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Colonial Life in New Hampshire
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Sullivan’s Boyhood. — General Sullivan’s father came from the province of Munster, Ireland, and settled in New England. Being well educated, he became a schoolmaster and taught the schools of Berwick, Maine, and of Somersworth, New Hampshire, until he was ninety years of age.

Sullivan’s mother was also an emigrant from Ireland. When on the voyage, a passenger in a joking way asked her, “What do you expect to do in America?” “Do?” was the reply, “why, raise governors for them, sure.” One of her sons was afterwards governor of Massachusetts, a grandson was governor of Maine, another a senator from New Hampshire, and yet another was lieutenant-governor of Illinois.

John was born at Somersworth, February 17, 1740. He received from his father what was then considered a very good education. When only a lad, he went on a voyage to the West Indies. On his return, he applied to Judge Livermore of Portsmouth for work, who, seeing before him a plain country boy clad in rough homespun, asked, “What can you do if I take you?” “Oh, I can split the wood, take care of the horse, attend to the gardening, and, perhaps, find some spare time to read a little, if you can give me that privilege,” replied the boy. The judge was so pleased with his manner that he gave him a trial.

Mr. Livermore had an excellent library, and John improved every opportunity for study. One day, while the judge was away and Sullivan was reading in the library, a young man entered who had been accused of assault, and who wished to engage Judge Livermore to defend him. On learning that the judge was absent, he asked young John if he would not take the case. This he consented to do, and followed his client into court, which was then in session. In the meantime the judge came home, and, hearing that John had gone to the trial, followed to the court-room and slipped in silently to hear his manner of conducting the case. The prosecution showed the black and blue marks and enlisted the sympathies of all present. The case seemed against the boy, but he was able to prove that his client had received sufficient provocation, and the man was acquitted. The judge, greatly pleased, left as secretly as he had come. The next morning he sent for the lad and said, “John, the kitchen is no place for you, continue in your studies, give them your undivided attention, and you shall have what assistance you need from me until you are in a condition to repay it.”

Experience as a Lawyer. — At the age of twenty, John Sullivan was married, and opened a law office in Durham. At this time there were but two lawyers in the entire province of New Hampshire. The profession was not considered very highly, and as a result the citizens resented young Sullivan’s attempt to settle among them. They even gathered one bright evening about his house and threatened to tear it down unless he promised to leave. Sullivan addressed the angry people from an upper window and proposed to test the question by “single combat.” It was decided, however, that he was so strong that no fitting opponent could be found, when James Sullivan, afterwards governor of Massachusetts, volunteered in his brother’s place. In the battle which followed, James was victor, and John lived to bring honor and glory to the town of Durham.

During the exciting times just before the Revolution, Sullivan took an active part, and in the spring of 1774 represented New Hampshire in Congress.

John Adams, in his diary, wrote as follows regarding the action taken by this Congress: — “The committee of violations of rights reported a set of articles which were drawn by Mr. John Sullivan of New Hampshire, and these two declarations...were two years afterwards recapitulated in the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, 1776.” Thus Sullivan played an important part in framing the Declaration which gave to America her independence.

Capture of Fort William and Mary. — On December 13 Paul Revere, the famous patriot of Boston, who afterwards brought news to Lexington, came to Sullivan with the announcement that the king had prohibited the importation of arms or military stores into the colonies, and that two regiments were about to march from Boston to occupy the fort near Portsmouth Harbor. To Sullivan’s mind, the time had come for action. He quickly assembled a company of men, and on the following night, which happened to be clear and cold, they sailed down the river to Portsmouth, where half a dozen patriots were taken on board, among whom was Captain John Langdon, afterwards the first president of the United States Senate and governor of New Hampshire.


From Portsmouth they proceeded directly to the fort. The water was so shallow where they attempted to land, that they were forced to wade to the shore. Although bitterly cold, the men removed their shoes in order to make no noise while climbing the ramparts. The garrison, however, was alarmed, and made a sharp but unsuccessful resistance.1

The captain of the fort, together with his men, was seized and bound. They found here nearly two hundred kegs of powder, which they loaded on board their vessel and then proceeded back to Durham, where the powder was buried under the pulpit of the old meeting-house, as a means of security, for in those days no form of heating was used in church.

