When twenty-three-year-old Capt. Ebenezer Sullivan nobly volunteered himself as a prisoner-exchange hostage in the last weeks of the Canadian invasion, he had no way to foresee the devastating trials and tribulations that he would face as a result of his courageous decision. At the time, he was one of almost five hundred Continentals captured by Indians, British regulars, and Canadians on May 19 and 20, 1776, in and near Fort Cedars, west of Montreal. Sullivan was a proven leader, having already been a company commander for most of the war. He had just proven his mettle in battle too; when his battalion was ambushed and forced to capitulate in a failed attempt to relieve Fort Cedars, he “behaved with the utmost bravery,” and was reportedly “the last who surrendered to the Enemy.”
After a harrowing first couple days in captivity, subjected to relentless Indian pillaging and frequent death threats, Sullivan and the thirty other officer prisoners had been removed to reasonably safe and comfortable conditions in the British-allied Indian village of Canasadaga (Kanesatake), a Catholic mission community. Three days later, on May 26, a redcoat lieutenant delivered a draft prisoner-exchange cartel to the captured officers. Captain George Forster, the British commander, proposed that he and his Indian allies would immediately repatriate their hundreds of captives in exchange for an equal number of redcoat prisoners to be returned as soon as practical. The American officers, in no position to negotiate, all signed the tentative agreement, which required four Continental officers to remain in British hands as hostages to ensure that the Americans eventually fulfilled their cartel obligations. Sullivan and three other captains—Theodore Bliss, Ebenezer Green, and John Stevens—agreed to fill the hostage role.
That afternoon, the British lieutenant led Sullivan and his three companions on a short canoe trip that marked the beginning of their hostage odyssey. The hostages might still have expected to be treated as gentlemen in a short, mildly unpleasant interruption in their military careers, but when they reached the enemy camp at Pointe-de-Quinchien, they were abruptly confronted by the harsh reality of their new existence. Captain Forster, the British commander, stood by with apparent indifference as Indian warrior allies rushed forward to strip the four rebel officers. Six days earlier, Sullivan’s Indian captors had already taken his gold-epauleted blue jacket, gun, and $250 company pay as spoils of war on the post-surrender battlefield; Bliss, Green, and Stevens had suffered similar pillaging of their clothing and personal property, too. At this moment, they even lost their breeches and were left completely naked. This rude treatment at Pointe-de-Quinchien would prove to be just the first in a long series of “incredible insults & hardships” that Sullivan and his compatriots would face in coming months.
The next day, with five hundred Continental prisoners’ lives at risk, the commander of American forces west of Montreal, Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold, reluctantly assented to the cartel, putting it into effect. After releasing the prisoners, Captain Forster’s soldiers and Indian allies used the short cease fire to safely retreat from the numerically superior American enemy that was otherwise in close pursuit. British soldiers roughly squeezed Sullivan and the other hostages into crowded bateaux for a one-hundred-mile voyage up the St. Lawrence to the company’s post at Fort Oswegatchie. During the few days’ travel, the four American captains suffered hunger and exposure, still naked as they experienced “the alternate changes of hot and cold” characteristic of a Laurentian Canadian spring. At trip’s end, the hostages were led into close confinement in the small fort, where Sullivan described being held “without either clothes or any thing else to make us Comfortable” for most of June and July.
In late July 1776, Captain Forster sent his hostages downriver to be handled by senior officers in Montreal, where the British army had restored the king’s rule after decisively expelling the American invaders from Canada. For the hostages, this promising change of environment only brought new insults. Reaching the city, Ebenezer Sullivan and the other three captain hostages—presumably re-clothed at some point—were shocked to be led to ungentlemanly quarters in the jail, sharing a room with thirty American rank-and-file prisoners. They were also informed that Congress had refused to comply with the prisoner exchange cartel. As a result, Sullivan later remembered that there were often “savages being about who were frequently at the Door of the Prison Menacing telling us we belonged to them and that they would have us out to burn.”
After about a fortnight under those conditions, Capt. John Money, the British deputy quartermaster general, met with Sullivan and the others. He reiterated the bad news “that Congress had Resolved that they never would Redeem us and that they might do with us as they liked.” While the hostages had been at Oswegatchie, the Continental Congress received reports of the Cedars campaign and prisoner-exchange cartel. Shocked by these accounts that detailed enemy prisoner abuse and murders, on July 10, 1776, Congress published a narrative summary and resolutions addressing the controversial affair. Based on alleged atrocities committed by the king’s Indian allies and condoned or even encouraged by his officers, these resolutions effectively negated the cartel. An American courier had delivered a copy of those resolutions along with the Declaration of Independence to Canada on July 28, just as Sullivan and the others approached Montreal. With Congress’s refusal to satisfy reciprocal cartel obligations, the American government had effectively abandoned the hostages to British mercy.
