The Honorable Major General Sir William Howe, English Army

English Revolutionary War Military Leader


   Tall and Dark, Sir William Howe, born August 10, 1729, was the younger son of the second Viscount Howe. The Viscount had accounted himself well as a notable officer in the English Army under Wolfe in the Battle of Quebec in the French and Indian War. His mother was believed to be an illegitimate daughter of King George I, and the family was a favorite in the King's Court.

          William Howe's family included an elder brother, George Augustus who was the third Viscount Howe and was killed in Ticonderoga in 1758. There was also brother Richard who was the fourth Viscount as well as an admiral and who too would play a prominent role in the American Revolution. Due to wealth, nobility, and possible connection to the Royal line, it was only natural that such a family would prosper in 18th Century England, a society concerned far less with ability than bloodlines, connections and traditions. As such William Howe had a fine education, graduating from Eton, followed by a commission in the Army, which was purchased as was the custom. His first command was in the Duke of Cumberland's Light Dragoons. He served under Wolfe in the Seven Years War, attaining that General's commendation. He was highly regarded by his men, though he expected the best discipline, and was also considered a fine tactician.

          William Howe became a Major General in 1772 and also was a Member of Parliament for Nottingham. He was known as a womanizer, though he had a beloved wife. Although not known for his speaking abilities, Howe's views on English Colonial practices prior to the war were outspoken and not those of the King, whose policies he called obstinate. His feelings were so strong that he declared he would never accept a command against the Americans.

          However, in 1775 Howe was called upon to do exactly that, being one of three Generals sent to join Gage in command of the English forces in Boston following Lexington and Concorde. Howe apparently rationalized his acceptance of this prominent post as being required to keep America and its resources within the fold. It would seem that though he favored American beliefs as to pre-war policies, he did not favor independence.

          Howe's appointment to this post was not uniformly welcome. Many pundits believed his policies and his abilities to be suspect. Although forty five years of age and a general with combat experience, he had not led an army in the field. Furthermore, opined military voices no doubt clamoring for the position themselves, his experience was all "Colonial", meaning he had no experience of true Continental warfare between large regular armies.

          Despite the opposition, Howe sailed into Boston harbor in May of 1775 in the famed Cerberus as one of the three heads of the mythical beast, the other two being Generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne. Their arrival opened a new chapter in the American Revolution.

          Joining Gage in Boston, Howe found the besieged British forces in disarray and the Rebel's "amazingly well situated" in the surrounding rugged forest terrain. He, together with Gage, Clinton and Burgoyne, recconnoiterred the lines and concluded that action must be taken. A plan was drafted by the generals to make attacks and diversionary actions against the Rebels, including a movement into Charlestown. Word of this plan was soon passed to the Rebels by their spies, leading on June 16th to the the erection of the breastworks on Breed's Hill overlooking Charlestown.

          Thus was set the stage for Howe's first action in the Revolution, the assault upon Breed's hill which would come to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe himself would lead the English assault up the slopes towards the Rebel breastworks. He found himself thrice standing alone amidst dying and wounded men as the initial Rebel volleys tore holes in the British lines. Yet each time the attack faltered Howe regrouped it and led it back up the Hill. On the third attempt the Rebel positions were carried. In that action Howe's forces lost over one third of their strength, 226 killed and 828 wounded, while eventually taking the Rebel positions. Howe would claim victory but it was a costly one.

          Thereafter Howe led the Crown Forces in their assault upon Long Island in August of 1776, believing that New York City and the Hudson River Valley were the key to the American colonies. In the Battle of that name the Rebel forces were swept from the field and New York taken. The bulk of the Rebel forces, however, escaped.

          Once in New York, Howe seemed extraordinarily hesitant to risk his Army. Perhaps the carnage and losses of Bunker Hill had shaken him, or perhaps it was simply strategic assessment. In any case William Howe had reached the conclusion that his paramount concern must be the maintenance of his Army. Excessive losses would, he felt, render him incapable of winning the war. His actions, therefore, became ruled by caution rather than daring, hesitant, rather than bold. Howe was in all probability correct in as much as a loss of his Army would likely have resulted in a loss of the war. Yet his failure to act decisively and aggressively probably cost the English what little chance they may have had to win the war prior to French intervention.

          Howe thereafter led the English troops at Brandywine in September of 1777. In that action Howe adroitly flanked his opponent, forcing him from an otherwise formidable position and sending the Rebel army into a retreat. After defeating Washington, Howe occupied the Rebel capital of Philadelphia. A subsequent counter attack at Germantown in October would be repulsed, forcing the Rebels into winter encampment at Valley Forge. This was no doubt Howe's finest hour as commander of the British forces in America.

          Thereafter Howe acted with passivity and indecision. Rather than boldly attacking the weakened Rebels, Howe sat in occupation. Eventually, distracted by Southern and Northern operations he would recall his forces to New York. As his army withdrew through New Jersey they were attacked in June of 1778 at Monmouth.

          Howe was recalled upon his own request in 1778. In England he would request an investigation into his conduct of the war in an attempt to put an end to criticism. The committee so appointed disbanded in 1779 without conclusion. Howe would command the northern and later the southern districts of England during the war with France.

