For a brief seven weeks, the Pennsylvania frontier village of Easton became the second largest community within the state. With an estimated 25,000 inhabitants, Philadelphia was the largest city in Pennsylvania (and North America); under normal circumstances, Lancaster was second with between 3,000-3,500 inhabitants followed by York with under 2,000. In 1752 it was estimated that Easton had only eleven families. Under the “friendly” military occupation by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s command in 1779, Easton grew ten-fold from a mere four hundred inhabitants (plus a number of invalid troops, militia, and prisoners of war) to more than 4,000 occupants. This increase had a tremendous impact on the resident population and strained their limited resources.
Easton’s brief occupation occurred because the Continental Congress’s Board of War concluded that a major Indian war was in the near future. They decided that a defensive war would be insufficient to stem the numerous devastating Indian/Loyalist raids along the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers. They instead allocated approximately 3,000 troops in 1778 for an offensive action, but that effort did not immediately materialize. It was gradually determined that more soldiers were required. In the meantime, British-sanctioned violent incursions by Iroquois warriors into Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley and New York’s Cherry Valley regions caused an unquenchable thirst to totally eradicate the Iroquois menace with a “scorched earth” policy of retribution.
Choosing a commander for a multi-prong offensive by approximately one-third of the Continental Army’s manpower was challenging due to the Continental Army’s partisan and self-centered seniority-based selection process that regularly overlooked aptitude and ability. The officer with seniority was Charles Lee, at the time under suspension for his actions at Monmouth. Next was Philip Schuyler, too often incapacitated by ill-health, but he had tendered his resignation. The came Israel Putnam, evaluated as inept. The next candidate was Horatio Gates, but Washington’s offer of the command to him was more like an inducement to decline than an encouragement for acquiescence. To Washington’s relief, Gates’s reply was, “The man, who undertakes the Indian service, should enjoy youth and strength; requisites I do not possess.” He expounded resentfully “that your Exly Should offer me the only command to which I am entirely totally unequal.” Next in line was an ardent New Hampshire patriot, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, who had loyally served with Washington from the very beginning of the war and was his obvious preference. Sullivan pursued and attained admiration from his troops for his military exploits. Washington described him as having “a flattering prospect of acquiring more credit than can be expected by any other this year.” His health was questionable, but he accepted the challenge with only brief hesitation—although not everyone was impressed with his military service. Dr. Benjamin Rush referred to Sullivan as “weak, vain, without dignity, fond of scribling, in the field a madman.”
Sullivan’s instructions from Washington were quite clear and precise. “Having appointed you to take command of an expedition, which is to be carried on to the Westward against the Indians of the Six nations—You will be pleased forthwith to repair to Easton, in order to superintendent, and forward the preparations, for that purpose.” The orders continued that while at Easton, for what was expected to be a very brief time, Sullivan would “make every necessary arrangement with the Quarter Master and Commissary General relative to your supplies of Stores and provisions, which ought to be hastened to the places of their destination with all possible dispatch.” Sullivan arrived in Easton on May 7 with extreme confidence that Washington’s timetable could be achieved. The general departed the community on May 11 to complete related military business. He quickly returned to Easton in time to receive additional instructions from Washington that left no room for misinterpretation or deviation:
The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more . . . Our future security will be in their inability to injure us[,] the distance to which they are driven and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them
Washington apparently gave little consideration that this merciless destruction of the Six Nations might incite a fresh fury for renewed vengeance on the Pennsylvania and New York frontiers. Perhaps he thought the Indians would sue for peace, hand over the Loyalist leadership, assist the American forces in capturing Fort Niagara, and attack British Great Lakes shipping. Sullivan, however, was never given the authority to conclude a treaty with the Indians without ratification by the Continental Congress. Although Sullivan confessed his misgivings about the entire operation and its extreme objectives, Washington would not diverge from his orders.
