A Revisionist History Of His Conduct In America
By Brian T. Egan
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Diplomatically, Howe’s pro-American sympathies prevented him from desiring to annihilate the rebels. Both Sir William and Lord Richard feared that a devastating offensive would permanently alienate the colonists and render them useless to Britain in the future. One British officer considered whether, “..the late victory would produce a revolution in sentiment [for the crown] capable of terminating the war…”. Howe’s delay was a deliberate attempt to see if the rebels would see the “writing on the wall”. He also waited to see if the Continental Congress would be willing to negotiate a peace with him and his brother, who were appointed by the crown to act as peace commissioners. Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to meet with the Howes, but the meeting came to no accord. Howe and his generals anticipated the winter weather to begin and with it the appropriate weather for campaigning to end, and began to settle down in New York.
But the Fall of 1776, Howe found to be “the finest weather for the season ever known” and changed his plans to pursue Washington through New Jersey. The rebel army scurried South under Howe’s pursuit through New Jersey. Howe wrote Germain that he may be able to finish this extended campaign by attacking Philadelphia, but found the task impossible and returned to New York on December 15 to settle into winter quarters. In keeping with his strategy of re-conquest of territory, Howe established a string of encampments across New Jersey, stretching from New York to a garrison at Trenton. He had information that a large number of colonists were willing to declare loyalty in New Jersey. Cornwallis agreed, believing the encampments would be in no danger over the winter. Writing to Germain, Howe conceded that “The chain [of posts] I own, is rather too extensive…[But trusting] to the strength of the corps placed in the advanced posts, I conclude the troops will be in perfect security.î He should not have expected anything else. He had seasoned troops in each outpost, and all of them were garrisoned in a presumably loyal countryside. No other European general would have done any different, because of the fundamental eighteenth century military rule that armies simply did not fight in the winter. But military history had not experienced an opponent like George Washington.
On December 25 Washington and his army swept across the Delaware River and attacked the Hessian garrison at Trenton. They caught the drunken Christmas revelers completely by surprise and forced the whole garrison to surrender. The defeat at Trenton was a case of British underestimation and German irresponsibility. Howe was flabbergasted by the news of Trenton, “That three old, established regiments of a people, who made war a profession, should lay down their arms to a ragged and undisciplined militia.” Howe, as supreme commander was blamed for the defeat, but the Hessian commander faulted Colonel Rhall, the garrison commandant at Trenton: “If Colonel Rhall had executed the orders he had delivered to him by Sir William Howe, which were to erect redoubts at the post of Trenton…it would have been impossible to have forced Colonel Rhall’s brigade…” Both Howe and Rhall were trained in the European fashion and did not anticipate winter warfare. But the difference between the two was that Howe did not underestimate Washington as much as his Hessian colleague did, evidenced by Howe’s instructions for barricades to be erected as a precautionary measure. If Rhall had followed Howe’s orders, his defeat may not have come so easily.
Howe believed the rebels would, “…no doubt be much elated by their Success…” at Trenton, and he was right. Rebel spirit was given a much needed boost following a disastrous year for their cause. The myth of British invincibility and the awe of their power that Howe was successful at keeping up for so long had been tarnished. In the opening days of 1777, Howe reported back to London, “I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war but by a general action…”. He had to abandon his conservative policy of conciliation and move towards coercion.
Overall 1776 was a year of great success for Sir William Howe. He victoriously ended the New York campaign, occupied the largest port in the colonies, pushed the rebel army to the brink of collapse, conquered more territory for the crown and did it all with a minimal number of casualties. But Trenton, which he really could not be blamed for, forced him into another year of campaigning, and breathed new life into an almost dead rebel army.
