Howe, William

views updated May 29 2018

William Howe

Born August 10, 1729
London, England
Died July 12, 1814
Plymouth, England

Commander-in-chief of the British army in North America

William Howe was the British general given credit not for losing the war against the American rebels, but for failing to win it. Howe was an excellent soldier but a less-than-adequate commander-in-chief. On many occasions he won battles against the Americans but failed to suppress the rebellion early in the war when he did not pursue and decisively defeat the army of General George Washington see entry.

William Howe was born on August 10, 1729, in London to Emanuel Scrope Howe and his wife, Mary Sophia, the eldest daughter of Baron Kielmansegge. William was their third son, and they had at least one daughter, Caroline, who was a famous letter writer.

Although the Howes lived in England, the oldest son of the family held an Irish aristocratic title, viscount (pronounced VY-count) Howe. William's father was the second viscount Howe. William's oldest brother, George Augustus, inherited the title to become the third viscount Howe. (The Howes proved an unfortunate family in respect to this title. George died as a young man, leaving the second son, Richard, to become the fourth viscount Howe. Richard also held an Engish title, earl Howe. When Richard died, William became the fifth viscount Howe and, as he died without children, the Irish title of viscount Howe lapsed.)

The Howe family was believed to be of royal blood. William's grandmother had been a mistress (lover, not a wife) of King George I and bore him a child, from whom William and his brothers and sisters were descended. This made William, Richard, and George Howe the uncles of King George III (1738–1820; see entry), who held the British throne at the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). In later years, when Richard was made an admiral in the navy and William a general in the army, some of their critics claimed that they received their positions as a result of the king's favor.

As a child, William Howe was tutored at home and then attended Eton, an exclusive private school. While at school, he met and became friends with many of the men who would run the British government and military during the war with the American colonies.

Joins the army

As a younger son, William Howe needed a profession to support himself. He chose the army, and soon proved that he was a talented soldier. His family purchased a commission for him (they bought a military rank and regiment for him to serve in, a common practice at the time). In 1746, at the age of seventeen, he entered the army as a cornet (a low-ranking officer). He was a dragoon, an infantry or foot soldier who also fought on horseback. By the time he was twenty-nine, Howe had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and was serving in Ireland. Along the way, he became friends with James Wolfe, a brilliant young major in his regiment.

Service in French and Indian War

In 1760 Howe and his regiment left Ireland for America to support the colonists in the French and Indian War (1754–63). This war was part of a larger European struggle called the Seven Years War (1756–63). This struggle, mainly between England and France, spilled over into their colonial possessions, and many English regiments were sent to Canada and the American colonies to answer the French threat there. (In the Americas, the French enlisted the aid of their Native American allies; from that came the name French and Indian War.)

Howe gained a reputation for bravery during the battle to take the Canadian city of Quebec, in September 1759. His commanding officer was his old friend, James Wolfe, now a successful general. Howe led a small force of twenty-four men who helped clear a path for the British army to move across the Heights of Abraham, the plain overlooking Quebec. This daring act put the British in a position to take the city from the French. In 1760 the British army swept into Montreal, completing the defeat of the French in Canada. During this action, Howe commanded a brigade (a fighting unit of both foot and horse soldiers).

Howe returned briefly to England, to help in the war effort there. He commanded a brigade at the siege of Belle Isle, off the coast of Brittany, France, in 1761. By 1762 he was back across the ocean in time to serve with the British army in their conquest of Havana, on the island of Cuba off the Florida coast.

Holds seat in Parliament

At the end of the Seven Years War, Howe's military future looked very promising. Upon returning home, he was first made colonel of a regiment stationed in Ireland. In 1765 he married Frances Conolly, the fourth daughter of William Conolly and his wife, Lady Anne Wentworth. Frances and her family lived in Castletown, in county Kildare, where Howe's regiment was stationed. Howe may have loved Frances Conolly when they married, but he would prove himself incapable of remaining a faithful husband. He loved going to parties, flirting with beautiful women, and dining well. His officers loved him and he proved his bravery on the battlefield many times. Both friends and critics described Howe as a tall, stout man with a dark complexion. He seems to have been good tempered, but when angered would explode.

