Following the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga in 1777, the British began to shift their war efforts to the south. This change alleviated some of the pressure on Continental forces in the north, granting General George Washington a needed reprieve to deal with native and Loyalist raids along the frontier, particularly in western Pennsylvania and New York.
The American Revolution divided the Iroquois Confederacy, prompting the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas to ally themselves with the British, while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras chose to support the Continentals. This division transformed the frontier into a war zone, riddled with vicious raids from both sides. To break the deadlock, Washington ordered General John Sullivan west in the summer of 1779 to knock the Iroquois out of the war.
Washington tasked the Sullivan Expedition with stopping and ultimately removing the Iroquois threat. To achieve this, Sullivan employed a scorched earth tactic, destroying villages and crops throughout the region. The Iroquois Chiefs, supported by limited numbers of British and Loyalist troops, avoided pitched battles wherever possible. As a result, most of the Expedition’s clashes included small skirmishes or ambushes, with one exception at Newtown, New York.
Situated near the New York-Pennsylvania border, along a bend in the Chemung River, Newtown’s location played a pivotal role in the ensuing battle. The terrain at Newton favored a defensive position and ambush; a hill, flanked by marshy areas and a creek, commanded the road. The landscape prompted the 1,000 Iroquois and 200 Loyalist militiamen to construct an earthwork along the slope of the hill. Sayenqueraghta, the Iroquois leader, hoped to stop the Continental expedition here, and protect the towns further along the river.
Sullivan’s column left Fort Sullivan on August 26, 1779, and slowly proceeded up the Cayuga River. At the front of his column were veteran frontiersmen who had served with Daniel Morgan earlier in the war. These men knew the signs of an ambush, and they were wary as they approached the hill. Just before noon, the Patriot troops discovered the hidden breastworks and reported to General Edward Hand, who deployed his light infantry to fire into the earthworks. The defenders tried repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, to lure the Continentals into an ambush before a lull fell over the field.
Sullivan called a council of war, which decided to pursue a complex double envelopment attack on the earthworks. With 3,200 Continentals, Sullivan outnumbered his opponent, a factor he decided to use to his advantage. The 1st New Jersey would proceed along the river and attack the enemy right flank. At the same time, the New York and New Hampshire Brigades would attack the enemy left. To hold the enemy in place, Hand would feint in the center. Ten artillery pieces would bombard the earthworks, and signal the general assault. Once the flanking units engaged, Hand’s feint would turn into a full assault.
The plan was complex but skillfully executed by Sullivan’s well-trained troops. The swampy terrain slowed the New York and New Hampshire Brigades, which allowed the Iroquois and Loyalists just enough time to escape encirclement and destruction. A brief counterattack by Joseph Brant almost cut off the 2nd New Hampshire, but quick thinking by Henry Dearborn and his 3rd New Hampshire, supported by the 3rd and 5th New York, drove the natives back.
Total losses were relatively small for both sides. Eleven Continentals were killed and thirty-two wounded. Twelve Iroquois were killed and another nine wounded, with the British suffering five killed, seven wounded, and two captured. However, the battle was a crushing defeat for the Iroquois; Sullivan operated virtually unopposed for the next month, allowing him to complete his expedition and end the Iroquois threat.