One of the obstacles hindering Howe in effectively conducting the war was in the person of Lord George Germain. Germain was a bizarre personality of history and an understanding of Germain and his background is necessary to understand some of the problems Howe faced both in England and America. Germain was second in command to the Duke of Marlborough for Britain’s troops on the continent of Europe during the Seven Years War. At the Battle of Minden (August 1759), Germain commanded the combined German and British calvary. His unit was ordered forward, but Germain hesitated, causing the opportunity for a decisive blow to the enemy to slip away. Upon his return to England, King George II informed Germain that his services as Lieutenant General of the Dragoon Guards were no longer needed and summarily dismissed him from service. Germain immediately requested a court martial to vindicate himself. He was granted one and subsequently found guilty of disobedience. The King was so angry that Germanin would, first, embarrass his country on the battlefield and, second, embarrass his King by challenging his dismissal, that he forbade Germain at Court and struck him from the Council Book. The King went further by having the verdict declaring him “unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatever” read to every regiment in all army orders, with the addition that it was “worse than death.” His reputation was rehabilitated by George III, who appointed him Secretary of State for the American colonies in 1775. Germain stumbled through his new position of coordinating the American war effort and each blunder had a direct impact on Howe and his strategy. As Secretary for America he was completely ignorant of American geography and the character of the colonists. One of his worst faults as far as English military efforts in America were concerned, was his propensity to tie down his field commanders by issuing minute directions. Exacerbating this proclivity, he repeatedly issued exact orders, but failed to provide adequate reinforcements to carry them out. Germain also utterly failed to act as an efficient communication junction between field commanders by not coordinating multiple battle plans. He often bypassed theater commanders and wrote directly to their subordinate officers, issuing confusing or contradicting orders. Underscoring all of this was the fact that brave and honorable men in the field found it difficult to serve under him because of his disobedience charge.
As to his relations to the commanders in America, he was at odds with Sir Guy Carleton, the Canadian commander, had not spoken to Sir William in seventeen years and had little use for Gage. This incompetence led to much consternation for Howe, who was fighting a continental war with little help, coordination, or guidance from London. Germain was a typical maladroit, who contributed his fair share to the disaster, but was never remiss in criticizing others for their failures. Thus, a good amount of the criticism of Howe that surfaced during and after the war was orchestrated by Germain to cover his own blunderous performance. This unwarranted criticism of Howe by Germain reached a crescendo during the Parliamentary Inquiry after the war, and inevitably contributed to the historical memory of Howe for posterity.
The highlight of 1777 for the rebels was the capture of General Burgoyne and his army at Saratoga. It was also the low point in the war for the British and blame was being placed the moment Burgoyne handed over his sword. Sir William Howe has taken too much blame for the situation both in his own time and by later historians. As Commander-in-Chief he took blame for the defeat, but the mantle of blame should really be placed on the incompetence of Germain and the stubborn vanity of “Gentleman “Johnny” Burgoyne.
Howe was in New York designing his plans for the coming season when word reached him of Burgoyne’s plan to march down the Hudson to Albany, effectively cutting off the New England colonies from the rest. Burgoyne’s plans called for his army to march to Albany to “force a junction with Sir William Howe”. But in direct contrast to Burgoyne’s plans, Howe sent a letter on January 20 to Germain, informing him that Howe’s main effort would be against the colonial capitol of Philadelphia. Howe specifically told the American Secretary that any other activity Germain would want Howe to do (i.e., cooperate with the Northern Army of Burgoyne) would be in direct proportion to whatever reinforcements he received. Howe again wrote to Germain saying that he was aware of Burgoyne’s plans, but could help him only if he was given 15,000 reinforcements. Realizing that even a request for reinforcements would take months to receive, and a full year would lapse before the troops could actually arrive in America, Howe modified his plan and wrote that he could attack Philadelphia without additional reinforcements, but then could definitely not cooperate with Burgoyne. Germain was overjoyed at not having to find reinforcements to send to America and he wrote to Howe on 3 March,
I am now commanded to acquaint you that the King entirely approves of your proposed deviation from the plan which you formerly suggested, being of the opinion that the reasons which have induced you to recommend this change in your operations are solid and decisive.
Now Sir William had official permission from London to proceed to Philadelphia and was released from assisting Burgoyne. Howe did not take into account the existence of a rebel army separate from Washington’s or the rise of the New England militia, which both combined to defeat Burgoyne. The only alteration of his plans would occur if Washington moved his full force North against Burgoyne: then Pennsylvania would be given second priority. Howe also believed that Burgoyne’s army was self-sufficient (as Burgoyne himself thought) and that a move South would aid Burgoyne’s advance by drawing Washington’s attention away from the expedition. Howe’s strategy was brilliant, for Washington was completely bewildered by Howe sailing south. He wrote, “..that till I am fully assured it is so [Howe going south], I cannot help casting my eyes continually behind me.”