Captain Money also shared that the British commander in Canada, Gen. Guy Carleton, sympathized with the forsaken men, who did not deserve such ill-treatment from their own misguided leaders. The general said he would try to protect the hostages, even though his Indian allies demanded access to them since the rebels had reneged on the cartel. Money guided the hostages to new quarters, “a room in one of the barracks,” where guards were instructed “not to let the savages or any one else abuse [them].”
Captain Money and Gen. John Burgoyne met with Sullivan and the other hostages, subtly adding psychological pressures on top of the four Americans’ accumulated physical and emotional stressors. The British officers repeatedly reminded the Americans that the rebel Congress had callously abandoned them by negating the Cedars cartel, but never provided written proof of the resolutions’ actual content. Instead, they deliberately mischaracterized Congress’s actions, maintaining that there “was no other Reason given of it only that they looked upon 400 men as to be of too much Consequence to give for four officers.” Burgoyne and Money continued to underscore the Indian threat to the hostages’ safety, too; the general specifically mentioned “the Ungovernable temper of the savages . . . who in their drunken frolicks made no Scruple to insult Genl. Carlton himself.”
On August 14, 1776, the British officers finally sprung a propaganda trap. Burgoyne offered the hostages a chance to send messages to influential friends and family, which they should use for “setting forth the grievance” of “being detained” indefinitely as a result of Congress’s cartel resolutions and to plea for their countrymen’s reconsideration. The general made it clear that he expected Ebenezer Sullivan to write to his eldest brother, Continental Maj. Gen. John Sullivan. The hostages asked again for written proof of the congressional resolutions before composing letters, but Burgoyne reiterated that rebel leaders “had given no reasons” for negating the cartel other than those already explained, and “were even so fantastical as to demand Capt. Forster to be given up pretending that he and the British troops had Committed a Massacre at the Cedars.” The British officers stressed that this was a fleeting opportunity, too; Carleton had authorized one last official courier to carry messages to the rebel states the next morning—all communication would be cut after that. Money and Burgoyne also cautioned that if Carleton found anything displeasing in the hostages’ correspondence, he would not allow it to be sent on. Sullivan, Green, and Bliss could not resist this singular chance to communicate with home—only John Stevens apparently declined to cooperate.
The British officers reaped a truly valuable propaganda catch. Sullivan’s letter, written to one of the Continental Congress’s own generals, stood out from the others. In it, Sullivan earnestly disputed Congress’s interpretation of facts surrounding the Cedars affair, suggesting that “not a man living could have used more humanity than Captain Forster did, after the surrender of the party I belonged to.” He declared it inconceivable that Congress would not redeem the hostages, even going so far as to suggest that the American people might rise up if they found that their “own rulers” were willing to sacrifice hostages and other prisoners of war without good cause. Pro-British sources published Sullivan’s letter on both sides of the Atlantic, offering it as powerful evidence that the government was waging a humane war, while the rebel Congress was fabricating lies to unjustly escape “sacred” exchange-cartel obligations. As one of these publications suggested, “Mr. Sullivan’s letter breathes the sentiments of an honest man, who had taken arms in defence of what he thought the liberties of his country, but found himself duped and betrayed by the Congress, the faithless misleaders of the credulous multitude.” Sullivan would eventually have to answer for his errors in judgment expressed in that letter.
The British leaders in Canada were not pitiless, though. It was clear that Congress would not redeem the hostages, and after their propaganda windfall, the poor captains no longer served any real purpose for their keepers. So, when the British sent hundreds of American prisoners of war out of Canada in September 1776, Sullivan and his peers were permitted to join them and were transported by ship to British-occupied New York. There, the four hostages spent long weeks on a prison ship until they were finally released on parole in February 1777. After nine months of captivity, neglect, and abuse, they were free to go home. Yet they were still hostages. Until redeemed, the four could not re-enter active military service, and they were subject to British recall at any time—and would remain in this limbo for years.