Although Howe stayed in the military, the lack of fighting gave him a chance to pursue a political career. He was named governor of the Isle of Wight in 1768. A seat in Parliament (Great Britain's lawmaking body) in the House of Commons (similar to the U.S. House of Representatives) became vacant when Howe's brother, George Augustus, also a British officer serving in the French and Indian War, died in a battle in 1758. William Howe was elected to his brother's seat in 1759, and continued to sit in Parliament until 1780. When he stood to address Parliament, his subject was often the harsh measures Britain was using to subdue its rebellious citizens in America. Howe had served in America and liked the people there.

But politics did not absorb all of Howe's time. In 1772 he was promoted to major general, another step on the way to becoming a full general. In 1774 he was put in charge of training army units in a new style of fighting called light infantry drill. Then, in February 1775, Howe received orders that would take him to America and the coming revolution there. Howe had said publicly that he liked Americans, and had no interest in fighting them. However, as a soldier, Howe felt he had to obey the orders sending him to Boston to help General Thomas Gage see entry.

Battle of Bunker Hill

Howe sailed on the Cerebus, along with two other generals who would gain fame in the Revolution, General Henry Clinton and General John Burgoyne see entry. Howe and his companions arrived in Boston Harbor on May 25. By mid-June, he had assessed the military situation, and he took command at the urging of Gage, Britain's military governor in Boston. After clashing with the American militia (the Minutemen) at Concord, the British had retreated into Boston. George Washington, in charge of the American (or Continental) army, had camped around the city to keep the British contained.

Howe advised that the British army leave Boston to assault (charge) the American positions on Bunker and Breed's hills, just outside the city. This was the first major battle of the American Revolution. It took three assaults, but the British finally broke through the American lines. The cost was staggering, with the British losing almost half their attack force. The sight of the wounded and dead left a huge impact on Howe, and made him more thoughtful in risking his men's lives.

In October 1776 Howe assumed total control of the British army in the American colonies. From then on his title was "His Excellency, General William Howe, the commanderin-chief of His Britannic Majesty's expeditionary forces in America." One of Howe's first moves as commander-in-chief was to determine that it was unprofitable to the British to try to hold on to Boston. In March 1776 he evacuated (left) Boston, along with his army and many Loyalists (Tories or Americans loyal to Britain), for Halifax, Nova Scotia. This Canadian city was still a British stronghold. One of the Loyalists to leave Boston in General Howe's evacuation fleet was Elizabeth Loring, the wife of Joshua Loring. Howe fell in love with Mrs. Loring, and their open love affair fueled criticism of both Howe and his lover. She was nicknamed "lovely Lizzie Loring," and poems that made fun of her and the general would appear in American newspapers until Howe left the country. Her husband, Joshua, was left behind in New York City, but Howe consoled him by making him commissary of prisoners (person in charge of the store that sold goods to prisoners).

Takes New York City

From Halifax, Howe took his army of thirty-two thousand soldiers and camped around New York City in June 1776. His goal was to capture this important port city and break the American resistance. Aiding Howe in this goal was his brother, Richard, now an admiral and in charge of the British fleet in America. After a series of battles, including British army victories at White Plains and Long Island, the Howes succeeded in taking New York in November 1776, and occupied the city that winter. That same year, William Howe was knighted for his service to the British crown, becoming General Sir William Howe. He and Richard were also named peace commissioners by the king, and urged to try to find a peaceful solution to the rebellion (the king wanted the American rebels to surrender).

Throughout the winter, both William and Richard Howe tried to negotiate with the rebels, but their peace overtures were not accepted. Instead, the Americans published their Declaration of Independence, which would gain them European allies with whom to continue their fight against Britain. William Howe realized then that his strategy was not working (he was trying to show the Americans the strength of the British army in the hopes that the rebels would back down). In fact, the Americans surprised Howe by winning battles at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in December 1776 and January 1777. Then Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, in Pennsylvania. Howe again had a chance to smash Washington's smaller and weaker army, but he stayed in New York.

