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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
The Howes were Whigs, members of an opposition to George III’s harsh colonial policy that included Edmund Burke and the violent Charles James Fox, who declared that if he had lived in America, he would have been among the first to take up arms against the Tory-dominated Parliament. William Howe held the family seat in the House of Commons, and in order to placate the pro-American merchants of Nottingham in the election of 1774, he had declared that he would never accept a commission to serve against America. More than a few of his constituents took a dim view of the way he forgot this campaign promise when George III proffered the job, and they let the General know it. On February 21, 1775, shortly before he sailed for America, Howe gave them a most significant answer.
My going thither was not of my seeking, I was ordered, and could not refuse without incurring the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress. So contrary are men’s opinions here [in London] to some with you, that instead of the grossest abuse, I have been most highly complimented upon the occasion by those who are even averse to the measures of the administration. Every man’s private feelings ought to give way to the service of the public at all times: but particularly when of that delicate nature in which our affairs stand at present … One word for America: you are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country. I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people … With respect to the few, who, I am told, desire to separate themselves from the Mother Country, I trust, when they find they are not supported in their frantic ideas by the more moderate, which f have described, they will, from fear of punishment, subside to the laws …
Almost every line of this letter is important. Howe speaks of “private feelings” which he frankly admits he is suppressing for the sake of public policy. Above all he bases his case on the supposition that he is going to the colonies not to oppress a free people, but to rescue the majority from the tyranny of a few demagogues. He also makes a special point of letting his constituents know that those “averse to the measures of the administration”—by which he meant men like Fox and Burke—have complimented him. Why would Fox —and especially Burke, who was about to make his great plea to the unheeding Parliament for the conciliation of the American colonies—compliment Howe, unless they thought he was going to heal wounds, rather than to make fresh ones?
But when Howe arrived in America on May 25, 1775, the time for conciliation was all but over. British and American blood had been spilled at Lexington and Concord, and the British army was penned inside Boston by an aroused host of New Englanders. On June 16, 1775, they seized a height known as Breed’s Hill, opposite Boston, and the next day General Thomas Gage sent Howe and a picked army of regulars across the harbor to drive the motley collection of patriots off their offensive perch. The Battle of Bunker Hill was Howe’s first fight with “the loyal and peaceable subjects” in America. Before his unbelieving eyes, he saw England’s best regiments decimated by the entrenched Americans, and only the most frantic efforts on the part of the General and his officers drove the battered redcoats up the hill one last time, to oust the rebels—out of ammunition now—from their fort. Always famed for his daredevil courage, Howe exposed himself fearlessly throughout the furious fight, but he wrote home to his brother that in the midst of the carnage, “There was a moment I never felt before.”
What was that moment? Was it the simple possibility of defeat? Howe had experienced that before. At the now-forgotten battle of St. Foy, the year after Wolfe’s victory at Quebec, Howe’s regiment had lost almost fifty per cent of its men, and the British had had to retreat helter-skelter behind Quebec’s walls, where only the arrival of reinforcements rescued them. The moment of Bunker Hill may well have involved something more complex: the horror of seeing men of the same blood slaughtering each other, the realization that he—and the British government—were wildly wrong when they “safely asserted” that “the insurgents are very few.” Finally, was there the born gambler’s flash of insight that this American war was “wrong” in the most profound sense of the word, and that in it British generals were never to enjoy that “luck” which most professional soldiers, and especially the daredevils, believe is as important in war as strategic genius? The questions are worth considering.
Not long after Bunker Hill, George III appointed Howe Commander in Chief of the British army in North America as successor to Thomas Gage, who had a reputation for losing battles and for being too “soft” on the rebels. Months of stalemate followed. Howe declared it was, impossible to act offensively from Boston with his small army—he had less than 10,000 men —and the government agreed. But the Navy, disastrously neglected during a decade of peace, could not immediately muster enough ships to evacuate Howe’s troops from Boston. Meanwhile, in spite of repeated demands from the Whig opposition, the King’s ministers did nothing to reverse the drift toward all-out war. Finally, early in 1776, they found a compromise which they hoped would satisfy both the truculent King and his supporters as well as the opposition. They decided to appoint Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe naval commander in North America, with the dual title of “peace commissioner.”