At the battle of Bunker Hill, the American troops were very short of powder. A modern writer has described their condition in the following manner:

“As the British were forming for a final charge on the earthworks, Prescott discovered that his men had hardly one round of ammunition. Dismayed at this, he gave the order to retreat. Undoubtedly both his forces and Stark’s would have been captured except for the tremendous fire which Stark, from behind the rail fence, stuck with hay, was able to pour upon the Welsh fusileers who were marching to cut off the retreat. This Stark was able to do by a store of powder which came at a most opportune moment. It had been brought over the hills from New Hampshire, sixty miles away, by Captain John Demerritt in an ox-cart, and was a portion of the British powder captured at Portsmouth on the memorable 14th of December.”

The news of Sullivan’s assault upon the king’s fortress was received with the greatest excitement in England. Parliament practically adopted a declaration of war, which was presented on February 9, 1775. The king promised “to uphold its wishes and that his language should open the eyes of the deluded Americans.” Orders were immediately sent from London to seize all arms and ammunition to be found in the colonies, and Pitcairn’s march to Lexington was the result. Dr. Quint of Dover, speaking of this attack, writes as follows: “The daring character of this assault cannot be overestimated. It was an organized investment of a royal fortress where the king’s flag was flying, and the king’s garrison met them with muskets and artillery. It was four months before Lexington, and Lexington was resistance to attack, while this was deliberate assault.”

Alexander Scammel was in the expedition against Fort William and Mary, and it was he who hauled down the British flag. Scammel was one of Washington’s closest friends, and later became adjutant-general of the entire army of the Revolution. He was killed during the siege of Yorktown, just before the surrender of Cornwallis; thus having taken part in the first and last struggle for independence. It is important for New Hampshire people to remember that this attack upon Fort William and Mary was the first armed resistance in the War of Independence, and that it took place four months before the battle of Lexington.

Governor Wentworth immediately issued a proclamation declaring all who had taken part in this attack guilty of treason, and offered a reward for their capture. Major Sullivan and other citizens of Durham who held commissions, either civil or military, from the king, marched boldly in a procession to the common, and there publicly burned their commissions, uniform, and everything that bound them to the king’s service.

In order to defend his action in attacking the fort, Sullivan published an address, which was spread throughout the country, and from which this extract is taken: “I am far from wishing hostilities to commence on the part of America; but still hope that no person will, at this important crisis, be unprepared to act in his own defense, should he, by necessity, be driven thereto. And I must beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the people on this continent, whether, when we are by an arbitrary decree prohibited the having arms and ammunition by importation, we have not, by the law of self-preservation, a right to seize upon those within our power, in order to defend the liberties which God and nature have given us; especially at this time, when several of the colonies are involved in a dangerous war with the Indians, and must, if this inhuman order have the desired effect, fall a prey to those savages and barbarians, who have so often deluged this land with blood.”

Sullivan Made Brigadier-General. — When the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord was received, Sullivan marched with his company to Massachusetts; but in May he resumed his seat in Congress and was appointed chairman of the war committee. At the time Washington was made commander-in-chief, eight brigadier-generals were appointed, and Sullivan was one of those to receive a commission. He went with his commander to Cambridge, and was stationed at Winter Hill during the siege of Boston.

After the victory, March 17, 1776, Sullivan was given command of the army in Canada. Upon arriving at his post, he found the army hungry and disheartened. Five thousand of the men were sick, and only about two thousand fit for duty. The enemy’s forces were much stronger and in better condition. Under such circumstances there was nothing to do but to retreat. This retreat was conducted with such skill, prudence, and energy that the Americans were able to bring off all their sick, together with their guns and ammunition, the men dragging the cannon by hand through the wilderness.