Sullivan, Bliss, Green, and Stevens returned home, having missed a critical year of the Revolution, to find that they had all lost their captaincies when their one-year regiments were reestablished in 1777. This meant that the four hostages lost access to army pay and rations, seniority in rank, and immediate opportunities for promotion. They also had not been paid for almost a year and there was no obvious path for restitution. In June 1777, Sullivan appealed to Massachusetts, requesting compensation for property and money lost in his capture. He also requested back wages direct from the army. He was disappointed by the responses. Both state and army declined to satisfy his requests, citing concerns about administrative responsibility for hostages no longer in active service.
Ebenezer Sullivan, however, was not of a character to passively wait for the dubious prospect of any administrative solutions to his plight. In June 1777, he wrote his major-general brother John, seeking Gen. George Washington’s intervention to resolve the hostages’ pay and position challenges. Ebenezer lamented, “The losses I sustained, together with being deprived of liberty to engage into any business has all ready rendered my Circumstances much worse than I think my services merited. I pray they may not be made worse.” Wishing to serve his country, he emphasized that his career opportunities, both military and civilian, were in suspension as he was certain that the British would inevitably recall him from parole if otherwise unredeemed. Ebenezer closed the letter saying, “Pray use yr influence with his Excellency to hasten my redemption. I think I have not deserved to be slighted & Trust I shall not, when it lays in his Excell[enc]ys power with prudence to help me, if you’ll only be kind enough to make mention of me.”
General Sullivan, who had since had a short prisoner-of-war and parolee experience himself after the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, took up his brother’s case with vigor. The general forwarded Ebenezer’s request to Washington in early July. In a cover letter, John begged his “Excellenceys Influence” to relieve his younger brother “from the amazing Difficulties his Late Capture has thrown him into.” The commander in chief responded favorably, writing to the president of Congress, John Hancock, offering his opinions on the hostages’ unfortunate circumstances and expressing hopes for a speedy answer from Congress. Even with Washington and John Sullivan writing to Hancock on the topic again a month letter, Congress took no immediate action to address the hostages’ predicament. It is worth noting that this was another particularly challenging time for American leaders, with the war’s outlook still fairly bleak and more specifically with the British army posing an imminent threat to Congress itself in Philadelphia.
Impatient after seven months of congressional inaction, General Sullivan resurrected the topic with Washington on March 2, 1778. Undoubtedly goaded by Ebenezer, John Sullivan was irate over Congress’s interminable dithering. In a brazen and insolent postscript to Washington, General Sullivan shared that “the Conduct of Congress with Respect to those Hostages would Disgrace a Senate of Barbarians.” John Sullivan feared “The Hostages are never to be Redeemed . . . never to be promoted or Considered in the Line of the Army,” and was “to[o] warm” to say more. This potentially seditious letter must have tested Washington, but military-fraternal ties and compassion prevailed.
Two weeks later, General Washington wrote a letter of introduction for Ebenezer Sullivan to Congress. The commander supported Sullivan’s pleas for pay and rank consideration, but explained that he was constrained from solving the problem himself since a congressional resolution of January 19, 1778 explicitly constrained parolee pay. Washington further shared his opinion “that the neglect by the States in their appointments, of the Officers who were in captivity . . . was at least ungenerous—if not impolitic & unjust.” With the commander in chief opening the door, a week later Ebenezer Sullivan visited Congress, which was meeting in York, Pennsylvania.
Ebenezer Sullivan delivered a petition that detailed his harrowing past experiences and current dilemmas, noting that “His Wages and Rations are denied him[,] his losses in the service have Reduced him from a Genteel living to a state of Ruin.” Congress received the petition favorably, after which the Board of War recommended alteration of the problematic January 19 resolution; “pay & rations at least ought to be allowed all officers in the enemy’s possession, & also when admitted on their parole, whether they are continued in the service or not.”
Congress then referred the Board of War report to a committee, where the topic of Sullivan’s controversial propaganda letter apparently became a point of contention. On March 30, the journal of the Continental Congress included a committee statement that Captain Sullivan had “communicated to them his motives for writing a letter to his Brother, General Sullivan . . . during the time he was a Hostage with the Enemy in Canada; which Motives your Committee are of Opinion, cannot consistent with safety of Captain Sullivan be communicated untill Captain Sullivan shall be exchanged.” Ebenezer provided a long narration of his hostage experience, particularly detailing the British officers’ clever manipulation that prompted and influenced his problematic letter—for Sullivan’s protection, secretary of Congress Charles Thomson would hold this document until the hostages were redeemed. Thus satisfied, Congress resolved to continue Ebenezer Sullivan’s pay and rations, and provide “equitable” compensation “for his losses and extraordinary trouble.” On April 3, 1778, almost two full years after volunteering to be a hostage, Ebenezer Sullivan was finally granted a substantial, but hard-gained $494 payment. The act mitigated his most urgent financial concerns, but other issues loomed on the horizon.
