A Revisionist History Of His Conduct In America
By Brian T. Egan
The American Revolution was one of the most difficult times in the history of the British Empire. Historians have dubbed it the penultimate crisis to face the Empire, and have characterized the Revolution as “England’s Vietnam.”
Sir William Howe, in his position as Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in America, was charged with combating a widespread rebellion and promoting conciliation between the mother country and its colonies. As the war escalated to a point that England never imagined possible, the ministry in London changed policy from conciliation to forceful coercion.
Historians have branded Howe, and forever condemned him to remembrance, as a lazy, unimaginative, and wasteful commander. He was harshly criticized for allowing the rebel army to survive as long as it did and for allowing the war to escalate into a Declaration of Independence. Most of this criticism came from embittered Loyalists, who had lost homes and wealth due to the fortunes of war, and from the British government itself, which did not want to be blamed for losing a war and ultimately the thirteen colonies.
This paper will refute the criticism of Sir William Howe that unfortunately has become accepted history, and show that he was indeed a competent military commander. The paper will reveal justifications for Howe’s military maneuvers, both from his own writings, and from those of colleagues in the field.
Upon General William Howe’s approach to New York in 1776, a Loyalist poet penned these lines:
He comes, he comes, the Hero comes:
Sound, sound your trumpets, beat your drums.
From port to port let cannon roar
Howe’s welcome to this western shore.
But less than a year later, another Loyalist wrote that Howe must be a “lubber” or a “great chucclehead” for “a Negro-driver should, with a ragged banditti of undisciplined people, the scum and refuse of the earth”, hold the British Army at bay. The paper will assess whether Sir William Howe deserves the criticism of his contemporaries and historians, and will ascertain the reasons for the radical change in public sentiment towards Howe — sentiment that eventually turned opinion into history.
William Howe was born in 1729 to the upper echelons of English society, which centered around the throne in London and radiated throughout the Empire. The Howe family, well connected to the royal family, wielded enormous power in the social circles of the ruling elite in London. Howe’s mother was connected to the ruling House of Hanover through three generations of monarchs. She was thought to be the illegitimate daughter of George I and was a companion to one of George II’s mistresses. As young William came of age and took his own place in society, she served as a member of George III’s household. William was raised as all elite English gentleman of his era were, to be schooled at Eton, and upon graduation to enter the clergy, politics or the military. The males of the Howe family chose the military as their calling, and William entered the army at age seventeen. He was rapidly commissioned to higher office and shortly thereafter would serve in a war that would dramatically alter his view of England’s American colonies forever.
His two older brothers were already stationed in America when William joined them in defense of the American colonies from the French and their Indian allies during the Seven Years War. His eldest brother, George Augustus Howe, was serving in the army, with a combined force of British regulars and American provincials, in upper New York. The other brother, Richard, was serving in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, sailing with King George III’s brother. William served under James Wolfe at the Battle of Louisbourg in 1758. Later he fearlessly commanded the light infantry advance guard that scaled the Plains of Abraham in 1759, opening the opportunity for the capture of Quebec, the death knell for the French in North America. Wolfe called Howe a “modest, diligent and valiant” officer, stating there was “not a better soldier” in the English army during the Louisbourg campaign. Following the war, Wolfe bequeathed 1,000 pounds to him as a salutation.
But the Seven Years War was not without a price for the Howe family. George Augustus was killed at the Battle of Ticonderoga in 1758. William had idolized his older brother, and did not eat for two days after learning of his death. George Augustus was well beloved by the colonists also and as a testimony to his memory the General Court of Massachusetts Bay voted 250 pounds for an obelisk to him in Westminster Abbey. In July of 1762 Richard Howe wrote to the General Court saying he was supervising the erection of the monument and that he had even thought of giving a monument to Massachusetts to express, “…his Gratitude and Respect for that Public and Patriot Voice.” The death of George Augustus and the respect paid to him by the colonists had a tremendous impact on the Howe brothers, both politically in England and later as they commanded England’s war against that “Patriot Voice.”