Captures American capital of Philadelphia

Howe now decided that he would need to break Washington's army in order to end the rebellion. He requested thousands of British and Loyalist reinforcements. He would use these soldiers to hold New York while he went south to take the American capital of Philadelphia. The reinforcements never came but Howe was committed to taking Philadelphia. He packed up most of his army and sailed into Chesapeake Bay in August of 1777. He left behind General Henry Clinton and a skeleton force to hold New York City. His move southward also left General John Burgoyne see entry without support as he tried to invade upstate New York from Canada. (This lack of support would earn Howe much criticism, as Burgoyne eventually lost the Battle of Saratoga and surrendered his army to the Americans.)

On his march into Philadelphia, Howe defeated Washington at Brandywine Creek, where the Continental army tried to stop the British advance. By September, Howe had taken Philadelphia. Many in Philadelphia welcomed the British with open arms, especially the Loyalists, who were glad to have the British in their city. Others in the city remained indifferent to the American struggle for independence. An even smaller group actively worked to oust the British first from Philadelphia and then from America itself. This group of patriots continually spied on Howe and his staff, and even on Mrs. Loring. But Howe had a hard time believing that the friendly American faces around him were really those of his enemies. After a time, even his own officers began to question his judgment about Americans.

In October 1778 Howe defeated an American attempt to retake Philadelphia at the Battle of Germantown. Then Howe once again went into winter quarters, taking the best house in Philadelphia for his headquarters. He spent the winter taking Lizzie Loring to parties, and only occasionally made war on the American-held forts along the Delaware River that blocked the British fleet from supplying Philadelphia. Howe also responded to criticism about how he was running the war by offering to quit. That fall, he submitted his letter of resignation.

Resigns and returns to England

In April 1778 Howe learned that his resignation had been accepted, and that he and Richard Howe were to return to England. When word of Howe's departure spread through his staff, many were disappointed to lose such a popular commander. One of his favorite aides, Major John André, organized a huge farewell party called a mischianza, which is Italian for medley or mix of entertainment. The officers dressed up as knights and fought a tournament on horseback. The party also included an elaborate dinner, fireworks, and dancing. Many who criticized Howe's love of luxury pointed to this party as an example of how he wasted time and money when he should have been waging war. General Henry Clinton arrived in May 1778 to officially take over the British command from Howe.

When Howe arrived in England in July 1778, he found that many in Parliament and throughout the British upper classes were openly questioning how he and his brother Richard had organized the war effort in America. By early 1778, the Howe brothers demanded that Parliament open a public inquiry into how the war in America was being conducted. The hearing was held, and included evidence both supporting and criticizing the Howes. One critic was Henry Clinton, who wrote bitterly that Howe had failed in his mission to put down the American rebellion. The hearing closed in 1779 without finding the Howe brothers either guilty or innocent. William Howe responded in 1780 by publishing a pamphlet in his own defense called Narrative of Sir William Howe before a Committee of the House of Commons. Responding to critics who said that his military strategy in America had not been bold enough, Howe wrote, "As my opinion has always been, that the defeat of the rebel regular army is the surest road to peace, I invariably pursued the most profitable means of forcing its commander to action under circumstances least hazardous to the royal army."

Serves in war against France

While the Howes' reputation may have suffered, the setback was temporary and both men's careers soon were back on track. Some believe that the Howes survived the storm of criticism because the king intervened on his uncles' behalf. Whatever the reason, beginning in 1782, William Howe was promoted several times and in 1793 he became a full general, in charge of England's northern defense in 1795 when war broke out with France. In 1795, Howe was named governor of Berwick-on-Tweed, an English city.

When his brother Richard died in 1799 without children, William Howe inherited the Irish title and became the fifth viscount Howe. By 1803, Howe's health was so bad that he resigned his military post and took up residence in the port city of Plymouth. He was made governor of the city in 1805. Howe was also named a privy councillor, one of a group of personal advisers to the king. He died in Plymouth on July 12, 1814, after a long illness.

For More Information

Anderson, Troyer Steele. The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution. Temecula, CA: Reprint Services Corp., 1993.

Cornwell, Bernard. Redcoat. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1987.

Cullen, Joseph P. "Brandywine Creek." American History Illustrated. Vol. 15, August 1980, pp. 8–18.

Galloway, Joseph. A Reply to the Observations of Lieut. Gen. Sir William Howe, on a Pamphlet, Entitled Letters to a Nobleman. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1972.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

Inguanzo, Anthony P. "Howe, William" in The American Revolution, 1775–1783: An Encyclopedia, vol. 1: A–L. Richard L. Blanco, editor. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 785–88.

Leckie, Robert. George Washington's War: The Saga of the American Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 463–66.

MacGregor, Bruce. "A Failure to Communicate: the British and Saratoga." American History Illustrated. Vol. 20, October 1985, pp. 12–20.

Purcell, L. Edward. "William Howe" in Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, pp. 239–40.

Did General Howe Lose the War?

Critics for more than two hundred years have charged that William Howe's lack of aggression cost Britain its richest possession, the American colonies. Howe proved himself an able commander, defeating George Washington's army time and again. However, many wonder why Howe did not pursue the fleeing rebels and destroy their army.

Why did Howe hesitate? Some historians believe that Howe was a good soldier but did not have the necessary skills to be commander-in-chief. They say that Howe could plot a single battle but could not develop a strategy (long-term plan) for winning the war.

Other historians cite Howe's fondness for the American people. It is true that Howe was moved when the people of Massachusetts raised money for a monument in honor of his brother, George, who was killed in the French and Indian War defending the colonists. It is true that Howe was publicly in love with an American woman, Elizabeth Loring. It is true that he argued in Parliament for a peaceful settlement of the quarrel with America.

However, Howe was first and foremost an English aristocrat and a soldier. He was bred, educated, and trained to serve Great Britain and to defend his country and its possessions. It is unlikely that Howe would put these claims aside, however much he may have liked the Americans. A more likely explanation is Howe's apparent inability to trounce the rebels. Armies were hard to raise and expensive to provide for, and few military leaders were willing to take on the risks unless a victory was assured. Howe had to preserve his army, because few replacements were coming out from England. The Loyalists whom Howe had expected to flock to his aid had turned out in disappointingly small numbers. And then Howe had to make his supplies and ammunition last, because his supply line stretched back across the Atlantic Ocean to England.

Geography also played a part. It was impossible for Howe to capture a major city, leave it controlled by his soldiers, and then go on to take another city. America was simply too big and he had too few soldiers. Given these problems, it is unlikely that any British commander could have avoided losing the war in America.

Howe, however, could have broken the American resistance early in the war had he pursued and smashed the Continental army. Why he chose not to do so, on repeated occasions, remains one of the most perplexing questions of American Revolutionary War history.

Howe, William

views updated May 29 2018

Howe, William

HOWE, WILLIAM. (1729–1814). Fifth Viscount Howe, British general. William, younger brother of George Augustus Howe and Richard Howe, was born on 10 August 1729 and educated at home and at Eton (1742–1746). He entered the army in 1746 as a cornet of the Fifteenth Dragoons, and his unusual application and ability, coupled to powerful connections, enabled him to rise rapidly. Promoted to lieutenant in 1747, he served in Flanders until the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. He became a captain in the Twentieth Foot on 2 January 1750 and formed a close friendship with Major James Wolfe. He was made major in the new Sixtieth (later the Fifty-eighth) Regiment in 1756 and became its lieutenant colonel in 1757. He served with distinction at Louisburg in 1758, Quebec (where he led Wolfe's advance guard onto the Plains of Abraham) in 1759, and the capture of Montreal in 1760. He led a brigade at the capture of Belle Isle in 1761 and was adjutant general of the expedition to Havana in 1762. During the years of peace he continued to rise: colonel of the Forty-sixth Foot in 1764, lieutenant governor of the Isle of Wight in 1768 and major general in 1772. In the late summer of 1774 he was given charge of seven line companies learning light infantry tactics on Salisbury Plain. When war broke out in America in 1775, Howe was a successful soldier distinguished for energy, leadership, and courage.

