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The Enigma Of General Howe

June 2024
27min read

He had a reputation as a bold, resourceful commander. Yet in battle after battle he had George Washington beaten—and failed to pursue the advantage. Was “Sir Billy” all glitter and no gold? Or was he actually in sympathy with the rebellion?

Had Sir William Howe fortified the Hills round Boston, he could not have been disgracefully driven from it: had he pursued his Victory at Long Island, he had ended the Rebellion: Had he landed above the lines at New York, not a Man could have escaped him: Had he fought the Americans at the Brunx, he was sure of Victory: had he cooperated with the N. Army, he had saved it, or had he gone to Philadelphia by land, he had ruined Mr. Washington and his Forces: But as he did none of these things, had he gone to ye D———l before he was sent to America, it had been a saving of infamy to himself and of indelible dishonour to this country.”

These searing words, from a secret memorandum found in the British Headquarters papers, were written by Sir Henry Clinton, the man who succeeded Sir William Howe as Commander in Chief of the British army in North America. They sum up one view of this strange general into whose hands George III first confided the power to extinguish the rebellion of his North American colonies. But it is by no means the only view. When Howe was relieved as Commander in Chief in 1778, we have John André’s testimony that “the most gallant of our officers, and those whom I least suspected of giving such instances of their affection, shed tears while they bade him farewell.”

To Loyalist Joseph Galloway, on the other hand, Howe was nothing but a colossal blunderer. “Blunder upon blunder is incessantly rising in its view,” he wrote in a pamphlet after Howe resigned, “and as they rise they increase in magnitude … so that their possibility almost exceeds the utmost extent of our belief.” Even more sinister was the opinion of another Loyalist, who wrote a letter from New York describing both the General and his brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe, who at the same time commanded the British fleet in American waters. “The Howes are both antiministerial men,” the Loyalist wrote, “and their minds are poisoned by faction: they have endeavoured by every means to spare the Rebellion in order to give it and the Rebels an air of consequence at home.”

The British Parliament was as baffled by William Howe as everyone else. After he resigned, a committee investigated his conduct of the war. Howe submitted his vast correspondence with Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for American Colonies, plus a fortypage narrative; numerous other witnesses, including such distinguished generals as Charles Cornwallis, testified, mostly in Howe’s favor. But the committee never made a report.

American opinion of Howe is equally confused and confusing. Alexander Hamilton called him that “unintelligible gentleman.” Israel Putnam said flatly that Sir William was either “a friend of America or no general.” And John Adams wrote to his wife that it was “impossible to discover the designs of an enemy who has no design at all.” But Major General Charles Lee, who knew Howe well, hailed him as an “executive soldier in which capacity he is all fire and activity, brave and cool as Julius Caesar.”

This much we certainly know: During his two and one half years as British Commander in Chief, William Howe never lost a battle when he was in personal charge of his army. Every time he met Washington in the field, he thrashed him unmercifully. Yet Howe failed to end the rebellion. Again and again, Washington escaped to fight another day. The climax to this strange reversal of the rules of war was Saratoga. While Howe was whipping Washington at Brandywine and Germantown and capturing Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States of America, he was simultaneously turning his back on John Burgoyne and his northern army, to the ultimate disaster of the British cause. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga brought France into the war and turned a family quarrel into a world conflict for which England was totally unprepared. Even as he marched his triumphant regiments into the rebel capital, Howe could justly be accused of losing the war.

What went on in Howe’s head is a question which historians have been debating ever since. Unfortunately there is very little genuine evidence. The Howe family papers were destroyed by a fire in 1845, and Sir William was not given to writing personal memoranda, in the style of Sir Henry Clinton. He was also a notably taciturn man, so there is even a scarcity of personal statements passed on by third parties. But the evidence we do have tells us a good deal, and most of it puts the Revolution in a light seldom seen in American textbooks.

When William Howe arrived in America in the spring of 1775, he was forty-five years old, a solidly built, six-foot soldier with snapping black eyes and a glittering reputation. In the French and Indian War he had been the daring young colonel who led the “forlorn hope” up the supposedly impregnable Heights of Abraham, to bring on the battle which won Quebec and Canada. Howe had fought with distinction in other actions, too, notably the siege of Havana and the foray against Belle Ishe oft the coast of France. Throughout his army career he had been known as a daredevil, a reputation he enhanced, in the intervals between wars, by a passionate fondness for the gambling table.