Howe wrote to Burgoyne’s superior, Sir Guy Carleton, upon receipt of the King’s approval for the campaign for Philadelphia stating that:
Having little expectation that I shall be able, from the want of sufficient strength in this army, to detach a corps…to act up the Hudsons River consistent with the operations already determined upon…I fear shall have little assistance from hence to facilitate their approach, and I shall probably be in Pennsylvania when that corps is ready to advance into [New York]…it will not be in my power to communicate…
Carleton showed Burgoyne this letter before he left to begin the invasion. Burgoyne, following his capitulation at Saratoga, stated that he saw Howe’s letter to Carleton, but took it lightly because Sir William had not yet received specific instructions from Germain. In actuality, Howe had received specific instructions to continue with his plan for Philadelphia. All of Howe’s letters, which stated in plain terms that his main effort would be against Pennsylvania, were received in England while Burgoyne was there. Upon Burgoyne’s arrival in Canada, Carleton showed him another letter from Howe offering no help with his campaign. What caused Burgoyne to continue at this point can only be considered vanity or obstinance. He knew Howe was not going to assist him, but he continued anyway. This should completely release Howe from blame, but nonetheless, when Burgoyne began to flounder, he looked around for a scapegoat.
The other fool at the strategy table was Germain. He knew all along of the conflicting plans, but did nothing to coordinate the effort between the two until it was too late. Germain wrote to Howe no less than eight times between March and April and in not one letter did he refer to Sir William joining Burgoyne. He wrote, “I am sorry to find that Burgoyne’s campaign is so totally ruined…but what alarms me most is that he thinks his orders to go to Albany to force a junction with Sir William Howe are so positive that he must attempt at all events the obeying them.” The reason Burgoyne thought Howe was to help with the northern invasion was because Germain initially approved of his plan and expected the secretary could coordinate the plan with Howe. But Germain also knew that Howe had left for Philadelphia by sea, taking him out of communication.
Distance, bad roads, slow sailing ships, and weather all combined to create serious communication problems for the British leadership in America, consequently making Germain’s position in London of paramount importance if there was to be any coordinated communication between the two armies. The secretary’s ineffectiveness was magnified by the difficulty of communication between Burgoyne and Howe. Burgoyne illustrated this when he observed that one of his largest obstacles in his campaign was “…the want of communication with Sir William Howe…” which was the “…most embarrassing circumstances…” effecting his conduct of the campaign. Burgoyne wrote that, “Of the messengers I have sent, I know of two being hanged and am ignorant whether any of the rest arrived. The same fate has probably attended those dispatched by Sir William Howe…” The British had to exchange information and agree on strategy by ship across the Atlantic. The voyage usually took a month, but commonly lasted two to three months. With the high burden of time on every dispatch, orders had to be exact for field commanders to put their plans in motion. With Germain the only person who knew about both plans (the northern invasion and the proposed attack on Philadelphia) and the only person who can communicate between the two, the blame for the fiasco has to rest primarily on him.
When Germain finally did realize his mistake, it was late in August, when Howe was out to sea, and Burgoyne was marching down the Hudson. Germain changed strategies in mid-course without informing the participants and sent conflicting directives leaving the field commanders to their own judgment, which in this case deviated leading to disaster.
Once again, unfair blame and criticism fell on Howe. An officer with Burgoyne wrote that his army was sacrificed to either the “absurd opinions of a blundering ministerial power” or “the stupid inaction of a general, who, from his lethargic disposition neglected every step he might have taken to assist their operation…” The former is more appropriate than the latter. Upon learning of Burgoynes defeat, Howe fired off a letter to Germain defending his actions:
I was surprised to find [Burgoyne’s] declaration…that he was expecting a cooperating army at Albany. Since in my letter to Sir Guy Carleton, a copy transmitted to your lordship… and of which His Majesty was pleased to approve, I positively mentioned that no direct assistance could be given by the southern army. This letter I am assured was received by Sir Guy Carleton and…[read by Burgoyne] before his departure.
Howe devised a plan, which had royal approval, to attack Philadelphia. Burgoyne was appraised in exact words of Howe’s lack of assistance before he left on his expedition. Germain had more than six months of reviewing Howe’s plans and never once moved to correlate the two. He deluded Burgoyne into thinking Howe would meet him at Albany, and never once told Howe to move North to assist Burgoyne.
Howe’s reasons for attacking Philadelphia were deeply rooted in traditional European military strategy. The taking of a capital was a crushing defeat for an enemy, and usually signaled capitulation. He was a diligent student of the European strategy of war – where victory was earned by capturing cities, magazines, and strategic routes. But to the Americans, Philadelphia was a capital in name only. Upon the approach of Howe’s army, the Continental Congress just packed up and left town. Thus, the impact on American historians of Howe capturing the capital have been minimal, but to eighteenth century Europeans, it was a sizable accomplishment. In fact, Benjamin Franklin who was negotiating in Paris with the French Foreign Minister, Comte de Vergennes, reported to Congress that Vergennes was very wary of supporting a cause whose capital was occupied by enemy troops.