When George was killed in 1758, William replaced him as member of Parliament for Nottingham. He used his seat to oppose the ministry's policy of coercion in 1774 and it was thought he would not agree to serve in America. His appointment as Gage's second in command and prospective successor was thus something of a surprise, which he explained to his constituents as a matter of duty over personal preference. He also seemed to think that a negotiated settlement was still possible and that he might be the man to reach it. This background has led some historians—most prominently and persistently Ira D. Gruber—to attribute his later military failure to overanxiety to find a political solution. (Gruber rightly has little time for older accusations of laziness, self-indulgent living, and overattachment to his American mistress, Mrs. Joshua Loring). The matter is still open to debate. However the alternative argument put many years ago by Piers Mackesy—that Howe was slowed by intractable military difficulties—appears to be more convincing.

When he reached Boston on 25 May 1775, the time for negotiation was already past: Lexington and Concord had been fought and Boston was under siege. Howe planned and led—with great courage—the British attack on Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill on 17 June. The terribly high price of the British victory demonstrated that costly attacks were to be avoided for two reasons: first, the army's qualitative advantage over the rebels must not be eroded by losses, and second, the Americans must not be allowed to gain confidence through even partial successes. On the contrary, the redcoats' superior discipline and skill in maneuver was the key to ultimate victory: pitched battles were to be avoided until victory was certain. All this was conventional military wisdom in 1776: the idea of attacking and annihilating the enemy's army regardless of cost is Napoleonic in origin and by definition was not available to Howe.


He took over command in Gage's absence on 10 October. Compelled to hurriedly evacuate Boston early in 1776, Howe took his army to Halifax to reorganize and await adequate reinforcements and transports. He was still waiting for his reinforcements and campaign equipment when he reached Staten Island off New York late in June and landed his men on 2 July. His brother, Admiral Richard Lord Howe, arrived on the 12th with supporting warships, some reinforcements, and the news that he and William had been appointed peace commissioners. Both brothers knew that their power to offer pardons and an end to restrictions on trade in return for rebel disarmament were out of date and useless. On the other hand Howe needed more men, supplies, and essential camp equipment before he could risk his precious regulars in a campaign. He had no choice but to wait. Thus, far from changing his strategy to make room for negotiation, as Gruber would have it, he and Richard used the period of enforced inactivity to begin negotiations on 14 July. The overture came to nothing, largely because the Howes would not address Washington as "General"—a point, had they been really serious, they might have overlooked.

But still Howe could not move, largely because everything he needed had to come across the Atlantic and because the government, which determined strategy, sent Clinton off on a wild goose chase to Charleston before he went on to join Howe. Meanwhile, some British regulars and Germans arrived from Europe, but Howe did not feel strong enough to risk an amphibious assault on Long Island until Clinton finally arrived on 12 August. Even then Howe would launch his offensive without the last of his equipment, the camp kettles that were essential to his men's health in the field. When they arrived at the end of August, he promptly attacked Long Island.

Brilliantly outmaneuvering Washington and pinning the rebels against the water at Brooklyn on 27 August, Howe opted for a regular siege of their works rather than an immediate storm. The memory of Bunker Hill cast a long shadow. Howe knew that he must not risk giving the Americans even the illusion of success, a policy that Clinton, who was very critical later when blame had to be apportioned, heartily approved at the time. In the same way, after Washington's escape, Howe planned another outflanking move that would lever Washington out of New York City rather than force him to fight for it street by street. That meant a wait until boats, transports, and supporting warships could be concentrated inside the East River, and once again the Howe brothers used the lull to negotiate. Then the indirect assault began, again catching the Americans off balance and driving them out of the city at minimal risk. Washington escaped, of course, but his army was shaken and demoralized and nearer to the point when Howe could risk a final battle. The pattern was repeated at Harlem and White Plains. Then, when he was sure that Fort Washington was isolated and vulnerable, Howe proved he could attack decisively. A few more weeks and Washington's army might have been harried to pieces.


But the campaigning season was now far advanced. As autumn turned the roads of New York and New Jersey to mud and the soldiers became exhausted, hot pursuit became impossible and Washington escaped behind the Delaware. Howe's army went into winter quarters and on 30 November the brothers used the unavoidable lull to offer a pardon to all who would return to their allegiance within sixty days. This might have succeeded in pacifying New Jersey but for Washington's double success at Trenton and Princeton, demonstrating that the British army was now dangerously overextended. Howe's subsequent retreat behind the Raritan exposed the New Jersey men who had come out to support him and shook the faith of Loyalists everywhere in the ability of the British army to liberate and protect them. Worse still, it confined the British in New York in an area too small to provide it with adequate supplies, leaving it dangerously dependent upon transatlantic shipments of everything from powder and flints to writing paper and firewood. However, the attempt to overrun and rally support in New Jersey was fully justified by the winter pause in operations, something eighteenth-century commanders took for granted, and one Howe could not ignore if he was to conserve his precious regulars.


