October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Sullivan’ s meticulously planned expedition of 1779 aimed to cripple once and for all the redskin allies of King George
In the winter of 1778–79 General George Washington, in Philadelphia, reviewed the military situation. The American army numbered about 15,000 Continentals, enlisted for the duration; the fickle militiamen were uncountable and unaccountable. The British sat secure in New York City and at Newport, Rhode Island; the Americans watched them from equal security at West Point and in the Hudson highlands. Washington wrote to the Congressional Committee of Conference, on January 13, 1779, that an attack on New York would be too costly to be ventured. But hope glimmered afar. France, having come to the aid of the Republic, promised a fleet and an army. Meanwhile an aggressive enemy move was unlikely, for Britain, at war with France, could ill spare reinforcements and supplies for its troops in the American colonies. Hence a deadlock prevailed, but a deadlock that, as Washington foresaw, would eventually be broken to the advantage of the Americans.
However, relations with the Indians on the frontiers, never very good, were exasperated by war, with its opportunities for loot and bloodshed. The Tories of the Mohawk Valley, headed by Sir John Johnson, with Major John Butler and his son Walter, retreated to Fort Niagara and persuaded the Iroquois nations of the Mohawks, the Cayugas, and the Senecas to rally to the cause of their Great Father across the seas, King George III. The Indians, together with white Tory rangers, raided isolated frontier hamlets, pillaging, burning, and scalping. In the first days of July, 1778, an expedition out of Niagara destroyed the settlement of Wyoming, near Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania. John Butler, the raiders’ commander, reported taking 227 scalps and only five prisoners. The Wyoming Massacre gave rise to atrocity stories that shocked and terrified the country. It was said, for instance, that the half-breed Queen Esther arranged fifteen victims in a circle; then, singing their dirge, she did a death dance, tomahawking them one by one. In September a large party of Indians, Tories, and “vagabond Canadians” raided the German Flats, on the Mohawk River below today’s Utica, and set a precedent by destroying the gathered crops and driving oil the cattle over the Indian trail to Niagara. In November came the bloody assault on Cherry Valley, in the hill country fifty miles west of Albany. Public clamor demanded that something be done to protect the outposts of civilization.
The military situation was clear to Washington. He could spare enough regulars from his holding operation around New York to raid and destroy the Iroquois homeland of central and western New York. He envisaged then the seizure of Fort Niagara and the erection of a chain of posts protecting a new frontier, presumably from Niagara to Pittsburgh. Did he look farther into the future? Dr. Alexander C. Flick and other modern historians presume that Washington foresaw that peace was not far off; that in the current state of affairs the Republic could claim effective possession only of the Atlantic seaboard, with no hinterland for expansion; that for the future of the United States it was necessary to establish claims to the western lands. Hence, it is asserted, Washington promoted George Rogers dark’s drive into the Illinois country in 1778, and the New York expedition in 1779. It may well he that Washington planned so wisely and so truly, but unfortunately lie seems never to have uttered or to have written down such long purposes.
His short purpose was simple enough. He wrote to General John Sullivan: “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their [the Indian] settlements. … [The Indian country] is not to be merely overrun , but destroyed .” Secondarily, lie told Sullivan to capture as many prisoners as possible and to drive the remaining Indians into the hands of the British, where, he realized, they would prove to be more of an embarrassment than an aid.
The Indian homeland marked for destruction was the pleasant country of the Finger Lakes, westward to the Genesee River. It was heavily forested, but with many fertile clearings. It was relatively little known, for white men were not welcome there. Nevertheless, a map of 1771 (see page 32) shows considerable knowledge of the lakes, rivers, trails, and chief villages. Venturesome travellers had traversed it on their way to Niagara; fur traders had brought rum and trade goods, and missionaries the gospel; white prisoners had escaped from Indian captivity to tell their tales.
The Iroquois had created an advanced polity and culture. In their well-built villages they raised horses, oxen, cows, hogs, and chickens. They tended ample orchards of apples, peaches, and plums, raised from white men’s seeds. They cultivated beets, potatoes, cabbage, squash, pumpkins, turnips, beans, onions, and melons. Their mainstay and staple was corn, eaten on the cob in a great four-day Green Corn Festival, and compounded with beans, squash, and dog to make succotash. Corn, pounded into meal, made their hominy and their bread; parched, it was the traveller’s ration. Fish populated the lakes, but they had their whims and were often coy. Large game, deer and bears, were rather scarce and shy. But for all their plenty, the Iroquois were improvident, unwilling and often unable to store surpluses for the long winter and spring.
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.”
The summer was half gone before Sullivan felt justified in advancing up the Susquehanna. He had his 2,500 men, about 1,200 pack horses, perhaps 100 officer’s mounts, and 700 head of cattle. A fleet of flatboats for transport accompanied him. Somewhat surprisingly, a number of women joined the expedition as nurses and laundresses. They were ordered to quit the boats and ride pack horses, relieving army drivers. But they proved to be constant nuisances.
Sullivan found that theory and practice were not easily compatible in this terrain. His sketch for the order of march showed a screen of scouts followed by the light infantry, then the artillery and the pack train, protected on either side by the main body of the army. There would be fifteen columns abreast; the front would apparently extend to at least half a mile. One suspects that the order of march was derived from some military manual for commanders in the broad fields of France. The disposition was immediately defeated by the topography of the Susquehanna Valley. The river cuts through a series of high ridges, running from northeast to southwest. At the cuttings the ridges rise sheer from the water, leaving no room even for a footpath by the stream. The Indian trail, the “Warriors’ Path,” climbed the ridges and sharply descended, as does its successor, Highway 6, today. The army had sometimes to march in a single file six miles long. Nevertheless the scouts kept always on the alert, scouring the woods on both sides of the river. Sullivan was no doubt aware of the maxim that the one unpardonable sin in military operations is to be surprised.
Men, horses, cattle, and boats proceeded cautiously up the valley, past burned frontier farms, past the abandoned Moravian missionary village of Wyalusing. The soldiers fingered the rich soil and measured the gigantic trees, black walnut and buttonwood, one of them twenty-one feet in circumference. At Breakneck Hill, across the river from the present Towanda, the path narrowed to a mere foot’s breadth, 180 feet above the Susquehanna. Here two of the cattle fell to their doom. Farther on stood “Queen Esther’s Palace,” where had dwelt the ferocious victor of Wyoming. Reaching Tioga on August 11, where the Susquehanna is joined by the Chemung, the army forded the main stream, with water to the armpits. The soldiers removed their outer garments, hung their cartouche boxes on their bayonets, and crossed in platoons, each man holding on to his neighbor.
At Tioga, according to the plan of campaign, Sullivan was to meet General Clinton and his New York state contingent. But Clinton had not yet arrived. Sullivan put his men to building a fort with four blockhouses, and again sat down to wait.
Meanwhile the British were informed of the army’s movements by the Butlers’ remarkable intelligence service. The British commander at Quebec refused to believe the reports. He wrote the Niagara commandant on July 23: “It is impossible the Rebels can be in such force, as has been represented by the Deserters to Major Butler.” But the Butlers knew better. With their green-jacketed Tory rangers they prowled about the lake country, rousing the Indians to defend their homeland.
General Clinton, alerted by Washington in the spring, had assembled his 1,500 men at Canajoharie, some forty miles west of Albany on the Mohawk River. He had two hundred light, flat-bottomed bateaus built in Schenectady, with wagons to transport them overland. He cut a road twenty-five miles long from Canajoharie up over the high ridge to the south and down to the north end of Otsego Lake. On June 17 he moved out, put his boats in the lake, and paddled to the southern outlet, where Cooperstown would be founded a decade later. There he encamped to await orders from General Sullivan. The delay was fortunate. The water in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna was too shallow to carry the boats. Clinton found a simple but ingenious solution: he built a temporary dam at Otsego’s outlet. The lake level rose slowly; in six weeks it gained two feet, while the river below dwindled almost to nothing.
On August 4 a woodland runner from Wyoming brought to Clinton General Sullivan’s order to begin his movement. On the evening of the eighth the dam was broken and a gathering flood descended. The next morning the bateaus were put in the water. They floated thirty miles that day. It was a delightful excursion, enlivened by the burning of deserted Indian villages. One of these, Onoquaga, impressed the torchbearers by its modernity, its Christian church, and its log houses with stone chimneys and glass windows. On the twenty-second the army reached Tioga and was handsomely greeted by artillery salvos and by “a Band of Musick which played Beautiful.” It is clear that no great effort was being made to keep the expedition a secret.
Two days later the combined armies made a foray against the important Indian village of Chemung. The occupants fled, contenting themselves with sniping from the woods. Six or seven Americans were killed, “chiefly by the fire of our own men,” said one participant. The village and a large supply of corn were destroyed in a glorious bonfire.
The raid demonstrated the rewards of caution, the benefits of delay. By the end of August the Indians’ vegetables were already gathered; their corn could easily be sickled in the fields. It was ripe for destruction or for the destroyers’ nourishment. One soldier recorded near Chemung that he gorged himself on ten ears of corn, a quart of beans, and seven squashes. Soldiers carried speared pumpkins on their bayonets in a most unmilitary manner.
At last, on August 27, with summer near its end, the army was ready to move. A detachment was left in the fort at Tioga, which had been named Fort Sullivan. It is recorded that the musicians, the sick, the women and children, remained there. The children! What children? Perhaps refugees from outlying farms, though Tioga stood beyond the region of general settlement.
The expeditionary force now consisted of about three thousand men, burdened with equipment. They had cut up their tents to make flour sacks, to be carried by pack horses. Some cattle, “beef on the hoof,” accompanied the army. Nine pieces of artillery were transported—four six-pounders; four three-pounders; and a “coehorn,” or “grasshopper,” a small mortar that could be lifted by hand. The guns were supplied with solid shot and canister shot, timed to explode in the air and shower small projectiles on the enemy. The guns, too wide-tracked for the forest paths, too heavy to be pulled readily up the steep sides of the ravines, made only trouble. A sergeant wrote in his journal: “Such Cursing, Cutting, and Diging, over seting Wagons, Cannon and Pack Horses into the river &c is not to Be Seen Every Day.”
The army struggled up the narrow valley of the Chemung River. On the twenty-ninth they approached the Indian village of Newtown. Here the path led through a narrow defile between the north bank of the river and a steep hill seven hundred feet high. The scouts led the way with great circumspection. One of them climbed a tree and perceived painted Indians crouching behind log breastworks camouflaged with green branches.
The enemy had chosen their position astutely. They commanded the path and had posted a strong detachment on the hill to the north to check any effort to turn their flank. Their forces were, however, spread very thin, and certainly they had too little ammunition for a long defense. They numbered about a thousand Indian warriors, under the famous Joseph Brant, aided by two hundred and fifty loyalist rangers and fifteen British regulars, all under the command of John Butler.
When the Indians were discovered, Sullivan called a halt and sent a strong force to climb the hill and endeavor to take the enemy from the rear. He emplaced his artillery and opened fire on the barricades with solid shot, and on the defenders’ persons with canister spraying grapeshot and iron spikes. The Indians endured this new and terrifying experience for only half an hour; the bombs bursting in air behind them gave them the idea that the artillery had penetrated their rear. Despite the furious exhortations of Brant and Butler the Indians turned and ran, and the loyalists followed. Meanwhile the Americans’ flanking party on the hill gallantly engaged the enemy outpost with musket and bayonet, until Brant’s retreat signal caused the defenders to flee.
After the battle eleven Indian warriors and one woman were found dead. The men were scalped; Lieutenant William Barton amused himself by skinning two Indians from the hips down to make two pairs of leggings, one pair for himself, the other a present for his major. A white man and a Negro were captured. Sullivan lost three killed and thirty-six wounded.
This was the Battle of Newtown, commemorated today by an imposing monument in a state reservation. As modern battles go it was obviously nothing much; it would hardly deserve more than a paragraph in our daily news. But wars are not necessarily decided by body counts. Newtown was one of the decisive battles of the Revolution. Its character and outcome so terrified the Iroquois that they would never again meet the invaders in battle. The unhappy fate of the great Iroquois Confederacy was decided at Newtown; the battle monument is the gravestone of the Iroquois civilization.
General Sullivan now sent back his four six-pounders with their ammunition wagons to Tioga, to the great relief of the army. Major Jeremiah Fogg remarked in his journal that “[their] transportation … to Genesee appears to the army in general, as impracticable and absurd as an attempt to level the Alleghany mountains.” Sullivan, who seems to have been a very democratic commander, now assembled his troops and asked if they would be content to accept half rations for the rest of the campaign. The soldiers unanimously proclaimed their readiness with three rousing cheers. The General was touched by “this truly noble and virtuous resolution.” To be sure, they were not destitute: he had on hand twenty-two pounds of flour and sixteen pounds of beef per man, and the soldiers must have foreseen that they would not lack for corn and succotash.
On August 31, the army pressed forward to its task of destruction. At an Indian village on the site of Elmira the men cut down the finest corn they had ever seen; some stalks measured sixteen and eighteen feet, the ears a foot and a half. The army left the southward-draining Chemung River and turned north, crossing the low watershed to the system flowing north toward, eventually, the St. Lawrence River. Along Catherine Creek they entered “a dark, gloomy, and almost impenetrable hemlock swamp,” eight miles long. They had to build a road for the .artillery and pack train. Some part of their precious flour was dislodged by the scraping of branches or wetted by beasts stumbling in the swamps. The army emerged by midnight at French Catherine’s Town, named for its ruler, Queen Catherine, a sister of Queen Esther. The Queen and her subjects, including, strangely, a Dutch family, had fled only minutes before the army’s arrival, leaving behind an ancient Indian woman. Her “silver locks, wrinkled face, dim eyes and curvature of body denoted her to be a full-blooded antediluvian hag,” reported Major Fogg, a racy writer. The General gave her a month’s provisions, but burned her village.
The army then advanced to the head of Seneca Lake, the present Watkins Glen. The men were impressed by the beauty of the scene and by the richness of the soil. The “Land was the Best that Ever I see,” wrote one. Some of them, farmers’ boys, formed the project of returning to this bountiful country.
The course now led north along the east shore of Seneca Lake. The soldiers girdled and chopped down the abundant apple and peach trees and burned the deserted villages. Dr. Jabez Campfield, surgeon, admired the fine prospects, the beautiful groves of walnut, hickory, oak, pine, ash, basswood, maple, elm, and chestnut, but he found the Indian houses “nasty beyond description. … The rubage of one of their houses, is enough to stink a whole country.”
The Indians hovered in the woods, only occasionally venturing a shot at stragglers. At Kanadesaga they had a great opportunity. Seneca Lake drains to the north through a wide, deep outlet, then bordered by marsh with plenty of cover for ambush. The Butlers lay in the village with about two hundred of their white rangers—half of them, however, sick with malaria. The Indians, in terror at the advancing horde, could not be induced to make a stand. When Sullivan came to the river crossing, he acted with his usual prudence, sending out scouts to probe the underwood before venturing to cross the river. We are not told how the three-pounders and the ammunition were ferried; probably on improvised rafts.
The “castle” of Kanadesaga, seventy or eighty houses standing on a hill just northwest of present-day Geneva, was the capital of the Seneca Nation. The soldiers rejoiced to find there, as one reported, “Corn, Beans, Peas, Squashes, Potatoes, Inions, turnips, Cabage, Cowcumbers, watermilions, Carrots, and pasnips &c.” On this rich land stands today, by one of the pleasant coincidences of history, the New York Agricultural Experiment Station.
The only human being found in Kanadesaga was a white boy, three or four years old, emaciated almost to a skeleton. He was sitting on the grass, playing with a chicken. He could only say in English that “his mamy was gone.” He was fed and clothed, “which seems to please the little fellow much.” Captain Machin of the artillery carried him home to Kingston, New York. But he died two years later of smallpox. His parentage was never discovered. What a sad, lonely little life!
Since none of the expedition’s guides knew the road beyond Kanadesaga, Sullivan called a council of war and put the question whether the army should proceed farther. Some counselled a prudent return. But Sullivan, for once venturesome, ruled that the destruction should continue at least to the Genesee River, some fifty miles on. There, he hoped, he might meet Colonel Brodhead’s force out of Pittsburgh.
Thus the army trudged on to Canandaigua, a fine village of well-built houses, mostly of hewn planks, with stone chimneys. The course now turned southwest and became more difficult, crossing the north-and-south ridges where the Allegheny Plateau runs down to the plain. At Honeoye, at the foot of its pretty lake, the commander left most of the baggage and horses and one of the three-pounders in the care of a small garrison. The main body continued to the village of Conesus. The ousted inhabitants were said to be commanded by a Negro, “who was titled Capt. Sunfish, a very bold enterprising fellow.”
Now the way led west across a quaking bog and stream at the head of Conesus Lake. It was necessary to halt and construct a causeway and bridge for the passage of the three remaining three-pounders. During the delay General Sullivan ordered Lieutenant Thomas Boyd to lead a scouting party of an Oneida Indian and four or five white men to reconnoiter the country between Conesus Lake and the Genesee River. As Sullivan later reported to Congress, Boyd took with him twenty-six men, “a much larger number than I had thought of sending, and by no means so likely to answer the purpose as that which had been directed.” He went on:
The guides were by no means acquainted with the country, mistook the road in the night, and at daybreak fell’in with … a few Indians, killed and scalped two, the rest fled. Two runners were immediately dispatched to me with the account and informed that the party were on their return. When the bridge was almost completed some of them came in and told us that Lieutenant Boid and men of his party were almost surrounded by the enemy; that the enemy had been discovering themselves before him for some miles; that his men had killed two and were eagerly pursuing the rest; but soon found themselves almost surrounded by three or four hundred Indians and rangers. Those of Mr. Boid’s men who were sent to secure his flanks fortunately made their escape; but he with fourteen of his party and the Oneida chief being in the center, were completely encircled. … It appears that … Mr. Boid was shot through the body, and his men all killed except one, who, with his wounded commander was made prisoner.
The bodies of Lieutenant Boyd and his sergeant, Michael Parker, were later found in a village, beheaded and horribly mangled.
Though Boyd had perhaps brought about his own death by exceeding his orders, he served the expeditionaries well. Brant and the Butlers had laid an ambush where the army’s new causeway emerged from the Conesus swamp and where the path led up a steep bluff beyond. The firing revealed the enemy’s position. Having lost the advantage of surprise, and being greatly outnumbered, Indians and Tories turned and fled westward, nor did they stop until they reached Niagara.
Sullivan now came to his goal, the Genesee country. This was and is a natural garden. In the riverside meadows the grass stood higher than a man’s head; the corn and vegetables were monstrous. The soldiers wrote ecstatic accounts in their diaries, and vowed someday to return. In the meantime they had their work of destruction to do. In the principal Indian village—over a hundred well-finished houses, “mostly very large and elegant,” standing a little southwest of the present Geneseo—they collected an immense quantity of corn and threw it into the river or packed it into the houses, which were then burned.
Colonel Brodhead and his supporting force never kept the rendezvous with Sullivan. After working his way north from Pittsburgh to the New York state line somewhere near the modern Olean, Brodhead had been obliged to turn back, largely because his men were literally barefoot.
Sullivan said later that at the Genesee he had contemplated pushing on to attack Niagara. It is surely fortunate for him that he did not. It was now September 15, the nights were chill, the men unprovided with blankets and clothing for an autumnal campaign. A siege of the French-built stone stronghold of Fort Niagara with three three-pounders and a coehorn, and very little ammunition, would have been mere folly. Caution, and the long delays on his road, preserved the General from such a venture. His mission, in any case, was now accomplished. He turned about and headed for his base, retracing his outward course and destroying villages neglected on the westward journey. At Kanadesaga he detached considerable bodies of men, one to lay waste the Indian settlements eastward to the Mohawk, others to raid both sides of Cayuga Lake and rejoin the main body by way of the site of Ithaca. They did their work well; at Aurora they destroyed 1,500 peach trees. (So they reported; but what Indians could have picked and consumed such a quantity of peaches?)
In Catherine’s Town the army found the old crone whom General Sullivan had befriended a month before. The kindly General presented her with a keg of pork and some biscuit. The favor “drew tears from her savage eyes,” but none from the indignant soldiers.