Washington selected Easton as the staging area for this incursion deep into enemy territory due to its relatively close proximity to the main army’s Middlebrook, New Jersey, winter cantonment. The town was at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers which made movement of supplies for an expedition easier. In addition, Easton was one of the most efficient Delaware River crossings for travel between New York and Philadelphia. Near the ferries required to shuttle both goods and troops, Easton had waterfront warehouses to stockpile the vast amounts of assorted and essential military materials. In the event of any aggressive British movements, Easton possessed natural water and mountain barriers for its protection.
Sullivan’s command in Easton consisted of two brigades, one of Gen. William Maxwell and the other belonging to Gen. Enoch Poor.A third brigade from New York under Brig. Gen. James Clinton would later rendezvoused with the main army from Easton. As the troops slowly advanced into Easton, their main tent encampment was along the Lehigh River with the riverfront warehouse also employed for shelter. Many of the officers occupied private homes, inns, taverns, and the 1765 Northampton County Court House. Ens. Daniel Gookin of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment wrote that Easton was “very pleasantly situated” and had a “fine Stone Church and Court House which lie in the centre of the town and a Stone Gaol; the inhabitants German, buildings most of stone.” Capt. Daniel Livermore of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment concurred with Gookin that Easton was a “pleasant town” consisting of “chiefly Low, not High Dutch, with Jews as the primary merchants.” Others did not share the same congenial praise for the town. Lt. Samuel Moore Shute of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment caustically described the town as having “but three elegant houses in it and about as many inhabitants that are any way agreeable. Take them in general they are a very inhospitable set—all High Dutch [German] & Jew.”
Supply shortages immediately interrupted the campaign’s plans and timetable, causing Washington to become increasingly irritated that a large portion of his forces were wallowing in Easton instead of commencing with the campaign. As the military operational season crept into mid-June, Sullivan advised his commander-in-chief of his warranted caution: “I should have removed from this post before now, but the stores not having got up the Susquehannah I thought it imprudent to throw the whole army on to consume the provisions before we were in readiness to move on.” In addition, Sullivan was plagued by damaged and poor quality supplies within Easton. He recorded on May 27 that “Commissary Frazier is ordered to dispose of, in the best manner he can, the two thousand, five hundred and twenty eight weight of salted beef, inspected and condemned yesterday as entirely unfit for soldiery.” The next day, Frazier was instructed to purge the army of “the 421 w[eig]ht of beef & one barrel of flour issued to Colo Proctor’s regiment” that was “unfit for use.”
Sullivan assessed that as much as one-third of the army’s packed meat was contaminated. Some of the spoilage might have been due to calculated efforts on the part of teamsters trying to purposely lighten their loads by draining brine from the barrels. Inspectors placed the majority of the responsibility on contractors, southeastern Pennsylvania coopers who used green wood for the kegs because, to maintain secrecy, Washington kept his supply officers uninformed about the upcoming campaign until February. Wood cut for barrel staves at that time of year held significant amounts of sap; the subsequent warm temperatures dried the wooden barrels, causing the staves to shrink, breaking the seal between staves. In addition to problems with the meat, there were complaints of moldy bread and a substantial lack of liquor. Sullivan’s justified excuses for his delay in Easton did not go unnoticed. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Nathanael Greene that “General Sullivan appears to be very anxious to have his supplies of every kind forwarded to him, that he may begin his career. He is the usual pother; but dispatch is certainly very desirable.” Sullivan continued to reinforce his reputation as a complainer. Despite the almost herculean efforts by deputy quartermaster Col. Robert L. Hooper, Jr., an Easton resident, to obtain scarce items such as tents, packhorses, wagons and all manner of ammunition, foodstuffs, and clothing, it appeared to many that the supplies were never enough to satisfy Sullivan. From the time of his appointment, Sullivan initiated a series of prolonged entanglements with quartermasters, commissaries, suppliers, and the state government.
