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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
At left, and continued below, General Howe reminds his troops of their success in relying on the bayonet, a fearsome weapon to amateur American soldiers who had to lace it in the hands of such famous regiments as the Black Watch. The impending attack he mentions is the landing on Manhattan and the subsequent engagements which cleared it of the Americans. The note at right, congratulating the troops for their success, also chides the light infantry, which, at the Battle of Harlem Heights, impetuously rushed into a trap and was nearly annihilated. But on September 21 Howe wrote Lord George Germaine, “I have the satisfaction to inform your Lordship of his Majesty’s troops being in possession of the City of New York.”
Sir William was sincerely determined to prevent the plundering and depredation which unquestionably accompanied his victories. Serle’s journals tell us that “It is impossible to express the Devastations, which the Hessians have made upon the Houses & Country Seats of some of the Rebels. All their Furniture, Glasses, Windows, and the very Hangings of the Rooms are demolished or defaced. This with the Filth deposited in them, make the Houses so offensive, that it is a Penance to go into them.” And so the punishment for plundering was a harsh 1,000 lashes, and for rape death. But, in the case cited at left, a later entry ( above ) shows the lady softened her heart.
Sir William’s clerk carefully entered posterity ( above ) a detailed record—for fame or shame, depending on one’s point of view—of the New Yorkers who came out to serve the king after the American retreat. Colonel Oliver Delancey, the senior American Loyalist, was afterward attainted of treason by New York State, had his lands confiscated and died in England; Stephen’s son William became Wellington’s quartermaster general and fell at Waterloo. Cruger fought bravely for the Crown at Eutaw Springs; it was at his brother’s firm in St. Croix that Alexander Hamilton began his mercantile career. Most Tories later fled when the rebellion refused to suppress .
Amere mention, sandwiched between a mail-boat notice and an exhortation to the latrine detail, is all that the General’s clerk gave to Nathan Hale. The diary of a British officer, confirming the confession, the time and the place (now thought to be in the neighborhood of Grand Central Terminal), adds that “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him . . . and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” It is an old story, but as one looks at the careful hand and the cheerless words, somehow the tragedy flickers back to life.