American Revolution: General Sir William Howe

Sir William Howe
General Sir William Howe. Photograph Source: Public Domain

General Sir William Howe was a central figure during the early years of the American Revolution (1775-1783) when he served as commander of British forces in North America. A distinguished veteran of the French and Indian War, he took part in many of the conflict's campaigns in Canada. In the years after the war, Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, were sympathetic to the concerns of the colonists. Despite this, he accepted a post to fight the Americans in 1775. Assuming command in North America the following year, Howe conducted successful campaigns that saw him capture both New York City and Philadelphia. Though victorious on the battlefield, he consistently failed to destroy General George Washington's army and departed for Britain in 1778.

Early Life

William Howe was born August 10, 1729, and was the third son of Emanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe and his wife Charlotte. His grandmother had been the mistress of King George I and as a result Howe and his three brothers were the illegitimate uncles of King George III. Influential in the halls of power, Emanuel Howe served as Governor of Barbados while his wife regularly attended the courts of King George II and King George III.

Attending Eton, the younger Howe followed his two elder brothers into the military on September 18, 1746 when he purchased a commission as a coronet in Cumberland's Light Dragoons. A quick study, he was promoted to lieutenant the following year and saw service in Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession. Elevated to captain on January 2, 1750, Howe transferred to the 20th Regiment of Foot. While with the unit, he befriended Major James Wolfe under whom he would serve in North America during the French and Indian War.

Fighting in North America

On January 4, 1756, Howe was appointed major of the newly formed 60th Regiment (re-designated 58th in 1757) and traveled with the unit to North America for operations against the French. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in December 1757, he served in Major General Jeffery Amherst's army during its campaign to capture Cape Breton Island. In this role he took part in Amherst's successful siege of Louisbourg that summer where he commanded the regiment.

During the campaign, Howe earned a commendation for making a daring amphibious landing while under fire. With the death of his brother, Brigadier General George Howe at the Battle of Carillon that July, William attained a seat in Parliament representing Nottingham. This was aided by his mother who campaigned on his behalf while he was overseas as she believed that a seat in Parliament would aid in advancing her son's military career.

Battle of Quebec

Remaining in North America, Howe served in Wolfe's campaign against Quebec in 1759. This began with a failed effort at Beauport on July 31 that saw the British suffer a bloody defeat. Unwilling to press the attack at Beauport, Wolfe decided cross the St. Lawrence River and land at Anse-au-Foulon to the southwest.

This plan was executed and on September 13, Howe led the initial light infantry assault which secured the road up to the Plains of Abraham. Appearing outside of the city, the British opened the the Battle of Quebec later that day and won a decisive victory. Remaining in the region, he helped defend Quebec through the winter, including participation in the Battle of Sainte-Foy, before aiding in Amherst's capture of Montreal the following year.

Colonial Tensions

Returning to Europe, Howe took part in the siege of Belle Île in 1762 and was offered the military governorship of the island. Preferring to remain in active military service, he declined this post and instead served as the adjutant general of the force that assaulted Havana, Cuba in 1763. With the end of the conflict, Howe returned to England. Appointed colonel of the 46th Regiment of Foot in Ireland in 1764, he was elevated to governor of the Isle of Wight four years later.

Recognized as a gifted commander, Howe was promoted to major general in 1772, and a short time later took over training of the army's light infantry units. Representing a largely Whig constituency in Parliament, Howe opposed the Intolerable Acts and preached reconciliation with the American colonists as tensions grew in 1774 and early 1775. His feelings were shared by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. Though publicly stating that he would resist service against the Americans, he accepted the position as second-in-command of British forces in America.

American Revolution Begins

Stating that "he was ordered, and could not refuse," Howe sailed for Boston with Major Generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne. Arriving May 15, Howe brought reinforcements for General Thomas Gage. Under siege in the city following the American victories at Lexington and Concord, the British were forced to take action on June 17 when American forces fortified Breed's Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking the city.

Lacking a sense of urgency, the British commanders spent much of the morning discussing plans and making preparations while the Americans worked to strengthen their position. While Clinton favored an amphibious attack to cut off the American line of retreat, Howe advocated a more conventional frontal attack. Taking the conservative route, Gage ordered Howe to move forward with a direct assault.

Bunker Hill

In the resulting Battle of Bunker Hill, Howe's men succeeded in driving off the Americans but sustained over 1,000 casualties in capturing their works. Though a victory, the battle deeply influenced Howe and crushed his initial belief that the rebels represented only a small part of the American people. A dashing, daring commander earlier in his career, the high losses at Bunker Hill made Howe more conservative and less inclined to attack strong enemy positions.