William joined his brother Richard in Parliament, by assuming his deceased brother’s seat for Nottingham in 1758, which he held until 1780. William never voted consistently with any one coalition or belief, and only firmly followed his brothers lead in political voting. Howe shared his brother’s attitude toward the Anglo-American dispute, especially his affection for Massachusetts, and his confidence that negotiations could preserve the Empire. Richard voted against the ministry of George Grenville by refusing to vote for punishing pro-colonist advocate John Wilkes for verbally attacking the King in Parliament. Later he again broke with Grenville in the minister’s attempt to exact revenue from America through a Stamp Tax. During William’s reelection for the Nottingham seat in 1774, he condemned the ministry’s American policy as “unnecessarily harsh” and promised to vote for the repeal of the Massachusetts Acts. He also publicly doubted that the whole “British Army could enforce” the ministry’s policies. It is these beliefs and attitudes towards America that for the context of Howe’s military conduct during the Revolution. It is also worthy to note, that simultaneous to Howe’s public pro-American statements, the ministry debated about widening the war in the colonies and considered appointing a more ambitious Commander in Chief for His Majesty’s forces in America.
Frustration with the situation in the colonies was growing in London with every dispatch from America. A rag-tag group of provincials had delivered a shocking blow to the army on the retreat from Lexington and Concord and now had England’s finest troops surrounded and virtually prisoners in Boston. The ministry felt they needed someone more ambitious in the office of Commander in Chief than the incumbent, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage.
Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Colonies, believed that Howe’s “…name as well as abilities would be instrumental to restore discipline and confidence…” at Boston. They felt Howe’s experience with “irregular warfare”, from his service with the light infantry during the Seven Years War, would be well suited to the type of war that needed to be fought in America. But critics were quick to point out that he would be fighting against the very people who had erected a monument to his brother. Moreover, he promised during his election of 1774 that he would not command against the colonists. Conversely, by January of 1775, he had a change of heart for he privately let Lord North, the Prime Minister, and his advisor Lord Dartmouth know that he would be willing to go to Boston as second in command. This change in heart probably came from Howe’s professionalism as a soldier, feeling it to be his duty to serve his Monarch. It is also logical to assume that Howe knew that Gage was unpopular, and that if Howe accepted his position in Boston, there was a good chance that he would be elevated to Commander-in-Chief. That command would then give him prodigious control over the conduct of the war and in shaping British policy. This power would be decisive later in the war, as his pro-American beliefs would be critical in defining his conduct of the British Army in the colonies.
It is with this background of great affinity towards the American people that Howe set sail from London to assume his new position in Boston as second in command. His Whiggish attitudes governed the way Howe conducted the war and even determined the strategies he used in individual battlefield maneuvers. His carefully executed maneuvers were a product of Howe’s desire to lessen the amount of blood spilt on both sides.
Major General William Howe arrived in America to find the British Army trapped in Boston and surrounded by a hostile people in a rebellious country. A few months after Howe arrived, the rebels began to fortify a hill on Charlestown peninsula in Boston Harbor, known as Breeds Hill. The colonists were observed scurrying up and down the hill constructing an entrenchment of some sort on the crest of Breeds Hill. The British were in no direct danger from the earthworks, but British honor could not let the rebels so flagrantly thumb their nose at the greatest army in the world. Accordingly, the British high command decided an action was needed to counteract the colonials efforts.
Gage convened a meeting with Howe and Generals John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. Burgoyne and Clinton were dispatched to Boston with Howe and accompanied him on his voyage across the Atlantic. All believed the fortifications to be minimal and agreed with Clinton’s observation, “…that the hill was open and easy of ascent and in short that it would be easily carried.” They agreed that a frontal assault would be the best way to carry the hill. Howe, as senior Major-General under Gage, would command the expedition.
On June 17, the landing by the army on Charleston Neck went flawlessly and Howe had little doubt that his force would be successful. As they formed in lines to begin their ascent up the hill, Howe addressed the troops saying that he was honored to command them and he did not want one of them, “to go a step further than where I go myself at your head”. He kept his promise to them, for in the grand tradition, he fought conspicuously in the front ranks the entire battle.
The Americans held their fire as they watched as the British slowly marched up the hill in parallel columns to the redoubt. The British officers wondered when the Americans were going to start firing, and as they drew closer speculated if one solid bayonet charge might drive them from their earthwork. Then a murderous musket fire erupted from the Americans trench. The British lines wilted and viciously recoiled under the barrage. Hundreds of men were wounded in that opening barrage alone. Howe later wrote to the Adjutant General that, “there was a moment I had never felt before.” The British broke to the base of the hill, where officers, including Howe, rallied them back into their ranks to face the musket fire again. The British again marched up the hill and were repulsed. Again and again they tried to dislodge the Americans. A lieutenant in the 5th Regiment, who was in the front ranks of the engagement, wrote that, “the oldest officers say they never saw a sharper action.” Lieutenant General Burgoyne, observing the battle from a rooftop in Boston, wrote that, “Howe’s disposition was exceedingly soldier-like, in my opinion it was perfect.”
