American forces were frequently plagued by negative encounters with the Iroquois Nation in upstate New York, then the periphery of the American frontier. The British, by way of their allies within the six Iroquois Nations conducted raids on the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers. These raids diverted manpower from the Continental Army, stripped them of their food supplies, and spread terror throughout settlements. To prevent further disturbances, General George Washington, in 1779, ordered General John Sullivan to attack and destroy the Iroquois Nation.
Sullivan led his expedition with ferocity, pursuing a scorched earth policy slashing and burning his way through Indian Country in upstate New York.
On August 29, 1779, on the crest of a hill along the banks of the Chemung River, near present-day Elmira, New York the most crucial of the engagements of the Clinton-Sullivan Expedition took place. The hill was densely covered with foliage, dense stands of trees, some small hillocks, and was bound on the east by a marsh.
The Iroquois, British and their Loyalist allies built a horseshoe-shaped redoubt on the slope of the hill to provide a view of the river valley and approaching roads.
Sullivan’s forces numbered 3,200 fresh, well-armed, seasoned troops. Advance elements approaching the British position suspected an ambush and reconnoitered the areas. It was then that they discovered the extent of the hidden earthwork. In an American attempt to draw the roughly 1,200 British and their allies out of their fortified position, some skirmishing broke out. As the skirmish continued more of Sullivan’s forces arrived on the scene.
Sullivan convened a council of war with his commanders and they developed a scheme to take the position. A two-pronged attack was quickly devised with one end making a feint to draw off the defenders from the other side of the fortification. The attack, though not well organized, worked and the British, Indians and Loyalists were caught in a horrendous crossfire. The Americans vigorously pursued the hot and heavy contest. American artillery was used with great effect to support their infantry as they stormed the breastworks. The American victory was decisive, however, a complete envelopment of British forces did not occur and some of the British and their allies escaped through the marsh.
In the best account of Sullivan’s expedition, The Wilderness War, by Allan W. Eckert describes the Battle of Newtown as not being “a bloody battle compared to others, but it was most certainly a significant one. This was the battle that broke the back of the Iroquois League and the hearts of the people of the Six Nations.”
With an American victory in hand, Sullivan pressed on with a renewed confidence on his slash and burn campaign. By the time it was over, the Native Americans in the region had been routed and demoralized. Thus, ending the threat Washington feared and setting a precedent as to how the American military would pursue native peoples in the future.