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The Case Of The General’s Dog

October 2018

The Battle of Germantown, on October 4, 1777, was a confusing affair. Washington’s troops struck a surprise blow at the Philadelphia suburb, overrunning the enemy outposts at dawn before sleepy British grenadiers could figure out what was happening. In the morning mist two units of the heavy American attacking force mutually mistook identities and wasted a good deal of ammunition on each other; and General William Howe himself, riding hastily out from Philadelphia, wrongly assumed that nothing but a rebel scouting party was involved—until a few rounds of American grapeshot began to “rattle about the commander in chief’s ears,” as one of his officers put it.

Eventually the British repulsed the attack; but as the note reproduced above indicates, one of the most confused participants in the entire action was General Howe’s dog. Evidently he had followed his master to the field, and then tagged along with the Americans when they retreated. The note was written by Washington’s young aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, presumably from the General’s dictation. It is interesting to speculate on the emendations—especially the hint of Washington’s concern to use precisely the right degree of military respect in addressing Howe. Incidentally, if Howe replied—as he probably did—his answer has been lost.

Often noted by historians and biographers, the incident was recently drawn to the attention of A MERICAN H ERITAGE by Mr. Roger D. Isaacs, of Chicago, with the comment that its significance has sometimes been overlooked. It is a true story, says Mr. Isaacs, matching the legendary anecdote of the cherry tree and proving that “Washington was honest.” “The fact that Washington returned the dog to Howe,” writes Mr. Isaacs, “is an almost unbelievable act of kindness. It shows him to be a great humanitarian and gentleman and truly displays his tremendous sense of honor.”

Well, it would be nice to think so, and we appreciate Mr. Isaacs’ suggestion. However, we queried Dr. Francis Spring Ronalds, of the Advisory Board of A MERICAN H ERITAGE , an authority on the American Revolution who once edited for us (August, 1955) a newly discovered orderly book from Howe’s headquarters.

“Personally,” says Dr. Ronalds, “I cannot go along with Mr. Isaacs’ interpretation. G. W. never missed a chance to gain knowledge of the enemy, and what a splendid opportunity this was to spy on British Headquarters! The British could not refuse a flag returning the General’s dog. Beyond that, this sort of courtesy was common enough in eighteenth-century wars. When Clinton was besieging Charleston and was mewed up aboard ship, General Charles Lee, in charge of the defenses of the city, wrote (July 3, 1776), ‘I take the liberty to request you’ll accept of a small quantity of fruit and vegetables which perhaps in your situation are not easily procured.’ In return, Clinton sent Lee ‘a cask of porter, and some English cheese.’ ”

Either way, the case of General Howe’s dog is one of those small, bright sidelights on history that make it come refreshingly alive.