American Revolution: General Sir William Howe

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

William Howe - 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. Attending Eton, 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 in 1750, Howe befriended Major James Wolfe, one of his future commanders, while with the regiment.

William Howe - French & Indian War:

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.  In this capacity he took part in Major General Jeffery Amherst's successful siege of Louisbourg that summer where he commanded the regiment. In the course of 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.

Remaining in North America, Howe served in Wolfe's attack on Quebec in 1759.

On September 13, Howe led the initial light infantry assault which secured the road up to the Plains of Abraham prior to the Battle of Quebec later that day. Promoted to lieutenant colonel that December, he helped defend Quebec through the winter before aiding in Amherst's capture of Montreal the following year and the siege of Belle Isle in 1762.

After serving as the adjutant general of the force that assaulted Havana, Cuba in 1763, 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.

William Howe - 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, the British were forced to take action when American forces fortified Breed's Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking the city.

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 on June 17.

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. 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.

William Howe - In Command:

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. 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 flanked and defeated Washington at the Battle of Long Island on August 26/27. 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.

This hesitation allowed Washington's army to escape to Manhattan. He was soon joined by his brother who had orders to act as a peace commissioner. Though the Howes met with American leaders, they were only permitted to extend pardons to those rebels who submitted. 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.

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.

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.

William Howe - 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, Howe captured the Philadelphia without a fight eleven days later. Concerned about Washington's army, Howe left a small garrison in the city and moved northwest. 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 while also successfully prosecuting 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. After an extravagant festival in his honor on May 18, Howe turned command over to Clinton and departed.

William Howe - Later Life:

Arriving in England, he 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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