Howe, Robert

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Howe, Robert

HOWE, ROBERT. (1732–1786). Continental general. North Carolina. Son of a wealthy planter on the Cape Fear River, Howe was captain of Fort Johnston in 1766–1767 and 1769–1773. On Governor Tryon's expedition against the Regulators, he was an artillery colonel. An ardent Whig, he served in the North Carolina assembly in 1772–1773 and was a delegate to the Provincial Congress at New Bern in August 1774. The Loyalist governor, Josiah Martin, denounced him on 8 August 1775 for his radical politics and also for his activity in forming and training rebel militia. On 1 September 1775 he became colonel of the Second North Carolina Regiment, and three months later he marched north to assist the Virginians. Widely acclaimed for his success in this affair, he was appointed a Continental brigadier general on 1 March 1776. Returning to the South to help defend Charleston, Howe found that his plantation at Brunswick had been ravaged by Cornwallis's troops on 12 May.

Howe took command of the Southern Department and was promoted to major general on 20 October 1777. The presence of this North Carolina man at Charleston was resented by South Carolina and Georgia authorities, and Howe's expedition against the British in Florida was a fiasco. Criticism of Howe was led by Christopher Gadsden, and when the latter refused to deny or retract certain statements, the two met in a duel on 13 August 1778. Howe's shot grazed Gadsden's ear, and Gadsden fired in the air. John André wrote a mocking poem about the affair, and Howe and Gadsden ended up being close friends. Benjamin Lincoln succeeded Robert Howe as department commander in September 1778, but Howe continued to command in Georgia. The British capture of Savannah on 29 December 1778 led to such public outcry against the unfortunate Howe that it was necessary for the Continental authorities to order him north in April 1779, even though a court-martial had acquitted him "with highest honor" of any misconduct at Savannah. Washington selected him as president of the court-martial resulting from Benedict Arnold's troubles as commander of Philadelphia. Howe then went to the Hudson Highlands north of New York City and led the unsuccessful operation against Verplancks Point that was ordered after Wayne's capture of Stony Point in July.

In February 1780 Howe was made commander of West Point. Succeeded by Arnold in August, Howe showed the man who had by then turned traitor around West Point, innocently pointing out its numerous weaknesses. On 29 September he sat with the board of officers that recommended the hanging of Arnold's British contact, John André. He commanded troops from the Highlands that successfully stopped the mutiny of the New Jersey line of 20-25 January 1781. In 1783 he dispersed the Philadelphia mob that had driven Congress out of town.

Resuming the life of a rice planter in 1783, he was appointed by Congress in May 1785 to work on boundary negotiations with the western Indians. He returned to North Carolina the following year and was elected to the state legislature. He died before he could take his seat.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Moores Creek Bridge; Mutiny of the New Jersey Line; Norfolk, Virginia; Savannah, Georgia (29 December 1778);Southern Theater, Military Operations in; Stony Point, New York.


Bennett, Charles E., and Donald R. Lennon. A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles