John O'Sullivan (soldier)

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John William O'Sullivan
John William OSullivan.jpg
Sir John O'Sullivan, from a portrait miniature
Born 1700
County Kerry, Ireland
Died circa 1760
Allegiance  France
Rank Colonel

Jacobite rising of 1745:

War of the Austrian Succession:

Relations Major Thomas O'Sullivan (son)

Sir John William O'Sullivan (c.1700 - c.1760) was an Irish professional soldier. He spent most of his career in the service of France, but is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, during which he acted as adjutant general and quartermaster general of the Jacobite army.

Some works give his surname simply as "Sullivan", the form he used in his own correspondence.[1]

Early career[edit]

O'Sullivan was born in c.1700 in County Kerry; he was one of two sons of Dermot O'Sullivan of Dunkerron, an estate confiscated under the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652.[2] Information on his early life is sparse and most of that published has been based on a 1748 memoir of Charles Stuart by Mitchell titled The Young Juba, a possibly unreliable source.[2]

O'Sullivan was educated in Paris and Rome and was said to have been at one stage intended for the priesthood. However, in common with many other members of the Irish Catholic gentry class, whose advancement was limited by the Penal Laws, he took service in the French army. He was promoted rapidly, serving under Jean-Baptiste Francois des Marets, marquis de Maillebois enforcing Genoese interests in Corsica in 1739. He appears to have seen further duty in the War of the Austrian Succession as a staff officer; sources rather vaguely note him serving in Italy and on the Rhine.

1745 rebellion[edit]

O'Sullivan entered the household of the Stuart heir Charles Edward Stuart in about March 1745: Charles's former tutor Sheridan claimed to have first made the recommendation.[2] A contemporary account said that "no one who knows Mr. Sullivan can deny his being one of the best bred, genteelist, complaisant, engaging officers in all the French troops".[3] Charles enjoyed O'Sullivan's company and trusted his advice: in return, O’Sullivan was unerringly loyal to the prince.[4] O'Sullivan was closely involved in planning the 1745 rising, and accompanied Charles from when the prince landed in Scotland on 23 July 1745, to his escape on 1 October 1746 in a French frigate, the L'Heureux, captained by his fellow-Irishman, Antoine Walsh.

At the start of the campaign O'Sullivan was given the roles of adjutant-general, responsible for the army's administrative services, and quartermaster-general. The latter role in this period was primarily concerned with the army's "quarters", i.e. its billeting, rather than with provisioning as is sometimes stated.

As an Irish Jacobite, O'Sullivan's strategic priorities in the conflict were securing tolerance for Catholics and the re-establishment of a Stuart monarch on the throne of an administratively independent Ireland. These goals differed from those of the majority of Scottish Jacobites, who were Episcopalian Protestants largely concerned with dissolving the union between England and Scotland.[5] Partly as a result, there were several disagreements in the Jacobite Council of War between its Scots and Irish members, particularly regarding the invasion of England. O'Sullivan's position had been weakened when a force of several hundred Irish volunteers intended to provide a nucleus of the rebel army was forced to turn back when their ship was damaged, meaning that the rebellion relied largely on Scottish manpower. Nineteenth century historians tended to interpret these differences in outlook by condemning O'Sullivan for tactical incompetence,[6] though the truth was that under Colonel O'Sullivan's leadership, the Jacobite Army was "a surprisingly conventional eighteenth-century army with cavalry, infantry, artillery, a reasonably competent staff and all the usual supporting elements".[7] In contrast to some historical accounts, the army was generally well-supplied and administered under O'Sullivan.[8]

Battle of Culloden[edit]

Colonel O'Sullivan's part in the Battle of Culloden is controversial, largely due to the work of nineteenth century and some later historians, which laid a large share of blame for the Jacobite defeat on his advice. This is particularly noticeable in Peter Watkins' influential 1964 Culloden which, in the course of framing the Jacobites as a largely feudal, archaic army led by incompetent aristocrats, depicts O'Sullivan as a "complete fool".[9]

The most usual accusation is that he was responsible for the choice of battlefield itself: he originally selected a site east of the final battle line, and in the event circumstances largely dictated the site in which the army actually drew up.[10] There were few other viable options left than standing and fighting at Culloden and most of the Jacobite commanders were ultimately in favour of giving battle.[10] O'Sullivan was not responsible for the night march that resulted in the Jacobite Army entering Culloden Field in an exhausted condition: this was proposed by Lord George Murray, who felt that the Jacobites would gain an advantage from a surprise attack on the government encampment.[11][12] Contrary to the accounts of John Prebble and others, the Jacobite artillery at Culloden was not supplied with ammunition of the wrong size; archeological studies have shown that the three-pounders got three-pounder ammunition, the only four-pounder ammunition being supplied to a four-pounder gun.[13]