Battle of Bunker Hill. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Knighted that year, Howe was temporarily appointed commander-in-chief on October 10 (it was made permanent in April 1776) when Gage returned to England. Assessing the strategic situation, Howe and his superiors in London planned to establish bases in New York and Rhode Island in 1776 with the goal of isolating the rebellion and containing it in New England. Forced out of Boston on March 17, 1776, after General George Washington emplaced guns on Dorchester Heights, Howe withdrew with the army to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

New York

There, a new campaign was planned with the goal of taking New York. Landing on Staten Island on July 2, Howe's army soon swelled to over 30,000 men. Crossing to Gravesend Bay, Howe exploited the light American defenses at Jamaica Pass and succeeded in flanking Washington's army. The resulting Battle of Long Island on August 26/27 saw the Americans beaten and forced to retreat. Falling back to fortifications at Brooklyn Heights, the Americans awaited a British assault. Based on his earlier experiences, Howe was reluctant to attack and began siege operations.

Battle of Long Island
Battle of Long Island by Alonzo Chappel. Public Domain

This hesitation allowed Washington's army to escape to Manhattan. Howe was soon joined by his brother who had orders to act as a peace commissioner. On September 11, 1776, the Howes met with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge on Staten Island. While the American representatives demanded recognition of independence, the Howes were only permitted to extend pardons to those rebels who submitted to British authority.

Their offer refused, they began active operations against New York City. Landing on Manhattan on September 15, Howe suffered a setback at Harlem Heights the next day but ultimately forced Washington from the island and later drove him from a defensive position at the Battle of White Plains. Rather than pursue Washington's beaten army, Howe returned to New York to secure Forts Washington and Lee.

New Jersey

Again showing an unwillingness to eliminate Washington's army, Howe soon moved into winter quarters around New York and only dispatched a small force under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis to create a "safe zone" in northern New Jersey. He also dispatched Clinton to occupy Newport, RI. Recovering in Pennsylvania, Washington was able to win victories at Trenton, Assunpink Creek, Princeton in December and January. As a result, Howe pulled back many of his outposts. While Washington continued small-scale operations during the winter, Howe was content to remain in New York enjoying a full social calendar.

Two Plans

In the spring of 1777, Burgoyne proposed a plan for defeating the Americans which called for him to lead an army south through Lake Champlain to Albany while a second column advanced east from Lake Ontario. These advances were to be supported by an advance north from New York by Howe. While this plan was approved by Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, Howe's role was never clearly defined nor was he issued orders from London to aid Burgoyne. As a result, though Burgoyne moved forward, Howe launched his own campaign to capture the American capital at Philadelphia. Left on his own, Burgoyne was defeated in the critical Battle of Saratoga.

Philadelphia Captured

Sailing south from New York, Howe moved up the Chesapeake Bay and landed at Head of Elk on August 25, 1777. Moving north into Delaware, his men skirmished with the Americans at Cooch's Bridge on September 3. Pressing on, Howe defeated Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11. Outmaneuvering the Americans, he captured Philadelphia without a fight eleven days later. Concerned about Washington's army, Howe left a small garrison in the city and moved northwest.

Fighting around Cliveden during the Battle of Germantown. Photograph Source: Public Domain

On October 4, he won a near-run victory at the Battle of Germantown. In the wake of the defeat, Washington retreated into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Having taken the city, Howe also worked to open the Delaware River to British shipping. This saw his men defeated at Red Bank but victorious in the Siege of Fort Mifflin.

Under severe criticism in England for failing to crush the Americans and feeling he had lost the king's confidence, Howe requested to be relieved on October 22. After attempting to lure Washington into battle late that fall, Howe and the army entered winter quarters in Philadelphia. Again enjoying a lively social scene, Howe received word that his resignation had been accepted on April 14, 1778.

Later Life

Arriving in England, Howe entered into the debate over the conduct of the war and published a defense of his actions. Made a privy counselor and Lieutenant General of the Ordnance in 1782, Howe remained in active service. With the outbreak of the French Revolution he served in a variety of senior commands in England. Made a full general in 1793, he died on July 12, 1814, after a prolonged illness, while serving as governor of Plymouth. An adept battlefield commander, Howe was beloved by his men but received little credit for his victories in America. Slow and indolent by nature, his greatest failure was an inability to follow up on his successes.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: General Sir William Howe." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: General Sir William Howe. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: General Sir William Howe." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).