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Men of the Revolution: 12. Richard and William Howe

May 2024
6min read

The brothers were expected to perform an almost impossible task, subduing a people of the same flesh and blood and heritage.

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.”

William Howe was a tall, heavy, coarse-looking man with poor teeth and a complexion almost as swarthy as that of his brother Richard, who was known as Black Dick. Another characteristic the two shared was taciturnity: as Horace Walpole remarked, the general “was one of those brave, silent brothers, and was reckoned sensible, though so silent that nobody knew whether he was or not.” And a soldier who knew them said they had in common “the sullen family gloom. In one thing they differed, Sir William hated business and never did any.” Which was what a British wag had in mind when he wrote

Awake, arouse, Sir Billy ,
There’s forage in the plain.
Leave your little filly,
And open the campaign.

Brother Richard differed from William only in degree: he was older by three years, more inarticulate, and somewhat more effective—but only somewhat (he too was accused of “unaccountable inactivity"). Where William fussed about the lack of support he felt he received from England, to Richard every communication with London was a galling reminder of the two men through whom he must conduct official business. One was Lord Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, whom he despised; the other was I/3rd George Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, whom Howe disliked so cordially that he had refused to speak to him since 1758.

Quite apart from his personal misgivings about the war, the type of service he to’ind himself engaged in must have been frustrating to a man who had served in the navy since the age of fourteen, earning a reputation as a brave and skillful officer. There was no enemy fleet to fight—only the occasional privateer; and most of the admiral’s American tour was devoted to ferrying troops hither and yon and acting in support of the army. Perhaps because his brother was so preoccupied, it fell to Richard Howe to negotiate some sort of settlement with the rebels, and while he approached the business conscientiously enough, to his chagrin nothing came of it. The first effort was made in July of i 776, shortly after a huge British armada landed on Staten Island, when Lord Howe sent a message to George Washington requesting a meeting. The affair got off’ to a bad start because the letter was addressed to “George Washington, Esq."—not to General Washington; the American commander refused to receive it, and a comic opera of sorts ensued, with each party trying to maintain face, until a meeting between Washington and Howe’s representative was finally arranged. It became quickly apparent during the discussion that Howe, although he was called a peace commissioner, had no authority to do much beyond granting pardons to rebels. Since the latter believed that they were only defending what they construed as their natural rights, they did not think pardons were in order, and Howe’s initial overture got nowhere.

After the Battle of Long Island he tried again. This time he managed to meet with a delegation of the Continental Congress that included Benjamin Franklin, who had been a friend of the admiral’s sister in London, but once more it was clear that Howe lacked substantive authority. He could talk with the rebels, he could listen to their grievances, and he could grant pardons, but anything else would have to be referred to London.

Despite these failures Howe continued to hope that an amicable settlement of differences might be achieved, but reading daily summaries of the press, which his critics have maintained are partisan and distorted. He has made no secret of his disdain for the press and has met with newsmen less than any recent President.

On that, Franklin Roosevelt was the champion. In a little over twelve years he held 998 press conferences, for a time averaging two a week. He gathered perhaps a dozen reporters at a time in his office, and he answered questions for periods of up to two hours. Truman averaged a conference a week. Eisenhower, who allowed his conferences to be filmed and shown on television after they had been edited, logged a hundred conferences in his first term but, because of illness, less than half that number in his second. Kennedy, whose conferences were presented live on television and averaged a half hour in length, managed sixtyfour in nearly three years, roughly one every fifteen days. President Nixon, through December, 1973, had held twenty-six (roughly one every two months on average, though he had gone as long as five months without one).

Such are some of the statistics that measure the accessibility of one of the three most powerful rulers on earth, a subject scarcely even brought up in Moscow or Peking. Whether indeed accessibility is a help or a hindrance in getting things done at the modern White House may be argued, but it remains the basis of the American social contract entered into nearly two centuries ago.

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