In addition to the storage of vital supplies, Sullivan was plagued with problems related to transporting them on a campaign. Washington had initially emphasized “that the road from Easton to Wyoming [Pennsylvania] be opened without delay that the troops and supplies passing that way may meet with no obstruction.” Upon studying the route to Wyoming, Sullivan discovered that the path was inadequate for a large force. He was compelled to divert troops from military training to road building. This project was an epic work of military engineering—by mid-June Sullivan’s troops hacked forty miles of new road into the wilderness, which further delayed a raid Washington had hoped would be a lightning strike.
Even with this new conduit, the troops found a hostile country outside of the relative comforts of Easton. Lt. William Barton from Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade described the area as a “great swamp,” “cold, and a great part entirely barren,” with the the farthest portion “called the Shadow of Death.” Sgt. Thomas Roberts of the 5th New Jersey Regiment discovered that as the miles increased from Easton there was “not a hous nor fense” and much of it was “Dark as after Sun down.”
Horses were a limited resource and vital for the success of the campaign; Sullivan, a horseman himself, took note of their overall condition. In Easton, he gave instructions that “Public horses being much injured by waggoners and others of a like class riding and driving them hard, officers are desired to endeavor to prevent any further abuse of the kind by immediately punishing or confining every offender in that way.”
Sullivan was never on the best terms with Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania’s radically reformed government. Reed plainly resented Washington’s selection of the New Hampshire lawyer as the expedition’s commander. The friction first started when Sullivan wrote to Reed on May 11 that a Pennsylvania law “will much Impede The intended Expedition” unless Reed’s Supreme Executive Council empowered the “Quarter Masters to Impress” wagons and other articles for the campaign. Reed retorted that Sullivan’s letter was “considered with the attention it deserves,” sarcastically continuing that the “term impressment at first led us into some difficulties and has been the principal reason why an immediate answer was not given.” Sullivan was informed that ultimately the Supreme Executive Council had the authority in this matter by “the laws of the State.” He explained to Sullivan that “Former powers given to the Military and to the Quarter Masters having been in some instances misused, they have been retrenched by degrees, so that little remains with them but to make application” and subordinate themselves to the will of the state government; to do otherwise would be “repugnant to the General sense of the people.” To avoid another crisis Sullivan apologized by writing to Reed, “I am Exceedingly Sorry that I made use of the term Impressing in my Letter of the 11th and beg leave To assure you that it proceeded only from my Ignorance of the mode your Government had adopted for Supply.” Although Sullivan was jumping through Reed’s hoops and was told that by him, “It being our determined resolution to give you every Assistance in our power,” there was a caveat that the support would be provided in measured amounts. “In the mean time the exhausted state of the country, the great supplies drawn from this state for the Waggon service to the Continental army, the Invasion of the enemy, the disaffection of too many among us, and the disgust arising from irregularities of the staff Officers, and the necessary tillage of the Country, are circumstances that will plead strongly with you to make all candid allowances.”
Prior to Sullivan’s arrival on May 7, maintaining control of the troops in Easton was difficult. Even as the first units arrived at the end of April, there were obvious signs that this expedition would face many internal command difficulties. New Jersey’s Col. Oliver Spencer wrote to Washington about his worries concerning repercussions from the resignation of Col. William Malcolm and the subsequent mass exodus of his officers. Spencer declared that the men “Unanimously Declared they will not march from this Town under my command, which makes me Extreemly Unhappy, am very loath to take command of such men.” He believed that “rash Measures” could be taken in which “they ought to be reduced to a State of Obedience” and “they might be returned to the States from whence they were raised.” The continuing supply problems may have played a role with these insubordinations; in these “two Regiments” there could “be a want of Summer Cloathing.”
