhead, 600. This made a formidable force, nearly a third of the entire Continental Army. It would be accompanied by pack-horse drivers, riverboatmen, and a few Oneida Indian scouts. A small park of artillery was provided, and even a military hand to cheer weary marchers. Washington had stipulated that the soldiers should attack with a war whoop and fixed bayonets, to “make rather than receive attacks, attended with as much impetuosity, shouting, and noise as possible.”
It was a well-conceived and carefully developed plan, though it depended on a difficult rendezvous of three armies in the midst of wilderness. Washington hoped the forces would get under way by springtime. But the usual troubles supervened. The way from Easton to Wyoming was a mere trail over the Pocono Mountains, a high, swampy plateau, a jungle of tangled trees and underbrush. It was necessary to build a road for the artillery and supply wagons. The road builders fell far behind schedule, while the officers chafed and the men got themselves into trouble with the local citizens.
A month late, on June 18, Sullivan’s army moved. The new road proved to be the merest makeshift. Wagons mired down; gun carriages broke; some horses died of exhaustion. One day only five miles were gained. It was a “horrid rough gloomey country,” wrote one soldier in his journal. And another: “the woolves mad a wonderfool noys all around us wich Seemed Verey Destresed.” One of the dismal swamps the army traversed was aptly named “the Shades of Death.”
Sullivan expected to find in Wyoming the army’s supplies, poled up the Susquehanna River on flatboats. To his horror he learned that little had arrived, that the cattle were too poor to walk, even to stand, that most of the salt beef, packed in casks of green wood, had gone bad. Some of the men smoked it to disguise the foul taste and ate it anyway, with deplorable results. Colonel Henry Dearborn recorded in his journal: “I eat part of a fryed Rattle Snake to day which would have tasted very well had it not been Snake.”
Sullivan energetically collected boats and boatmen and sent them down the river to bring back supplies. Five long weeks passed before he was ready to move. Poor, insufficient food and the long delay were hard on the army’s morale. Some diversion was provided by the punishment of delinquents, who ran the “Ganlet” through three regiments of men, each man wielding a whip. A spy was hanged; another was led to the gallows with a rope around his neck. At the last moment he was reprieved, “wich Shocked him So he almost Fanted A way,” a sergeant recorded.
Washington fumed at the dilatoriness of the three armies. He had proposed a rapid raiding action by light troops who would trust to surprise for their success and presumably live oft the country. He wrote sharp letters, complaining of their encumberment with needless supplies. But Sullivan was a cautious general; he would not move without assurance that his men would be fed. He ordered Clinton to bring all his provisions from the Mohawk, since “in case you depended on our magazine for Stores, we must all starve together, as the Commissaries have deceived us in every article.”