The Howe family had a tradition of friendship with America. The oldest brother, Lord George Augustus Howe, had died in the battle for Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 (expiring in Israel Putnam’s arms), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had erected a monument in his honor in Westminster Abbey. It was to Howe’s next oldest brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, that Benjamin Franklin turned in a last desperate effort to heal the growing breach between the colonies and the mother country.

The Howes were Whigs, members of an opposition to George III’s harsh colonial policy that included Edmund Burke and the violent Charles James Fox, who declared that if he had lived in America, he would have been among the first to take up arms against the Tory-dominated Parliament. William Howe held the family seat in the House of Commons, and in order to placate the pro-American merchants of Nottingham in the election of 1774, he had declared that he would never accept a commission to serve against America. More than a few of his constituents took a dim view of the way he forgot this campaign promise when George III proffered the job, and they let the General know it. On February 21, 1775, shortly before he sailed for America, Howe gave them a most significant answer.

My going thither was not of my seeking, I was ordered, and could not refuse without incurring the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress. So contrary are men’s opinions here [in London] to some with you, that instead of the grossest abuse, I have been most highly complimented upon the occasion by those who are even averse to the measures of the administration. Every man’s private feelings ought to give way to the service of the public at all times: but particularly when of that delicate nature in which our affairs stand at present … One word for America: you are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country. I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people … With respect to the few, who, I am told, desire to separate themselves from the Mother Country, I trust, when they find they are not supported in their frantic ideas by the more moderate, which f have described, they will, from fear of punishment, subside to the laws …

Almost every line of this letter is important. Howe speaks of “private feelings” which he frankly admits he is suppressing for the sake of public policy. Above all he bases his case on the supposition that he is going to the colonies not to oppress a free people, but to rescue the majority from the tyranny of a few demagogues. He also makes a special point of letting his constituents know that those “averse to the measures of the administration”—by which he meant men like Fox and Burke—have complimented him. Why would Fox —and especially Burke, who was about to make his great plea to the unheeding Parliament for the conciliation of the American colonies—compliment Howe, unless they thought he was going to heal wounds, rather than to make fresh ones?

But when Howe arrived in America on May 25, 1775, the time for conciliation was all but over. British and American blood had been spilled at Lexington and Concord, and the British army was penned inside Boston by an aroused host of New Englanders. On June 16, 1775, they seized a height known as Breed’s Hill, opposite Boston, and the next day General Thomas Gage sent Howe and a picked army of regulars across the harbor to drive the motley collection of patriots off their offensive perch. The Battle of Bunker Hill was Howe’s first fight with “the loyal and peaceable subjects” in America. Before his unbelieving eyes, he saw England’s best regiments decimated by the entrenched Americans, and only the most frantic efforts on the part of the General and his officers drove the battered redcoats up the hill one last time, to oust the rebels—out of ammunition now—from their fort. Always famed for his daredevil courage, Howe exposed himself fearlessly throughout the furious fight, but he wrote home to his brother that in the midst of the carnage, “There was a moment I never felt before.”

What was that moment? Was it the simple possibility of defeat? Howe had experienced that before. At the now-forgotten battle of St. Foy, the year after Wolfe’s victory at Quebec, Howe’s regiment had lost almost fifty per cent of its men, and the British had had to retreat helter-skelter behind Quebec’s walls, where only the arrival of reinforcements rescued them. The moment of Bunker Hill may well have involved something more complex: the horror of seeing men of the same blood slaughtering each other, the realization that he—and the British government—were wildly wrong when they “safely asserted” that “the insurgents are very few.” Finally, was there the born gambler’s flash of insight that this American war was “wrong” in the most profound sense of the word, and that in it British generals were never to enjoy that “luck” which most professional soldiers, and especially the daredevils, believe is as important in war as strategic genius? The questions are worth considering.

Not long after Bunker Hill, George III appointed Howe Commander in Chief of the British army in North America as successor to Thomas Gage, who had a reputation for losing battles and for being too “soft” on the rebels. Months of stalemate followed. Howe declared it was, impossible to act offensively from Boston with his small army—he had less than 10,000 men —and the government agreed. But the Navy, disastrously neglected during a decade of peace, could not immediately muster enough ships to evacuate Howe’s troops from Boston. Meanwhile, in spite of repeated demands from the Whig opposition, the King’s ministers did nothing to reverse the drift toward all-out war. Finally, early in 1776, they found a compromise which they hoped would satisfy both the truculent King and his supporters as well as the opposition. They decided to appoint Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe naval commander in North America, with the dual title of “peace commissioner.”

