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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
Moreover, the rout on Long Island had shattered American morale. “The country is struck with panic,” Nathanael Greene wrote to Washington, who himself reported to Congress that the defeat had “dispirited too great a proportion of our troops and filled their minds with apprehension and dispair. The militia are dismayed, intractable and impatient. … Great numbers of them have gone off; in some instances, almost by whole regiments.” If Howe had struck hard and swiftly, it is difficult to believe that the American army could have survived.
Instead, the Howes spent the next two weeks as peace commissioners. Six weeks before, Lord Howe had sent a letter to Washington himself proposing a parley as a “means of preventing the further effusion of Blood” and arranging “Peace and lasting union between Great Britain and America.” Foolishly, he had addressed it to “George Washington Esqr,” thus ignoring the belligerent status of the Americans which the use of Washington’s military title would have implied. They were, the address inferred, merely traitorous subjects of the Crown who upon capture might be hanged. After a conference with his officers, Washington refused to accept the letter. Now the Howes tried again. Captured General John Sullivan was sent to Philadelphia with flowery words about an accommodation, and Congress grudgingly decided to send Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to see what the Howes had to say. It soon became apparent that the only power they had was to grant pardons, and the Americans refused to admit that they had done anything to warrant pardons. The conference quickly foundered.
The fruitless peace talks gave the Americans time to hail Washington’s retreat from Long Island as proof of his military genius, and generally stiffen their backs for the defense of Manhattan. Although Washington drew a large portion of his army back to the northern end of the island, lest Howe attempt the obvious maneuver of a landing above his lines, the American general left over 5,000 men under Israel Putnam at the lower end, and even his more withdrawn brigades would have been helpless against a sudden move by water, under cover of darkness. Washington had never before commanded more than a regiment in battle—Boston had been only a siege—and his conduct reveals the indecisive thinking of the learner.
But Howe did not land above the lines. On September 15, he sent his men ashore at Kip’s Bay, where today Thirty-fourth Street meets the East River. Troyer Steele Anderson, perhaps the best of the Howe historians, argues that not even the two weeks of peace maneuvers were really a delay, because Howe had to wait that long anyway for tides which permitted him to move his small assault boats up the Brooklyn shore by night. But this does not explain his failure to land above Manhattan and trap Washington, as the exasperated Henry Clinton begged him to do.
The Kip’s Bay landing was another rout for the Americans. The raw militia fled at the first barrage from the covering warships, and the regulars surged ashore without losing a man. A determined thrust across Manhattan might have trapped Putnam and his 5,000 defenders, most of them still at the tip of the island, but once more Howe was satisfied with the first chase, and let the real game get away. Harassed by their commander and his aides, one of whom was a twenty-year-old major named Aaron Burr, Putnam’s men quick-marched up the western edge of Manhattan and rejoined the main body on Harlem Heights. The same caution Howe had displayed at Long Island is an equally valid explanation, of course. He was conducting an amphibious landing, and his first thought was to consolidate his beachhead. Throughout his narrative before the House of Commons, Howe repeatedly emphasized caution as his first principle. He had, he said, labored constantly to hold down casualties and avoid a “check” which would give the rebels a chance to declare a victory.
A general who makes caution his byword can always point to disasters which might have happened if rash risks and undue haste had been his army’s policy. But more than one person has been puzzled by this sudden, passionate fondness for caution on Howe’s part, when all of his previous military career had exhibited a love of the long chance and the hair-raising gamble.
For a full month after his seizure of New York, Howe allowed Washington to sit on Harlem Heights practically unmolested, while the British troops were set to digging defensive fortifications. Looking back at it now, the situation seems almost comic. A great army of well-trained professionals, superbly equipped and supported by an unopposed fleet, has just routed its untrained enemy twice. Then what does the victorious general do? Go on the defensive! True, the skirmish called “the Battle of Harlem Heights” showed the Americans had some sting left. But that was little more than a brush between advance guards. Every evidence pointed to the inability of Washington to stand firm had Howe struck a massive blow.
Howe solemnly told the House of Commons it would have cost him 1,000 to 1,500 men to storm Harlem Heights, in his opinion an excessive price. But he had a more difficult time explaining why he wasted a month of the best campaigning weather sitting on lower Manhattan staring up at Washington. He said he was short of horses; furthermore, none of the inhabitants of America was able to give him a “military description” of the terrain across which he would have to advance if he landed north of the American army.