by John Williams Haley

What Turks (What Tygers).

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 135-137, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

General John Sullivan.
Detail of print from the Thomas Addis Emmet Collection of Illustrations, New York Public Library.

A certain rare and interesting pamphlet of Rhode Island origin sheds light upon a Revolutionary War practice about which we know very little, and it also brings to mind the life and deeds of a great soldier whose chief military accomplishment took place within the borders of Rhode Island. The magazine The American Book Collector some years ago published an article contributed by Mr. Howard M. Chapin, historian, wherein was described an eight-page pamphlet printed at Newport, by a John Howe, during the American Revolution. When the English occupied the summer capital at the lower end of the Bay, the Newport Mercury press, which had been operated by Solomon Southwick, fell into the hands of the British, as did many other Newport buildings, residences, and institutions; and John Howe, who remained sympathetic with the English cause, thereupon operated the printing establishment as a loyalist press. Records of what literature Howe produced in the shop, which he had acquired, are very meagre and up to now the list of items known to have been printed by him consists of several incomplete files of the Newport Gazette, two pamphlets and four broadsides. One pamphlet, entitled "An Intercepted Letter to General Sullivan" presents a hitherto unknown sidelight to local war activities, since it brings out the fact that propaganda, printed or otherwise, was looked upon as an effective means of swaying public opinion, even in those days.

The "Intercepted Letter" is signed by the pseudonym "Nat Northwester" and, in Mr. Chapin's opinion, was probably never sent to General Sullivan, but was doubtless written as copy to be printed in pamphlet form as loyalist propaganda to be circulated among the inhabitants of the Island of Rhode Island, and, perhaps, to some extent, on the neighboring mainland, in order to encourage loyalty to the crown by ridiculing the military power of the American forces. From several points of evidence, it is reasonable to deduct that no actual letter reached the hands of the General in charge of the American forces stationed in Rhode Island, and that this printed essay containing a generous amount of ridicule and wisecracks was the original creation of printer Howe himself. Whether or not Mr. Howe's particular brand of humor, or, as we say today, his kind of "insidious propaganda" turned any of the natives from the ranks of those who were fighting for independence, to the camps and columns of His Majesty's gallant forces, will never be known; but the discovery of this rare eight-page printed specimen does indicate that the powerful weapon of nations, political parties, and other organized bodies and groups of the present age, is not so new after all.

Let us examine this pamphlet and observe what the anonymous writer of a letter to General John Sullivan had to say about the men who left home and family to fight unto death for freedom. First, the writer calls attention to the General's surprise that many of his men had quit the American ranks and departed for home or elsewhere at the time when the British occupied Newport, and when the Americans were entrenched at the northern end of the Island of Portsmouth. Then, the writer infers that the excuse for this general exodus and wholesale desertion was not because the British had evacuated their outworks, but because the soldiers were forced to leave the ranks, and return to protect their families from an alleged wave of immorality at home. Of course, historical records do not bear out the charge that Colonial soldiers deserted the ranks during the period of action in Portsmouth and in Newport, nor is there any evidence anywhere that would lead one to believe that moral conditions at home were so disgraceful that men would be forced to throw down their weapons and hurriedly depart to protect home and family honor. However, the writer of the pamphlet infers that both of these conditions existed and he concludes this portion of his invidious propaganda with the following observation which he probably thought was very humorous: "Taking the 3,000 volunteers at 2,500 married men, there go 2,500 spouses at once, then giving them two sisters each, away go 5,000 more. You cannot in reason allow the ladies less than six lovers apiece, how many is that? Aye, about 22,000, all undone! all violated! What Turks (What Tygers) would mind what passes in the outworks of ten thousand enemies, when such carryings-on are practising in their citadels at home?"

Nat Northwester then indulges in a bit of sarcasm in regard to the American support from the French fleet during the operations incident to the Battle of Rhode Island and in conclusion writes as follows: "In reality you did not take the island, whose fault was that? The British, Hessian, and Anspach forces would not let you have it. Your Excellency may say you took it in imagination. The best manner possible. You built castles in the air! That is the next elegant mode of acquisition. Oh, how your army enjoys the spoils of Newport, without loss to anybody! How they sup and dine, and drink large draughts of London porter! How their one-horse carts teem with dry goods! The hard cash rattling in their paper-bearing pockets!" and to this is added as final postscript: "Compliments to all the gang of gentlemen who came to see Newport in flames, hope they will muster up a little of their Philosophy to support their Dissapointment [sic]." It seems strange to peruse such accusations and reflections upon the integrity of Americans, and the American cause of liberty, especially when we know that these words were printed on a local printing press in patriotic, liberty loving Newport. But this was in the days of war, when the enemy appropriated everything within reach, when the opposing forces resorted to any method that might bring about defeat for those whom they sought to vanquish. At any rate, this "Intercepted Letter" is a most interesting contribution to source material for the history of the use of propaganda during the war of the American Revolution.

