Men Of The Revolution: 12. Richard And William Howe

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Wars are more often lost than won, but in 1775 a man who predicted British defeat in the Revolution would have been taken for a fool. The mightiest, richest empire since Rome, Great Britain ruled the seas unchallenged; there seemed no limit to the power and resources that could be brought to bear against the uprising across the Atlantic. Yet after seven years of fighting, England withdrew from the contest, yielded up its sovereignty over thirteen American provinces, and left its lonely monarch to contemplate the wreckage of his hopes. “I shall never rest my head on my last pillow in peace and quiet as long as I remember the loss of my American colonies,” George in grieved years after the event.

Although Yorktown came to symbolize the king’s loss, many Englishmen felt that the final disaster had been foreshadowed by the first three years of war—the period between Lexington and Saratoga—and that the responsibility for defeat lay with the two commanders in charge of Britain’s army and navy during most of that crucial time.

Much has been made of the fact that these two were brothers—General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe—that both had expressed opposition to the king’s policies toward the colonies, that neither had much stomach for subduing a people of the same flesh and blood and heritage. Indeed, it was suggested then and later that the Howes were guilt)1 of disloyalty (or worse) to the Crown, that their true sympathies lay with the Americans. But this is to forget that the brothers, whatever their faults, were toiling like Sisyphus in a murky area in which the political and military objectives of a nation at war, seemingly clear and complementary, more often proved to be confused, divided, and antithetical.

There had been another brother—George Augustus, third Viscount Howe, eldest of the three—who was one of the most popular men in the colonies when he was killed in Gen. James Abercromby’s fatal attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. So well was he loved by New Englanders who served with him that they placed a monument to him in Westminster Abbey. To authorities in London this suggested that a general and an admiral of the same name would profit from that residue of affection, and when the Howes were appointed to supreme command of the army and navy, they were assigned a curious double role. On the one hand they were to wage war; but at the same time they were to negotiate a peace. Coming as conquerors, they would also appear as men of good will—warriors one day, peacemakers the next.

 

Quite apart from the brothers’ limited diplomatic talents, the ambivalence of their mission would have taxed the capacities of far wiser and abler men. There is no need to dwell on their failure to achieve either objective; the point is simply that they were expected to perform an almost impossible task, and the trouble lay not only in their faulty execution but in the government’s expectation that they could succeed in making war and peace simultaneously. It was an attitude expressed by the prime minister, Lord North, who would defend his program by remarking, “We are prepared to punish, but we are nevertheless ready to forgive.” It was implicit in the words of the king, writing to General Howe after his victory on Long Island and advising him not to be boastful: “Notes of triumph,” George observed, “would not [be] proper when the successes are against subjects, not a foreign foe.” Against subjects, in other words, the Howes’ war must not be too harsh—no scorched-earth policy lest such measures jeopardize the possibility of reunion with the colonists.

The result was that the Howes—particularly William, on whose army the burden of fighting would fall—must fight a limited war. This had a profound effect on the mind of a general whose supply lines stretched across the Atlantic, whose troops and the vast quantities of supplies they needed must be transported over three thousand miles of water. While recognizing that his goal was the defeat of the rebel army, Howe concluded that this had to be achieved “under circumstances the least hazardous to the royal army.” Even a victory, if obtained at the cost of heavy British losses, might prove too much, might prove “a fatal check to the progress of the war,” so Howe, intent on preserving his men, took no unnecessary risks.

In any case he lacked the killer instinct; as a commander he was a man of fits and starts, more often than not afflicted with what Abraham Lincoln, speaking of George McClellan, called “the slows.” He was also inordinately fond of his comforts and pleasures. The rebel general Charles Lee, as a British prisoner, saw a good deal of Howe and concluded that he was “the most indolent of mortals.” As a battlefield leader, Lee admitted, he was “all fire and activity, brave and cool as Julius Caesar” (as indeed Howe had proved at Bunker Hill, where one American defender caught sight of him through the smoke of battle standing alone, entirely surrounded by dead and wounded men of his command). But as commanding general of His Majesty’s army in America, Lee said, Howe merely “shut his eyes, fought his battles, drank his bottle, had his little whore, advised with his counsellors, received his orders … shut his eyes, [and] fought again.”