Even as Continental authorities tried to include Sullivan and the other hostages in ongoing prisoner exchange negotiations, in February 1779, the British deputy commissioner for prisoners published a notice calling for “the enemy’s return of officers at home on parole,” specifically mentioning the four hostages just as Ebenezer Sullivan had predicted. Despite past British mistreatment, the four men complied as a matter of honor. They spent another few months under enemy custody in New York City before being released once again to tenuous lives on parole.
A year later, at the end of August 1780, Ebenezer Sullivan petitioned Congress again. This time he sought symptomatic relief for the massive depreciation of Continental dollars that had devalued his pay and rations. This issue was normally addressed by the states, but Sullivan was not on any state’s rolls. The Continental Congress was his only avenue to correct this administrative loophole. Slow-moving but ultimately responsive, on October 28, Congress ordered $1,671 in bills of credit for Sullivan to remedy this specific concern.
Sullivan and his three peers had to wait until May 25, 1781 to finally obtain durable, long-term compensation relief from Congress—five years after becoming hostages. On that day, Congress resolved that “all officers who are hostages, and are liable to be called for by the enemy, and are not continued in the line of any State, shall be entitled to their full pay until redeemed, and to half pay for life afterward, in the same manner as officers of equal rank reduced by the late arrangement.” With this act Ebenezer Sullivan and the other three Cedars hostages could at least take comfort with Congress’s promise of continued pay and future compensation at their current rank, even if their hopes for promotion in the cause had long since been squelched.
The hostages’ true redemption finally came on February 11, 1782, when the British commissary general of prisoners finally released Ebenezer Sullivan, Bliss, Green, and Stevens from their personal obligations after five and a half years. This decision came as a by-product of post-Yorktown prisoner exchanges. Just as the war was effectively drawing to a close, the ex-hostages were “at liberty to enter into an Activity of service.”
Ebenezer Sullivan still petitioned Congress two more times after this; in January 1784, he received compensation for his personal property losses in the Cedars campaign and for pay depreciation; and in early 1785, he sought additional depreciation adjustment for pay he still owed his ex-soldiers from 1776. Sullivan’s last meaningful interaction with Congress came in August 1785, when the government offered him a position as belated compensation for the many years he had suffered as a hostage without commission or office. New Hampshire nominated Sullivan as the state’s national surveyor, but Ebenezer declined the office.
In the post-war years, Ebenezer Sullivan focused instead on reviving his law practice in Berwick, on the Maine-New Hampshire border. A History of the Laws, the Courts, and the Lawyers of Maine recorded that Sullivan “was practicing, a brilliant and talented man,” but unfortunately, “His inordinate use of ardent spirit [alcohol], together with the zealous perseverance of . . . [a] professional competitor, diminished his practice, and he left the State; went to New York City, where he died” near the turn of the century.
Ebenezer Sullivan’s honorable sacrifice as a hostage never produced commensurate rewards for the dedicated and ambitious Patriot. Instead, he suffered abuse by Indian captors, manipulation by British officers, and neglect from his own governments. Only his persistence, his brother John Sullivan’s intervention, and Washington’s influence roused Congress enough to ensure that Ebenezer and the other hostages were not completely abandoned during the war years. In the end though, it appears Ebenezer Sullivan never managed to fully recover from the numerous challenges and setbacks spawned from his fateful decision to become a hostage on May 26, 1776.
Thomas C. Amory, Materials for a History of the Family of John Sullivan of Berwick . . . (Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1893),15-16, 44-45, 154; Ebenezer Sullivan to Thomas Mifflin, December 2, 1783, rg360, i42, r56, v7, p174, Papers of the Continental Congress, M247 (M247), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Ebenezer Sullivan’s Letter to be made publick when he shall be Redeemed, March 30, 1778, Papers of Charles Thomson, Library of Congress (PCT, LOC); John Sullivan to John Hancock, August [n.d.] 1777, Otis G. Hammond, ed., Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army (LPMGJS) (Concord: New Hampshire Historical Society), 1: 420. Capt. Sullivan belonged to Col. John Paterson’s 15th Continental Regiment (Massachusetts).