John Sullivan, the eminent soldier who was the principal target for the foregoing bit of war-time slander, was one of the leading men of the first Congress, who not only became a great military leader, but also won fame as an able statesman. He was the third son of Owen Sullivan, of Limerick, Ireland, and was born in Somersworth, Strafford County, New Hampshire, on February 18, 1740. Under his father's instruction he received an excellent education for the times, and, following a voyage in his youth, he began to study law in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and it was soon evident that he had great aptitude for his chosen profession. After being admitted to the Bar he settled in the Town of Durham, in his native county; he purchased a homestead that continued to be his residence until his death. He was very successful in his law practise, and he found time to inaugurate several manufacturing enterprises that prospered. Thus passed about ten years of John Sullivan's early manhood, during which he accumulated a fair estate.

At the first rumblings of the Revolution, John Sullivan, sympathizing heartily with the cause of American liberty, enlisted his fellow-citizens in a military company and took charge of the drilling and preparation for the impending emergency. At the same time he devoted much of his time to the study of famous military campaigns of ancient and recent times and soon could describe, in detail, the strategy and action of world-famous battles. He represented Durham in the New Hampshire Legislature and was chosen a member of the First Continental Congress that assembled in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. When he returned to his home State he, with John Langdon and two others, planned a surprise expedition against Fort William and Mary at the entrance to Portsmouth harbor. On December 13, 1774, four months before Lexington, Sullivan, at the head of this expedition and attack, took possession of the fort, imprisoned the British garrison, seized and carried away one hundred barrels of powder, some of which was used at Bunker Hill, fifteen cannons, and a quantity of small arms and supplies.

In January, a few weeks after this event, Sullivan and his associate Langdon were elected representatives to the Second Continental Congress, and on June 22, hostilities having begun, he was chosen one of eight Brigadier Generals for the Colonial Army. Accepting this appointment, Sullivan resigned his seat in Congress, proceeded to the camp at Cambridge and was assigned to the left wing of the army. Thus began his military career which was one of the most brilliant in the whole army.

He served with distinction in Canada and at the battles of Long Island, Trenton, Brandywine, and Germantown, and, after sharing the privations of Valley Forge where he was closely associated with Generals Washington and Nathanael Greene, he was assigned by the Commander-in-Chief, in the Spring of 1778, to the chief command of the American forces in Rhode Island, with headquarters in Providence. 6,000 British soldiers, with headquarters in Newport, were strongly fortified on the Island of Rhode Island. The French fleet under Count d'Estaing anchored off Brenton Reef on July 29, 1778, and the American force, including many New England veterans, 10,000 strong, was arranged in two divisions, under Greene and Lafayette, with Sullivan in supreme command.

Sullivan had everything in readiness at Providence but delays in the arrival of troops made it impossible for him to leave the mainland, to cooperate with the fleet that was engaged in destroying and disabling British ships, and thereby force the surrender of all enemy forces on the Island. On August 10th the Americans crossed over to Portsmouth and they encamped on what is known as Quaker Hill. The next morning the French fleet did not land marines to cooperate with Sullivan's army but went to sea and there gave battle to an approaching British fleet. A sudden storm scattered the ships in the opposing fleets and the wind and rain played havoc with the American shore forces.

The French fleet failed to return to carry out its part of the strategy planned and Sullivan was left with a disabled force to combat a well-fortified and well-equipped opposition. As related previously, a battle took place on the Island of Rhode Island on August 29, and Lafayette pronounced it the best contested battle of the entire war, and one in which the British were held back with great losses. Then came the masterful retreat to the mainland engineered with splendid executive ability by General Sullivan, and for this and for his handling of the entire military situation in Rhode Island he was warmly thanked by General Washington and by Congress.

Following the war General Sullivan held many important offices in national and New Hampshire public life and he died in his fifty-fifth year, the end being brought on prematurely as a result of exposure and hardships during the years of the Revolution, and by the burden of responsibilities during an active and enviable career.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

This article last edited January 29, 2007

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