          Sir William would come to be the fifth Viscount Howe as well as the governor of Plymouth. He passed away in that city on July 12, 1814.

          History can not doubt the great physical Bravery of William Howe, he led his men into heavy fire without apparent regard for his own safety. His tactical prowess must also be taken as historic fact, he never lost an engagement. His strategic abilities are more questionable. While he did not obtain victory in the Revolution, neither did he lose the war and indeed he did much to further his country's cause. His bold strokes against New York and Philadelphia routed his enemy on each occasion. The retreat from New York can only be said to have reduced the Rebel forces to a disorganized rabble and the retreat from Philadelphia forced the rebels into a wilderness encampment at Yorktown with so little shelter and provisions that Washington's Army faced destruction that winter.

          Despite these bold strokes, Howe followed each with a period of passivity. Rather than following his routed enemy from the field to complete the victory, Howe merely occupied the city which had been his objective. Once so ensconced Howe would wait weeks before taking any further action. As noted above Howe was fearful of losing his Army in the field. As the only large crown force on the Continent he felt its loss would lose the war. He was almost certainly correct in that regard. Howe must have felt that his Army was more useful as a threat, or used only for limited actions. With more support he may have acted more forcefully. He spent much time requesting more forces from England, and one can only presume if those requests had been met he would have been more active in some fashion.

          It is odd that Howe, so engrossed with the preservation of his own forces, did not realize that the destruction of the Rebel Army would be all the more devastating to the Rebel cause. Perhaps Howe felt he had in fact twice destroyed the Rebel arms to little effect. Indeed after each great victory the Rebel Army did recover and in fact grow stronger. Still, one cannot but wonder if Howe had aggressively pursued the Rebels after New York or Philadelphia, would he have been able to destroy the Rebel Army and capture its leaders? It seems easy to say yes, how could he not with the Rebels in such disarray? However the terrain wherein he would have been forced to pursue the enemy was rugged and rural with minimal means of communication, transportation or supply. He may well have missed the bulk of his foe and disorganized his own forces in the process. Furthermore, one must consider the effect upon the local populace of a hostile invading army, one which once dispersed in pursuit would in all likelihood have also engaged in no small amount of looting and pilferage . Might not the rebels have found instant allies in the form of previously loyal colonists rising up in arms? Would Howe have faced the same fate as Pitcairn's column at Lexington and Concord, ambushed and harassed at every turn? Even if Howe were to persevere and inflict further casualties upon the enemy, his Army would be deep in the American wilderness, miles from supply and and naval support. Surely such an Army would be ripe to counter attack or the vagaries of weather and disease? While these threats may not have in fact developed, they must have seemed a real possibility to Howe. Certainly all recent British experiences would have indicated these possibilities. Can Howe then be said to have been unduly cautious, not with hindsight but with an examination of what he knew at the time?

          Furthermore one must consider Howe's personal intentions and impressions of the political nature of the war. He had expressly avowed that he favored the American cause. It has been said that his efforts as commander and chief were more directed towards conciliation than conquest. It seems likely, therefore, that Howe desired to inflict minimal casualties upon the Rebels and to engage only in those military actions which he thought necessary to put an end to armed rebellion. By unseating his enemy from its places of government, being New York and Philadelphia, he must have anticipated that he would so discourage the rebels that negotiations must result. To have followed up these victories with massacre and further invasion would no doubt have further enraged many Americans, spreading the Rebel sentiment and making conciliation difficult or impossible. It is probable that these political considerations may also have caused Howe to hold back from decisive aggressive action. While they proved unsuccessful in the end, his strategy was not necessarily without merit.

         In total, it is difficult to fault Howe for his strategic decisions. Each action, or inaction, seems to have been supported by the situation as it was known to Howe. The final failure of these strategies lay in political decisions made in England and in the dynamics of the type of war being fought by the Rebels, a war unlike any other before it. To hold Howe liable for perhaps not understanding that which was unknown seems unduly judgmental and unwarranted. Howe's strategic ability was sound, his application of it to the Revolution was skillful if not inspired.

          Howe's failing, if any, was in his inability to succeed in the non-military aspect of his office as Supreme Commander. He was utterly unable to effect any persuasion upon his civilian superiors as to how the war ought to be pursued or to obtain adequate forces to pursue it. He also failed in obtaining from his general officers the devotion his men seem to have given him. This would seem to have led to a divisiveness in his staff which would affect the British in the Americas long after his return to England. Although this no doubt was much the fault of those men, it also indicates a lack of political savvy on the part of Howe. This limitation would see him lose support in England and would lead to his eventually requesting his own recall.

          Had Howe been more a politician, it seems likely too that the committee appointed to review his actions may have exonerated him. It seems likely, however, that if it had rendered an honest opinion it could not have found Howe liable for the British loss of the Americas, but must have found him a capable and brave commander, but not the great and inspired leader England needed in his position to give it a chance to win the war.

Sources: Redcoats and Rebels, The American Revolution Through British Eyes, Christopher Hibbert, Avon Books, NY NY 1990; The Standard American Encyclopedia, Standard American Corporation, 1937, Chicago