Eventually the American, with their ammunition exhausted, abandoned their earthworks and fled the British bayonets. The victory cost the British dearly: of about 2,400 men engaged, 1,054 men were shot, including 92 officers. Of that total 226 were killed. A testimony to Howe’s bravery, as well as his luck, was that in keeping his promise to fight in the front ranks, he was accompanied by his staff officers, and all twelve of them were wounded by enemy fire. After the battle Howe wrote: “I freely confess to you, when I look at the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave officers, I do it with horror.”
The specter of the Battle of Bunker Hill (as it was later inaccurately named) would haunt Howe in every battle he would fight. For the rest of the war, Howe avoided a direct frontal attack on any American position, preferring to use flanking maneuvers instead. Despite his critics charges, fear and lethargy were not elements in why Howe did not again frontally assault American positions. The flanking maneuvers come from Howe’s understandable reluctance to again endure such massive casualties. In addition, Howe was well aware that, “His troops, highly trained and at the end of a pipeline stretching all the way across the Atlantic could not be replaced quickly, if at all.” This battle also reinforced his respect for the colonists that Howe’s superiors in London lacked. Ignorance of the American character permeated London, and is typified by Nicholas Cresswell, who wrote that he was baffled that a mere “tobacco planter” and his “ragged crew” could hold the mighty British army at bay. This ignorance of the true state of affairs in America contributed to the demise of Howe’s reputation in London, as his influential critics could not believe that a group of farmers could strike such a blow to the finest army in the world.
Another criticism that was leveled against Howe was that he did not chase the rebels after the battle, thereby following up his success completely by crushing the rebels by a close pursuit. The blunt fact is the rebels actually retreated faster than the British could keep up. The “… British Army of the eighteenth century was [very susceptible] to loss and confusion unless kept well in hand.” A pursuit would have completely exposed the flanks of half-destroyed and exhausted regiments. Five days after the battle of Breed’s Hill, General Howe wrote a dispatch to London about the engagement. He must have anticipated this criticism, for he wrote, “The soldiers were so much harassed, and there were so many officers lost, that the pursuit was not followed with all the vigor that might be expected.” The rebels could just break up and run, but for the British to break ranks in contradiction to their strict training would have ended in complete chaos. The European criterion of good tactical management was the maintenance of order and alignment, and Howe could not have been expected to perform any less.
Following Bunker Hill, General Gage submitted his resignation and Howe was appointed Commander-in-Chief. One of his initial decisions was to mobilize the army to evacuate Boston. Much of the criticism of Howe rose out of his decision to abandon Boston to the rebels. To many observers, on both sides of the Atlantic, the evacuation had serious symbolic effects. First, the greatest army in the world was indeed abdicating the city after a battle with the colonials. Second, the evacuation gave the impression that the rebels had completely routed the British army. But both of these are only facilely true and need further analysis if blame is to be fairly placed on General Howe.
The rebels did not achieve a victory by forcing the British out, the British left it because it was no longer a strategically viable ñ or valuable ñ place to occupy. The natural terrain of the country, the entrenched positions of the rebels, the rebel’s ability to get supplies, and the large number of rebels in the surrounding area all combined to make Boston a poor place from which to launch a campaign in the spring. One of Howe’s staff officers, General Lord Percy, also believed Boston to be a poor base of operations, because it is “…so penetrated by hills, woods, ravines, as to make it the most favorable spot in the world for the irregular and undisciplined troops of the rebels.”
Additionally, Howe was actually instructed by his superiors in London, specifically Lord Dartmouth, to evacuate and transport his army to New York or “some place southward.” Howe properly perceived his army to be the nucleus for an enlarged force for the following year’s campaign, which would thereby outgrow the usefulness of Boston as a base of operations. The evacuation was well-executed and, contrary to his critics, he did not leave large stores of equipment. When evacuating Boston, Howe showed his humanity and sensitivity by not destroying the city. As was common in military evacuations, Howe could easily have taken his wrath out on the city by having it put to the torch, but he left it intact. Additionally, by evacuating Boston, it was an acknowledgment that by the time he assumed command of the army, the rebellion had become widespread and required more than trying simply to restore royal order to Boston and its environs. Howe realized that at least another, and larger, military campaign would be required to crush the rebellion.
