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General John Sullivan


At Odds with Washington

After Sullivan was released in a prisoner exchange, he rejoined Washington in New Jersey. On December 25, 1776, the American forces crossed the Delaware River and hit the Hessians in Trenton. Sullivan was in the thick of the fighting. He and his command captured a vital bridge across the Assanpink Creek and sealed the mercenaries into Trenton. Sullivan finally had his military victory, and his good luck continued through the early part of January, 1777, as his forces helped push the British out of Princeton.

General Sullivan of New HampshireThe beginning of 1777 found Sullivan in high spirits, but these did not last long. He was soon arguing with George Washington, the Continental Congress, and everybody else over commands and promotions. In response to Sullivan's requests and complaints, Washington wrote to him saying, "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."

In August Sullivan failed in an attempt to capture Staten Island and in September he commanded the right flank at the disastrous Battle of Brandywine. A court of inquiry absolved him of any blame for the failure at Staten Island, but his enemies in Congress made him the scapegoat of Brandywine.

In October Sullivan's bad luck accompanied him to Germantown, another disaster. From there he went to an inconsequential command in Rhode Island in 1778 and on an indecisive campaign against the Iroquois of the Six Nations in New York in 1779. Sick, broke and at odds with Congress, Sullivan retired from the army in November of 1779 and returned to New Hampshire.

Governor, Judge, Drinker

Sullivan's retirement was short lived. In New Hampshire he was a hero, and the state re-elected him to the Continental Congress, where he raised his voice on such issues as New Hampshire's land claims in Vermont, Revolutionary finances and peace with Britain. In need of money, Sullivan accepted a loan of 68 guineas from the French minister at Philadelphia, the Chevalier de la Luzerne. His enemies in Congress were quickly on his back with charges that he had taken a bribe and was on the French payroll. Embarrassed once more, he left Congress for good in August of 1781.

Back in Durham, Sullivan busied himself with recouping his wasted fortune and with politics. He served as attorney general and as speaker of the house. He and John Langdon led the long legislative campaign which resulted in New Hampshire becoming the ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788. In 1789 he was elected to a third and last term as president and in the same year President Washington appointed him as a federal judge for the district of New Hampshire. Sullivan's appointment was something of a personal endorsement as Washington only appointed men of outstanding ability and unquestionable loyalty. Sullivan never resigned his judgeship although his health prevented him from sitting on the bench after May of 1792.

John Sullivan's last years were miserable ones. He became involved in land feuds in Durham, went into debt and grew senile. His daily drinking irritated an ulcer and he suffered from a progressive nervous disease. Only a shadow of his former self, he was forsaken by all but his family and a few friends. He died in his home on January 23, 1795, a man who found happiness only in action and peace only in death.

By Steve Adams

SOURCE: Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commission, 1976. Reprinted by permission of the publisher and originally published here on in 1997.

CONTINUE to read about Major Gen. JOHN SULLIVAN 

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