A few miles farther on, the pack horses, emerging from the long swamp, were in such bad condition that a hundred or so were shot. Later the Indians, following some rite or fancy, arranged the skulls along the path. To this day the village on the site is proudly named Horseheads. A sturdy cow that had made the whole campaign showed more stamina than the horses. To her “we are under infinite obligations for the great quantity of milk she afforded us,” wrote a Lieutenant Colonel Hubley.
On September 24 the army came out of the swamps and the wilderness to the fort erected in their absence on the site of Elmira. The men’s clothes were in rags, their feet half-bare and bleeding. As they approached the fort they were ordered to shave, to deck their hats with evergreen brandies, and to powder their hair. Since not an ounce of flour remained for hair powder, the commander of the fort sent out a horseload of it for their adornment.
At the fort General Sullivan decreed a triumphant feu de joie . The phrase baffled the soldier diarists, who rendered it as a “fudie joy,” a “futu u yoy,” or even a “future joy.” The men paraded in line from right to left and back again, and each in turn discharged his musket The cannon roared, and the General, plying whip and spur, galloped and curvetted the length of the line. Then five fat bullocks and five gallons of spirits were distributed, one to each brigade. The day closed “with civil mirth” and with appropriate toasts, such as “May the kingdom of Ireland merit a stripe in the American standard” and “May the enemies of America be metamorphosed into pack horses, and sent on a western expedition against the Indians.”
A few days later, in Tioga, a similar celebration was held, with an Indian dance led by an Oneida sachem. The officers, wearing paint, joined in the steps, each measure ending with a war whoop. The forts were then demolished; the army moved downriver, mostly by boat, to Wyoming. Thence they marched again to their starting point at Easton, and thence to various winter quarters.
General Sullivan reported proudly to Congress that his mission was fulfilled, and at small cost—less than forty men lost. He had destroyed forty villages, approximately 160,000 bushels of corn, and a vast quantity of other vegetables and fruits. He had imposed on the British the obligation of feeding their Indian allies. Indeed, during the following winter the British at Niagara counted between two and three thousand Indian wards demanding rations. This was the bitter winter when New York Harbor was frozen solid and artillery was wheeled on the ice from Staten Island to Manhattan. The Indians in Niagara suffered cruelly from cold, hunger, and scurvy, the last affliction being an obvious consequence of the loss of their customary vegetable foods and stored fruits.
The Americans, including Washington, supposed that the Indian menace to the frontier was ended. Therein they were mistaken. The raids were resumed, prompted by hunger as well as vengefulness. The Mohawk Valley, almost depopulated, was left in ruins.
The Sullivan campaign was nevertheless a notable achievement. The army had marched well over five hundred miles, with small hope of reward or glory. The operation was admirably planned and conducted, without dash and daring but without needless risk. Its work of desolation virtually eliminated the Indian from central New York and opened a new frontier for the white man.
On the whole the campaign was a necessary but rather nasty business, as is the greater part of most wars. Some of the more tender-minded expeditioiiaries were pained by the destruction of farms and homes. Dr. Campneld wrote: “There is something so cruel in destroying the habitations of any people, (however mean they may be, being their all) that I might say the prospect hurts my feelings.”
Others looked to a more distant, a more shining prospect. Lieutenant Robert Parker, camped on the Genesee, was vouchsafed a kind of vision.
Here let us leave the busy army for a moment and suffer our imaginations to Run at large through these delightful wilds & figure to ourselves the opening prospects of future greatness which we may reasonably suppose is not far distant, & that we may yet behold with a pleasing admiration those deserts that have so long been the habitation of beasts of prey & a safe asylum for our savage enemies, converted into fruitful fields, covered with all the richest productions of agriculture, amply rewarding the industrious husbandman by a golden harvest; the spacious plains abounding with flocks & herds to supply his necessary wants. These Lakes and Rivers that have for ages past rolled in sacred silence along their wonted course, unknown to Christian nations, produce spacious cities & guilded spires, rising on their banks, affording a safe retreat for the virtuous few that disdains to live in affluence at the expense of their liberties. The fish too, that have so long enjoyed a peaceful habitation in these transparent regions, may yet become subservient to the inhabitants of this delightful country.
Lieutenant Parker’s glorious vision has today been richly realized, or at least all except the subservience of the fish.