General Howe evacuated Boston in early 1776 and sailed for Nova Scotia. There he awaited the return of spring, and with it, the proper weather for campaigning. But more importantly, he waited for the arrival of sizable reinforcements from England. Among them would be newly contracted mercenaries from a variety of German princes, the largest number coming from the principality of Hesse, hence the nickname “Hessians”. Howe sailed for New York and landed unopposed on Staten Island in the early part of the summer where he awaited the arrival of the additional troops. New York was chosen as the base of operations for 1776 by a consensus between London and Howe on the quality of its harbor for the Royal Navy and New York’s access to the American interior via the Hudsons River.
The Americans, correctly assuming that New York was Howe’s main objective, began to build fortifications on Long Island and in Manhattan. This was a strategically naive move by General Washington, because the East River split his force in two, making either one extremely vulnerable. But the Americans had a headstart on the British and began constructing earthworks anticipating the inevitable invasion.
General Howe did not immediately attack the American positions in New York, permitting the Americans more time to strengthen their fortifications. Howe has been criticized for waiting so long to attack the American positions. Among his harsher critics was New York Loyalist Thomas Jones, who chastised the General for “…lying indolent upon Staten Island for near two months…”  Despite such criticism, Howe had good reasons not to attack immediately. One reason is that Howe needed time for his troops to adjust to the excessive American heat of August. His troops were used to the weather of Northern Europe and they needed to become acclimated. Additionally, his German troops had recently arrived from Germany and needed time to recover from their long sea voyage. The British were also building flat-bottomed boats with a gangplank so that the troops and guns could disembark in one smooth motion, regardless of the resistance they met on the beach. Such tactical grounds refute Howe’s critics’ assertions that he was wastefully idle before the Battle of Long Island. Howe was preparing for every conceivable obstacle and no doubt wanted his troops in top shape so that his crucial landing went smoothly. He was not landing a mere detachment of regiments, but the largest expeditionary force Great Britain had ever assembled in history. It included 27 regiments of the British line and 8,000 German troops, for a total of 32,000 trained professional soldiers.
The landing began on August 27, and the British met minimal resistance. Howe’s battle plans went flawlessly and resulted in a decisive action for the British. He turned the Americans flank, exploiting the weakness of their unanchored eastern side. The result was a complete victory. The rebels who managed to escape the bayonets of the British did so only because they retreated straightaway. The rest suffered extremely heavy losses because of the swiftness of the British flanking maneuver, resulting in mass confusion among the rebels. It was a remarkable victory that was personally led by General Howe. As the British advanced, they came upon the Americans’ works at Brooklyn Heights. The entrenchments were impossible to outflank and were stronger than anticipated. Preferring to avoid a frontal assault, Howe began siege works up to the American lines. The memory of the carnage of the frontal assault at Bunker Hill churned in Howe’s memory as he justified his slow siegeworks approach: “…the lines must have been ours at a very cheap rate by regular [siege] approaches, [and] I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault.” Howe, astutely realized that wars were not simply won on the battlefield, also wanted to give the colonists the image of British invincibility. Therefore he refused to engage his troops in a battle unless it was on his terms, and there was strong prospect of victory. England must not be defeated and could not afford a loss to boost patriot morale.
One of Howe’s subordinates, insisting that his General should have directly attacked the American fortifications, wrote that, “Had our Troops followed them close up, they must have thrown down their arms and surrendered.” Despite such criticism, Howe, Captain Montressor (the army’s Chief Engineer), and General Clinton all concurred that the American lines were too strong for a successful frontal assault. Additionally he did not want to risk his troops needlessly. He indicated this when he wrote to Lord Germain after the battle, “…the most essential duty I had to observe was not wantonly to commit His Majesty’s troops, where the object was inadequate. I well knew that any considerable loss sustained by the army could not speedily, nor easily, be repaired.” Prudence and strategy caused Howe’s caution, not lack of imagination or spirit, as his later critics have charged.
After the battle, Washington, under the cover of a moonless night and aided by a miraculously thick fog, evacuated the works on Long Island by rowboats with muffled oars. The next morning the British woke up to find the works abandoned and not a trace of the rebels left. The evacuation was a military miracle, which Washington accomplished through a combination of daring, foul weather, and luck. There was nothing Howe could have done to prevent this event from occurring despite having an advanced guard inside the Americans works minutes after they were evacuated. Admiral Lord Richard Howe, commanding the Navy could not get his ships into the East River to block the escape because of the weather. Howe had decisively won the Battle of Long Island, but the rebels avoided certain annihilation by escaping to Manhattan. And decisive it was, for the British casualties were 392 killed, wounded and taken prisoner. While Howe estimated 3,000 casualties for the rebels, Washington’s returns show 1,012.
