Year of the Hangman
George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois
Glenn F. Williams
Westholme Publishing, 2005
When written in the handwriting of the time 1777 looked like a gallows, so it was the year of the hangman. One of the events that happened that year to justify this name was the most of the Iroquois Nation joined the British side of the American Revolution. An oppertunity for a title that is too good to pass up even if the main events of the book took place in 1779.
Update 8/15/07: The Author says his orginal title was "Not Merely Overrun But Destroy" quoting Genreral Washington’s orders to General Sullivan. The publisher decided otherwise.
The Iroquois lived in what is now west-central New York, but their influence among the other tribes to west was extensive, in modern terms we would even say imperialistic. They were one of the most powerful Indian Nations and had constantly sided with the British against the French. They were well rewarded for this in many ways, especially the British Governments policy of keeping white settlers from moving into Iroquois lands.
Both the British and Americans heavily lobbied the Iroquois and other tribes to either stay neutral or come in on their side. In 1777 four of Iroquois tribes, including the largest, came in as allies of the British and two as allies of the Americans. This created a series of campaigns that were a sideshow to the Revolution, but one of the major events in the history American relations with Native Americans. The most important event was the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, the focus of the book, which destroyed the Iroquois Nation as a major political and military force.
The British were hoping that the Iroquois would be a major help to the 1777 Burgoyne campaign to enter New York from Canada. Burgoyne was defeated before this could happen. In 1777 the Iroquois made many small raids on settlements and farms. Other than killing and capturing settlers, the main results was to force much American farmland out of production as the farmers were either killed or sought safety elsewhere. New York and Pennsylvana needed to keep part of their militias called out and several Continental Army regiments were diverted to the defense of the frontier. The only major American response was an attempt by the New York militia to defeat the Iroquois at the Battle of Oriskany. The Milita command was destroyed with few survivors.
In 1778 the campaign was much more active. In addition to many small raids, Cobles NY, Springfield NY, Andrustown NY, the Wyoming Valley PA, German Flats NY, and Cherry Valley NY were destroyed. By frontier standards these were fairly substantial towns, not isolated settlements. Most people managed to find refuge in the local fort but after the battle their homes and farms had been destroyed. The Wyoming Valley attacks were widely but incorrectly described a massacre of most of the civilians, but most the local militia was ambushed and destroyed. Even larger areas of food production were lost, either for the season or until the threat of attack was removed. The Americans were able to respond with only small counter attacks.
By 1779 General George Washington had developed the Continental Army to the point that it could take offensive operations against an objective within its means. New York City and Rhode Island, the principle British positions, were too well defended but there was enough troops for an expedition against the Iroquois. New York and Pennsylvania, two of the most important colonies, were demanding help in fighting the Iroquois. Using the lessons he had learned in the French and Indian War Washington proposed and got approval for a major expedition of Continental troops into the Iroquois homeland to destroy it economically. This would at the minimum distract the Iroquois from attacking the settlements for the season allowing harvesting the crops 1779. More importantly it would, if successful, take the Iroquois out of the war or at least cause enough damage reduce their ability to raid the settlements in future years.
Washington assembled a 5000 man Division of four brigades and a reinforced artillery regiment. This operation is commonly referred to as the Sullivan Expedition after it's commander Major General John Sullivan. A former militia officer from New Hampshire, he was not Washington’s first choice, a dependable though not brilliant officer, he seems to have had the characteristics Washington was looking for. Most of the army marched from the Wyoming Valley in Pennselvania up the Susquehanna River to meet up with a brigade from New York and then marched north through the heart of Iroquois home land turning west and going as far as Genesee destroying every town and field it found. Another Brigade was to go north from Pittsburgh up the Allegany River and return but it was not planned to junction with main army because it was impossible to coordinate the actions. Three of the brigades were regular line infantry and one was a light brigade to provide security against raids and ambushes of the main party. While there was no objection in the plan to battle with the Iroquois if it was offered, the objective was to destroy the economy of the Iroquois not fight a major battle. The force was intentionally too large to be defeated in a conventional battle by the forces the Iroquois and British had availble. If the light brigade could successfully guard against ambushes, fighting a conventional battle, was the only way to defeat the army. The biggest problem was setting up the logistics to move the column over a long distance. This delayed the start of the campaign, and even so for most of the expedition they were on half rations and eating Iroquois crops; harvested before burning the rest of field.
Though the Americans made attempts at security the general nature of the plan soon became common knowledge to the Iroquois and the British. Help was requested from British Canada but with little success because the British governor did not understand the seriousness of the threat, difficulty in sending support, and there was very little to send. Since the British were not sending help many Iroquois, who would have fought the American force if there a chance of winning, instead stayed home and evacuated their families.
The operation, planned for late spring, did not start until early fall because of supply problems. Sullivan moved his command at a steady march, with the light brigade protecting the front and flanks, and preparing defenses to defend against surprise attacks at night. The only significant battle was at Newtown New York where a force one-fifth the size of the Americans prepared an ambush on a good defensive position. It is interesting to note that the British wanted to fight a hit and run style while the Iroquois wanted to fight it out from a fixed position, most of the force was Iroquois so the British conceded. The Light Brigade discovered the position and with the artillery “amused” the defenders while two brigades went around the flank. The Iroquois/British force retreated before being trapped. The American force finished it’s march to Genesee with only minor engagements and one unsuccessful attempt by the Iroquois to ambush the advance guard. Since opposition was scattered the Americans came back by several routes destroying many villages and fields that were missed marching in.