Howe could barely settle down in Philadelphia for the winter before intense criticism of his conduct during the Burgoyne fiasco came crashing down. Howe wrote to Germain, requesting to be relieved of “this very painful service”, a command “wherein I have not the good fortune to enjoy the necessary confidence and support of my superiors.” A storm of controversy erupted over the recall of Howe. In London, powerful friends rallied to his side. The Undersecretary for America resigned, followed by Lord Bathurst, a cabinet member. The ministry could afford to ignore a undersecretary’s resignation, but could not ignore a cabinet member’s. Lord Bathurst complained that Germain did not accept Howe’s resignation without a word of civility and publicly charged that he gave him no specific instructions about the previous campaign. Germain knew his political fortunes were rapidly diminishing. Howe was blaming his situation on Germain’s incompetence, Burgoyne was returning as a Prisoner of War and was doing the same, and, almost simultaneously, Sir Guy Carleton had submitted his own resignation. All three generals were due to return in England soon and there was going to be quite a controversy when they arrived.
Before Sir William left for England, twenty of his younger, wealthy field officers gave him an elaborate festival which they named the Mischianza. It was extravagant to excess, with huge balls, parties, jousting knights, arches of triumphs, and fireworks. His troops, especially his officers, strongly admired and revered Howe. Major John Andre, one of the organizers, wrote a friend in London that the Mischianza was, “…the most splendid entertainment, I believe, ever given by an army to their General. But what must be most grateful to Sir W. Howe is the spirit and motives from which it was given.” Both his troops and officers loved him for his heartiness and his great courage, and with them he might have done anything. After all, they were occupying the enemy’s capital, and had together fought a half-dozen pitched battles and had never been defeated under his command. It is ironic, and quite revealing, that the men whose lives depended on Howe’s leadership revered him, while distantly safe armchair strategists loathed him.
The stage was set for a confrontation when Howe arrived in England in early
1778. He demanded a Parliamentary Inquiry which convened on April 22, 1778. The House of Commons wanted to see all correspondence between General Howe and Lord Germain. Howe felt he was slighted by the ministry because they praised him in private correspondence but refused to publicly answer his critics. To make matters worse, Germain employed “scribblers”, who assailed Howe in the newspapers. Germain had long suffered censure from his Minden fiasco and went to great length to avoid the additional blame for the American disaster.
Lieutenant General Cornwallis and Major General Charles Grey both testified at the hearing, praising Howe’s conduct of the war. Both testify that he always attacked when he had the prospect of success and never failed to prosecute the war. They testified that both the American terrain and the difficulty of supply lines hindered the war effort — things beyond Howe’s control. Grey went farther, saying that the troops in America were not sufficient to achieve victory. But the Inquiry ended up being a forensic debate between the Opposition and the Government, with the entry in Parliamentary History stating, “…the Enquiry was put an end to, without coming to a single Resolution upon any part of the business.”
While Parliament may not have been able to judge Howe’s conduct during the war, history certainly has. The maxim, “the winners write history, the losers are history”, is very appropriate for the treatment Howe has unjustly received. Judge Thomas Jones, an embittered New York Loyalist who was forced to flee America following the Revolution, scathingly summed up the criticism of Howe when he wrote,
…[that he was rewarded] for evacuating Boston, for lying indolent upon Staten island for nearly two months, for suffering the whole rebel army to escape him upon Long Island…for not putting an end to rebellion in 1776, when so often in his power,[and] for making such injudicious cantonments of his troops in Jersey…
Every point that Jones makes is measured from his perspective as an embittered expatriate. His opinion is deeply prejudiced and could seem reasonable only with the benefit of distorted hindsight. Howe used his expert military talents to their fullest, while battling the combined monster of a civil war, inept ministerial leadership, a practically irreplaceable army, and an unorthodox foe in an age when war was formal and regulated.
Howe was in a military situation that placed unreasonable burdens on its commander. The British Army was an European army ill-suited for service in America. They were trained to fight the French or Germans in the open plains of Flanders, as opposed to Americans who employed unorthodox tactics at unusual times. Courageously facing these obstacles, Howe has been praised as a “…clever strategist, an able tactician; his plans were excellently conceived and well carried out…” He out maneuvered Washington repeatedly, and was never defeated in battle.