Lord Howe was far more reluctant than his brother to take a military command, and his negotiations with his own government are another revealing instance of the family’s thinking. The Admiral insisted that his brother be included as another peace commissioner, and he initially hoped the commission would be given broad powers of negotiation. But George Ill’s attitude toward the colonies soon left Admiral Howe with little more than the power to grant pardons, while he was ordered to assert Parliament’s right to tax, to demand payment for losses sustained by Loyalists, and to “correct and reform” colonial governments.

At one point, Howe almost resigned in disgust; the King agreed that he ought to do so, for the good of the service. But George’s prime minister, Lord North, was as anxious as the Howes to reach an accommodation with America. North finally persuaded the Admiral to accept his commission and to rely for the success of his mission upon his personal charm and wide friendship with American leaders.

There is some evidence of a considerable gap between the King’s punitive written instructions and the verbal assurances Howe received from the Ministry. When he came home in 1778, the Admiral declared in Parliament that everyone knew he and the administration had an affair to settle. But an even more compelling motive for Howe’s acceptance of the enfeebled “peace commission” was his brother’s assignment to put down the rebellion. As the leader of the family, Lord Howe had almost certainly advised William to accept his general’s commission, which he could not resign now without being called coward, even traitor.

General William Howe, meanwhile, had retreated somewhat ignominiously from Boston on March 17, his departure hurried by the appearance of Washington’s cannon on Dorchester Heights (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE). During his nine months in the city, the General’s only triumph was the acquisition of blonde and beautiful Mrs. Joshua Loring as his mistress. Much has been made of this liaison, which continued throughout Howe’s American campaigns. Judge Thomas Jones, the Loyalist historian, compared Howe to Mark Antony, declaring Sir William sacrificed an empire for the charms of his Boston Cleopatra. A mistress was hardly remarkable among eighteenth-century English aristocrats, shocking though she may have been to pious Americans, and there is not an iota of evidence that Mrs. Loring ever had the slightest influence on Howe’s policies.

The General evacuated his forces from Boston, regrouped and refitted his regiments at Halifax, and joined his brother on Staten Island in the summer of 1776. Admiral Howe brought massive reinforcements of German mercenaries and English regulars, swelling the army to 32,000 men. Washington, against his better judgment, was committed to defend New York against this host with less than 20,000 soldiers, most of them untrained.

The Battle of Long Island was Howe’s first exhibition of his talents as Commander in Chief. On August 27, 1776, attacking Americans entrenched in the commanding Brooklyn hills, Howe faked a frontal assault with half his army and after an all-night flanking march swept in upon his astonished enemies from the rear. In an hour the affair had turned into a total rout, with redcoats and Hessians hunting demoralized Americans through the woods like rabbits. Three generals, three colonels, four lieutenant colonels, three majors, eighteen captains, forty-three lieutenants, and more than one thousand enlisted men were captured.

What was left of the trapped American regiments fell back to redoubts on Brooklyn Heights. The British and Germans, flushed with triumph and scarcely damaged (total British casualties were less than 400), surged forward to smash this last barrier between themselves and total victory. Behind the ramparts, Washington and some 9,000 badly shaken Americans awaited the inevitable assault. But as the redcoats exchanged opening fusillades of musketry with the defenders, orders came from the British rear to cease and desist.

Major General John Vaughan, who was in command of a column of Grenadiers, was astonished, and sent back word that he could easily carry the redoubts, with little loss. But again the order arrived from General Howe to fall back, for “the troops had done handsomely enough.” Howe later explained that he did this because he saw that the American defenses could be had at “a cheap price” by “regular approaches.” In other words, siege techniques. This was certainly in accord with the standard eighteenth-century mode of making war. Armies were small and soldiers were precious (especially to Howe, who was 3,000 miles from any reinforcements). But Washington made this caution look foolish by shipping his entire army back to Manhattan two nights later.

The Howes were now in complete control of Staten Island, Long Island, and the waters surrounding Manhattan. The Americans did not have so much as a gunboat to oppose the immense fleet Lord Howe had brought with him. Even before the Battle of Long Island, two British warships had run the supposedly impregnable American shore batteries along the Hudson and anchored near Kingsbridge. From a military point of view, Washington was in a bag; all Howe had to do was land above Manhattan and draw the string.

