Deserted from the British Army to marry an American girl
For a great number of the British and German soldiers serving in America during the Revolution, life in the colonies appeared very attractive. As early as 1775, the British government recognized that this problem would arise, and tried to recruit Russian troops for the war. British leaders believed that very few Russians would desert, because the American colonies did not possess a Russian-speaking population. When an arrangement could not be reached with Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, the British army was forced to rely upon British and German troops, some of which deserted on a regular basis. Of all the desertions during the Revolution though, few are as romantic as the tale of Sarah Stoneman and Thomas Sullivan. An Irish recruit serving in the British army, Thomas deserted to be with Sarah, his new-found American love.
Thomas Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1755. On February 5, 1775, at the age of twenty, he joined the 49th Regiment of Foot, Second Division. Thomas boarded the Diana on April 16, 1775, but adverse weather prevented the ship from leaving port for twelve days. While the Diana sat in port, the opening shots of the Revolution were fired at the Battle of Concord. General Thomas Gage, the British commander at Boston, ordered Major John Pitcairn to take seven-hundred British regulars and seize the colonial military stores at Concord, Massachusetts. Patriots resisted the advancing British redcoats, and forced the retreat of Major Pitcairn’s force to Boston. By April 20, 1775, over 20,000 New Englanders laid siege to British-occupied Boston. On April 28, 1775, the Diana finally set sail for America.
The Diana’s voyage to Boston took seven weeks, and on June 17, 1775, Thomas disembarked in America just prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thomas did not participate in the battle, but he gathered reports of the engagement later. From the British perspective, the Americans held all the advantages in the fight, and vastly outnumbered the attacking redcoats. Reports heard by Thomas claimed that the Americans suffered 1,500 casualties, when they had actually only suffered four-hundred and fifty. The staggering losses suffered by the British probably account for why they made such high estimates of American losses. Of the slightly more than 2,200 troops who assaulted the American position, 1,054 were either killed or wounded. The British took the hill, but at a horrible cost.
After the debacle at Bunker Hill, Thomas’s regiment remained trapped in Boston until General Sir William Howe, the new commander of the British forces, evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. While in Boston, Thomas noticed that his fellow British soldiers treated the American inhabitants of the city with considerable disdain and disrespect. Having come from Ireland, he could not help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for the plight of a people suffering under English rule. He claimed that the troops “destroyed every thing they could come at, without Scruple.” Thomas professed that such suffering “induced [him] upon a serious Consideration to share the same freedom that America strove for.” He recognized that Americans “were striving to throw off the [same] Yoke, under which my native Country [Ireland] sunk for many years.”
For the moment, however, he remained a loyal soldier in the British army fighting to bring the Americans into submission. The first division sailed from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 27, reaching Canada on April 2. On June 10, Thomas’s division then sailed to New York City. En route, Thomas was promoted to the rank of corporal. In New York, the British routed Washington’s army at the Battles of Brooklyn Heights and Long Island in August and September 1776. The American losses forced Washington to retreat through New Jersey. Although not a part of the two major New York battles, Thomas participated in two minor battles at Staten Island and in the Bronx. In December, Washington struck back, capturing the Hessian garrison at Trenton on Christmas night 1776. The bold move forced Lord Cornwallis to defer “going to England,” and take up defensive positions in New Jersey. Thomas’s regiment was placed at Princeton, where Washington planned to strike next.
Thomas’s regiment guarded the British supplies at the Battle of Princeton, and thus Thomas possessed a poor vantage to observe the battle. His journal therefore presents a skewed picture of what occurred. On January 3, he commented that Lt. Colonel Charles Mawhood’s 17th Regiment attacked “a party of Rebels” who were “formed on one side of the [Stony Brook] bridge” on the Trenton Road. Mawhood’s troops attacked the Americans, “drove them from the bridge,” and crossed the river to pursue. Mawhood decided not to pursue, according to Thomas, because the enemy was “some hours march in front.” In reality, American General Thomas Mercer’s forces succeeded in destroying the Stony Brook Bridge, and Mawhood was forced to retreat by the arrival of General Daniel Hitchcock’s Rhode Island and Massachusetts Brigade. The Americans won the Battle of Princeton, and British General Howe subsequently pulled his forces out of New Jersey and regrouped in New York City.
In 1777, General William Howe decided not to support General John Burgoyne’s plans for a three-flanked attack on Albany, and try to instead take Philadelphia, the rebel capital. Howe loaded the British army, including Thomas, onto transports to try and outflank Washington’s forces. The British fleet sailed south to the Chesapeake Bay, and then north through the bay to the Head of the Elk River at Elkton, Maryland. Thomas disembarked in Maryland on August 25, 1777, and began marching north with the British army towards Philadelphia. Washington made his stand against the advancing redcoats at the Battle of Brandywine Creek.
