At the onset of the American Revolution both Great Britain and the Continental Congress claimed that they hoped the American Indian nations would remain neutral, but that quickly became unrealistic. A few of the eastern tribes did support the Continental Army, but far more Indians decided to fight alongside the British, who had traditionally supplied them with trade goods and prevented the frontier settlers from encroaching on their lands. The British soon realized that their Indian allies were at times unreliable and difficult to control during European-style military engagements. After the defeat and surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga in 1777, British strategy in the region changed and focused on encouraging allied Indian war bands, led by Loyalist rangers, to launch a series of destructive raids on frontier settlements in western Pennsylvania and New York.
At first George Washington had too few soldiers to fight the British in the east and to protect the western frontier. He expected these exposed areas to use local militiamen to defend themselves, but as these attacks, often led by Colonel John Butler, continued throughout 1778, they not only began to deprive Washington’s army of provisions and manpower but also, by spreading terror, caused the abandonment of many settlements. The situation reached a crisis in November when two companies of Loyalist rangers and more than 300 Iroquois warriors led by Chiefs Cornplanter and Joseph Brant attacked Cherry Valley, New York. More than 30 settlers, mostly women and children, were slain and 80 more were taken prisoner. The “Cherry Valley Massacre” finally convinced Washington that something had to be done to stop these raids, but it was not until March of 1779 that plans were made for a major campaign. Washington decided to mount an expedition to be led by General John Sullivan that would break the ability of the Iroquois Confederacy to carry out these savage attacks. Washington made it clear in his orders to Sullivan that his goal was the total destruction of the Indian settlements. Sullivan was instructed not to accept any offers of peace – Washington wanted the Indian country “not merely overrun, but destroyed.”
Although it is sometimes overlooked, Sullivan’s 1779 campaign was one of the larger American offensives of the Revolution. With the war in the north at a stalemate outside New York City, Washington allocated nearly 5,000 men, mostly Continental units from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, for the expedition. The plan was very simple – Sullivan with three brigades would move west up the Susquehanna River to Tioga, where they would link up with a fourth brigade under General James Clinton. From this location on the Pennsylvania-New York border, the combined force would march into the heartland of Iroquois country, destroying everything in its path. Washington had expected the expedition to be underway by early June, but Sullivan was delayed by the late arrival of supplies and provisions and the need to construct military roads through the wilderness.
Sullivan’s army did not leave his base in the Wyoming Valley until late July, arriving at Tioga on August 11. While waiting for Clinton’s force to arrive, the soldiers built some blockhouses to stockpile supplies and also saw their first real fighting of the campaign. Advance scouts had reported that there were 200-300 Indians at the nearby village of Chemung, but after marching through the night in order to surprise the town, the Americans found it deserted. The men burned nearly 40 houses and some crops, but an attempt to pursue the fleeing Indians only resulted in a few skirmishes. General Clinton’s brigade arrived on August 22, and although the expedition was supposed to total nearly 5,000 men, Sullivan’s total force probably never exceeded 4,000 since some regiments were understrength and fewer militia arrived than expected.
The British in Canada at first refused to believe reports that such a large body of Continental troops was preparing to invade the Iroquois homeland and failed to make adequate preparations for its defense. By the time the British realized the size and intent of the expedition and sent reinforcements from Canada, they arrived too late. Colonel John Butler, the Loyalist commander, was only able to muster about 300 provincial rangers and another 400 Iroquois warriors to oppose Sullivan’s army. Badly outnumbered, Butler and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant nevertheless decided to make a stand at a carefully prepared ambush on a ridge outside the village of Newtown. Butler went to great lengths to camouflage his dug-in position, but advance scouts and riflemen discovered the trap on the morning of August 29. Sullivan sent two detachments to outflank Butler’s position and attack from their rear while artillery would fire on the entrenchments. At first the Americans encountered stiff resistance, but the artillery fire followed by a bayonet charge caused the British and their allies to break and run. Most of Butler’s force managed to escape however since the flanking column, slowed down by a swamp, had arrived too late to trap them. During this engagement Sullivan lost only three men killed and about 30 more wounded.
The fighting at Newtown turned out to be the only major engagement of the campaign. From this point Sullivan’s army only encountered occasional small-scale skirmishes as it continued to march west, destroying all the deserted towns in its path. In some of the smaller towns the soldiers found that the Indians had barely made their escape, leaving behind their “packs & blankets” and their kettles of “Corn and Beans” boiling on the fire. Colonel Butler tried to rally his Indian allies to defend Kanadesaga, one of the largest Seneca towns, but the Indians were so demoralized they were only concerned about the safety of their families and abandoned their settlements before the Americans arrived. By mid-September the expedition had reached Genesee where it again failed to surprise the inhabitants, although a small advance scouting party stumbled into an ambush and was practically wiped out.
After destroying 128 houses and extensive quantities of provisions, Sullivan decided not to advance any further and began returning back east, again burning any villages or crops they had missed earlier. Sullivan considered the expedition to have been a great success, with the loss of only 40 men, his force had burned more than 40 large Indian towns or villages and destroyed 160,000 bushels of corn as well as other provisions. By October more than 5,000 Indian refugees had fled to Fort Niagara, where the British were hard pressed to feed them over the winter. Despite its apparent success the campaign turned out to be a hollow victory. The frontier raids were temporarily halted, but within a year the Iroquois were once again mounting attacks on the western settlements which continued throughout 1781. As one American officer noted “the nests are destroyed, but the birds are still on the wing.” Although the 1779 campaign did not permanently destroy the ability of the Indians to wage war, it did provide the frontier a brief respite and it also broke much of the power of the Iroquois Confederacy.