August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
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 by.
Surveying his military career, one gets the impression that he was perpetually in motion but going nowhere, that he had virtually nothing to show for all his ambition and energy and combativeness, and that in the end nearly everything he did was counterproductive. It would not be so bad if he had been a likable fellow, but he was not; one senses that he was, by and large, singularly unattractive—always the glad-hander, a politician in or out of uniform, forever overconfident of success on the eve of battle, cocksure that he could do anything that was asked of him and more—and in the wake of events defending himself against the inevitable criticism, endlessly carping and whining about what had gone wrong and laying the blame on someone else or on some mysterious force that was beyond his control.
Born in 1740 to indentured servants, John Sullivan received a surprisingly good education and by the time he was eighteen was reading law in New Hampshire and soon had his own practice. Ambitious, contentious, and arrogant, he had a passion for land and a penchant for suing, and the two soon had him at loggerheads with less fortunate folk in the neighborhood. They first took matters into their own hands in 1766 and fired into his house, threatening to kill him; then, more temperately, they petitioned the general court with a complaint that Sullivan, “with a View of making his Fortune, out of the Ruin of the poor harmless People,” had used them very badly indeed. Nevertheless he prospered, snatching up land wherever he could find it, acquiring four mills, some Negro slaves, a major’s commission in the militia, and an air of importance that complemented his dark good looks. Because of his violent and articulate views against the Crown he was picked as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses and in 1775 was appointed a brigadier general in the new army.
In all probability he received the commission by default. There were those in Congress who thought the appointment should go to Nathaniel Folsom, a New Hampshire officer; others preferred cantankerous John Stark; and agreeing upon neither, they chose Sullivan. Thereafter his luck turned sour for good.
During the siege of Boston he had a run-in with the legislators back in New Hampshire for appointing his own officers—a prerogative the civilians regarded as their own. Then he was dispatched to Canada to succeed the dying John Thomas in command of a dying army. Instead of having the wisdom to retreat and save his troops he saw a chance for personal glory, ordered an attack that failed, and then blamed his officers and men for lack of will. Miffed when Congress refused to give him overall command in Canada, he went to Philadelphia and offered his resignation, then withdrew it. As George Washington had by now observed, Sullivan was “active, spirited, and Zealously attach’d to the Cause. … But he has his wants, and he has his foibles. The latter are manifested in a little tincture of vanity, and in an over desire of being popular. …” Even so, Sullivan was promoted to major general and was given an important command on Long Island at the time General William Howe landed there at the head of an invading army. Posting strong bodies of troops to guard all but one of the important passes in his sector, Sullivan inexplicably sent only five men to watch the route Howe actually took, with the result that the British rolled up the American left wing and threatened to engulf the entire army.
Trying to break through the enemy lines, Sullivan was taken prisoner and while in gentlemanly captivity aboard Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship was gulled into carrying a message to Congress seeking reconciliation with the British. Puffed up with his own importance, he never could comprehend the American legislators’ reaction, which was summed up by John Adams. Sourly, Adams expressed the wish that “the first ball that had been fired [at Long Island] had gone through [Sullivan’s] head.”
Next Sullivan pressed for the command of Fort Ticonderoga, only to be told that a rival would receive it, and again he threatened to resign in a cavilling letter to Washington. “Do not, my dear General Sullivan,” Washington replied wearily, “torment yourself any longer with imaginary Slights. … No other officer of rank, in the whole army, has so often conceived himself neglected, Slighted, and ill treated, as you have done, and none I am sure has had less cause than yourself to entertain such Ideas.” Eager to win an important victory of his own, Sullivan planned a raid on Staten Island in the summer of 1777, but his unlucky star rode with him again as the affair turned into a minor defeat instead of a glowing triumph, and the aftermath was a congressional investigation of his conduct. Then came Brandywine, a repetition of Howe’s tactics at Long Island and of Sullivan’s dark fate; a British flanking movement caught him unprepared, and again he was the agent of American disaster.
Under increasing fire by Congress, he was nonetheless sent to Rhode Island to command the first joint operation with the new French allies. Predictably—since Sullivan was involved—it was a failure, and in his frustration Sullivan lashed out at the French commander, very nearly spoiling the delicate alliance before it had had a chance to take hold.
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.