Washington’s Instructions to Sullivan

My recent posts on Sherman’s March to the Sea have caused me to think of other campaigns in American military history where destruction was to be used to break the will of an enemy.  The Iroquois during the Revolution were the allies of the British and, with their Tory allies, constant thorns in the sides of the Patriots.  By 1779 General Washington had enough.  He ordered an expedition by General John Sullivan to break the will of the Iroquois.  Here are Washington’s instructions to Sullivan:

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.
I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

The expedition had a devastating impact on the Iroquois, leaving 5000 of them refugees during the winter of 1879-80.  The Iroquois were not knocked out of the war, and continued to launch raids into 1781, but their power as a formidable threat to the Patriots in upstate New York was broken.  Historians disagree as to whether George Washington acquired the nickname by which he was known among the Iroquois, “Town Burner”, as a result of this expedition, but it strikes me as likely.

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. I think it unfair that you didn’t mention Sullivan’s March was ordered as retaliation for the hideous massacres at Cherry Valley and Wyoming the year before.



    The Iroquois got no worse than they gave.

  2. Oh my post was not meant to be critical of Washington Jon, but rather to highlight that destructive measures aimed against the property of civilian populations was not an innovation of Sherman. On the frontier in the Revolution it was always war to the knife and the knife to the hilt.

    • Actually there are more examples then that. Sherman did no worse then normal European warfare and better in some ways. While he was rather nastier then the Seven-Weeks and Franco-Prussian wars(which were to short to have much nastiness), he was about average by Napoleonic standards, and not without precedent by eighteenth century standards. During the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century wars of religion Shermanesque style raids were really more common then battles. That was in fact what Henry V was doing just before St Crispin’s Day. The March to the Sea was no innovation of Sherman’s.

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