Revolutionary War Historical Article

King George III's Soldiers
Lt. General Sir William Howe

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the July 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Magazine

William Howe, like most British officers, came from a titled family. He was born on August 10th, 1729, the third son of Sir Emmanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe and Mary Sophia, the daughter of Sophia Charlotte von Platen-Hallermund, the Baroness Kielmansegge, a half-sister of King George I. This family tie to the crown certainly helped the advancement of all three sons, but it must be said they were capable officers in their own right.

The eldest brother, also a General, George Howe, was killed during the ill fated attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. A monument to Sir George is found in Westminster Abbey, London. It was paid for by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

William was educated at Eaton. At age seventeen his father purchased him a Cornet's commission in the Duke of Cumberland's Dragoons. The next year, 1747, he saw combat in Flanders during the War of Austrian Succession. After this war he transferred to the 20th Regiment of Foot, serving under Major James Wolfe, who befriended him.

During the Seven Year's War (our French and Indian War) he came to America. He commanded a detachment during the siege of Louisbourg - ­ his bravery in this action resulted in his name being mentioned in the dispatches. He was again promoted.

During the siege of Quebec he commanded the Light Infantry under his friend Major General James Wolfe. On September 13th, 1759, he led the advanced force to the Plains of Abraham, clearing the way for General Wolfe and the main army. Although the victory at Quebec resulted in Canada being taken from France, the cost was high, General Wolfe was killed in action. Again Howe's bravery paid off - he was promoted to Brigadier General. He joined General Jeffery Amherst in the capture of Montreal, then returned to England.

After the Seven Year's War, Howe revised the British drill system and served as Governor of the Isle of Wight. In 1761, sixty successful Army Officers were elected to the House of Parliament, William was among them, representing his native Nottingham. He was again promoted to Major General in 1772.

His service in America and close affiliation with the colonists made him sympathetic to them. He strongly opposed the Coercive Acts. In 1774, he was reelected, in part because he assured his constituents that he would not serve against the Americans. However, in 1775, King George insisted and like a good soldier, he followed orders, and sailed for the colonies.

On May 25th, 1775, HMS Cerberus arrived in Boston Harbor. On board were three Major Generals, William Howe, Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne. Howe was the only one of the three that had previously served in America, and as such was the senior officer.

Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the Crown were not happy with General Thomas Gage, the Commander-in-­Chief of the British North American Forces for not having suppressed the revolt. After the action at Lexington and Concord they decided to send the reinforcements requested by Gage. Your editor is confident that Gage wanted troops not Generals.

Study the predicament the British Army was in, besieged in Boston, the Generals determined it was absolutely necessary to secure the high ground of Dorcester Heights if they intended to stay in Boston. An unknown spy got word of this decision to American Major General Artemus Ward. As a countermove, Ward and the colonial leaders decided to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, just across the bay from Boston, which would have the same effect. On the night of June 16th, the Americans fortified Breed's Hill, in spite of having been instructed to fortify Bunker Hill. The die was cast. The British had two options - - drive the colonials off the peninsula, or evacuate Boston. They elected to attack.

The following day, General William Howe personally led the attack. He wanted to employ a flanking movement, but the topography prohibited. He was forced to make a frontal attack. At the time many of the British officers were convinced that once the Americans saw the British regulars coming at them they would run.

Howe addressed the 2,400 soldiers and marines that would be making the attack. "Behave like Englishmen, and as becometh good soldiers". Then went on, "you will not have to go one step further than where I go myself at your head," He kept that promise.

The officers that thought the Americans would not stand and fight were sadly mistaken. The first two attacks resulted in a slaughter of the British Troops. Howe then ordered his men to drop their 60-pound back packs, withhold their fire until they were within 30 yards of the American position and then immediately launch a bayonet charge. The tactic worked, but because it was sound military judgment, but the Americans had run out of ammunition.

This victory cost the British dearly - -over 1,100 casualties, about 45 percent of the attacking force, and all twelve of Howe's staff officers were either killed or wounded. Howe wrote: "I freely confess to you, when I look to the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave officers, I do it with horror, the success is too dearly bought." General Clinton wrote:"A dear bought victory, another such would ruin us ".

There is no question that the Battle of Bunker Hill greatly affected these generals. They no longer thought of the Americans as an un-led rabble, but a real fighting force and in particular, if they held a fortified position.