Thomas reported that “at daybreak” on September 11, 1777, the Army marched in two columns,” with “the head of [Hessian General] Knyphausen’s column advancing to the foot of a hill.” General Washington, “detached General [John] Sullivan to his right.” Sullivan assumed “a strong position . . . with his left near to the Brandywine [Creek].” Cornwallis and Knyphausen countered the American movement, and “formed the line with the right towards the Brandywine [Creek].” Washington received false reports of British troop strength downstream, allowing Knyphausen’s forces to outflank the Americans and strike in the right rear. The battle quickly turned into a rout, and the Americans retreated. After the battle, the British were able to occupy Philadelphia quite easily.
Thomas probably entered Philadelphia with the army shortly after September 26, 1777. For a brief time, he was demoted from corporal to private after an argument with his regimental commander. He transferred to the 2d Light Infantry Battalion in late September, and was raised to the rank of sergeant on October 22, 1777. In Philadelphia, Thomas met Sarah Stoneman, a twenty-year-old American, and fell in love, commenting that “any man” who has “tasted the sweets of Matrimony and the blessing of a contented life, may conceive the joy and pleasure I felt.” During the late autumn months, Sarah encouraged Thomas to switch sides, and by December, Thomas had resolved to both marry Sarah and to desert the British army. Certainly his love for Sarah helped him to decide to desert the British, but other considerations played a role too. Since his arrival in America, Thomas was appalled at the British treatment of colonials and the corruption and bigotry he found in the army. He commented in 1778 that “the Army in General was a Repository for all manner of Vice.” Further, any enlisted man who “endeavor[s] to maintain and Practice his duty towards God” was “derided and laughed at, and hated by some, while others load him with reproaches.” The lack of any virtue in the service of the King made his choice very easy. Thomas and Sarah were married in private on December 13, 1777.
After France joined the war as an ally of the United States in 1778, the British decided to give up Philadelphia and move their northern army back to New York. The new British commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, began the evacuation of Philadelphia on June 17, 1778. Thomas took advantage of the disorder of the move, and slipped quietly away from the British army on June 25, 1778. With several other deserters, Thomas walked to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he sold his weapons. He then proceeded to Philadelphia where he joined the Americans. Within a month he found a position as a steward to General Nathanael Greene in White Plains, N.Y., and Sarah joined him there on July 28, 1778. After joining General Greene’s “military family,” Thomas and Sarah disappear from the historical record. Nothing is known of what happened to the couple after the war, but their wartime romance stands out as one of the most fascinating stories of the Revolution.
Primary Source Documents: Thomas Sullivan
This description of the British troops’ treatment of Americans in 1775, and of the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 is taken from S. Sydney Bradford, ed., “The Common British Soldier–From the Journal of Thomas Sullivan, 49th Regiment of Foot,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 62 (1967), 219-253. Despite Thomas’s claims, the attacking British outnumbered the Americans, and total American casualties numbered 450, including 138 killed. Thomas did not participate in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and wrote this description based on reports given to him after the battle.
. . . After the first Engagement between the King[‘]s troops and the Americans, which happened the 19th. of April 1775, on a Common at a place called Concord; the troops grew more cruel and vigorous against the Inhabitants, so that they began in most parts of the town, in which they resorted, to pull down and destroy the fences and hedges: as an opportunity offered: Notwithstanding the repeated Orders the Commander in Chief issued to the Contrary. After the Battle at Bunker’s-Hill, they were so inveterate against the Rebels, on account of their ambitious designs; and the dreadful Spectacles that presented themselves after that action; they destroyed every thing they could come at, without Scruple . . .
. . .The Americans broke ground, and were raising a Batterry on the Heights of the Peninsula of Charlestown . . . The Rebels were plainly seen at work, and in a few hours a Battery of 6 guns played upon their works. Preparations were instantly made for landing a body of men to drive them off, and ten Companies of Light Infantry, ten Grenadiers . . . with a proportion of Field Artillery . . . were embarked with great expedition, and landed on the Peninsula without opposition . . . The Enemy upon the Heights were perceived to be in great force and strongly posted . . . The Light-Infantry was directed to force the left Point of the Breastwork, to take the Rebel line in flank, and the Grenadiers to attack in front . . . These orders were executed with perseverance, under a heavy fire from the vast numbers of the Rebels . . . the Rebels began to retreat, which were so thick and numerous in the works, that they may be justly compared to a swarm of Bees in a beehive . . . The loss the Enemy sustained must have been considerable, from the great numbers they carried off . . . Deserters from the Enemy informed me some time after that they lost 1500 men killed and wounded in this Battle . . . This Action shewed [showed] the superiority of the King[‘]s troops, who, under every disadvantage, attacked and defeated 3 times their number . .
The following description of the Battle of Princeton, January 1777, is taken from “The Battle of Princeton . . . taken from the Journal of Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of H.M. Forty-Ninth Regiment of Foot,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 32 (1908), 54-57. Thomas participated at Princeton, and commented on his regiment’s role.
