When the rebels in Britain’s American colonies rose up against British rule in 1776, some of the most stalwart supporters of the cause of independence were the same Irish clans that had fought against the English / British rule of their own island for centuries. One of the septs that fought to the bitter end of Gaelic rule in Ireland was the O’Sullivan Beare clan of West Cork. The heroic and heartbreaking tale of Donal O’Sullivan Beare leading the remnants of his clan on a 500 kilometer march to join O’Neill and O’Donnell and the other northern Gaels for their last stand following the defeat at Kinsale in 1602 has long been retold by the Irish people. Branches of Donal’s clan would one day continue that fight nearly 200 years later in America, one of them with particular distinction.
(Above: "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze)
Owen O’Sullivan was born in Limerick in 1692. He was conceived there during the Williamite siege and born just after the defeat of the Jacobites had assured the Protestant ascendency in Ireland. Owen’s father, Phillip O'Sullivan Beare of Ardea Castle, was a major in the Irish army that was under siege in Limerick. Another ancestor, Dermod, had died while defending Dunboy Castle against Cromwell’s forces in 1549. Three of his uncles on his mother’s side (McCarthy’s) also fought for King James. One them, Owen, for whom he was named, was killed at the Battle of Aughrim (below). Phillip survived the siege in Limerick and left with Sarsfield and the other “Wild Geese” for France.
(Above: "The Battle of Aughrim" by John Mulvany, 1839 – 1906)
Young Owen and his mother, Johanna, shortly joined Phillip in exile. While there his parents gave Owen an excellent education, something that was becoming increasingly hard for Irish Catholics under the Penal Laws at home in Ireland. Unfortunately, Phillip died in France from wounds he suffered in a duel. Johanna and Owen returned to Ireland but his education was of little use to an Irish Catholic in Ireland in the early 18th century. And so, Owen would take the path that would become a familiar one to Irish Catholics looking to escape the oppression of their faith in their native for close to two centuries. He emigrated to the American colonies, arriving in Belfast, Maine in 1723. He was pledged as an indentured servant and set foot in the new world with barely more than the clothes on his back. But he had one asset most Irish Catholic immigrants in the coming years would not have, an excellent education.
(Left: No painting of John Sullivan was ever done, but some who knew him said this painting, "The Man of Ross" by John Kyrle, looked very much like the young John (Owen) Sullivan.)
Of course, the Americans colonies were still a part of the British Empire at the time, and still not a hospitable place for Irish Catholics. In fact, there was no Catholic community to join in most of the New England colonies at the time at all. It was a place where you could reinvent yourself, however, and Owen did. Owen became John and the “O” was dropped to become just Sullivan. And like many Irish Catholics who came to America at the time, “John Sullivan” became a Protestant.
John would have needed years to work off his indenture on the farm of a Scotsman named McIntire, but he had a plan. He wrote a letter to the local church pastor, Rev. Moody, said to be in seven languages, asking for work as a teacher. It was later said that very late in his exceptionally long life he still wrote fluently in both Latin and French. The good reverend was suitably impressed by the newly minted Irish Protestant and paid off John’s indenture to hire him as a teacher. Thus John acquired his lifelong profession. So many of the young men of the area would be educated by John that eventually, everyone in the area referred to him as “Master Sullivan.” John saved his money and bought out the indenture of a Cork-born immigrant, Margery Browne (right), 20 years his junior, and married her in 1735.
John and Margery lived first in Somersworth, New Hampshire, where most of their children were born, then moved to a farm in Berwick, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts), near the New Hampshire border. There Margery did most of the physical work of farming while John taught school. Their marriage would last 60 years until John died at the age of 103 in 1795. Margery called him, “my father in age, my master in knowledge, and my husband by marriage.” They would raise six children there, including five sons, Benjamin, Daniel, John, James, and Ebenezer, who would help Margery with the farm work as the years went on, along with one daughter, Mary. John made sure his children were well educated and knew they were proud descendants of the O’Sullivan Beare clan, and they should uphold the high standards of that ancient clan in America. Late in her life, Margery would say, reflecting on their accomplishments, that she, “had dropped corn many a day with two governors: a judge in my arms and a general on my back.”
(Above: The Beara Peninsula, the ancient home of the O'Sullivans.)
