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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
On November 30, Howe spelled out to Germain his plan for the next campaign. It was ambitious. An offensive army of 10,000 would move from Providence, Rhode Island, toward Boston; another army of 10,000 would move up the Hudson River to Albany, leaving 5,000 men to defend New York; finally, a defensive army of 8,000 men would cover New Jersey and pose a threat to Philadelphia, which Howe proposed to attack in the autumn. With the New England and middle colonies thus subdued, Howe planned to finish the rebellion in the winter by moving into Virginia and the Carolinas. Again, the phasing of his letter is significant. “Were … the force I have mentioned sent out, it would strike such terror throughout the country that little resistance would be made to the progress of his Majesty’s arms.” Once more, Howe is thinking in terms of discouraging the rebels, rather than of defeating them in the field.
To make his new plans work, Howe asked for 15,000 more men. He was turned down. Further, Washington and his little army proved unwilling to roll over and play dead: striking through the sleet at Trenton on Christmas night, they captured almost the entire 1,400man garrison of Hessians. The victory restored the patriots’ sinking morale. Howe at first called it a “misfortune,” but a few weeks later, he was writing what is perhaps his most revealing letter to Germain:
It is with much concern that I am to inform your Lordship the unfortunate and untimely defeat at Trenton has thrown us further back, than was at first apprehended, from the great encouragement given to the rebels.
I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war but by a general action …
“I do not now see.” Quite casually, perhaps without realizing it, Howe here admits that until Trenton, a “general action” was not included in his plan to end the war. Could this explain Washington’s repeated escapes from disaster at Long Island, Manhattan, White Plains, and throughout New Jersey?
Washington’s victory at Trenton could be attributed to the fortunes of war. But Germain’s refusal to send reinforcements seemed to Howe a low blow, especially since a well-equipped army was handed to General John Burgoyne for a descent from Canada to Albany. Burgoyne had a scheme of his own for ending the war. At Albany he would join with a force under Howe proceeding up the Hudson, and with another from the west under Barry St. Leger. If all went well, New England would be cut off from the rest of the colonies and the two halves of the infant nation could be conquered at will.
But a new note now enters Howe’s thinking: resentment. From Howe’s point of view, Burgoyne had stolen from him the soldiers he needed for the master plan he himself had proposed to Germain. Howe wrote to his lordship, telling him that the master plan would now have to be drastically altered. On April 1, 1777, he told Germain, “I propose to invade Pennsylvania by sea.” He admitted this meant evacuating the Jerseys, and added with irony: “Restricted as I am from entering upon more extensive operations by the want of forces, my hopes of terminating the war this year are vanished.”
Then, on April 5, Howe wrote to Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, telling him he had “but little expectation that I shall be able from the want of sufficient strength in the army to detach a corps in the beginning of the campaign to act up Hudson’s River.” Meanwhile, Germain in England wrote Howe approving his plan to invade Pennsylvania by sea. But at the same time he wrote to Carleton, assuring him he would write to Howe to “guarantee the most speedy junction of the two armies.” Alas for the hopes and dreams of George III, Germain never sent such a letter. All Howe ever got was a copy of Germain’s letter to Carleton, which nowhere contained a specific order limiting Howe to advancing up the Hudson River, and a paragraph in a later letter in which Germain, approving a modification of his Pennsylvania plan, trusted “it will be executed in time for you to co-operate with the army ordered to proceed from Canada.” A major disaster was shaping up: “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne would be fighting his way to Albany to join up with Howe, who instead would be on his way to Philadelphia.
Co-operating with Burgoyne was the one thing Howe had no interest in doing. His defense of his decision to sail to Philadelphia pulsates with resentment in every line: “Had I adopted the plan to go up the Hudson River,” he told the House of Commons, “it would have been alleged that I had wasted the campaign with a considerable army under my command, merely to ensure the progress of the northern army, which could have taken care of itself, provided I had made a diversion in its favour by drawing off to the southward the main army under General Washington. Would not my enemies have gone further, and insinuated that, alarmed at the rapid success which the honourable General [Burgoyne] had a right to expect when Ticonderoga fell, I had enviously grasped a share of the merit which would otherwise have been all his own? and let me add, would not Ministers have told you, as they truly might, that I had acted without any orders or instructions from them?”
Nevertheless, according to Clinton, Howe’s plan to sail to Philadelphia and turn his back on Burgoyne (who was in no trouble at that moment, it must be admitted) appalled every man in the army except for Lord Cornwallis and Major General James Grant. Among his papers there is a memorandum Clinton wrote to a friend at the time: “By God these people can not mean what they give out, they must intend to go up Hudson’s River & deceive us all, if they do I for one forgive.”