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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: John Sullivan taken prisoner in the Battle of Long Island

July 23. 2017 10:49PM

Maj. Gen. John Sullivan as portrayed in a German print in 1778. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In June 1775, John Sullivan of Durham was in Philadelphia as a New Hampshire delegate to the Second Continental Congress when he was appointed as a Brigadier General in the new Continental Army. This was a giant leap in responsibility for a man who was then only a Major in the New Hampshire militia. In the months that followed Sullivan served effectively under Gen. George Washington during the Siege of Boston.

The siege had begun on April 19, 1775, when the British military retreated to Boston after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Americans surrounded the city on three sides, effectively containing the British army on the peninsula. On March 5, 1776, the Americans fortified Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston with a large number of cannons that had been removed from the captured British fort at Ticonderoga, N.Y. Now that the rebels could easily bombard the city, British commander Gen. William Howe concluded that the situation was untenable. On March 17, 1776, a total of 11,000 people, including Howe’s soldiers and local citizens loyal to the Crown, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor, bound for the safety of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The crisis in Boston now resolved, Washington moved the bulk of the Continental Army to New York City. In April 1776, he gave Sullivan command of six regiments that were assigned to support the invasion of Quebec. This ambitious effort, which had begun in June 1775, was aimed at achieving military control of Canada, and at persuading the French-Canadians to join the colonies in the war. The Americans held Montreal for a time, but their attack on Quebec City during a snowstorm on Dec. 31, 1775 ended in total failure, and only a few Canadians would join up with the Americans.

In early May 1776, the American forces entrenched near Quebec City withdrew in chaos when British ships — filled with soldiers and marines — began arriving. By early June Sullivan’s 2,500 men were positioned at Sorel, about 47 miles east of Montreal on the Saint Lawrence River. Sullivan wanted to fight the advancing British forces, but on June 14 he decided it would be wise to withdraw upriver. On June 18 Sullivan’s army stopped at Ile aux Noix, an island in the Richelieu River in Quebec located north of Lake Champlain. There his exhausted men, many suffering from smallpox, made camp.

On June 24 Sullivan ordered his forces to march through the wilderness to the American-held fort at Crown Point, N.Y,, 105 miles to the south. When he and his men finally arrived there on July 1, Sullivan was gratified that he had managed to lead an orderly retreat. None of his sick soldiers, and none of the army’s supplies, had been left behind.

Sullivan’s leadership was appreciated by his field officers, including New Hampshire’s Col. John Stark, who went on record with a joint statement attesting that Sullivan had “comforted, supported and protected the shattered remains of a debilitated army.” But Sullivan, somewhat tainted by his association with the debacle that was the Invasion of Quebec, lost his command to a more experienced officer, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. The dispirited Sullivan traveled to Philadelphia, where he resigned from the Continental Army, but his friends persuaded him to withdraw his resignation. This was a fortunate decision, as he was promoted to Major General on Aug. 9, 1776.

Washington assigned Sullivan to command the Continental forces on Long Island, where he arrived on Aug. 20. But three days later Washington, apparently feeling that Sullivan needed help, sent Major General Israel Putnam to Long Island. The confusion that ensued among the troops with two senior officers in place at the same time may have contributed to the American defeat at the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn) on Aug. 27.

Maj. Gen. Sullivan fought bravely that day, but he ended up being captured. As fellow officer Col. Lewis Morris later described, “The last I heard of him, he was in a corn field close by our lines with a pistol in each hand, and the enemy had formed a line each side of him, and he was going directly between them.”

Next week: Prisoner John Sullivan delivers a message from the British command to the Continental Congress.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

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