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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
Lord Howe was far more reluctant than his brother to take a military command, and his negotiations with his own government are another revealing instance of the family’s thinking. The Admiral insisted that his brother be included as another peace commissioner, and he initially hoped the commission would be given broad powers of negotiation. But George Ill’s attitude toward the colonies soon left Admiral Howe with little more than the power to grant pardons, while he was ordered to assert Parliament’s right to tax, to demand payment for losses sustained by Loyalists, and to “correct and reform” colonial governments.
At one point, Howe almost resigned in disgust; the King agreed that he ought to do so, for the good of the service. But George’s prime minister, Lord North, was as anxious as the Howes to reach an accommodation with America. North finally persuaded the Admiral to accept his commission and to rely for the success of his mission upon his personal charm and wide friendship with American leaders.
There is some evidence of a considerable gap between the King’s punitive written instructions and the verbal assurances Howe received from the Ministry. When he came home in 1778, the Admiral declared in Parliament that everyone knew he and the administration had an affair to settle. But an even more compelling motive for Howe’s acceptance of the enfeebled “peace commission” was his brother’s assignment to put down the rebellion. As the leader of the family, Lord Howe had almost certainly advised William to accept his general’s commission, which he could not resign now without being called coward, even traitor.
General William Howe, meanwhile, had retreated somewhat ignominiously from Boston on March 17, his departure hurried by the appearance of Washington’s cannon on Dorchester Heights (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE). During his nine months in the city, the General’s only triumph was the acquisition of blonde and beautiful Mrs. Joshua Loring as his mistress. Much has been made of this liaison, which continued throughout Howe’s American campaigns. Judge Thomas Jones, the Loyalist historian, compared Howe to Mark Antony, declaring Sir William sacrificed an empire for the charms of his Boston Cleopatra. A mistress was hardly remarkable among eighteenth-century English aristocrats, shocking though she may have been to pious Americans, and there is not an iota of evidence that Mrs. Loring ever had the slightest influence on Howe’s policies.
The General evacuated his forces from Boston, regrouped and refitted his regiments at Halifax, and joined his brother on Staten Island in the summer of 1776. Admiral Howe brought massive reinforcements of German mercenaries and English regulars, swelling the army to 32,000 men. Washington, against his better judgment, was committed to defend New York against this host with less than 20,000 soldiers, most of them untrained.
The Battle of Long Island was Howe’s first exhibition of his talents as Commander in Chief. On August 27, 1776, attacking Americans entrenched in the commanding Brooklyn hills, Howe faked a frontal assault with half his army and after an all-night flanking march swept in upon his astonished enemies from the rear. In an hour the affair had turned into a total rout, with redcoats and Hessians hunting demoralized Americans through the woods like rabbits. Three generals, three colonels, four lieutenant colonels, three majors, eighteen captains, forty-three lieutenants, and more than one thousand enlisted men were captured.
What was left of the trapped American regiments fell back to redoubts on Brooklyn Heights. The British and Germans, flushed with triumph and scarcely damaged (total British casualties were less than 400), surged forward to smash this last barrier between themselves and total victory. Behind the ramparts, Washington and some 9,000 badly shaken Americans awaited the inevitable assault. But as the redcoats exchanged opening fusillades of musketry with the defenders, orders came from the British rear to cease and desist.
Major General John Vaughan, who was in command of a column of Grenadiers, was astonished, and sent back word that he could easily carry the redoubts, with little loss. But again the order arrived from General Howe to fall back, for “the troops had done handsomely enough.” Howe later explained that he did this because he saw that the American defenses could be had at “a cheap price” by “regular approaches.” In other words, siege techniques. This was certainly in accord with the standard eighteenth-century mode of making war. Armies were small and soldiers were precious (especially to Howe, who was 3,000 miles from any reinforcements). But Washington made this caution look foolish by shipping his entire army back to Manhattan two nights later.
The Howes were now in complete control of Staten Island, Long Island, and the waters surrounding Manhattan. The Americans did not have so much as a gunboat to oppose the immense fleet Lord Howe had brought with him. Even before the Battle of Long Island, two British warships had run the supposedly impregnable American shore batteries along the Hudson and anchored near Kingsbridge. From a military point of view, Washington was in a bag; all Howe had to do was land above Manhattan and draw the string.