Capture of Sullivan. — In August, Sullivan was made a major-general, and ordered to join Washington at New York. During the battle of Brooklyn, he was stationed at Brooklyn Heights, where with four thousand men he successfully opposed a much larger force of Hessians. He was able to hold his ground from nine o’clock until noon, when, being attacked upon the rear by forces outnumbering his own six to one, he was overpowered and captured while bravely leading a charge.

Sullivan was taken on board Lord Howe’s flagship, the “Eagle,” where he was kindly treated. During his captivity he was released on parole by Howe in order to take a message to Philadelphia, asking Congress to appoint a committee who should confer with him concerning terms of peace. This idea was carried out and the conference was held, but the committee came to no agreement, as they were not satisfied with Lord Howe’s terms. General Sullivan was afterwards exchanged for General Prescott.

Sullivan at Trenton. — On regaining his liberty Sullivan joined the army under General Lee at North Castle, New York. Lee had been ordered to hasten to the relief of Washington, but he delayed and was captured by the enemy. Sullivan succeeded to the command, and lost no time in joining his forces with those of Washington beyond the Delaware. He arrived in time to take charge of the right wing in the battle of Trenton, and Colonel Stark was given command of the advance guard, which division conducted itself with such honor that Washington asked, “What troops are those?” General Sullivan replied, “Full-blooded Yankees, sir, from New Hampshire.” It is said that Stockman Sweat, one of the “full-blooded Yankees” in Stark’s regiment, distinguished himself by bringing in, unaided, five Hessian prisoners in a body. His explanation of the capture was that he did it by “surrounding them.”

The time for which Sullivan’s men had enlisted expired on the first of January, and as the enemy was approaching with a large force it was important to keep all the army together in order to prevent their advancing on Philadelphia; accordingly, he prevailed on his troops to reënlist for six weeks, thus making possible the victory of Princeton.

On the 13th of February, 1777, he wrote to Meshech Weare, president of the assembly of New Hampshire:—

“You may want to know how your men fight. I tell you, exceedingly well when they have the proper officers. I have been much pleased to see a day approaching to try the difference between Yankee cowardice and southern valor. The day, or rather the days, have arrived. . . . General Washington made no scruple to say, publicly, that the remnant of the eastern regiments was the strength of his army, though their numbers, comparatively speaking, were small. He calls them in front when the enemy are there; he sends them to the rear when the enemy threatens that way. All the general officers allow them to be the best of the troops. The southern officers and soldiers allow it in time of danger, but not at all at other times. Believe me, sir, the Yankees took Trenton before the other troops knew anything of the matter. More than that, there was an engagement; and, what will surprise you still more, the line that attacked the town consisted of but eight hundred Yankees, and there were sixteen hundred Hessians to oppose them. At Princeton, when the Seventeenth Regiment had thrown thirty-five hundred southern militia into confusion, a regiment of Yankees restored the day.”

Battle of Brandywine. — Sullivan was given command of the right wing in the battle of Brandywine. The day on which the battle occurred was so foggy that the Americans had not been able to perceive the enemy’s movements clearly, but it was reported that two brigades had crossed the Brandywine and were marching down the left bank. Washington ordered Sullivan to join the divisions of Stirling and Stephen in opposing the advance of the British. Upon his arrival, he found that instead of two brigades, the whole force of General Howe’s army had crossed the river under cover of the fog.

The enemy began their attack before the Americans had time to form in line of battle, thus throwing many of them into confusion. The artillery, however, promptly took possession of a hill, and by their rapid firing kept the attention of the enemy until the broken troops could be rallied. General Sullivan behaved most courageously, at one time rallying the frightened soldiers, again directing the artillery on the hill, and exposing himself to every danger. His horse was shot under him during the engagement. Finally, by force of numbers, he was compelled to retreat, leaving the ground covered with the bodies of the enemy. Thus did three or four thousand American soldiers keep twelve thousand British at bay for nearly two hours, and then retreated in such good order that the enemy did not attempt to follow them.