It has also been alleged that O'Sullivan refused to allow enclosure walls that flanked the battlefield to be pulled down, condemning the Jacobites to be caught in a murderous crossfire. O'Sullivan noted the enclosures but appears to have suggested that men be placed at the walls to use them as a defensive barrier against flank attacks; this advice was not followed.[14]

Panorama of the battlefield, circa 2007. The flag on the left side indicates the Jacobite lines, the flag on the right side shows the location of the Government lines.

In the event, O'Sullivan's main contribution to the battle appears to have been organising the evacuation of Prince Charles and the core of his army off the battlefield once the day had been irretrievably lost. According to John Daniel of the Life Guard, "His grace the Duke of Perth and Colonel O’Sullivan gained immortal honour by their bravery and conduct in bringing us off in good order from under the very nose of the enemy; for notwithstanding all their firing upon our rear, and though we were much inferior in numbers we lost not one man". [15] O’Sullivan himself described how he "continued his retraite making volte face from time to time alternatively with the small number of horse he had & those five and twenty men of Berwick’s".[16]


Despite the catastrophe at Culloden, O'Sullivan remained one of Prince Charles' most trusted advisers, and the prince's subsequent escape was due in a great measure to his energy and tact. O'Sullivan was knighted by James III and was made a baronet in the Jacobite peerage in 1753. He later fell out of Charles's favour: Charles's biographer McLynn has suggested this was because O'Sullivan had an affair with Clementina Walkinshaw.

O'Sullivan's reputation in France does not seem to have been impacted by the Jacobite defeat, and he subsequently again served as a staff officer with the French Army.[17] He is known to have been at Lauffeld in 1647, where Cumberland was defeated by Saxe.[17]

Further information regarding O'Sullivan is sparse. However he married Louise Fitzgerald in 1749[18] with whom he had a son, Thomas O'Sullivan, who went on to become a Major in the Irish Brigade.

Sir John O'Sullivan died after 1760.[19] He is buried in the church of Annezin-les-Béthune, Normandy.


  1. ^ Pittock (2016) Culloden, OUP, p.xiv
  2. ^ a b c John Bergin. "['Sullivan (Sullivan), Sir John William". Dictionary of Irish Biography. (ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  3. ^ ‘Character of Mr. Sullivan’ in Tayler and Tayler, eds, 1745 and After, pp. 16–19, p. 18.
  4. ^ Riding, Jacqueline. Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion (Kindle Locations 908-913). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  5. ^ Stephen, Jeffrey (January 2010). "Scottish Nationalism and Stuart Unionism". Journal of British Studies. 49 (1, Scottish Special): 47–72. 
  6. ^ Pittock (2016) Culloden, OUP, p.26
  7. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 761-762). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  8. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 1040-1041). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  9. ^ Pittock, p.149
  10. ^ a b Pittock (2016) p.58
  11. ^ ‘A True Account of Mr John Daniel’s Progress with Prince Charles’, in Blaikie, Origins of the Forty-Five, p. 212.
  12. ^ Oates, Jonathan. Sweet William or the Butcher? The Duke of Cumberland and the '45 (Kindle Locations 1618-1622). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition. (""Lord George Murray made a Speech, wherein he enlarged upon the advantages Highlanders have by Surprising their Enemy, and rather Attacking in the night time than in the day Light, for as regular troops depend intirely upon their discipline, and on the Contrary the Highlanders having none, the Night was the time to putt them upon an Equality, and he concluded that his Opinion was that they Should march at dusk of ye Evening.")
  13. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 851-852). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  14. ^ Oates, Jonathan. Sweet William or the Butcher? The Duke of Cumberland and the '45 (Kindle Locations 1739-1741). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  15. ^ Blaikie, Origins of the Forty-Five, p. 210.
  16. ^ Tayler and Tayler, 1745 and After, p. 153.
  17. ^ a b Reid (1996) 1745: A Military History of the Last Jacobite Rising, Spellmount, p.178
  18. ^
  19. ^
  • Robert Chambers, History of the Rebellion of 1745–6 (page 11) (W. & R. Chambers, 1869).

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