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Men Of The Revolution: 13. John Sullivan
He was Irish, but with neither the proverbial charm nor the luck. Generals are not much known for the former quality, but the latter, as Napoleon suggested, is one no successful commander can be without. And John Sullivan was an officer whom luck simply passed
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Somewhat bafflingly, he received yet one more important assignment—to head an expedition against the Indians of the Six Nations. This time for once Sullivan was all caution, moving ponderously into hostile territory while complaining to the Board of War for failing to send him the additional men and supplies he was sure he needed. The mission was a success, but Sullivan brought back neither prisoners nor peace treaties, and he had cried wolf once too often. In November of 1779 he offered his resignation—expecting to be granted a leave of absence on grounds of poor health—and Congress, to his dismay, accepted it. His military career was over, but the bad luck was not. Serving as a representative to Congress from New Hampshire, he had the poor judgment to accept a loan from the French minister in Philadelphia, thereby opening himself to a charge of selling his services to France; and almost simultaneously the British, regarding him an easy mark, tried to win him over to their side.
As hapless in national politics as he had been in military life, Sullivan returned to New Hampshire after the war to become something of a figure there, but he was not one to settle for being a large fish in a small pond after travelling so close to the center of events. He took to drink, and everything went wrong. Old friends deserted him; he was accused of keeping a bawdy house; debts piled up, forcing him to sell his precious land; and at the end, one man said, “he approached a state of idiocy … he could neither feed, dress, or undress himself.” When his luck ran out for the last time, John Sullivan was just fifty-five.