In spite of the defeat at Brandywine, Washington resolved to again give battle to the British, but a violent storm destroyed his ammunition, and he was obliged to let Lord Howe enter Philadelphia unmolested. Howe quartered most of his soldiers at Germantown, eight miles north of Philadelphia. The Americans made a spirited attack upon this town, but on account of a dense fog which prevented their distinguishing friend from foe, they were forced to retreat.

In April, 1778, he was given command of the army in Rhode Island. Upon arriving at Providence, he found his command reduced to only five hundred men; but, fortunately, the English, who were stationed at Newport under General Piggott, had no idea that they were opposed by so small a force.

Sullivan made every endeavor to increase the size of his army, which finally, after he was joined by the forces of Lafayette, numbered about ten thousand men. He was also aided by the French fleet under Count D’Estaing, but soon the French forces were withdrawn, which so disheartened the American troops that many deserted. Sullivan, being thus reduced in numbers, retreated at night to Butt’s Hill, where he was attacked by the British. The battle lasted the entire day, and resulted in a complete victory for the Americans. Lafayette is reported to have said that Butt’s Hill was the best fought battle of the war. The Americans lost but one hundred men, while the British lost over a thousand. Soon after, the British were heavily reinforced, and Sullivan was compelled to retreat. The legislatures of both New Hampshire and Rhode Island complimented General Sullivan upon his management of this campaign.

Sullivan at Rhode Island. — General Sullivan spent the winter among the privations of Valley Forge.

Expedition against the Iroquois. — The Iroquois Indians, who occupied the central part of New York State, were allies of the British, and had given much trouble to the Americans, so much so that Washington determined to teach them a lesson, and selected General Sullivan as a proper officer to inspire in them a respect for the American arms. Accordingly, in July, 1779, a small and poorly equipped army started up the Susquehanna River through the trackless wilderness to subdue a force of over a thousand Indians, together with seven or eight hundred British regulars.

At one time, when on the march, Sullivan’s devotion to duty was clearly shown by his giving up his favorite charger as a pack horse, in order that necessary supplies should not be left behind.

On the 29th of August, scouting parties reported to Sullivan that a large force of Indians, Tories, and British soldiers under the command of the Indian, Joseph Brant, and of Colonel Butler, had entrenched themselves in a very strong position, and were awaiting the American advance.

It was a critical period, as the defense represented the entire fighting force of the Iroquois. Sullivan immediately formed his plan of attack; the artillery, well supported by infantry, were placed along the center, while the New Hampshire brigade, under Colonel Poor, crossed the swamp and fought their way stubbornly up the hill, which stood on the enemy’s left, in order to flank their position. In spite of all opposition, the flank movement was successful, and the enemy being unable to withstand the combined attacks of the artillery in front and of the infantry on their left, broke and fled.

The Indians were so impressed with the power of the Continental troops that they dared not risk another encounter, and the whole country was deserted. Sullivan, to make his conquest more complete, burned everything which could possibly be of use to the Indians.

On the 16th day of September the army arrived at Geneseo, the largest town of the Iroquois, which Sullivan describes as consisting of one hundred twenty-eight large, elegant dwellings, with orchards of fine fruit trees, some of which were very old; also with large fields of corn and vegetables.

When he had Completed the destruction of every village and cornfield belonging to the Five Nations, Sullivan began his return journey. The army arrived in Boston on the 15th of October, after a march of nearly seven hundred miles through the wilderness.

In recognition of the success of this expedition, Washington officially “congratulated the army on the complete and full success of Major-General Sullivan and of the troops under his command against the Senecas and other tribes of the Five Nations, as a just and necessary punishment for their wanton depredations, their unparalleled and innumerable cruelties, and their deafness to all entreaties.” Congress also accorded a vote of thanks to Washington and Sullivan for the plan and successful issue of this expedition.