Howe's objective in 1777 was to engage and defeat Washington's army, and all his apparent hesitations and delays sprang from the difficulty of bringing this about. His fundamental strategic error, failure to thrust up the Hudson to meet Burgoyne, was one shared with the ministry and with Burgoyne himself: no one imagined that Burgoyne would need direct help. On the other hand, if Howe could pin down and decisively defeat Washington's army, he would render effective help to Burgoyne while bringing the rebellion swiftly to an end. An amphibious invasion of Pennsylvania would—by threatening Philadelphia—probably force Washington to offer battle on Howe's terms. It would also give Howe secure lines of communication, restore Loyalist confidence, and secure an adequate territory from which to draw supplies. The draw-back was that because so many troops had been sent from Britain to Burgoyne rather than to New York, Howe would have to evacuate the Jerseys in order to find enough men for Pennsylvania.

For a moment, Washington's appearance at Middle Brook north of the Raritan seemed to promise a decisive battle without going to Philadelphia at all. In June, Howe successfully lured Washington out of his strong position and tried to cut him off and make him fight in the open. The attempt failed, and Washington escaped to his fastness at Middle Brook. Once again refusing an assault on a strong position—a decision later praised by Charles Lord Cornwallis—Howe then evacuated the Jerseys and resumed his plan to attack Philadelphia.

His primary target was still Washington's army, not the city, and its movements determined his strategy. As in 1776, the embarkation was delayed by the shortages of troops, shipping, and supplies, not to mention contrary winds. Howe had also to make sure that Burgoyne was not running into any unexpected trouble and that Washington did not slip north to intercept him. He had no orders to march up the Hudson himself, except in an emergency; so far from ignoring his instructions (as Gruber insists he was), Howe was being commendably careful and conscientious. Consequently, there was a three-week pause on Staten Island from 1-23 July before he embarked his fifteen thousand men for Pennsylvania.

Howe already knew that he could land at Chester or New Castle, below the known Delaware forts and obstacles, or in the Chesapeake at Head of Elk, depending on Washington's movements. When the expedition reached the mouth of the Delaware on 30 July, Howe discovered that his opponent had not marched north against New York or Burgoyne, a move which would have ended the whole British expedition. Instead, Washington appeared to have moved south and west, towards the line of the Susquehanna River, behind which he would be hard to get at and would be able to threaten the flank of an advance from the Delaware to Philadelphia. As Howe's primary objective was still Washington's army, he decided to go to Head of Elk, further from Philadelphia but closer to Washington and on a line of operations that would keep the enemy to his front and might—by still threatening Philadelphia—bring him to battle. That meant longer at sea, and when Howe's men disembarked at Head of Elk on 25 August, they were so exhausted that it was the 28th before they could march inland.

Once on the move, Howe consistently outgeneraled Washington. On 11 September he won a clear victory at Brandywine Creek, a battle Washington survived only because Howe's cavalry horses were still in no state to offer hot pursuit. Washington was again outmaneuvered on the Schuylkill, Philadelphia was occupied on 26 September, and Washington's counteroffensive was skillfully contained at Germantown on 4 October.

Washington's army survived, however, and Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga negated all of Howe's achievements in Pennsylvania. Howe, already irritated by criticism from a ministry that had kept him short of men and shipping, offered his resignation on 22 October 1777. On 14 April 1778 he learned that it had been accepted and on 25 May, after Clinton's arrival and the abortive attempt to trap Lafayette at Barren Hill, Howe sailed for home.