Moreover, the rout on Long Island had shattered American morale. “The country is struck with panic,” Nathanael Greene wrote to Washington, who himself reported to Congress that the defeat had “dispirited too great a proportion of our troops and filled their minds with apprehension and dispair. The militia are dismayed, intractable and impatient. … Great numbers of them have gone off; in some instances, almost by whole regiments.” If Howe had struck hard and swiftly, it is difficult to believe that the American army could have survived.

Instead, the Howes spent the next two weeks as peace commissioners. Six weeks before, Lord Howe had sent a letter to Washington himself proposing a parley as a “means of preventing the further effusion of Blood” and arranging “Peace and lasting union between Great Britain and America.” Foolishly, he had addressed it to “George Washington Esqr,” thus ignoring the belligerent status of the Americans which the use of Washington’s military title would have implied. They were, the address inferred, merely traitorous subjects of the Crown who upon capture might be hanged. After a conference with his officers, Washington refused to accept the letter. Now the Howes tried again. Captured General John Sullivan was sent to Philadelphia with flowery words about an accommodation, and Congress grudgingly decided to send Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to see what the Howes had to say. It soon became apparent that the only power they had was to grant pardons, and the Americans refused to admit that they had done anything to warrant pardons. The conference quickly foundered.

The fruitless peace talks gave the Americans time to hail Washington’s retreat from Long Island as proof of his military genius, and generally stiffen their backs for the defense of Manhattan. Although Washington drew a large portion of his army back to the northern end of the island, lest Howe attempt the obvious maneuver of a landing above his lines, the American general left over 5,000 men under Israel Putnam at the lower end, and even his more withdrawn brigades would have been helpless against a sudden move by water, under cover of darkness. Washington had never before commanded more than a regiment in battle—Boston had been only a siege—and his conduct reveals the indecisive thinking of the learner.

But Howe did not land above the lines. On September 15, he sent his men ashore at Kip’s Bay, where today Thirty-fourth Street meets the East River. Troyer Steele Anderson, perhaps the best of the Howe historians, argues that not even the two weeks of peace maneuvers were really a delay, because Howe had to wait that long anyway for tides which permitted him to move his small assault boats up the Brooklyn shore by night. But this does not explain his failure to land above Manhattan and trap Washington, as the exasperated Henry Clinton begged him to do.

The Kip’s Bay landing was another rout for the Americans. The raw militia fled at the first barrage from the covering warships, and the regulars surged ashore without losing a man. A determined thrust across Manhattan might have trapped Putnam and his 5,000 defenders, most of them still at the tip of the island, but once more Howe was satisfied with the first chase, and let the real game get away. Harassed by their commander and his aides, one of whom was a twenty-year-old major named Aaron Burr, Putnam’s men quick-marched up the western edge of Manhattan and rejoined the main body on Harlem Heights. The same caution Howe had displayed at Long Island is an equally valid explanation, of course. He was conducting an amphibious landing, and his first thought was to consolidate his beachhead. Throughout his narrative before the House of Commons, Howe repeatedly emphasized caution as his first principle. He had, he said, labored constantly to hold down casualties and avoid a “check” which would give the rebels a chance to declare a victory.

A general who makes caution his byword can always point to disasters which might have happened if rash risks and undue haste had been his army’s policy. But more than one person has been puzzled by this sudden, passionate fondness for caution on Howe’s part, when all of his previous military career had exhibited a love of the long chance and the hair-raising gamble.

For a full month after his seizure of New York, Howe allowed Washington to sit on Harlem Heights practically unmolested, while the British troops were set to digging defensive fortifications. Looking back at it now, the situation seems almost comic. A great army of well-trained professionals, superbly equipped and supported by an unopposed fleet, has just routed its untrained enemy twice. Then what does the victorious general do? Go on the defensive! True, the skirmish called “the Battle of Harlem Heights” showed the Americans had some sting left. But that was little more than a brush between advance guards. Every evidence pointed to the inability of Washington to stand firm had Howe struck a massive blow.

Howe solemnly told the House of Commons it would have cost him 1,000 to 1,500 men to storm Harlem Heights, in his opinion an excessive price. But he had a more difficult time explaining why he wasted a month of the best campaigning weather sitting on lower Manhattan staring up at Washington. He said he was short of horses; furthermore, none of the inhabitants of America was able to give him a “military description” of the terrain across which he would have to advance if he landed north of the American army.

