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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Durham's John Sullivan rises in Continental Army ranks

July 16. 2017 11:26PM
This building, now destroyed, located behind the General John Sullivan House in Durham, is believed to have been slave quarters. It was photographed around 1934 for the Historic American Buildings Survey. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In 1763, John Sullivan, the 23-year-old son of Irish immigrants, became the first person to practice law in Durham. In the years that followed, his aggressive manner earned him more enemies than friends. He eventually succeeded in polishing his social skills, and established himself as a leading citizen. He was even able to count Portsmouth’s John Wentworth, the royal Governor of New Hampshire, as a friend.

Sullivan acquired a handsome fortune through his legal work and land deals. He also profited from his ownership of water-powered mills along the Lamprey River and other streams, including a grist mill (for grinding grain), a bolting mill (for sifting flour), a fulling mill (for finishing wool cloth), and a mill for grinding blades for scythes (tools used for cutting grass and grain).

During the 18th century slave ownership was not uncommon among the wealthier families in the seacoast region. In 1773, according to census records, there were 15 male and nine female slaves living in Durham. John Sullivan’s household included a man named Noble, and several other slaves who lived in a building behind the family’s house. They were often seen rowing Sullivan’s boat on the Piscataqua River, as they transported him the 9 miles between Durham and Portsmouth where he conducted business.

Despite Sullivan’s interactions with Gov. Wentworth and with other prominent men loyal to the British government, Sullivan found himself drawn to the patriot cause. When New Hampshire established its revolutionary Provincial Congress in 1774, Sullivan was elected to represent Durham. At the Congress’ first meeting in Exeter that July he and a man from that town, Nathaniel Folsom, were elected as New Hampshire’s delegates to the First Continental Congress. The two men participated in this historic assembly, which met in Philadelphia in September and October 1774.

On Dec. 15, 1774, Sullivan led a mob of anti-government colonists in the second raid in two days on Fort William and Mary in New Castle. These attacks netted a large cache of muskets, cannons and military supplies that would later be used by the rebels against the British. Afterward, Gov. Wentworth stripped Sullivan of his position as a Major in the provincial militia, but Sullivan was soon leading a new militia company in Durham made up local patriots.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 marked the beginning of armed conflict between the British army and American colonists. On May 10, 1775 Sullivan and Portsmouth’s John Langdon were in Philadelphia for the opening of the Second Continental Congress, where they represented New Hampshire. On June 14 Congress established the Continental Army to defend the colonies, and the next day it appointed George Washington of Virginia as its commander-in-chief. Washington’s gargantuan mission was to form an effective army out of a loose assemblage of militia units, while containing the British forces within Boston.

Congress appointed several senior officers to serve under Washington. John Sullivan, who had been vehement in stating his opinion that the recent British aggression in Massachusetts should be considered an act of war, was appointed as Brigadier General, even though he had no military training or experience beyond his militia service.

The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775 in Charlestown, Mass., near Boston. On July 3, Gen. Washington arrived in Cambridge, Mass., located across the Charles River from Boston. There he took command of the Continental Army and set up his headquarters. Brig. Gen. Sullivan left Philadelphia on June 27, arriving in Cambridge on July 10 where he was placed in command of his own brigade. In the following months, he effectively assisted Washington.

In the summer of 1775 the British navy engaged in a harassment campaign against coastal towns in New England. In mid-August, the concerned citizens of Portsmouth erected two new forts in the harbor to protect against assault. On Oct. 18, the British navy attacked Falmouth (now Portland), Maine with incendiary bombs and also launched an arson attack by land. Over 400 buildings were burned. A few days later Gen. Washington sent Sullivan to Portsmouth to assist in strengthening its defenses. After completing this work, Sullivan went on to recruit 2,000 New Hampshire men to reinforce the Continental Army outside Boston.

Next week: The British evacuate Boston, and Brigadier General Sullivan is sent to Canada.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

Aurore Eaton

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