Howe was greeted by a barrage of criticism from the opposition and the press. He and his brother Richard (who returned home on 25 October 1778) insisted on a parliamentary inquiry, and from 22 April to 30 June 1779 they vigorously defended their conduct. In 1780 William gave up his Commons seat and resumed his military career. In 1782 he became a privy councillor and lieutenant general of the ordnance, a post he held until 1804. He became colonel of the Nineteenth Dragoons in 1786, and after the outbreak of war in 1793 he was given regional commands in the north and east of England. He was governor of Berwick from 1795 to 1808 and of Plymouth from 1808 until his death in 1814. On Richard's death on 5 August 1799, he became the fifth viscount Howe. He died at Plymouth on 12 July 1814.


Although Howe's excessive caution led him to miss decisive opportunities in 1776 and 1777, he was neither lazy nor did Mrs. Loring keep him from operations in the field. It is true that the Philadelphia expedition was partly misconceived: a thrust up the Hudson might have as effectively brought Washington to battle while eliminating most of the risk to Burgoyne. However, that would have sacrificed the political and moral advantages of invading Pennsylvania, not to mention the prospect of conquering a territory large enough to provide adequate supplies. Howe in the field was slow and methodical but his tactical performance was nothing short of stunning. Howe was a capable commander saddled with an enormous task, inadequate means, and (in 1777) a flawed strategy imposed from above.

SEE ALSO Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Burgoyne, John; Clinton, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Howe, Richard; Lexington and Concord; Long Island, New York, Battle of; New York Campaign; Peace Commission of the Howes; Philadelphia Campaign; Princeton, New Jersey; Trenton, New Jersey.


Bowler, R. A. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in North America, 1775–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.

                              revised by John Oliphant

William Howe

views updated Jun 11 2018

William Howe

William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe (1729-1814), was British army commander-in-chief in America during the early years of the Revolution.

William Howe was born on Aug. 10, 1729, the younger brother of the future admiral Richard Howe. After attending Eton, he entered the army at the age of 17. For the next 30 years he rose steadily in rank. He distinguished himself in the Canadian campaign of the French and Indian War. Serving under Gen. James Wolfe at the siege of Quebec in 1759, Howe in the succeeding year commanded the attack on Montreal. In 1762 he participated in the siege of Spanish-held Havana, Cuba. When the war was over, he had a brilliant record. He also enjoyed important family connections at court and by 1772 had been advanced to major general.

Commander in Chief in America

Howe also held political office. In 1758 he had been elected to a seat in the House of Commons. While he did not take an active role in Parliament debate, he made clear his opposition to the Foreign Ministry's American policy and declared that he would refuse to accept a command in the Colonies. Yet Howe did go to America in May 1775, explaining that "he was ordered, and could not refuse." His command of the British forces in the Battle of Bunker Hill displayed personal valor and a considerably greater degree of energy and decision than he would show later. By October, Howe had been given a local rank of full general and made commander-in-chief of the British army in the Colonies. Considerable controversy has always surrounded the roles played by William and Richard Howe during the Revolution, because in addition to commanding the military they were supposed to negotiate peace with the Americans.

Howe was forced to evacuate Boston in March 1776; he moved his troops by sea to New York. His invasion of Long Island and Manhattan included a series of tactical successes. But the long delays and ineffective pursuits that followed, though they mauled the American forces, left Gen. George Washington's retreating army intact.

British overconfidence, the dilatory movements of Gen. Howe, and the failure of Gen. Charles Cornwallis to catch the retreating Washington all contributed to a surprising turn of events at the end of 1776. Howe had left scattered forces occupying central New Jersey as far as the Delaware River. In a surprise attack on December 6, 1776, the Americans routed a garrison at Trenton, and then 8 days later triumphed in a full-scale battle at Princeton. Gen. Howe had lost another chance to destroy Washington, and 1776 ended on a note of rebel victory.

Again, in 1777, Howe's strategic failures resulted in reverses for the British. The grand British strategy that year involved a two-pronged attack against the Americans. First, Gen. John Burgoyne would move down from Canada intoNew York to interrupt colonial communications, recruit Tory allies, and prepare for a later invasion of rebel strongholds. Second, Howe would move overland to engage the Continental Army in a contest for the American capital, Philadelphia. But Howe changed his mind, decided to bring his invading forces by water, wasted time maneuvering in New Jersey, and then spent nearly all of August at sea. Consequently, Howe's land movement toward Philadelphia did not begin until the end of August. A series of engagements—including British victories at Brandywine and Paoli—saw the British safely into the American capital. And American efforts to oust them were repulsed in early October.