This terrain was Westchester County, a region which abounded in Loyalists willing to serve Howe as guides and map makers. Even had that not been so, Howe’s excuse would still have earned ridicule. Bellamy Partridge, author of Sir Billy Howe , wrote: “Two weeks to find a short cut across from the Sound to the Hudson River! A matter of from five to eight miles! Washington would have run a survey across there in two days; and in two weeks he could have made a topographical map of the district, with altitudes and the depth of all watercourses plainly indicated, in addition to the roads and clearings and favorable locations for combat.”

Nevertheless, when Howe finally decided to move, he did so masterfully. At three A.M. on October 12 he put his soldiers aboard his brother’s ships and slipped silently up the East River and through Hell Gate in a thick fog. But once they reached Long Island Sound, this know-how abruptly vanished. They landed the troops on Throg’s Neck, a marshy point of land that was virtually an island at high water; twenty-five American riflemen concealed behind a woodpile were able to prevent their advance. Howe then went into camp, and spent six days on the Neck, while baggage and supplies were brought up from New York. Meanwhile, Washington was frantically evacuating his cumbersome column of 13,000 men from Harlem Heights over Kingsbridge, his one avenue of escape into Westehester. Shortages of wagons and horses reduced him to a crawl. The artillery had to be dragged by hand. In one of his worst military blunders, Washington left 2,800 men behind to hold Fort Washington, on the New York side of the Hudson, and another garrison at Fort Lee, on the Jersey shore opposite, both under the command of Nathanael Greene.

In a single night, Howe put all his men back aboard his ships and landed them at Pell’s Point, in presentday Pelham. He met some initial resistance from about 750 New Englanders under Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, but they soon fell back toward the main American army. Only six miles away, down a straight road which any Tory in Westchester would have been happy to show Howe on a map, the American army was still straggling across Kingsbridge in a long, exposed, disorganized line. Even the ardently pro-American historian Christopher Ward admits that if Howe had attacked “there could hardly have been any other result than a complete rout.” But Howe spent three days in New Rochelle, and then marched to Mamaroneck, where he spent another four days.

A rapid march to White Plains by Howe’s 4,000 light infantry could have seized the high ground around the village and pinned Washington and his army against the Hudson River. Instead, Howe let Washington do the seizing, and when the British arrived at White Plains they found the Americans blocking their path. Howe was forced to fight, after he had seemingly done everything he could to maneuver Washington out of New York without a battle.

At White Plains the armies were almost equal in size, and Washington had the advantage of choosing the field. But Howe’s first move, on October 28, unhinged the whole American position. He sent 4,000 men against Chatterton’s Hill, and after fierce resistance from entrenched Americans he threw in his cavalry, which totally demolished two regiments of rebel militia and forced the rest of the defenders to quit the hill. Chatterton’s gave Howe a position from which he could outflank the rest of Washington’s army. Moreover, Howe now lay between the Fort Washington garrison and the main army. It was the dream of every general. He was in a position to devour both American forces at his leisure.

But once again Howe dallied, while at White Plains Washington frantically threw up flimsy redoubts made of cornstalks from nearby fields, with earth clinging to their roots. Reinforced by two brigades from Manhattan, Howe now had 20,000 men. “A brisk drive,” Bellamy Partridge says, “would have scattered the patriots into the hills.” Another defeat probably would have destroyed Washington’s already dwindling military reputation. But Howe never made the climactic assault. During three days of inaction, he let Washington withdraw the bulk of his army northward to a stronger position at North Castle, and then, on November 4, the entire British army turned around and went clanking off to New York without firing another shot.

When asked why he had not pressed the attack at White Plains, Howe blandly told the House of Commons: “An assault upon the enemy’s right which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them that I have political reasons, and no other for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Some historians argue that Howe had received the plans of Fort Washington from a Tory spy, and seeing that he could take this pseudo-stronghold with ease, he decided to make that his final battle of the campaign season, then drawing to a close. If this thesis is true, then the “political reasons” would have been a desire to protect the Tory spy from the revengeful Americans. It is a feeble argument. In the first place, Fort Washington would still have been there after Howe had smashed Washington’s army at White Plains. He could have scooped it up as an afterthought on his triumphant journey back to Manhattan. In the second place, why didn’t Howe, who used fairly plain English in the rest of his narrative, say something about this spy, without revealing his name? “Political reasons” suggest something far larger—even a policy that was guiding Howe’s military conduct.

