Sir William Howe
A Revisionist History Of His Conduct In America
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."
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
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.
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.
General William Howe's approach to New York in 1776, a Loyalist
he comes, the Hero comes:
sound your trumpets, beat your drums.
port to port let cannon roar
welcome to this western shore.
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
Sir William Howe
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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.
CONTINUE TO NEXT PAGE...
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Ira D. Gruber, The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution,
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Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 45.
Alden, A History, 223.
Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 51.
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George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats,
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Wheeler, Voices, 138.
Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 128, Palmer, The Way,
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Gruber, The Howe Brothers, 357.
Anderson, The Command, 21.
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