Many of the troops gathered in Easton suffered from the lack of basic necessities such as clothing, shoes and other supplies required for survival in the field. This serious condition was especially evident amongst the New Jersey line. Sullivan learned from a letter from Colonel Courtland that “Shirts & other articles of Cloathing are wanting for his Regiment. Spensers are almost naked.” Gen. William Maxwell quickly surmised this trouble originated with the New Jersey politicians in Trenton who somewhat ignored the growing problem. Maxwell wrote a caustic letter to them, reporting that New Jersey soldiers were “so shamefully neglected by the Legislature of the state that I am at a loss to know how to address this subject.” Simultaneously, Maxwell’s officers appealed to the legislature for support. The 1st New Jersey Regiment’s officers urgently filed a petition to Trenton promising to resign en masse within three days unless the state government addressed their complaints concerning pay, supplies, and other stipends. This threat of mass resignations greatly alarmed Washington, as these individuals could legally renounce their commissions at any time. Although their warning did not represent a mutiny, their actions could have encouraged enlisted men into taking this same action. Washington, who recognized that this would have disastrous consequences, diligently worked behind the scenes to solve these issues.
The military legal system preserved regulations when more constructive incentives were inadequate. General courts-martial sat at the rate of two or more a week, and with two major exceptions, sentences were mild and exonerations common. The incidents included enlisted men painting themselves as Indians to threaten two officers; one man who was seized received one hundred lashes while another was compelled to run the gauntlet through three regiments. A local inhabitant reported that his sheep were pilfered and he urged his officers “to use their utmost endeavors to detect the offenders that they may be made to suffer the severest punishments.” The commanding general was “determined to punish most severely every depredation committed upon the smallest property of any inhabitant.” Crimes such as stealing, coercing civilians, and desertion nonetheless became more and more common as the troops waited to proceed with their mission. Some soldiers abandoned regimental encampments, either to escape the upcoming grueling march, or perhaps simply out of boredom with the daily monotonous military routine. Searches were carried out by provost troops to apprehend deserters, and advertisements such as this one were placed in newspapers:
DESERTED, from the second Jersey regiment, lying at Easton,
Thomas Daniels, 5 feet 7 inches high, short brown hair, fair complexion, blue eyes, 26 years of age. Benjamin Garrison, 5 feet 5 inches high, dark complexion and hair, grey eyes, 24 years of age. David Ireland, 5 feet 10 inches high, long light hair, fair complexion, grey eyes, 21 years of age. John Wain, 5 feet 7 inches high, dark complexion and hair, 24 years of age. John Taylor, 5 feet 9 inches high, dark complexion and hair, grey eyes, 25 years of age. John Lippencut, 6 feet high, fair complexion, dark hair, blue eyes, 25 years of age . . . Whoever takes up said deserters shall receive TEN DOLLARS for each and One Shilling per mile each, if delivered to the regiment, or to the Town Major in Philadelphia.
Sullivan took it upon himself to court-martial two Sussex County, New Jersey, civilians, Lawrence Miller and Michael Roseborough. The charges were “enticing several soldiers to desert to the enemy, and engage their assistance for that purpose.” On June 3, Sullivan appointed Brigadier General Maxwell as “president of a general court martial.” Sgt. Maj. George Grant of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment recorded that “two men, one of whom has been a Lieut. in the Militia” were “confined for enticing a number of the Artillery to desert to the enemy.” On June 5, Sullivan recorded that “The court are unanimously of the opinion they are guilty of the charges exhibited and do unanimously sentence them to suffer death.” Sullivan approved the sentence of the court, “but postpones the execution of it for a few days.” Until the very end, Roseborough (sometimes written as Rosebury) was unapologetic and suffered for his guilt. Miller showed remorse, but agonized with the halter around his neck for fifteen minutes while his charges were narrated before the gathered troops. During this time he fainted. Before the noose was tightened and his sentence carried out, however, he was pardoned.
Another matter involved three soldiers who murdered a local civilian who refused to sell them liquor. Sgt. Thomas Roberts recorded on June 12 that the “three Soldiers” were “hanged for Murder.” He declared, “I never saw so many Spectators in my life;” in his “opinion thear was 4,000 that night.” Sergeant Major Grant commented that these “three soldiers, belonging to the Pennsylvania Regiment commanded by Col. Hubley, were executed” and the “whole of the Troops on the ground were present at this melancholy occasion.”