The British Ministry decided to relieve General Gage of his command, as he had failed to break the siege. Major General Howe was selected to replace him.

In November, the Ministry ordered Howe to evacuate Boston, and go to New York. Unfortunately for Howe he did not have the ships necessary to accomplish it. He decided to winter in Boston. He would not risk another attempt to break out of Boston, and started showing he had little stomach for the job of Commander-in-Chief. In January he wrote the Crown requesting a very large reinforcement, and if that was not possible, he proposed "A better policy to withdraw entirely from the delinquent provinces and leave the colonists to war with each other for sovereignty".

Considering he had just assumed overall command, this was an amazing proposal, and one that showed he had serious doubts that British arms would succeed in crushing the American rebellion. He also took no offensive action, although reinforced by 4,000 crack troops. This inaction allowed General Washington who took command of the colonial forces in July, to reorganize the Army.

Realizing that a direct assault on Boston at­tack would be doomed to failure and with great loss of life, Washington elected to send a Boston bookseller, Colonel Henry Knox, to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve the large assortment of artillery located there. Knox was successful. He transported 58 pieces of artillery and ammunition some 300 miles across difficult terrain, and in mid-winter! With the availability of artillery, Washington fortified Dorcester Heights, thereby dominating Boston.

General Howe had two options, cross the bay and attack the new American position or evacuate the city. He chose the latter - - Bunker Hill phobia? He made an arrangement with Washington that if the British were allowed to evacuate unmolested, they would not put the city to the torch. Washington agreed. On Saint Patrick's Day, 1776, the last of the British troops left the city and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

With the concurrences of Burgoyne and Clinton, Howe had advised Lord Germain of their situation and that to put down the rebellion a much larger force would be required. Germain agreed and ordered General Howe's brother. Admiral Sir Richard Howe to command a fleet of over 150 ships to transport his brother's Army. The combined reinforcements from England and the troops at Halifax made up a force totaling 32,000; all well trained and equipped, including 8,000 newly hired German Hessian soldiers. This huge fleet arrived in New York City's harbor in July, off loading the troops and their equipment on Staten Island. General Howe was in no hurry, he waited until every one of the reinforcements and supplies arrived. He then started the campaign by moving a large portion of his troops to Brooklyn.

Washington was waiting for them. He had anticipated the attack on New York and had a force of about 19,000 to resist the onslaught. He had fortified the city; and Brooklyn Heights as best he could.

On August 22nd General Howe invaded Long Island, landing at Gravesend. He was unopposed. He divided his army and attacked the American main line with one, and with a larger force, made a brilliant all night march around the American flank. By noon had forced a complete withdrawal of the surviving Americans. He had inflicted 1,500 casualties on Washington ­and had only 377. The Americans retired to the fortifications on Brooklyn heights. Howe stopped. He did not follow up his victory and it is highly likely that had he done so he could have all but ended the Rebellion right there. Was it the Bunker Hill phobia again? He wrote: "I knew well that any considerable loss sustained by the army could not speedily, nor easily, be repaired." But his inaction allowed George Washington to withdraw his entire Army across the East River to the relative safety of Manhattan.

Upon learning of Washington's escape to Manhattan, Howe again did not follow up with a major assault. However in his defense, he and his brother Lord Richard had arranged permission to negotiate a peace with the Americans. Their instructions gave them I substantial leeway in what they could accept. They discussed their plan with captured American General John Sullivan, he in turn took their message to Congress. Congress sent John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge to negotiate a peace. The meeting took place with Lord Howe, as General Howe had excused himself for military reasons, on September 7th, 1776. The American's would not settle for anything less than full independence. Lord Howe wrote: ". . .for obvious reasons, we could not enter into any treaty with their Congress, and much less proceed in any conference of negotiation upon the inadmissible ground of independence. . ." Thus ended the last serious attempt at a peaceful solution to the rebellion.