Howe did in fact capture Fort Washington, bagging 2,837 prisoners in a brilliant multipronged assault on November 15. Washington, meanwhile, again divided his army, carrying 5,400 men into New Jersey and leaving the rest to guard the Hudson. Only the violent entreaties of Lord Cornwallis persuaded Howe to pursue him. The American catastrophe at Fort Washington was almost repeated at Fort Lee, when Cornwallis led 4,000 picked troops across the Hudson and landed above the redoubts at dawn. Frantic haste on the part of Nathanael Greene got his men out of the place, with nothing but their muskets. Their blankets, a thousand barrels of flour, 400,000 cartridges, and dozens of precious cannon had to be left behind.

Washington was now being pursued by a general who had none of Howe’s tendency to dally. While the American army, disheartened by the loss of Fort Washington, melted away, Cornwallis hounded the remainder across New Jersey. Entering Newark as Washington’s rear guard went out the other end of the town, he pushed his troops twenty miles in a single day through a driving rainstorm, trying to catch Washington at New Brunswick before he forded the Raritan.

On December 1 Washington got his last man across the river as Cornwallis’ advance guard came up. The armies were within cannon shot of each other, and the river was “in a variety of places, knee deep only,” according to eyewitnesses. There was nothing to stop Cornwallis from charging across and falling on Washington’s dispirited remnant of an army, now barely ! 3,000 strong. Instead, the British sat down on the wrong side of the river, and did not move for four days. Orders from William Howe had arrived, forbidding them to advance until he had brought up “reinforcements.”

Again, caution perfectly explains such a decision. But when Howe arrived he brought only a single brigade, and they proceeded to move forward at a more familiar pace, giving Washington time to get his rear guard across the Delaware at Trenton just as the British advance guard reached the river bank. Charles Stedman, the British historian who was an officer in Howe’s army, says with dry sarcasm: “General Howe appeared to have calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time necessary for the enemy to make his escape.”

Washington had collected every available boat for seventy miles along the river, and drawn them to the other side. This supposedly stymied Howe. But there was a well-stocked lumber yard in Trenton, and four blacksmith shops. If Howe had wanted to cross the river, he could have built himself a small fleet in a week. There were no fewer than nine ferry landings for Washington to guard. The rebel capital of Philadelphia, already in panic, lay within a day’s march.

But Howe had no immediate interest in Philadelphia. Nor was he interested in destroying Washington. He only wanted to drive him out of New Jersey, so that he could get down to the business of restoring that territory to loyalty and order. He issued a proclamation offering pardon and the enjoyment of liberty and property rights to all who would sign a declaration of loyalty within sixty days. Even those who had fought in Washington’s army were included. New Jersey responded, almost en masse. To guarantee continued tranquillity, Howe established a series of strong cantonments along the Delaware, most of them manned by Hessians who had fought brilliantly at Fort Washington a month before.

It was now mid-December, true, and Howe, like almost all military commanders of that era, was anxious to get his troops into winter quarters. But was this excuse enough to discard total victory when he had it within his grasp? The answer would seem to be that Howe did not see total victory in military terms as the key to his policy. What he and his brother were aiming at, from the start, was peace by reconciliation. To achieve this they had to balance American extremists, who insisted on independence, against extremists of the opposite persuasion back home, who insisted on all-out repression. If they annihilated Washington and his army and captured the Congress, what would there be left to reconcile? The British extremists could be held in check only by making sure there was still an American force in being with whom to negotiate. The American extremists, on the other hand, had to be shown that they had no hope of winning independence against the might of Great Britain, and that to carry the rebellion further was folly. What better way to do this than to thrash the Americans repeatedly and drive them out of selected colonies, which could then be pacified and held up to the rest of the country as examples of British benevolence?

Howe’s letters to Lord Germain indicate this thinking. On September 25, before the fiasco at White Plains, he was writing: “I have not the smallest prospect of finishing the contest this campaign, not until the Rebels see preparations in the spring, that may preclude all thoughts of further resistance [author’s italics]. To this end, I would propose eight or ten line of battle ships, with a number of supernumerary seamen for manning boats … We must also have recruits from Europe, not finding the Americans disposed to serve with arms, notwithstanding the hopes held out to me on my arrival at this port.”

