John O'Sullivan (soldier)

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Colonel Sir John William O'Sullivan
Born 1700
County Kerry, Ireland
Died circa 1760
Allegiance Jacobites
Rank Colonel

Jacobite rising of 1745:

Relations Major Thomas O'Sullivan (son)

Sir John William O'Sullivan (1700[1] - c.1760) was an Irish soldier in the service of France. He was born in County Kerry in 1700 and educated in Paris and Rome, being intended for the priesthood. He returned to Ireland upon the sudden death of his father and, being unable to retain his parental estates due to the Penal Laws, he chose to forfeit them and made his way back to France where he joined the army eventually rising to the rank of colonel.

Early career[edit]

According to A Compendium of Irish Biography: "He ... rose rapidly, and was coadjutor of Jean-Baptiste Francois des Marets, marquis de Maillebois in the atrocious suppression of liberty in Corsica in 1739.[2] There and on the Rhine he earned the reputation of an able captain in guerrilla warfare".[1]

It was probably his reputation gained in the Corsican theatre that brought him to the attention of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who chose him as his adjutant and quartermaster-general during his campaign in Great Britain, the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

In 1745 O’Sullivan was in his mid-forties and a contemporary account declared 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’; in addition, ‘To these external accomplishments were added . . . a sincerity of heart, and an honest freedom of both sentiment and speech, tempered with so much good nature and politeness as made his Conversation and friendship equally useful and agreeable.[3]

Here was someone whose company Charles enjoyed and whom he felt he could trust; in return, O’Sullivan was also unerringly loyal to the prince.[4] O'Sullivan was constantly at Prince Charles' side from when the prince landed in Scotland on 23 July 1745, to his escape on 1 October 1746, escaping in a French frigate, the L'Heureux captained by his fellow-Irishman, Antoine Walsh.

Jacobite Rising and the Advance to Derby[edit]

The Battle of Prestonpans started the advance of the Jacobite Army, at the heart of the victory was the fact that an attack pressed home with cold steel had been an unmistakable product of the Highland military culture. In the conventional European warfare of that period, the standard doctrine was "running fire" in which fire by platoons creating a rolling barrage of fire down the line so that by the time the last element fired, the first had reloaded and was ready to fire again, the weakness of this was that fire at any one time was relatively weak and could not overwhelm an enemy who would close the distance at a run with raised broadswords. It was the combination of physical and mental effect that gave the Highland charge its power, and made Prestonpans the pivotal battle that it was–pivotal in the sense that it imprinted on the Highland Army a potent sense of its tactical superiority.[5]

After Prestonpans the Jacobites faced a choice, they could remain in Scotland and consolidate their grip on the country, or they could march into England along the eastern coast to Newcastle, and cut off London’s source of coal. Instead Prince Charles persuaded the Jacobite leaders into the boldest possible option, that of marching through north-west England and ultimately on London. Here lay a contradiction that the prince never managed to resolve.[6] Charles Edward Stuart's objective, and that of the Irish clique that surrounded him, was to depose the Hanoverian dynasty and restore the Stuarts to the united throne of England and Scotland, the objective of the Scottish contingent was to put an end to that united throne and restore Scotland's status as an independent kingdom. the single most important reason motivating the volunteers seems to have been a widespread desire to re-establish Scotland’s independence.[7] Thus fundamental dichotomy was never resolved and impacted heavily on the conduct of the campaign

As the leading figure in Charles' entourage and Army quartermaster, Colonel O'Sullivan was the center of attacks from the Scottish clique centered around Lord George Murray, a man described as being "the author of many brilliant initiatives, he was also moody, vindictive and headstrong to the point of irresponsibility." [8] These attacks started the legend that Colonel O'Sullivan was incompetent, 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.[9] This army is also reported to have been well-supplied and administered with O'Sullivan as the army’s adjutant-general and quartermaster-general, and notwithstanding a quite undeserved reputation as an incompetent, did so very efficiently. .[10]

Battle of Culloden[edit]

Colonel O'Sullivan's part in the Battle of Culloden is highly controversial although most of the allegations made against him have been shown to be untrue He was not responsible for the notorious "night March" that resulted in the Jacobite Army entering Culloden Field in an exhausted and disorganized condition, this was entirely the work of Lord George Murray who had forced the plan through against O'Sullivan's advice.[11] "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." [12]

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 so whatever their failings that day, confusion caused by a multiplicity of calibers was not one of them.[13]

It has also been alleged that O'Sullivan refused to allow enclosure walls that flanked the battlefield to be pulled down, condemning the charging Highlanders to be caught in a murderous crossfire, this is also untrue."The Jacobite army’s right wing was apparently protected by the walled enclosures of Culwhinniac, which were six feet high. O’Sullivan suggested to Lord George Murray, whose men were on the direct left of the walls, that he put men inside the walls and pierce them so that they could fire out of them and this would deter any flanking move that might otherwise be attempted. Murray refused to do so and reminded him that he held the superior rank.[14]

A further accusation that O'Sullivan was responsible for the confusion over who held the right of the Jacobite line is also false; in Bonnie Prince Charlie in Moidart, 1745-46, Tim Roberton asserts that the orders were from Lord George Murray and not from O'Sullivan.[15] This is further supported in Culloden Moor and the Story of the Battle, in which it states that Lord George Murray alleged that Montrose had assigned the right to the Athol Highlanders. The Prince declined to decide on a matter on which he felt imperfectly informed. He, however requested the MacDonald chiefs to concede the point on this occasion, which they agreed to do; but their followers were not reconciled to the arrangement.[16]

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.

The reality appears to be that Colonel O'Sullivan seems to have been peripheral to the catastrophic defeat of the Jacobite Army at Culloden. Prime responsibility falls upon Lord George Murray who did not know how radically the Duke of Cumberland and his master tactician, Major General Humphrey Bland, had transformed the way the British Army moved and fought. 'Running fire' had been discarded in favor of fire by regiment in which all the available infantry would discharge in a single volley, greatly increasing the density of fire in the critical seconds before the Highland Charge struck home. The artillery would pound the Jacobite lines before any infantry engagement took place.[17]

O'Sullivan's main contribution to the battle appears to have been organizing 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.’ [18] 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’.[19]

Ranged against the disciplined, rested and well nourished troops of the Duke of Cumberland and his Government forces, the outcome was inevitable. O'Sullivan appears to bear little or no responsibility for the disaster.


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.

Further information regarding O'Sullivan is sparse, however he married Louise Fitzgerald in 1749[20] with whom he had a son, Thomas O'Sullivan, who went on to become a Major in the Irish Brigade.

Sir John O'Sullivan is thought to have died in the early 1760s.[21]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  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. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 526-533). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  6. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 535-538). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  7. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 966-967). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  8. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 551-553). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  9. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 761-762). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  10. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Locations 1040-1041). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  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.
  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. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Pollard, Tony. Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (Kindle Location 723). Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition.
  18. ^ Blaikie, Origins of the Forty-Five, p. 210.
  19. ^ Tayler and Tayler, 1745 and After, p. 153.
  20. ^
  21. ^
  • Robert Chambers, History of the Rebellion of 1745–6 (page 11) (W. & R. Chambers, 1869).

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