1777. January 1st. . . . In consequence of the advantage gained by the enemy at Trenton . . . Lord Cornwallis deferring his going to England, went to the Jerseys, and reached, Princeton this night.
January 2d. . . . On the approach of the British troops, the enemy’s forward posts were attacked by the Royal Highlanders in front, and the Hessian Grenadiers on their flanks, supported by the Light Infantry, and after some minutes engagement, drove them back upon their army with loss . .
January 3d. . . . the enemy’s body being some hours march in front, and keeping this advantage by an immediate departure from the town [Princeton], retreated by Kingstown The loss upon His Majesty’s Forces was 17 killed and near 200 wounded and missing . . . Lord Cornwallis seeing it could not answer any purpose to continue his pursuit, returned w[i]th his whole force to Brunswick. Our Regiment had the army’s Baggage guard from Princetown, and marched all night without any molestation from the enemy . .
This description of the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777, is taken from “Before and After the Battle of Brandywine. Extracts from the Journal of Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of H.M. Forty-Ninth Regiment of Foot,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 31 (1907), 406-418.
September 11th. — At daybreak the Army marched in two columns . . . the head of [Hessian General] Knyphausen’s column, advancing to the foot of a hill, saw the enemy formed behind the fence . . . upon advancing they fired a volley upon our men, and took to their heels . . . As we crossed the brook, they formed behind another fence at a field’s distance . . . we pursued the Rebels as close as we could without being in danger of their cannon above the Ford . . . a company of our Regiment advanced up the hill to the right of the Ford, and in front of the enemy’s left flank, in order to divert them . . . A smart fire maintained on both sides for two hours, without either parties quitting their posts . . .
General Washington, who joined that morning with 8000 of the Militia . . . detached General [John] Sullivan to his right with near 10,000 men, who took a strong position . . . with his left near to the Brandywine [Creek] . .
As soon as this was observed . . . the King’s troops advanced in three columns, and upon approaching the enemy, formed the line with the right towards the Brandywine [Creek] . . . the Light Infantry and the Chasseurs [cavalry] began the attack . . they pushed on with an impetuosity not to be sustained by the enemy, who, after a smart and hot engagement sometimes to the bayonet, falling [fell] back into the woods in the rear, the King’s Troops . . . pursued closely for near two miles . . . they [Americans] did not rally again in force . . . From the most correct accounts, the strength of the enemy’s army this day in action was not less than 15,000 men . . . Out of that number, they had 300 men killed, 600 wounded, and near 400 made prisoners .
Following the Battle of Brandywine, the British made a night attack on General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s encampment at Paoli, outside Philadelphia. The Americans suffered heavy losses in this rear-guard action. The following passage is taken from “From Brandywine to Philadelphia, Extracted from the Journal of Sergeant Thomas Sullivan, H.M. Forty-Ninth Regiment of Foot,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 34 (1910), 229-232.
September 20th.  –Upon intelligence that General Wayne was lying in the Woods with a Corp[s of 1500 men . . . in order to cut off our Rear, Major General Grey was detached late at night . . . The most effectual precaution being taken by the General to prevent his detachment from firing, by ordering the men’s Pieces [bayonets] to be drawn, not a man to load, and the Flints to be taken out of the Riflemen’s Pieces that could not be drawn; he gained the Enemy’s left about one o’clock [a.m.] at Whitehead Township . . . Without the least noise our Party by the Bayonet only, forced and killed their out sentries . . . and rushed in upon their Encampment, directed by the light of their fires, killed and wounded not less than 300 in their Huts . . . The Party took between 70 and 80 Prisoners, including several officers, the greater part of their Arms, and eight waggons loaded with Baggage and Stores . . . We had one Officer and 3 men killed . .
While in Philadelphia in the late autumn and winter of 1777-1778, Thomas met and fell in love with Sarah Stoneman. He married her on December 13, 1777, and deserted the British army on June 25, 1778 to be with her. The following passages are taken from Thomas Sullivan, Thomas Sullivan’s Complete Journal (1804), microfilm, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
. . . Any man that tasted the sweets of Matrimony and the blessing of a contented life, may conceive the joy and pleasure I felt, in meeting the woman from whom I received the strongest tyes of love and obedience, that could be expected from any of the sex, without exception . .
. . My seeing America under Arms, when I first arrived in it, and upon my examining the reason, finding they were striving to throw off the Yoke, under which my native Country [Ireland] sunk for many years, induced me upon a serious Consideration to share the same freedom that America strove for . .
. . . [I deserted] having experienced that the Army in General was a Repository for all manner of Vice. If a man who inlists [enlists] in the English service, endeavor[s] to maintain and Practice his duty towards God, he will be derided and laughed at, and hated by some, while others load him with reproaches . . .
For Further Reading:
David Martin, The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777-1778 (1993).
Joseph Lee Boyle, From Redcoat to Rebel: The Thomas Sullivan Journal (1997).
Paul Lockhart, The Whites of their Eyes (2011).
Don Hagist, British Soldiers, American War (2012).