July 10, 1776, Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress (JCC) (Washington, DC, 1905), 5: 534-39; Andrew Parke, An Authentic Narrative of Facts Relating to the Exchange of Prisoners Taken at the Cedars (London, 1777), 31-37. Captain Forster and his company were in the 8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot.
Petition of Ebenezer Sullivan to Henry Laurens, March 23, 1778, rg360, i42, v7, r56, p51, Sullivan’s clothing claim from Mr. Mulligan’s Bill, May 1, 1776, in accounts of December 1, 1783, i42, V7, r56, p181, and John Sullivan to John Hancock, [undated], rg360, i160, r178, pp53-54, M247, NARA.
July 10, 1776, JCC 5: 534-39; “Abstract of the Journal of Major John Bigelow,” Peter Force, ed., American Archives, 5th series (AA5) (Washington DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837-1853) 1: 986.
Ebenezer Sullivan’s Letter, March 30, 1778, PCT, LOC; Ebenezer Green to Israel Morey, August 14, 1776, i78, v10, r95, G, pp25–26, M247, NARA; Theodore Bliss to William Emerson, August 14, 1776, AA5, 1:1167–68.
Ebenezer Sullivan to John Sullivan, 14 August 1776, AA5 1:1167; Scots Magazine 38 (1776): 538; J. Almon,The Remembrancer; or Impartial Repository of Public Events, pt. 2, For the Year 1776 (London, 1776), 308-9; New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, December 23, 1776; Parke, Authentic Narrative, 39-42.
Return of Rebell officers sent from Quebec to New York on their Paroles, n.d., Haldimand Papers, MG21-Add Mss, 21843, fol. 80, Library and Archives Canada; Petition of Ebenezer Sullivan, March 23, 1778, rg360, i42, v7, r56, p51, M247, NARA; Ebenezer Greene Petition to New-Hampshire Council & House of Representatives, January 12, 1781, Isaac W. Hammond, ed., Town Papers: Documents Relating to Towns in New Hampshire (Concord: Parsons B. Cogswell, 1883), 12: 505.
Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1777, volume 53, part 1 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1987), 17; William Heath to George Washington, June 7, 1777, and George Washington to William Heath, June 23, 1777, W. W. Abbott, ed.,The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (hereafter cited as PGWRWS) (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1985-),9: 636, 10: 110-11; Ebenezer Sullivan to John Sullivan, June 6, 1777, LPMGJS, 1: 373. Green and Stevens shared Sullivan’s military-position challenges. Theodore Bliss, however, received an artillery captaincy through family friend Henry Knox—with this arrangement, Bliss received pay and rations, and kept seniority, even if he could not serve on active duty until redeemed.
John Sullivan to George Washington, July 2, 1777; George Washington to John Hancock, July 5, 1777, PGWRWS10: 196; John Sullivan to John Hancock, August [n.d.] 1777, and George Washington to John Sullivan, August 22, 1777, LPMGJS, 1: 421 and 436.
Ebenezer Sullivan Petition, March 23, 1778, rg360, i42, v7, r56, p51-52, and Report from the Board of War, March 26, 1778, i147, v1, r157, p567, M247, NARA; March 23 and 27, 1778, JCC 10: 280, 288-89.
“Wethersfield, February 18, 1779,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford), 2 March 1779; Ebenezer Greene Petition to New-Hampshire Council & House of Representatives, January 12, 1781, Hammond, Town Papers, 12: 505; November 7, 1780, JCC 18: 1028.
Ebenezer Sullivan to Thomas Mifflin, December 2, 1783, rg360, i42, r56, v7, p174, and Sullivan accounts, December 1, 1783, i42, V7, r56, p179, M247, NARA; January 30, 1784 and August 24, 1785, JCC26: 60-61, 29: 654; Abiel Foster to Joseph Howell, February 12, 1785 and April 4, 1785, and Charles Thomson to Thomas Hutchins, August 15, 1785, Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 22: 183, 307-8, 564; Joseph Howell to Abiel Foster, April 9, 1786, v135, p74, RG 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, M853, NARA; August 2 and 11, 1785, Record of President and Council, Albert S. Batchellor, ed., Early State Papers of New Hampshire (Manchester: John B. Clarke, 1891), 20: 549, 554; William Willis,A History of the Laws, the Courts, and the Lawyers of Maine . . . (Portland, ME: Bailey and Noyes, 1863), 126-27. Ebenezer Sullivan was also the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati secretary at its founding in 1783, his brother John was its first president. Some sources reported that Ebenezer’s death occurred in Charleston, SC.