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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
But Howe did mean what he said: on July 23 he put his men aboard his brother’s mighty fleet of 260 ships and set sail from Sandy Hook. Not even Washington could believe Sir William was going to desert Burgoyne, and for days the Americans were in a frenzy of uncertainty, distributing their army all over New Jersey so they could be ready to march north or south, depending on where Howe appeared. A week later, the Howes paused off the mouth of the Delaware. There, having been told that the Americans had blocked and fortified the river, they decided to bear away for the Chesapeake. Contrary winds and currents delayed them: not until August 14 did they enter the bay, and it took eleven days to reach Head of Elk, fifteen miles from New Castle, where the army disembarked.
Men and horses had suffered terribly from heat and from the shortage of fresh water. Almost all the animals had to be destroyed. And as the British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan acidly points out, the net result of this incredible voyage was to place the British army ten miles farther from Philadelphia than it had been at Amboy, in New Jersey, the previous December.
Even so, Howe was to have one more opportunity to achieve total victory. At Brandywine Creek on September 11, Washington grimly accepted the challenge of a “general action” to save Philadelphia, but he permitted Howe to repeat the tactics by which he had won the Battle of Long Island. While the Hessians under Knyphausen made a mock frontal assault at Chad’s Ford, Howe and Cornwallis swept around the American flank and appeared in the rear of John Sullivan’s brigade. These men, the bulk of the American right wing, were strung out along a two-mile line running through dense woods. Sullivan had to draw them in and shift them at a right angle to their first position to confront Howe. It was a dubious maneuver with untrained troops; if Howe had attacked as soon as he reached Sullivan’s rear, Sullivan and perhaps the rest of the American army would have retreated. But the British had been on the march since early morning, and it was half past two. Howe ordered a halt for lunch. Such consideration was typical of Howe, and it was why his men loved him so much.
When the British attacked at three thirty, Sullivan’s men were the first to break. But the center fought well, yielding ground stubbornly, and when Knyphausen attacked across the Ford, he met equally fierce resistance from Anthony Wayne. Still, by nightfall the terrific pressure exerted by the British had reduced the American army to almost total disorganization. Except for a few regiments under Greene, Christopher Ward tells us, “thousands of beaten men, already dispersed before the final retreat and now uncontrolled by any sort of military discipline, thronged the road in utter confusion.” But Howe ordered no pursuit. His men were weary, and he let them spend the next day resting on the field. And on September 26 he reached his major objective, when Cornwallis entered the rebel capital with a force of British and Hessians.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne was meeting disaster in the wilderness. Surrounded by a militia army three times the size of his own, he surrendered at Saratoga on October 17. But even before Howe heard confirmation of this doleful news—in fact, on October 22, less than a month after he marched into Philadelphia—Sir William sent in his resignation. His actual words are again interesting: “From the little attention given to my recommendations since the commencement of my command, I am led to hope that I may be relieved from this very painful service, wherein I have not the good fortune to enjoy the necessary confidence and support of my superiors …”
As we have seen, there is considerable evidence that the service was “painful” to Sir William Howe from the day he arrived in America. His policy of peace by reconciliation had proved to be a will-o’-the-wisp. He was about to be crushed between Washington’s stubborn belligerence and the growing impatience of the “hard line” ministers in the Royal government. When he went home to confront his enemies in the ministry, he stoutly defended his original goal. “For, Sir, although some persons condemn me for having endeavoured to conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects … instead of irritating them by a contrary mode of proceeding, yet am I, from many reasons, satisfied in my own mind that I acted in that particular for the benefit of the King’s service. Ministers themselves, I am persuaded, did at one time entertain a similar doctrine …”
Not a minister rose to deny this statement. In fact it was the government, using its paid-up majority in Parliament, who hastily extinguished the Howe inquiry before it could reach any conclusion. Moreover, the government treated Howe with the greatest deference, handing him one well-paying sinecure after another until he died in 1814.
It seems clear that Sir William Howe was anything but a blunderer or a fool. Nor, though he enjoyed his bottle, his cards and the lady Loring, did he ever let them seriously interfere with what he set out to do in America. The mistake (perhaps, from a personal point of view, the tragedy) of Sir William Howe originated in the judgment of the King’s vacillating ministers, who gave him the job in the first place. The great Swiss military writer Jomini sums it up as a violation of the art of war. “To commit the execution of a purpose to one who disapproves of the plan of it, is to employ but one third of the man; his heart and his head are against you; you have command only of his hands.”