Meanwhile, Howe was confronted with the decisive defeat of Gen. Burgoyne's troops at Saratoga. Burgoyne had earlier assured Howe of his ability to care for himself; and as a result, when he was besieged, there were no British forces near enough or large enough to rescue him. While the capture of Philadelphia did not really shake the Revolutionary cause, the defeat at Saratoga truly injured the British. It also made possible the Franco-American alliance of 1778.

Return to England

In October 1777, the month of Burgoyne's surrender, Howe offered his resignation. He then tried unsuccessfully to lure Washington into a general engagement. While Howe's army wintered in relative comfort in Philadelphia, Washington's men barely survived their encampment at Valley Forge. Howe finally received word that his resignation had been accepted and left Philadelphia in May 1778. Back in England, Howe became involved in an inconclusive debate on the conduct of the war and published a defense, claiming that all his actions had been determined by military necessity, not by any desire to appease the colonists.

Howe went on to hold a variety of important military positions. He became a full general in 1793. When the wars of the French Revolution began, he held important commands in the north and then in the east of England. In 1799, on the death of his brother, Richard, he succeeded to the Irish title of viscount. Failing health forced him to retire from active office in 1803. He died in Plymouth on July 12, 1814.

Further Reading

Useful for information on Howe are Troyer S. Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution (1936), and Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964). □

Howe, Sir William

views updated May 29 2018

Howe, Sir William (1729–1814), British general.The youngest of the second Viscount Howe's three sons, all of whom served in America, William Howe joined the British army in 1746. During the French and Indian War he served at the Louisbourg Siege and the Battle of Québec. Howe returned to America in 1775 to reinforce Gen. Thomas Gage in the Revolutionary War, arriving in time to command British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe won that battle (losing nearly 40% of his attack force) and succeeded Gage as commander in chief October 1775. During the campaign of 1776, Howe defeated the Continental army at Long Island, New York City, and White Plains. In 1777, hoping to capture the Congress, he invaded Pennsylvania, but had to settle for occupying Philadelphia, while the northern Continentals and militia defeated Gen. John Burgoyne's invading army in New York at the Battles of Saratoga. Upon Burgoyne's surrender, Howe resigned his command, leaving for England in 1778.

During his three years as commander in chief, Howe consistently stopped short of destroying his enemy when the opportunity arose—perhaps from a sensible estimate of the dangers of pursuit, or from Howe's contradictory roles. As peace commissioner, he was required to negotiate a peace that would bring the colonies voluntarily back into the empire. Howe squandered the British army's numerical superiority by refusing to unleash its full force on the Americans.
[See also Cornwallis, Charles; Clinton, Henry; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Ira Gruber , The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution, 1972.

Jon T. Coleman

Howe, William

views updated May 29 2018

Howe, William (1729–1814). Younger brother of Richard Howe, William served in the army in Flanders 1747–8, and with distinction in Canada and Cuba 1759–62. Between 1758 and 1780 he was MP for Nottingham, where there was a family interest. Having previously refused to serve in America at the outbreak of rebellion, he arrived in Boston in May 1775, and after Bunker Hill was appointed KB. The following May, alongside his brother, William Howe was deputed to offer conciliation to the colonists; but after two years they resigned this joint commission, and Clinton succeeded Major-General Howe. Promoted full general in 1793, Howe became governor of Berwick-on-Tweed and, in 1805, of Plymouth, where he died. In 1799 he had succeeded, on Richard's death, to the Irish barony first conferred on their great-grandfather by George I. Lord Melbourne, in his breezy way, told the young Victoria that Howe was ‘as brave as a lion, but no more of a commander than a pig’.

David Denis Aldridge

Howe, Sir William

views updated May 17 2018

Howe, Sir William (1729–1814) British general during the American Revolution. He fought at Bunker Hill and became commander in chief of British forces in North America in 1775. He captured New York (1776) and occupied Philadelphia (September 1777). After defeat at Saratoga (1777), he resigned and returned to England (1778).

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