To keep his troops somewhat active (with less time for mischief), Sullivan decided to conduct public military parades or maneuvers. For the morning of June 8, he ordered that he would “review the troops” with “Colo. Proctor’s artillery” to “be drawn up on the right & left of the Infantry in equal division. The band will be on the right of the whole,” “to attend the General while reviewing the troops. Generals Maxwell & Poor with the Adj. General will fix upon the ground for the review & Manouvers.” Sullivan ordered a similar event for the evening of June 14 with a bonus to entertain the gathered audience. The troops were “provided with two blank cartridges each” while Proctor’s artillery was issued “26 blank cartridges for the 6 Pounders.” Thirteen cannon were discharged “at sunset & after that a feu-de-joye” fired two times. Sergeant Major Grant noted that the “few de joy” was fired that evening “on account of a victory obtained over the enemy in South Carolina” on May 11-12 at Charleston.
Epidemics were always a worry when an army mustered in an area for a substantial amount of time. By June 9 Sullivan was made aware that his troops were exhibiting signs of “intermitting fevers.” His regimental physicians and surgeons attributed these illnesses to “too frequently going into the water [of the Delaware and the Lehigh Rivers] and remaining too long in that situation.” As the waterways were undoubtedly used to dispose of all manner of waste, this concern was undoubtedly justified. Sullivan forbade members of his command
from going into the water except on Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays before sunrise. The commanding officers of the corps will direct the police officer to assemble & attend such as choose to bathe at these times, who is also to see that they do not remain in the water more than one quarter of an hour. The General flatters himself that a respect for General orders as well as the regard the troops must have for their own health will induce them to pay particular attention to these directions; and he calls upon every officer to see that they are strictly complied with.
A devoted New England believer, Sullivan worried about the souls of his men in Easton and took measures he believed would be beneficial. The general took his religion very seriously and actively urged his army’s chaplains to fervently preach the word of God to the men and ultimately inspire a moral environment for them. His May 30 mandatory orders that “the troops are to attend divine services at three o’Clock this afternoon in the church in this town” were typical and Sunday services usually consisted of a sermon (with a theme of God’s expectations in order to achieve success in the upcoming venture), prayers, and Holy Communion. Ensign Gookin recorded on May 29-30 that he “Went to church, heard a sermon in Dutch, saw the Priest administer the Sacrament.” The sacrament was administered “first to the men come around the altar, the minister takes small white wafers almost as big as a copper which he puts into their mouths speaking to everyone, the same with the wine, the organ going all the time and people singing.”
Sullivan learned that counterfeit currency was being introduced into his command. He urged his troops to examine their bills and immediately bring the altered ones to him. He also ordered his soldiers to give “information from whom they receive” the bogus bills, whether from civilians or soldiers, declaring that “After this caution every excuse for attempting to pass bills of this kind will be ineffectual,” and he would “order instant & exemplary punishment upon those who hereafter may attempt to circulate them.” Now the soldiers not only had money that was nearly worthless anyway, but these bills could also be fake and bring the weight of military justice onto anyone who used them.
For officers, a visit from Lady Washington provided a pleasant diversion. She was returning from the Middlebrook cantonment to the Washington home of Mount Vernon in Virginia. On June 15 she was escorted by Sullivan, Maxwell, and Gen. Enoch Poor with a party of twenty officers as far as nearby Bethlehem. She enjoyed the town’s relative comforts and culinary pleasures of the “Sun Inn,” which was visited by many notables of the American Revolution.
