The Enigma Of General Howe

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This terrain was Westchester County, a region which abounded in Loyalists willing to serve Howe as guides and map makers. Even had that not been so, Howe’s excuse would still have earned ridicule. Bellamy Partridge, author of Sir Billy Howe , wrote: “Two weeks to find a short cut across from the Sound to the Hudson River! A matter of from five to eight miles! Washington would have run a survey across there in two days; and in two weeks he could have made a topographical map of the district, with altitudes and the depth of all watercourses plainly indicated, in addition to the roads and clearings and favorable locations for combat.”

Nevertheless, when Howe finally decided to move, he did so masterfully. At three A.M. on October 12 he put his soldiers aboard his brother’s ships and slipped silently up the East River and through Hell Gate in a thick fog. But once they reached Long Island Sound, this know-how abruptly vanished. They landed the troops on Throg’s Neck, a marshy point of land that was virtually an island at high water; twenty-five American riflemen concealed behind a woodpile were able to prevent their advance. Howe then went into camp, and spent six days on the Neck, while baggage and supplies were brought up from New York. Meanwhile, Washington was frantically evacuating his cumbersome column of 13,000 men from Harlem Heights over Kingsbridge, his one avenue of escape into Westehester. Shortages of wagons and horses reduced him to a crawl. The artillery had to be dragged by hand. In one of his worst military blunders, Washington left 2,800 men behind to hold Fort Washington, on the New York side of the Hudson, and another garrison at Fort Lee, on the Jersey shore opposite, both under the command of Nathanael Greene.

In a single night, Howe put all his men back aboard his ships and landed them at Pell’s Point, in presentday Pelham. He met some initial resistance from about 750 New Englanders under Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, but they soon fell back toward the main American army. Only six miles away, down a straight road which any Tory in Westchester would have been happy to show Howe on a map, the American army was still straggling across Kingsbridge in a long, exposed, disorganized line. Even the ardently pro-American historian Christopher Ward admits that if Howe had attacked “there could hardly have been any other result than a complete rout.” But Howe spent three days in New Rochelle, and then marched to Mamaroneck, where he spent another four days.

A rapid march to White Plains by Howe’s 4,000 light infantry could have seized the high ground around the village and pinned Washington and his army against the Hudson River. Instead, Howe let Washington do the seizing, and when the British arrived at White Plains they found the Americans blocking their path. Howe was forced to fight, after he had seemingly done everything he could to maneuver Washington out of New York without a battle.

At White Plains the armies were almost equal in size, and Washington had the advantage of choosing the field. But Howe’s first move, on October 28, unhinged the whole American position. He sent 4,000 men against Chatterton’s Hill, and after fierce resistance from entrenched Americans he threw in his cavalry, which totally demolished two regiments of rebel militia and forced the rest of the defenders to quit the hill. Chatterton’s gave Howe a position from which he could outflank the rest of Washington’s army. Moreover, Howe now lay between the Fort Washington garrison and the main army. It was the dream of every general. He was in a position to devour both American forces at his leisure.

But once again Howe dallied, while at White Plains Washington frantically threw up flimsy redoubts made of cornstalks from nearby fields, with earth clinging to their roots. Reinforced by two brigades from Manhattan, Howe now had 20,000 men. “A brisk drive,” Bellamy Partridge says, “would have scattered the patriots into the hills.” Another defeat probably would have destroyed Washington’s already dwindling military reputation. But Howe never made the climactic assault. During three days of inaction, he let Washington withdraw the bulk of his army northward to a stronger position at North Castle, and then, on November 4, the entire British army turned around and went clanking off to New York without firing another shot.

When asked why he had not pressed the attack at White Plains, Howe blandly told the House of Commons: “An assault upon the enemy’s right which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them that I have political reasons, and no other for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Some historians argue that Howe had received the plans of Fort Washington from a Tory spy, and seeing that he could take this pseudo-stronghold with ease, he decided to make that his final battle of the campaign season, then drawing to a close. If this thesis is true, then the “political reasons” would have been a desire to protect the Tory spy from the revengeful Americans. It is a feeble argument. In the first place, Fort Washington would still have been there after Howe had smashed Washington’s army at White Plains. He could have scooped it up as an afterthought on his triumphant journey back to Manhattan. In the second place, why didn’t Howe, who used fairly plain English in the rest of his narrative, say something about this spy, without revealing his name? “Political reasons” suggest something far larger—even a policy that was guiding Howe’s military conduct.