Update: This section Rewritten 8/15/2007.
The most important result for the Americans was that the new government proved itself able to defend it’s citizens. New York and Pennsylvania were able to demobilize their militia. The Continental Army units involved were returned to the Main Army. This meant Washington could release the troops to oppose the British invaison in the south Farmland came back into production and normal economic activity was restored.
There was very little raiding of American settlements in 1779. 1780 saw a small revival of raids, but the Iroquois were no longer a military factor in the war. Most of the Iroquois had to live the winter of 1779-80 in Niagara and other places on British charity, which was slow in coming because the British did not have the resources and little ability to move what they had. This forced the British to divert resourses that could have gone to the main theater.
The Iroquois for the most part settled in Canada after the war. Central and Western New York were opened to settlement. The Council fire of the Iroquois Nation was extinguished.
Map: US Army Medcal Department
The Iroquois were in a losing position. Supporting the Americans if they won would give them some breathing room, but the march of the settlers opening one farm at a time would eventfully defeat them. Supporting the British if they won would leave them in the best position; the British would continue to prevent settlers from moving into Iroquois land. Supporting either side if they lost would be a disaster. Long-term neutrality was pretty much the same as losing no matter who won.
Alliances are always difficult; the British-Iroquois alliance was problematic at best. The British government saw this a sideshow and commited only minor resources. After the failure of the Burgoyne expedition the Iroquois assistance could distract the Americans but would never be decisive to the British. The British proved unable to provide major assistance in the event of a counter attack, although the British commanders on the ground did what they could to support the Iroquois. In lobbying for the Iroquois to join on the British side, they the Iroquois were lead to believe that the British would be able to provide more support that was physically or politically possible. This left the Iroquois in a an untenable position against an American response that was much larger than either the Iroquois or British expected.
Both the Americans and British sought Iroquois and other Indian support knowing that this would be warfare which did not recognize a protected status for women, children and other civilians. Of course, both sides made formal requests that the Indians not to attack women and children, and their representatives on site tried to prevent it, but they knew this could never have more than token results. Whites, espcially when separted from effective govermental authority sometimes responded in kind. Units, both British and Americn, under regular military discipline generally did not kill civilians. The Sullivan Expedition had very little contact with the Iroquois population since it was easy to move out of the way of the slow moving column. This was war directly or indirectly on civilian populations by both sides. It can be argued, truthfully, that the Sullivan Expedition was destroying a military base - a legitimate military target, but at the Iroquois' level of economic development the military base and the civilian infrastructure are the same thing.
Developing an Army the size of the Sullivan Expedition in Colonial America was not an easy proposition. If the revolution had not caused the development of the Continental Army which at that point knew how to operate in large units and manage logistics, it would have taken several years of frontier warfare before there was the political commitment to develop such an army. Two or three more years would be needed for recruiting and training. If the American-Iroquois conflict had developed outside the Revolution the Iroquois would have been in a better position to reach a favorable settlement or more likely delay the inevitable.
Of interest is the patterns of action demonstrated here that are typical of future American military actions especially in the future Indian Wars but also most wars where the the situation allowed. The large campaign into Indian country was common in all the major Indian wars, usually successful though the St Clair Defeat in 1791 and the Custer defeat in 1876 are the obvious exceptions. Also typical are a campaign objective to take the enemy out of the war, attacking economic objectives, use of regulars or more often volunteers trained to regular standards, the milita being relegated to secondary roles.
Though he was not the field commander for the expedition, the planning reflects Washington’s experience in the French and Indian War. He spent part of that war defending the Virginia frontier with militia, which was often ineffective and very expensive to maintain. His first offensive action was leading a regiment to capture Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg) that ended in the defeat at Fort Necessity; much of the failure of this expedition was due to poor planning and logistics. Next he participated in General Braddock’s almost successful approach to Fort Duquesne. That defeat, despite popular mythology was do to the ineptitude of the advance guard commander not General Braddock. Lastly he participated in General John Forbes successful capture of Fort Duquesne. Basic themes he learned through this school of hard knocks, the militia is not dependable if you need more than a home guard, while “Indian fighting” units are necessary to maintain security, regular forces win battles, and the need for careful planning and logistics management. His careful detailed instructions and supervision to General Sullivan reflected this; he also personally selected the commander of the Light Brigade that would provide security. He put his personal authority behind getting General Sullivan the logistics he needed. This is very similar to his actions as President during Antohny Wayne's 1794 campaign in Ohio.
This book won the Thomas Fleming Award for the Best Book in Revolutionary War History of 2005 and is also a finalist for the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Writing Award, to be announced in June 2006.
It has maps that provide some context but they are not keyed to the chapter where they are located, have much extraneous information but leave out key locations mentioned in the text. This book may be a to specialized and detailed to hold the interest of a general reader who does not come with an interest in the topic. However, I found the book to be interesting and very informative, especially about 18th Century frontier warfare. For a reader with an interest in the topic it is worthwhile addition to one’s book shelf.
Thanks to R.J. Rummel of Democratic Peace for bringing this book to my attention.