Within Sullivan’s army at Easton were Indians serving as military guides for the American forces when they entered the hostile Iroquois territory. Rev. William Rogers, brigade chaplain to the Pennsylvania Line, recorded on June 17 that he was introduced to a fellow clergyman named Kirkland who had served a number of years as a missionary to the Stockbridge tribe. Rogers was pleased that “Mr. Kirkland is to go with us on the secret expedition.” He noted that there were “Four Stockbridge Indians at Easton who are to act as guides; we expect on the march the Oneidas and friend Tuscaroras to offer us their assistance.” Sullivan, however, took note of reports that some of his troops “have been so imprudent as to ridicule & speak contemptably of the Indians who have come to join us.” He desired that “such persons reflect upon the cruelty of such conduct.” He further stated that“nothing can be more ungenerous than to ridicule those who have come voluntarily to venture their lives in our aid” and that “it would be the hight of imprudence to give umbrage to a people who are about to lend us the most generous assistance” as they are “perfectly well acquainted with the country.” Sullivan vowed that anyone who “gives the least discouragement to these people, must in malice to his country far exceed the most inveterate Tory, & must expect to be treated accordingly.”
By June 18, all elements of the Easton troops were finally underway to complete their objective. Sullivan felt, with much pressure from Washington, that his command was as prepared as possible. In the end, the pledges from the Pennsylvania state government received negligible support from Reed and his subordinates. By his departure date, Sullivan’s expedition had little of the promised Pennsylvania militia support. The Pennsylvania militia commanders considered their primary responsibility to be defending their individual counties, with the state’s concerns as secondary. Reed and his radicals used the militia as the bedrock for control and governance, which made it next to impossible to pressure these troops without paying a price. The relationship between Sullivan and the Pennsylvania government continued to plummet for the remainder of the expedition. Reed even complained that the general should first address him on issues related to the state instead of following the chain of command directly to Washington. Sullivan alleged that the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council was either totally incompetent or purposely sabotaging his mission.
Although supply difficulties continued to plague Sullivan and several ambushes occurred along the route into New York, the general accomplished the strategic goals Washington had given him. Over forty Indian villages were totally obliterated along with crops that would have supported them through the winter months. The power of the Indians to strike with large numbers was effectively broken; nonetheless, in 1780 and 1781 strong retaliatory raids continued across New York and Pennsylvania including vast destruction in the Mohawk Valley. The expedition never reached his ultimate destination of Fort Niagara due to a late start. By October 17, most of Sullivan’s command had returned to Easton where the general and his officers received a Thanksgiving service in the German Reformed Church. By the first of November, Sullivan and all of his men had departed to rejoin their former commands. This marked the end of a campaign which began and finished in Easton.
Andrew A. Zellers-Frederick, Philadelphia’s Population at the Onset of the Revolution: A Comparison with Other British Cities. Factual Flyer-Independence National Historical Park, 1983. Internal Publication.
“Some of the Expenses in the Founding of Easton, Penna.,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 38 (1914): 110.
William S. Stryker, General Maxwell’s Brigade of the New Jersey Continental Line (Trenton: W.S. Sharp Printing Company, 1885), 10: Maxwell’s brigade consisted of four New Jersey regiments with approximately 111 officers and 1,294 enlisted men, Poor’s was approximately the same number.
“Order Book May 27 and May 28, 1779,” Notes from Craft Collection in Tioga Point Museum of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 and its Centennial Celebration of 1879 including Order Book of General Sullivan, Louise Welles Murray, ed. (Athena, Pennsylvania: Louise Welles Murray, 1929), 1-2.
The Pennsylvania Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, June 23, 1779; June 30, 1779; July 21, 1779, in Joseph Lee Boyle, “He loves a good deal of rum”: Military Desertions during the American Revolution, 1775-1783(Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 2: 194-195.
Charles P. Whitmore, A General of the Revolution: John Sullivan of New Hampshire(New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 117. Sullivan confided to members of his command that at one time he was an atheist, then a deist before he “became convinced by fair and impartial reasoning of the Supreme Being and the perfection of His character.” He even wrote in one day a thirty-page treatise “to prove the existence of a Supreme Being, the truth of the Bible, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Savior of the World.”