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Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: NH's Sullivan crosses the Delaware with Washington

August 06. 2017 8:03PM
Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware on the night of Dec. 25-26, 1776, print based on the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

TODAY, the Staten Island Peace Conference of Sept. 11, 1776, is only a footnote in the great saga of the American Revolution. This meeting between British Adm. Richard Howe and three delegates to the Second Continental Congress did nothing to shorten the bloody war. One of the American participants, John Adams, was particularly bothered that Howe’s informal invitation to confer had been delivered to Congress by Howe’s prisoner, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan of New Hampshire. As Adams later wrote “The attention of Congress, the army, the States, and the people, ought to have been wholly directed to the defense of the country. To have it diverted and relaxed, by such a poor artifice and confused tale, appeared very reprehensible.”

Sullivan had been captured by the British at the Battle of Long Island on Aug. 27, 1776, along with Maj. Gen. William Alexander. Sometime after Sept. 4 the two men were released in a prisoner exchange, and they were welcomed back into service in the Continental Army. By the end of September, Sullivan had rejoined commander-in-chief Gen. George Washington on the island of Manhattan.

When Washington began moving the army out of New York in early October, Sullivan was put in charge of a division which fell under the command of Gen. Charles Lee. On Dec. 13 Lee was captured by the British while in a tavern in Barking Ridge, N.J., where he had gone to seek female companionship. Sullivan immediately took command of Lee’s force of 2,000 men near Morristown, N.J. On Dec. 20, Sullivan rendezvoused with Washington in eastern Pennsylvania above Trenton Falls on the Delaware River.

Washington was plotting a daring assault on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, N.J., located about 9 miles south on the opposite side of the river. On the night of Dec. 25-26, 1776, Washington executed one of the most audacious maneuvers of the war when he managed to move 2,400 men, 18 cannons and several horses across the Delaware during a raging snowstorm. The effort was executed by expert boatmen, including seamen from Marblehead, Mass., who guided the flotilla of ferries, barges and small cargo craft between treacherous ice floes.

Once the crossing was completed, Washington organized his army for an early morning attack, timed to take advantage of the likely scenario that the Germans were still groggy from their Christmas revels of the previous evening. Sullivan commanded the right wing in the two-pronged offensive, and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene the left. The Americans were victorious, capturing 900 Hessians out of 1,500 combatants. Sullivan’s leadership was vital, as his division prevented many Hessians from escaping by holding the bridge across the Assunpink River south of town. He also played an important role in the American attack on the British garrison at Princeton, N.J., on Jan. 3, 1777. The battles of Trenton and Princeton were important early victories, both moral and strategic, for the Continental Army.

In 1777 the Chief Justice of the Province of Quebec was Peter Livius. He had previously lived in Portsmouth, N.H., where he had served as an official in the royal government. Livius and Sullivan, who has been a prominent lawyer in Durham, had enjoyed a cordial relationship before the war.

On June 16, 1777, a courier dispatched from Montreal was intercepted by the Americans at Fort Edward in New York. A secret letter was found in the false bottom of the man’s rum canteen. It was addressed to Sullivan and signed by “your sincere friend, Livius.” In the letter Livius appealed to Sullivan to “… tread back the steps you have already taken, and to do some real essential service to your king and country, in assisting to re-establish public tranquility and lawful government.”

The letter warned that Sullivan would forfeit his estate when the Americans lost the war, and that he, his family, and New Hampshire would face grave hardship. Livius implored Sullivan to switch his allegiance. He suggested that Sullivan spy for the British while remaining in his post, by sending messages containing military intelligence directly to Livius in Canada.

The letter was promptly turned over to Continental Army Gen. Philip Schuyler, halting Livius’ ambitious effort to recruit Sullivan to the British side.

Next week: Sullivan accuses the Quakers of espionage; he moves against the Iroquois; and he is again urged to commit treason.

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

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