On November 30, Howe spelled out to Germain his plan for the next campaign. It was ambitious. An offensive army of 10,000 would move from Providence, Rhode Island, toward Boston; another army of 10,000 would move up the Hudson River to Albany, leaving 5,000 men to defend New York; finally, a defensive army of 8,000 men would cover New Jersey and pose a threat to Philadelphia, which Howe proposed to attack in the autumn. With the New England and middle colonies thus subdued, Howe planned to finish the rebellion in the winter by moving into Virginia and the Carolinas. Again, the phasing of his letter is significant. “Were … the force I have mentioned sent out, it would strike such terror throughout the country that little resistance would be made to the progress of his Majesty’s arms.” Once more, Howe is thinking in terms of discouraging the rebels, rather than of defeating them in the field.

To make his new plans work, Howe asked for 15,000 more men. He was turned down. Further, Washington and his little army proved unwilling to roll over and play dead: striking through the sleet at Trenton on Christmas night, they captured almost the entire 1,400man garrison of Hessians. The victory restored the patriots’ sinking morale. Howe at first called it a “misfortune,” but a few weeks later, he was writing what is perhaps his most revealing letter to Germain:

It is with much concern that I am to inform your Lordship the unfortunate and untimely defeat at Trenton has thrown us further back, than was at first apprehended, from the great encouragement given to the rebels.

I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war but by a general action …

“I do not now see.” Quite casually, perhaps without realizing it, Howe here admits that until Trenton, a “general action” was not included in his plan to end the war. Could this explain Washington’s repeated escapes from disaster at Long Island, Manhattan, White Plains, and throughout New Jersey?

Washington’s victory at Trenton could be attributed to the fortunes of war. But Germain’s refusal to send reinforcements seemed to Howe a low blow, especially since a well-equipped army was handed to General John Burgoyne for a descent from Canada to Albany. Burgoyne had a scheme of his own for ending the war. At Albany he would join with a force under Howe proceeding up the Hudson, and with another from the west under Barry St. Leger. If all went well, New England would be cut off from the rest of the colonies and the two halves of the infant nation could be conquered at will.

But a new note now enters Howe’s thinking: resentment. From Howe’s point of view, Burgoyne had stolen from him the soldiers he needed for the master plan he himself had proposed to Germain. Howe wrote to his lordship, telling him that the master plan would now have to be drastically altered. On April 1, 1777, he told Germain, “I propose to invade Pennsylvania by sea.” He admitted this meant evacuating the Jerseys, and added with irony: “Restricted as I am from entering upon more extensive operations by the want of forces, my hopes of terminating the war this year are vanished.”

Then, on April 5, Howe wrote to Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, telling him he had “but little expectation that I shall be able from the want of sufficient strength in the army to detach a corps in the beginning of the campaign to act up Hudson’s River.” Meanwhile, Germain in England wrote Howe approving his plan to invade Pennsylvania by sea. But at the same time he wrote to Carleton, assuring him he would write to Howe to “guarantee the most speedy junction of the two armies.” Alas for the hopes and dreams of George III, Germain never sent such a letter. All Howe ever got was a copy of Germain’s letter to Carleton, which nowhere contained a specific order limiting Howe to advancing up the Hudson River, and a paragraph in a later letter in which Germain, approving a modification of his Pennsylvania plan, trusted “it will be executed in time for you to co-operate with the army ordered to proceed from Canada.” A major disaster was shaping up: “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne would be fighting his way to Albany to join up with Howe, who instead would be on his way to Philadelphia.

Co-operating with Burgoyne was the one thing Howe had no interest in doing. His defense of his decision to sail to Philadelphia pulsates with resentment in every line: “Had I adopted the plan to go up the Hudson River,” he told the House of Commons, “it would have been alleged that I had wasted the campaign with a considerable army under my command, merely to ensure the progress of the northern army, which could have taken care of itself, provided I had made a diversion in its favour by drawing off to the southward the main army under General Washington. Would not my enemies have gone further, and insinuated that, alarmed at the rapid success which the honourable General [Burgoyne] had a right to expect when Ticonderoga fell, I had enviously grasped a share of the merit which would otherwise have been all his own? and let me add, would not Ministers have told you, as they truly might, that I had acted without any orders or instructions from them?”

Nevertheless, according to Clinton, Howe’s plan to sail to Philadelphia and turn his back on Burgoyne (who was in no trouble at that moment, it must be admitted) appalled every man in the army except for Lord Cornwallis and Major General James Grant. Among his papers there is a memorandum Clinton wrote to a friend at the time: “By God these people can not mean what they give out, they must intend to go up Hudson’s River & deceive us all, if they do I for one forgive.”

