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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
Howe did in fact capture Fort Washington, bagging 2,837 prisoners in a brilliant multipronged assault on November 15. Washington, meanwhile, again divided his army, carrying 5,400 men into New Jersey and leaving the rest to guard the Hudson. Only the violent entreaties of Lord Cornwallis persuaded Howe to pursue him. The American catastrophe at Fort Washington was almost repeated at Fort Lee, when Cornwallis led 4,000 picked troops across the Hudson and landed above the redoubts at dawn. Frantic haste on the part of Nathanael Greene got his men out of the place, with nothing but their muskets. Their blankets, a thousand barrels of flour, 400,000 cartridges, and dozens of precious cannon had to be left behind.
Washington was now being pursued by a general who had none of Howe’s tendency to dally. While the American army, disheartened by the loss of Fort Washington, melted away, Cornwallis hounded the remainder across New Jersey. Entering Newark as Washington’s rear guard went out the other end of the town, he pushed his troops twenty miles in a single day through a driving rainstorm, trying to catch Washington at New Brunswick before he forded the Raritan.
On December 1 Washington got his last man across the river as Cornwallis’ advance guard came up. The armies were within cannon shot of each other, and the river was “in a variety of places, knee deep only,” according to eyewitnesses. There was nothing to stop Cornwallis from charging across and falling on Washington’s dispirited remnant of an army, now barely ! 3,000 strong. Instead, the British sat down on the wrong side of the river, and did not move for four days. Orders from William Howe had arrived, forbidding them to advance until he had brought up “reinforcements.”
Again, caution perfectly explains such a decision. But when Howe arrived he brought only a single brigade, and they proceeded to move forward at a more familiar pace, giving Washington time to get his rear guard across the Delaware at Trenton just as the British advance guard reached the river bank. Charles Stedman, the British historian who was an officer in Howe’s army, says with dry sarcasm: “General Howe appeared to have calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time necessary for the enemy to make his escape.”
Washington had collected every available boat for seventy miles along the river, and drawn them to the other side. This supposedly stymied Howe. But there was a well-stocked lumber yard in Trenton, and four blacksmith shops. If Howe had wanted to cross the river, he could have built himself a small fleet in a week. There were no fewer than nine ferry landings for Washington to guard. The rebel capital of Philadelphia, already in panic, lay within a day’s march.
But Howe had no immediate interest in Philadelphia. Nor was he interested in destroying Washington. He only wanted to drive him out of New Jersey, so that he could get down to the business of restoring that territory to loyalty and order. He issued a proclamation offering pardon and the enjoyment of liberty and property rights to all who would sign a declaration of loyalty within sixty days. Even those who had fought in Washington’s army were included. New Jersey responded, almost en masse. To guarantee continued tranquillity, Howe established a series of strong cantonments along the Delaware, most of them manned by Hessians who had fought brilliantly at Fort Washington a month before.
It was now mid-December, true, and Howe, like almost all military commanders of that era, was anxious to get his troops into winter quarters. But was this excuse enough to discard total victory when he had it within his grasp? The answer would seem to be that Howe did not see total victory in military terms as the key to his policy. What he and his brother were aiming at, from the start, was peace by reconciliation. To achieve this they had to balance American extremists, who insisted on independence, against extremists of the opposite persuasion back home, who insisted on all-out repression. If they annihilated Washington and his army and captured the Congress, what would there be left to reconcile? The British extremists could be held in check only by making sure there was still an American force in being with whom to negotiate. The American extremists, on the other hand, had to be shown that they had no hope of winning independence against the might of Great Britain, and that to carry the rebellion further was folly. What better way to do this than to thrash the Americans repeatedly and drive them out of selected colonies, which could then be pacified and held up to the rest of the country as examples of British benevolence?
Howe’s letters to Lord Germain indicate this thinking. On September 25, before the fiasco at White Plains, he was writing: “I have not the smallest prospect of finishing the contest this campaign, not until the Rebels see preparations in the spring, that may preclude all thoughts of further resistance [author’s italics]. To this end, I would propose eight or ten line of battle ships, with a number of supernumerary seamen for manning boats … We must also have recruits from Europe, not finding the Americans disposed to serve with arms, notwithstanding the hopes held out to me on my arrival at this port.”