Depiction of the Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran, 1909
Howe, though, had lost his nerve when he saw the fresh line of defences on Brooklyn Heights. ‘I would not risk the loss that might be sustained by the assault,’ he said later. Clinton and many other officers felt that there would have been little risk in forcing it while the Americans were in such confusion. The Battle of Long Island cost Washington more than 1,000 casualties and prisoners, including three generals. Ministers in London were delighted when they heard about the victory (British casualties were fewer than 400), and knighted Howe for his feat, but officers in the army itself were flabbergasted that a far greater opportunity had been lost.
During 28 and 29 August, Washington made good use of the breather given him by Howe. A fleet of small boats evacuated his army from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He thereby saved himself and more than 8,000 troops to fight another day.
Although Washington had eluded capture, there was still everything to play for. Much of the enemy army was now on Manhattan, which was connected to the mainland by just two bridges, close together, on the island’s northern tip. A skilful use of British naval and military power might trap them. Yet, from 29 August to 15 September, the British Army did not move. There were some valid reasons (the difficulty of navigating the waters around Manhattan due to tidal flows, batteries and sandbanks) and some less impressive ones (bringing up the creature comforts for the soldiers in camp), but Washington gained another breather.
When Howe finally moved on 15 September, he landed not on the mainland, where Clinton had suggested that he could cut off most of Washington’s army on Manhattan, but on that island itself, just above New York at Kip’s Bay. Operations, once again, developed at a leisurely pace and the Americans gained another lease of life. Howe waited nearly another month, until 12 October, before launching an amphibious operation, which marked the third failure to trap the main body of Washington’s army, this time on the northern part of Manhattan.
The fourth missed chance took place one week later, when Washington stood and faced Howe at White Plains, north of New York. The Americans had prepared elaborate fortifications, but Howe cleverly spotted that a hill to the west of them would allow the whole position to be turned. This was done by a division of Hessian (i.e. German mercenary) and British troops, but Howe did not then exploit his success to hit the main part of the enemy position.
Reviewing Howe’s actions from the Battle of Long Island onwards, one modern historian comments: ‘to have destroyed or captured this substantial force personally led by Washington would have dealt the Americans an irreparable blow. Had such a stroke been followed by a prompt landing on the northern part of Manhattan, the war would no doubt have been over.’ It may be over-egging it to say that Howe could have won the war, but, as subsequent events would show, the months following the landings of 22 August on Long Island certainly represented the best — and perhaps the only — chance that Britain had to break the back of the American rebellion by force. Howe was too dilatory and unimaginative to seize it.
There is no unfair use of hindsight here. In the late summer of 1776 friend and foe alike were baffled by Howe’s failure. The American Major General Israel Putnam wrote after Long Island, ‘General Howe is either our friend or no general . . . had he instantly followed up his victory, the consequence to the cause of liberty must have been dreadful.’ Some have tried to build historical castles on suggestions like Putnam’s — often made rhetorically — that Howe’s insipid campaign resulted from his own desire for reconciliation between Whig and Tory brothers in America. Although his personal beliefs may have given rise to some conflict, this theory holds little water, for it is apparent that Howe saw the humiliation of Washington’s army in battle as an aid rather than an obstacle to that goal. Rather, the failures of his campaign can be seen as the product of excessive caution, and a complete inability to grasp the strategic opportunities that opened with the victory of Long Island.
Washington was criticised by many of his countrymen for mistakes of his own during this period, with one arguing that he showed ‘little genius and not much natural aptitude for war’. The American C-in-C only really paid for one of his misjudgements, though: leaving behind a large garrison in Manhattan at Fort Washington appropriately enough. When Howe captured it in November 1776, he secured a consolation prize of 2,800 American prisoners and 146 cannon.
Many advantages accrued from holding New York: it cut the rebels from their principal port; proved a rallying point for loyalist Americans (of whom there were plenty in the city and its environs); could form a base for operations up the Hudson; and gave the Royal Navy a vital anchorage. There were considerable costs, too, though. Holding the city soaked up thousands of troops from an army that could ill afford such detachments. The outposts needed to secure waterways leading to the city attracted constant enemy raids.
In garrisoning these outposts, British commanders saw the limitations of their troops. The army found recruitment very tough indeed during the late 1770s. In England and Ireland these were times of relative prosperity, so few sturdy farm lads were interested in taking the King’s shilling. Recruiting parties were often reduced to throwing criminals and invalids into uniform. (It was better in Scotland, where the Highland gentry, keen to atone for the 1745 rebellion, curried favour by raising new regiments.) Manpower problems sapped the usual quality of the British infantry and had many implications for Howe. He feared costly battles. There were constant courts martial of deserters, thieves and rapists, leading to much friction with locals and presenting a gift to rebel propagandists. Finally, the problems filling the ranks led the government to hire thousands of foreign troops, mainly from Hesse-Kassel.