Sullivan Fills Many Important Positions. — Sullivan’s health became so broken from his five years of hard service, that he was compelled to resign his commission. Congress accepted his resignation and expressed its gratitude for his valuable services. He reached Durham in February, 1780, anxious to resume his interrupted law practice and to quietly enter into private life. The people, however, had such trust in his integrity that they insisted on sending him as a delegate to Congress to present their New Hampshire side in the dispute over what is now Vermont, but which was then known as the “New Hampshire Grants.” This controversy was not finally settled until 1791, when Congress decided to make the land into a separate state. Sullivan was also elected to hold the position of attorney-general for New Hampshire, which office was afterwards held by both his son and grandson.

Upon the retirement of Meshech Weare, General Sullivan was elected to the office of president of the state. When in the president’s chair, Sullivan was very active in the support of the state military organizations, and formed twenty thousand militia into regiments of infantry, cavalry and artillery.

The Exeter Riot. — After the close of the war, the country was in a very demoralized condition. The people had expected that when they obtained their liberty, prosperity would come of its own accord. Many of them, therefore, as they still experienced the hard times, became clamorous for state aid. The trouble finally culminated at Exeter, where several hundred armed men assembled in open rebellion and demanded of the legislature that it should pass such laws as they wished. Among others, the following demands were most prominent; that there should be a large issue of paper money, that property should be equally distributed among all people, and, finally, that all debts should be abolished.

The mob assembled before the doors of the state house and threatened to use force unless the legislature granted their requests. Sullivan, who was president of the senate as well as of the state, stepped to the doors and addressed the rioters. He explained to them carefully wherein their claims were unjust, and told them that even if they were just, the legislature would not take any action while its members were threatened by an armed force.

The mob then left the building, but placed sentries at the door to prevent the senators from going home. Meantime, the senate proceeded with their customary business and adjourned at the usual hour. As Sullivan attempted to leave the chamber, the mob which had assembled barred his passage, and the cry arose from among them to fire upon him. Sullivan told them that he had already smelt too much powder to be afraid of theirs. At this moment a drum was heard in the distance, and the mob, thinking the artillery was coming, hastily withdrew. The next morning several companies of militia, including a squadron of cavalry, were drawn up in the town ready for action. At first the insurgents were disposed to resist, but being charged upon by the cavalry, they scattered in all directions. Several of the ringleaders were afterwards arrested, but, through the leniency of Sullivan, were discharged.

Final Adoption of the Constitution. — Sullivan played a very important part in the final adoption of the Constitution of the United States. It was necessary to have nine states agree to the Constitution before it could go into effect. Eight states had already voted in its favor, and it was of the greatest importance that New Hampshire should also give its sanction in order to have it adopted. Sullivan exerted all his influence in its favor, and on the 21st of June, 1788, New Hampshire adopted the Constitution by a vote of fifty-seven to forty-six. This date is important as it represents the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.

Washington, in 1789, appointed Sullivan United States Judge of New Hampshire, which office he held for many years.

During the latter part of his life, Sullivan suffered much from a spinal trouble brought on by an injury received in the Iroquois campaign. This caused his death on the 23d of January, 1795. He was buried in the little family cemetery near his home at Durham.

Upon the adoption of the Constitution the history of New Hampshire as a separate colony became merged into that of the United States, and consequently the sphere of this work has reached its limit.

During the years that have elapsed since the forming of the Union, New Hampshire has done her part toward moulding the destinies of the Republic. The names of Daniel Webster, Franklin Pierce, Salmon P. Chase, Horace Greeley, Henry Wilson, William Pitt Fessenden, Benjamin F. Butler, John P. Hale, Lewis Cass, John A. Dix, and Charles A. Dana recall the fact that a state small in area and in population may be great in the character of her men.

At one time, when Webster was asked to account for the “Great Stone Face”  at Franconia, he made the following reply: “You merchants of the city display signs outside your doors to indicate what goods you make there; the Almighty has placed his sign on that cliff to indicate that he makes men here.”

1 There is another account of the capture of Fort William and Mary, which gives the credit of its seizure to a band of Portsmouth citizens. They were said to have made an attack in broad daylight, and to have seized the fort without resistance on the part of its inmates.

The account as given in the text seems, however, to have the better historical support.

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