- Historic Sites
The Enigma Of General Howe
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?
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
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.