Aside from battling the colonists, he had to defend himself from critics at home and disgruntled Loyalists, who were exiled and ruined in fortune, pinning their woes on the Commander-in-Chief. William Eden, a royal peace commissioner to America, was shocked at the difference between what America really was and what the myth of it was in England. He believed, “…most heartily that our rulers instead of making a tour of Europe did not finish their education by a voyage around the coasts and river of the western side of the Atlantic.” Howe had served in America before and knew the spirit and temperament of the colonials. This was a fundamental difference between Howe and his critics in London, who could not understand why the “great chucclehead” did not unleash his great “British mastiffs” and beat a mere “tobacco planter” and his “ragged crew”.
General Howe was a genuine friend of America, and he had wrestled with the difference between royal duty and his own deeply personal beliefs. Upon his resignation, Howe was convinced he had acted mercifully, but appropriately, in the colonies, and wrote, “Although some persons condemn me for having endeavored to conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects by taking every means to prevent the destruction of the country…I [am] satisfied in my own mind that I acted…for the benefit of the King’s service.” In history, Sir William Howe remains as the general who lost England’s colonies because of his bumbling, laziness and ineptitude. Yet in fact, he remains an undefeated general who pushed the rebellion the closest to collapsing it would ever be. Howe deserves more credit than history has allowed, for he tempered his military policy with mercy, in the cause of peace and the hope of reconciliation.
Bray, Robert C., and Bushnell, Paul E., eds., Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution 1775-1783. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Commager, Henry Steele and Morris, Richard B., eds., The Spirit of ‘Seventy – Six. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Morison, S.E., ed., Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution 1764-1788. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Wheeler, Richard, ed., Voices of 1776. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1972.
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Other Works Consulted
Alden, John Richard The American Revolution 1775-1783. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.
Higginbotham, Don The War of American Independance, Military Attitudes, Policies and Practices 1763-1789. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1971.
Imquanzo, Anthony P., “William Howe”, The American Revolution 1775-1783, An Encyclopedia, Volume I. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1993.
Kurtz, Stephen G. and Hutson, James H., eds., Essays on the American Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1973.
Lutnick, Solomon The American Revolution and the British Press 1775-1783.Columbia, MS: The University of Missouri Press, 1967.
Robson, Eric The American Revolution, In it’s Political and Military Aspects 1763-1783. New York: DaCapo Press, 1972.
Scheer, George F. and Rankin, Hugh F., Rebels and Redcoats. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1957.
Scott, John Anthony Trumpet of a Prophecy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Shy, John A People Numerous and Armed – Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Smelser, Marshall The Winning of Independance. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972.
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Stephen, Sir Leslie and Lee, Sir Sidney, “Sir William Howe”, The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume X. London: Oxford University Press, 1921.
VanDoren, Carl Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938.
 Ibid., 107.
 Anderson, The Command, 135.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 126.
 Ibid., 92-93.
 Ibid., 135.
 Ibid., 148.
 Ibid., 339.
 Anderson, The Command, 206.
 Palmer, The Way, 131.
 Ward, The War, 305.
 Anderson, The Command, 208.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 155.
 Ibid., 156-7.
 Brown, The American, 6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 11-12.
 Commager, The Spirit, 119.
 Brown, The American, 177.
 Commanger, Spirit, 119.
 Ibid., 579.
 Brown, The American, 96.
 Anderson, The Command, 330.
 Brown, The American, 97.
 Ibid., 125.
 Wheeler, Voices, 205.
 Robert C. Bray and Paul E. Bushnell, eds., Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution 1775-1783, (DeKalb, Il: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978), 62.
 Brown, The American, 109.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 113.
 Commanger, Spirit, 580.
 Wheeler, Voices, 204.
 Alden, History, 258.
 Commanger, Spirit, 605.
 Ibid., 544.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 358.
 Alden, A History, 380.
 Scheer, Rebels, 320.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 275.
 Brown, The American, 140
 Commanger, Spirit, 660.
 Scheer, Rebels, 320.
 Alden, History, 301.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 342.
 Ibid., 344.
 Brown, The American, 136.
 Alden, History, 305.
 Ibid., 250.
 Ward, The War, 61-62.
 Ibid., 37.
 Alden, History, 304.
 Wheeler, Voices, 263.