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General Howe’s Orderly Book
Never before printed, the headquarters record of the British conqueror of New York illuminates crucial events of the American Revolution.
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Across the bay from the little settlement of New York there appeared in the summer of 1776, gradually swelling throughout June, July and early August, the most formidable military force Great Britain ever sent abroad. The Narrows and Lower Bay were a forest of masts, men-of-war and transports by the hundreds; ashore on Staten Island were 27 regiments of the line, not to mention grenadiers, dragoons, artillery, light infantry, 8,000 Hessians, two battalions of the Guards and a bluebook of commanders—Lords Cornwallis and Percy, Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Viscount Howe, “Black Dick” to the fleet. Altogether this mighty host amounted to some 32,000 disciplined soldiers. To oppose them, General Washington mustered an untrained and poorly armed force numbering optimistically 19,000.
In command of all this royal array was a tall, affable man who knew his duty but disapproved of his government’s policy, General Sir William Howe, younger brother of Black Dick. In a campaign marked by no feats of strategy on the part of either commander, he went on to win inevitable victories—the Battle of Long Island on August 27; the landing at Kipps Bay, Manhattan, on September 15; the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, all in 1776. Poised dangerously in lower Manhattan, Washington might easily have been cut off and surrounded with all his troops, for he had no ships. Howe had the ships to land further north and do it, but it never seems to have occurred to him.
Perhaps like many a general before and since, Howe had too many things on his mind besides strategy—such matters as supply, organization, discipline, training, transport, and good relations with the native population. Great and petty, these bothersome concerns come vividly alive when read in the general’s own papers, in the fine penmanship of his anonymous clerk, recording day by day the general orders, notes and administrative acts of Sir William. They appear here in selected actual pages from his most important lost orderly book.
While a number of these journals have been known for years (some were published by the New-York Historical Society in 1883), several were missing. This one, covering June 30 to October 5, 1776, was recently donated by Lloyd W. Smith of Madison, New Jersey, owner of what the late Douglas Southall Freeman called an “incomparable collection” of Revolutionary manuscripts, prints and books, to the Morristown National Historical Park. It appears here in print for the first time through the courtesy of Dr. Francis Spring Ronalds of the National Park Service, an authority on the Revolution who has furnished the material for the commentary.
The time is July 15, 1776. While eleven days before an event in Philadelphia had altered the whole aspect of the rebellion, General Howe was calmly encamped on Staten Island, and, as the entry above shows, involved in such details as discipline. It was harsh, although the deserter’s thousand lashes would not be given all at once. The prisoner was strung up on a wooden triangle and flogged by drummers of his own regiment watched by a doctor whose duty was to prevent death. American punishment at the time was 39 lashes, but it was later increased. Ideas about the sanctity of an officer’s person, one may observe at right, have not undergone much change.
Besides giving countenance to a rather bizarre medical theory ( see top ), General Howe was anxious to have new arrivals to his command received with proper protocol, declining, of course, with rank. Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe, 4th Viscount, was William’s elder brother.
History records that Sir William lost his clog at the Battle of Germantown, and that Washington found and returned it to him with a polite note, bin it is silent about the lost penknife. Meanwhile life at camp was quiet. The soldiers downed their tots of ruin untroubled by anything more than the heat, and General Howe entertained Loyalists at dinner. The rebels in New York were lull of “Jealousies of each other,” the British were told. “The People begin to lie weary of their new masters the mob,” the Loyalists added, “and to think that British Government is rather more lenient and less arbitrary than that of a Congress.” (Journal of Ambrose Serle of Lord Howe’s staff.)
General Howe on the twentieth of August laid down the formal organization of the force with which he meant to effect a landing on Long Island. The following evening, according to Serle, he took dinner on shipboard with his brother the Admiral, to discuss the naval coverage. A memorable thunder storm look place that night, but next day the landing took place unopposed. “The inhuman Rebels contented themselves with burning as much of the People’s Corn as they could, tho’ the great Rains wch fell last night very happily prevented much of their Design,” noted Serle. Five clays later the Battle of Long Island began, and in a leisurely manner Howe moved forward, to land on September 15 at Kipps Bay.