Skip to main content

General Howe’s Orderly Book

June 2024
4min read

Never before printed, the headquarters record of the British conqueror of New York illuminates crucial events of the American Revolution.

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.

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.