Popular sentiment in England was depressed after the evacuation of Boston, and news of the success on Long Island was greeted by parties and the pealing of church bells across the land. King George made Howe a Knight of the Order of the Bath for his victory. One of Howe’s subordinate generals, Lord Charles Cornwallis, called the Battle of Long Island, “a masterpiece of Military greatness”. While England was celebrating, the patriots’ spirit was crushed by the defeat. The revolutionary morale was severely damaged and recruits could not be found in any colony for the retreating Continental Army.  Despite these accolades, Howe’s critics thought that he should have followed up his victory by completely obliterating the rebel army. They believed he had let them escape when he could have ended the rebellion right there in New York by crushing the American army. A British captain on board his ship off New York sarcastically wrote,
[For] The [Americans] to deal with a generous, merciful, forbearing enemy, who would take no unfair advantages, must surely have been highly satisfactory to General Washington, and he was certainly very deficient in not expressing his gratitude to General Howe for his kind behavior towards him.
American General Israel Putnam writes that, “General Howe is either our friend or no general…Had he instantly followed up his victory, the consequence to the cause of liberty must have been dreadful.”
In actuality Howe’s reasons for not crushing the rebels were calculated and sensible. Strategically, he wanted to secure a base of operations for the winter from which he could launch a campaign in the spring. So his first priority was driving the rebels from Manhattan, in which he was wholly successful. Howe’s entire strategy rested on the premise of the safe reconquest of territory versus a single crushing victory. He theorized that as areas came under royal control again, they could be secured as loyal. The reconquest of territory was a European military tradition, in an era when learned commanders did not strive to crush an enemy. In this respect, he was a product of his time, a very capable, but unimaginative European general. “He simply did not think in terms of annihilation. Victory would come from an accumulation of minor successes, not from a single decisive stroke.”
The inevitable question from the armchair strategist is, if Washington’s army could rapidly fly away, why could not Howe equally as rapidly pursue him? The reason is that Washington was not encumbered by the proverbial, and in this case actual, baggage train. As with all European armies, the British army in America was wedded to an extensive baggage train, thereby slowing the army significantly. Conversely, Howe was fighting against an enemy adept at escape and so loosely organized, that it could be broken apart and re-formed a few days later rendering it very difficult to strike a final destructive blow.
Despite the few critics, the Battle of Long Island was such a great victory for the British that it was generally believed that Howe had dealt the rebels a fatal blow. Many of Howe’s military colleagues were so convinced of this that they thought the rebellion would not last another year. Cornwallis wrote that, “in a short time their army will disperse and the war will be over.” Lord Percy wrote to Germain, believing, “that this Business is pretty near over.” Neither his top advisors, nor the General himself thought a pursuit of a defeated and disintegrating army valuable, and Howe had victoriously achieved his strategic goal with minimal loss.
 John R. Alden, A History of the American Revolution, (London: MacDonald and Co., 1969), 304.
 Ira D. Gruber, The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972), 45-46.
 Alden, A History, 223.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 45.
 Alden, A History, 223.
 Ibid., 224.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 51.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 58.
 Troyer Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 77.
 Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952), Vol I, 84.
 Ibid., 88.
 Henry Steel Commanger and Richard B. Morris, ed., The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 132.
 George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats, (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1957), 61.
 Commanger, Spirit, 133.
 Ward, The War, Vol I, 96.
 Scheer, Rebels, 63.
 Commanger, Spirit, 132.
 Dave Richard Palmer, The Way of the Fox, American Strategy in the War for America 1775-1783, (Westport, CT: The Greenwood Press, 1975), 127.
 Alden, History, 304.
 Anderson, The Command, 22.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 20.
 Gerald Saxon Brown, The American Secretary, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1963), 48-49.
 Anderson, The Command, 108.
 Brown, The American, 51.
 Anderson, The Command, 104-105.
 Alden, History, 305.
 Anderson, The Command, 129.
 Ibid. 130.
 Ward, The War, 209.
 Anderson, The Command, 132.
 Richard Wheeler, Voices of 1776, (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1972), 138.
 Palmer, The Way, 127.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 114.
 Anderson, The Command, 136.
 Ward, The War, 236.
 Ibid., 227.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 162.
 Ward, The War, 236.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 162.
 Ibid., 152.
 Scheer, Rebels, 173.
 Wheeler, Voices, 138.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 128, Palmer, The Way, 126.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 126.
 Palmer, The Way, 126.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 357.
 Anderson, The Command, 21.
 Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 115.