America gave John and Margery a chance to prosper that they never would have had in Ireland, and through their children, they repaid that debt a hundred times over. Their oldest, Benjamin, born in 1736, heard the call of the sea early in life and enlisted in the British Navy, and rose to be an officer, but his ship was lost at sea shortly before the start of the American Revolution. Perhaps that was a blessing because he would have found himself fighting against the rest of his family, who would be unwavering supporters of the revolutionary cause.
Their second oldest son, Daniel, born in 1739, started a successful sawmill in Frenchman’s Bay, Marine. When the revolution approached he started a militia company which he led during several battles in Maine, including the defense of Castine during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. In February 1781, no doubt tipped off by local loyalists, the British landed a force of Maines near his home with the express intent of capturing him. They captured him at midnight, drove his family from the house and burned it, something the British army would still be doing in Ireland during their revolution 140 years later.
Daniel was offered his freedom if he would swear allegiance to the crown, but like his O'Sullivan Beare ancestors, he would refuse and fight to the bitter end. He was transported to the infamous prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor. He managed to survive that hell on earth for over a year in the dank, damp hold of the Jersey, where one prisoner estimated that 8 inmates died of disease every day.
(Left: Inside the prison ship Jersey.)
In April 1782 Daniel was exchanged thanks to the intercession of his brother John, who had been a Major General in the Continental Army until late 1779. Daniel’s spirit had remained strong, but his health had likely been destroyed by his treatment on the prison ship, though a family rumor accused the British of poisoning him before his release. Daniel died within a few days on the road home to Maine. Frenchman’s Bay was renamed Sullivan in honor of Daniel in 1789.
John was the third oldest, and most famous of the sibling, so we will deal with him last. The fourth oldest son, James, born in 1744, would be the only living son not involved with the colonial military, but that was not by choice. He had two physical afflictions that prevented any military career. The first was a crushed foot suffered while working on his parent’s farm, which left him partially crippled; the second was epilepsy, from which he would suffer seizures his entire life. James shared his family’s ancestral opposition to British rule, and neither of these afflictions affected his mind, which he would use to serve his new nation. And though he did not risk his life on the battlefield, his service to the revolution certainly would have resulted in his execution had the British won the war.
His brother John, who would become a lawyer, began instructing James to the same profession while he was recuperating from his crushed foot. James (right) would open a practice in York County in what is now southern Maine but was then part of the Massachusetts colony. His practice flourished. When he received a tract of land in Maine in payment for one of his cases, he named it Limerick, in honor of his father’s birthplace, demonstrating his devotion to his Irish roots. One of his clients was Boston merchant John Hancock and he became involved with Hancock and the other Massachusetts radicals.
James was one of the leaders in calling for the First Continental Congress and his brother John was one of the delegates to it from New Hampshire. James was a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which ruled the state in the early part of the revolution. In February 1775, that congress released a proclamation, written mostly by James, which addressed the people of Massachusetts, saying, “you will never submit your necks to the galling yoke of despotism prepared for you, but with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.” Donal O’Sullivan Beare would have agreed with the sentiments he expressed.
During the long siege of Boston, where John was a general commanding troops and James was giving aid to the army, it was said that George Washington claimed that he had to but “send one of the eloquent Sullivan brothers” to buck up the morale of his soldiers when it was wavering. Their younger brother, Ebenezer, was also there as the captain of a militia company.
James served as a judge during most of the war and made a preliminary ruling in the Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison case, which effectively abolished slavery in the state. He helped write the state constitution in 1789. Near the end of the war, he was one of the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress.
After the war James served as Attorney General of the state from 1790 to 1807, appointed by his old friend, then Governor John Hancock. In 1791 he was the founder and first president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which is the oldest historical society in the United States. In 1807 he reached the pinnacle of his political career when he was elected governor. Just a year later James became ill and died in office. He had lived a remarkable life for one who had to overcome a severe physical injury and a chronic, serious illness. Sullivan Square in Boston was named in honor of James.
John and Margery had one daughter, Mary, born in 1752, their 2nd youngest child. Though it was a time when the only life path for women was “wife and mother,” and few other than those in the richest families were ever educated beyond reading and writing, John wanted more for his daughter. He educated her just as he did his five sons. She did marry Theophilus Hardy, and they had a son and daughter, but Mary also became one of the first female school teachers in the country, following in the footsteps of her esteemed father.
(Left: A colonial-era school house.)
One of her grandsons, Samuel Wells, was governor of Maine. Another, John Sullivan Wells, was a US Senator from New Hampshire. A third, Joseph Wells, was lieutenant-governor of Illinois and a fourth, Frederick, was a US diplomat who died serving as US Consul in Bermuda.