General Howe then resumed his offensive. He crossed over to Manhattan Island but, again Washington outmaneuvered him and escaped, fighting several severe skirmishes. At White Plains both armies faced off again, with the superior British forces prevailing, but not capturing the American Army. Washington escaped annihilation again. He and his army Crossed the Hudson into New Jersey. Howe chased him across New Jersey and after Washington successfully crossed the Delaware River and with winter setting in, Howe ordered his troops into winter quarters. He knew the Continental Army was all but destroyed and had fewer them 5,000 soldiers remaining. Washington had different ideas and recrossed the Delaware on Christmas eve attacking Trenton, and then a week later Princeton. Washington was successful in both attacks taking over more then 1,000 prisoners, a vast amount of stores, but more importantly, he forced the British to withdraw from New Jersey to New York City. He had in one stroke put new life in the Revolution and forced the British to give up most of what they had won in a year's campaigning.

General Howe and the British Army settled in for the winter in New York. George Washington and the Continental Army wintered at Morristown, thereby being in a position to counter any aggressive moves made by the British.

General John Burgoyne had returned to England and convinced Lord Germain that the war could be won by cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. This would be accomplished by his leading a large force from Canada down Lakes Champlain and George. then the Hudson River. He also requested that he be given independent command. Burgoyne assumed that when Lord Germain agreed he would instruct General Howe to march north, up the Hudson to support him. However, Germain also approved General Howe's proposal that he capture the American Capitol, Philadelphia. In spite of the transit time of over two months, Germain retained the responsibility of coordinating the activities of both commands. Apparently Germain believed that Howe would capture Philadelphia in time to then support General Burgoyne. Howe's major mistake was not where he went, but how he went. Rather then march across New Jersey, where he would be available to turn North to support Burgoyne, he chose to take advantage of the fleet and sail. Burgoyne started his campaign on June 17th, but Howe did not set sail until July 23rd. Sailing against the wind and then the currents of the Chesapeake Bay, it took Howe six weeks to reach the Head of the Elk.

Being overly cautious, Howe moved on Philadelphia very slowly, encountering the Continental army formed up on the east bank of Brandywine Creek. The battle was fought on September 11th. Again Howe outflanked Washington and won the battle. Washington was forced to fight a retreating action, giving up any hope of defending Philadelphia. Major battles were fought at White Marsh and Germantown, but ultimately the Continental Army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Washington's efforts were providing the British with misinformation and convinced Howe that Valley Forge was too strongly fortified for him to risk an attack - ­Bunker Hill phobia again? Therefore Howe and his army settled down in Philadelphia for the winter.

At the same time the American Northern Army was hammering Burgoyne into submission. On October 17th General Burgoyne surrendered his Army of 5,300 men.

While Burgoyne was being defeated, Howe and his Army were enjoying the social life of Philadelphia.

General Howe had taken up with Mrs. Joshua Loring, the wife of the Loyalist Howe had appointed Commissar of Prisoners. She had been his mistress since Boston. Howe and his staff spent most of their time on entertainment, including the creation of a theatre. Dancing and gambling being the primary forms of distraction.

 

 

Despite the social life, when Howe learned of Burgoyne's surrender he realized that Lord Germain would never accept the responsibility for the defeat, and he would probably be blamed. He therefore sent a letter to England requesting that he be relieved of command and allowed to return to England. He wanted to be present so he could defend himself. In May 1778 he sailed for home, General Sir Henry Clinton assumed command.

As he anticipated, he was fiercely attacked in England. He lost his seat in Parliament which he had held for twenty years, but his family connection to King George the III, protected him. The King appointed him Lieutenant General of Ordnance in 1782.

He retired from active duty in 1803, at age 74, after fifty-seven years service. When his brother Admiral Richard Howe died in 1799, the title of Viscount was passed to him. As the 5th Viscount Howe he became governor of Plymouth, England in 1805 and died there on July 12th, 1814. His body was returned to his home in Twickenham and was buried in the Back Lane Cemetery. His widow died at age 75 in 1817 and was buried beside him. The grave is marked by a simple headstone, and there are no monuments to him.

In reviewing his military career, one recognizes that his ability as a strategist and tactician was equal to any general in the British Army at the time. One of his subordinates wrote: "Brave he certainly is and would make a very good executive officer under another's command, but he is not by any means equal to be Commander-in­Chief."

His early support of the colonies when he was a member of Parliament, and his public reluctance to accept command in America, added to his obtaining permission to negotiate a peace in 1776, leads one to think he really had no heart for fighting Americans. His loyalty to the Crown can not be questioned, as he won every battle he led, but his unwillingness to follow up those successes with the total suppression of the rebellion makes one wonder.

Back to Index of Biographies

Back to Historical Archives

link to aboutus

1