But Howe did mean what he said: on July 23 he put his men aboard his brother’s mighty fleet of 260 ships and set sail from Sandy Hook. Not even Washington could believe Sir William was going to desert Burgoyne, and for days the Americans were in a frenzy of uncertainty, distributing their army all over New Jersey so they could be ready to march north or south, depending on where Howe appeared. A week later, the Howes paused off the mouth of the Delaware. There, having been told that the Americans had blocked and fortified the river, they decided to bear away for the Chesapeake. Contrary winds and currents delayed them: not until August 14 did they enter the bay, and it took eleven days to reach Head of Elk, fifteen miles from New Castle, where the army disembarked.

Men and horses had suffered terribly from heat and from the shortage of fresh water. Almost all the animals had to be destroyed. And as the British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan acidly points out, the net result of this incredible voyage was to place the British army ten miles farther from Philadelphia than it had been at Amboy, in New Jersey, the previous December.

Even so, Howe was to have one more opportunity to achieve total victory. At Brandywine Creek on September 11, Washington grimly accepted the challenge of a “general action” to save Philadelphia, but he permitted Howe to repeat the tactics by which he had won the Battle of Long Island. While the Hessians under Knyphausen made a mock frontal assault at Chad’s Ford, Howe and Cornwallis swept around the American flank and appeared in the rear of John Sullivan’s brigade. These men, the bulk of the American right wing, were strung out along a two-mile line running through dense woods. Sullivan had to draw them in and shift them at a right angle to their first position to confront Howe. It was a dubious maneuver with untrained troops; if Howe had attacked as soon as he reached Sullivan’s rear, Sullivan and perhaps the rest of the American army would have retreated. But the British had been on the march since early morning, and it was half past two. Howe ordered a halt for lunch. Such consideration was typical of Howe, and it was why his men loved him so much.

When the British attacked at three thirty, Sullivan’s men were the first to break. But the center fought well, yielding ground stubbornly, and when Knyphausen attacked across the Ford, he met equally fierce resistance from Anthony Wayne. Still, by nightfall the terrific pressure exerted by the British had reduced the American army to almost total disorganization. Except for a few regiments under Greene, Christopher Ward tells us, “thousands of beaten men, already dispersed before the final retreat and now uncontrolled by any sort of military discipline, thronged the road in utter confusion.” But Howe ordered no pursuit. His men were weary, and he let them spend the next day resting on the field. And on September 26 he reached his major objective, when Cornwallis entered the rebel capital with a force of British and Hessians.

Meanwhile, Burgoyne was meeting disaster in the wilderness. Surrounded by a militia army three times the size of his own, he surrendered at Saratoga on October 17. But even before Howe heard confirmation of this doleful news—in fact, on October 22, less than a month after he marched into Philadelphia—Sir William sent in his resignation. His actual words are again interesting: “From the little attention given to my recommendations since the commencement of my command, I am led to hope that I may be relieved from this very painful service, wherein I have not the good fortune to enjoy the necessary confidence and support of my superiors …”

As we have seen, there is considerable evidence that the service was “painful” to Sir William Howe from the day he arrived in America. His policy of peace by reconciliation had proved to be a will-o’-the-wisp. He was about to be crushed between Washington’s stubborn belligerence and the growing impatience of the “hard line” ministers in the Royal government. When he went home to confront his enemies in the ministry, he stoutly defended his original goal. “For, Sir, although some persons condemn me for having endeavoured to conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects … instead of irritating them by a contrary mode of proceeding, yet am I, from many reasons, satisfied in my own mind that I acted in that particular for the benefit of the King’s service. Ministers themselves, I am persuaded, did at one time entertain a similar doctrine …”

Not a minister rose to deny this statement. In fact it was the government, using its paid-up majority in Parliament, who hastily extinguished the Howe inquiry before it could reach any conclusion. Moreover, the government treated Howe with the greatest deference, handing him one well-paying sinecure after another until he died in 1814.

It seems clear that Sir William Howe was anything but a blunderer or a fool. Nor, though he enjoyed his bottle, his cards and the lady Loring, did he ever let them seriously interfere with what he set out to do in America. The mistake (perhaps, from a personal point of view, the tragedy) of Sir William Howe originated in the judgment of the King’s vacillating ministers, who gave him the job in the first place. The great Swiss military writer Jomini sums it up as a violation of the art of war. “To commit the execution of a purpose to one who disapproves of the plan of it, is to employ but one third of the man; his heart and his head are against you; you have command only of his hands.”

The King’s Cousins

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