The youngest sibling was Ebenezer, born in 1753. Eben, as he was often called, married Abigail Cotton in 1772. Like James before him, Eben studied law with his brother John. Before he could become established as a lawyer, however, the revolution began.
Eben was the captain of a militia company raised in Berwick, Maine. He was part of the force which seized ammunition from Fort William and Mary at New Castle (above) on December 1, 1774, along with his brother, John, four months before Lexington and Concord. It was one of the first military actions of the war. After serving in the siege of Boston, his company was sent to the army commanded by Benedict Arnold, then in Canada. He was captured by a mainly Iroquois force from the Six Nations in May 1776, during the disastrous Battle of the Cedars near Montreal. A story is told that he was tortured and was about to be killed by them when a British officer interceded to save his life. Eben was exchanged shortly after that. He later served on the staff of his brother John.
(Right: Two Iroquois warriors.)
Later in the war Eben was captured again by Indians and held for several months before escaping, supposedly having to drown an attacking dog in a river while doing it. After the war, Eben became a successful lawyer in Berwick, Maine. In the 1850s Eben's great-nephew, Judge John Sullivan of Exeter, NY, wrote that, "He was a man of pleasure, gay, hospitable, generous to a fault" … "dangers had no terrors" for Eben. An elderly lady remembered him as a "very mild gentlemanly man," one of the kindest and most indulgent men she ever knew. She never saw him excited but once, and then his voice and manner were terrific." When Abigail died, probably somewhere around 1780, he remarried Mary Parker who was from South Carolina. Ebenezer died on June 3, 1799 in South Carolina
John (left), the 3rd oldest son of John and Margery, was born in 1740 and was their most famous son, though he is also a rather controversial historical figure as well. Still, by any standard, his life, during which he became a major general in the Continental Army and governor of the state of New Hampshire, was one of impressive achievement. Thanks to the education he received from his father, he became a lawyer in Durham, New Hampshire. He married Lydia Remick Worster in 1760. They had a son and a daughter, Lydia, and George, who would serve as a U.S. Congressman representing New Hampshire.
Through a friendship with the royal governor, John Wentworth, John became a major in a local militia. But in the years just before the revolution, while John was becoming very well off financially, he also became more radical and opposed to British rule. Such was his esteem in his state, that when the 1st Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, he was one of their delegates in September 1774. But his ambition was to serve in the field, not as a politician.
In December 1774 John became one of the first delegates of Congress to take part in a military operation when he helped capture Fort William & Mary in Portsmouth. The tiny British garrison surrendered without any casualties on either side. The powder and guns captured there would later be used against the British in Boston. After returning to the Congress, he was appointed a general in the Continental army in June 1775. John would command a brigade with Washington’s army through the siege of Boston. While there, John made the acquaintance of John Adam's wife, Abigail, who described him in a letter to her husband as having, a "warm constitution", but that he was "when once roused not very easily lulled.”
Sullivan became one of Washington’s favorite generals, but the commanding general’s feelings about Sullivan were not all positive. While he described Sullivan as "active, spirited, and zealously attached to the cause,” he also said that he had, "a little tincture of vanity … an over desire of being popular, which now and then leads him into some embarrassments." Still, after the British evacuated Boston, Washington sent Sullivan to reinforce the disastrous attempted invasion of Canada. This effort had essentially failed already before Sullivan arrived. He took overall command after the death of General Thomas and was soon forced to retreat south. Though military men like Washington understood the situation probably couldn’t have been reversed by anyone, many in Congress seem to sour on Sullivan after this failure.
John was 2nd in command of the army during the disastrous Battle of Long Island, after being promoted to major general in August. During the route of the army, Sullivan led a fighting retreat that saved most of his men, but he was cut off in a cornfield and fought off a group of Hessian with just a pair of pistols. No doubt he expected to die there, but he was captured. All who spoke of him in later years, even those critical of his leadership, agreed on his personal bravery in battle.
(Right: "Flatbush Pass," on Long Island, where Sullivan's men were nearly surrounded.)
He was exchanged a few weeks later, after being released on parole to deliver a message to congress from Admiral Howe proposing a peace conference. One would think it would be understandable that he would take advantage of such a chance to escape captivity, but he made more enemies in congress by doing it. Even John Adams called him a, “decoy duck whom Lord Howe had sent among us to seduce us into a renunciation of our independence." Nothing Sullivan ever did, however, would indicate he was anything but, “zealously attached to the cause,” as Washington had observed. In any event, the conference was held but came to no agreement.
Sullivan commanded part of Washington’s army during the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas 1776. His troops captured the bridge over Assunpink Creek, cutting off the Hessian’s retreat at the Battle of Trenton. His division led the advance to the victory at the Battle of Princeton.
(Left: Battle of Trenton, by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.)
That period would be the highlight of Sullivan’s military career. He commanded troops in the last two major battles of the year, defeats at Brandywine and Germantown. Since the days of his retreat from Canada and serving as the agent delivering the peace conference request from Howe, however, Sullivan had been acquiring enemies in Congress who seemed to look for reasons to blame him for any defeat where he was present. He was attacked again for his part in those battles. It was taking its toll on his health, as he began to develop bleeding ulcers later that year.
Over the winter of 1777-78, Sullivan suffered along with the rest of Washington’s army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In the spring Washington sent him to Rhode Island with a portion of the army in the hope that he could capture Newport with the assistance of a French force under Vice Admiral Charles Hector, comte d'Estaing. Just when it appeared their joint attack might succeed, British Admiral Howe appeared with a British fleet and d'Estaing withdrew, eventually abandoning the effort and retreating to Boston with his fleet and troops. The campaign ended with Sullivan fighting the British to a draw at the Battle of Rhode Island. He was incensed at the French withdrawal robbing him, he felt, of a significant victory, and was not diplomatic about his feelings.
In 1779 Sullivan was given the task of ending the constant attacks on western frontier towns by the Iroquois League. Four of the six Native American tribes of the league, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, in Pennsylvania and New York, had allied themselves with the British. On July 3, 1778 at the Battle of Wyoming (right) the Iroquois killed 300 Continental soldiers. That may have been the final straw for Washington. Sullivan's orders from Washington were brutally blunt, calling for the “total destruction and devastation of their settlements,” along with the destruction of all their crops. The treatment of his brother Eben while an Indian captive may have given Sullivan further incentive to carry out those orders to the letter.
That Sullivan was given about 5,000 men, about one-quarter of Washington’s entire force, to carry this out is an indication of how seriously the commanding officer took the threat from the Iroquois League. Though he did not quite devastate them to the degree Washington may have hoped, about 40 of their villages were destroyed, along with most of their crops. The Iroquois League would never fully recover from it. Sullivan’s health was also shattered by this hard western campaign. Sullivan resigned his commission on November 30, 1779, and returned to New Hampshire.
After some time recuperating, however, his health recovered enough for him to be once again elected to the Continental Congress in January 1781. From 1785 to 1790, Sullivan would be governor (then called president) of New Hampshire. Washington appointed his old comrade a federal judge for the district of New Hampshire after that, but Sullivan’s health had never fully recovered from his war time service. He died at the age of 55 on January 23, 1795.
John Sullivan has counties named after him in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Missouri and towns in Illinois, New Hampshire, and New York. Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan is also named for him.
The family that John and Margery Sullivan started in America would produce three Revolutionary War officers, one of them a major general, and two governors, in the first generation, then a governor, senator, congressman, an attorney general and a lieutenant governor in the 2nd generation. And there were other members of the clan fighting the British during the Revolution as well. There were over 250 Sullivans on the rolls of the Continental Army. In Ireland, the British had stripped the O’Sullivan Beare clan of their lands, their wealth, their power, and in many cases, their lives. But what they did not, indeed, could not, strip from them was their clan’s honor, and dignity, their desire to be free, and their willingness to fight for that freedom. Owen O’Sullivan and other O’Sullivans brought that with them to America, and they passed it on to their children.
“A Hidden Phase of American History: Ireland's Part in America's Struggle for Liberty” by Michael J. O'Brien
“How the Irish Won the American Revolution: A New Look at the Forgotten Heroes of America’s War of Independence” by Ph.D. Phillip Thomas Tucker
“Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” by Mark Mayo Boatner
“Harp and sword, 1776: The Irish in the American Revolution” by Charles Lucey
“A General of the Revolution: John Sullivan of New Hampshire” by Charles P. Whittemore
“Life of James Sullivan: with selections from his writings” by Thomas Coffin Amory
Where do the O'Sullivan come from, Originate from - O'Sullivan Clan
From Béarra to Bréifne: The Epic March of O'Sullivan Beara
Materials for a History of the Family of John Sullivan of Berwick, New England
Letter from Washington to General John Sullivan - 17 July 1778
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