The extended dispositions occupied by Howe in New Jersey in late 1776 provided Washington with a chance to end the year’s campaign with a daring coup. The rebel general’s attack on a Hessian brigade encamped near Trenton on 26 December represented a last desperate throw of the dice, a chance to win back the faith of his people at the end of a miserable year. Washington’s regulars, his Continentals, advanced in driving snow, catching the Germans unawares. In the confusion that followed, 918 Hessians were taken prisoner. Fewer escaped, shamefaced, to tell the tale of their surprise by the enemy.
Howe cannot be blamed for the poor precautions taken by the German commander. He can be held responsible for taking up such long lines in New Jersey in the first place, though, and for ordering his troops into winter quarters (i.e. to stop fighting) without realising that his enemy could not be relied upon to play by such gentlemanly European conventions. ‘Due to this affair at Trenton,’ wrote Hessian Captain Johann Ewald in his journal, ‘such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America. Since we had thus far underestimated our enemy, from this unhappy day onward we saw everything through a magnifying glass.’ Ewald even went as far as to claim that the psychological reversal of fortunes caused by the capture of substantial numbers of George III’s troops ‘surely caused the utter loss of the thirteen splendid provinces of the Crown of England’.
Of course, those around the King or the Prime Minister did not see things in quite such bleak or portentous terms. But at the end of 1776 the conflict had in fact reached a tipping point. The British had taken their best shot — for reasons we will see, they were never again able to concentrate similar numbers of troops against the main enemy army. The American citizenry had seen what the Ministry could do, and it had failed to break Washington’s army. Far from it, even in the midst of winter his troops had rebounded from a series of defeats and humbled the professional soldiers. It would not be until the campaign of 1777, though, that affairs assumed a decisive character.
Fort Ticonderoga was a strategic prize enveloped in a thick blanket of wilderness. When this post on Lake Champlain — sitting astride the key route to and from Canada — changed hands, people wanted to know about it. But Ticonderoga’s position, so far from Europe’s corridors of power, meant that knowledge took an agonisingly long time to arrive in London.
On 7 July 1777, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne became master of the fortress, having placed guns on a hill commanding the works, thus forcing the Americans to abandon it. The ease of Burgoyne’s coup finally dented Ticonderoga’s reputation as the ‘Gibraltar of America’. It marked a hopeful opening to Burgoyne’s campaign to advance deep into the colony of New York with a force of 10,000 British and German troops. For the victorious general, the capture of Ticonderoga bolstered his ambition to push down to Albany, driving rebels to one side and the other, opening most of the 300-mile route between Montreal and New York City.
The events on the banks of Lake Champlain convinced Burgoyne that he could advance away from the water, and his line of supply, into the interior of New York, while all the time thousands of rebel militia gathered from across New England to oppose him. The third British campaign had thus begun in earnest, and was entering a dangerous phase. A serious attempt was being made to implement London’s strategy of cleaving apart the rebellious Thirteen States.
Howe simply couldn’t decide what part to play in this. Between November 1776 and April 1777 he had sent three completely different plans of campaign to London. Finally, he had resolved to take the rebel capital, Philadelphia, while sending a smaller force up the Hudson valley from New York in order to lend Burgoyne a hand. But this meant that there would be several British armies in being simultaneously: Burgoyne’s coming south from Canada; a garrison of 3,000 in Rhode Island, where Howe had sent them to secure a naval anchorage late in 1776; the garrison of several thousand needed to hold New York; the force Howe intended to send up the Hudson from that city; and the main expeditionary force, heading for Philadelphia, under Howe’s own hand. This was such an obvious violation of the military principle of concentrating force — exposing each of these five armies to defeat in detail by the Americans — that many officers simply could not believe their C-in-C was about to do it.
On 5 July, Henry Clinton returned to New York from London. There he had discussed strategy for the year ahead with Lord Germain, other ministers and the King himself. He was fully aware of Burgoyne’s expedition and believed that it made obvious strategic sense for the main army, under Howe, to move towards Burgoyne, crushing any Americans who offered battle in between. At the first of several difficult meetings in headquarters, Clinton tried to persuade Howe to abandon any idea of going to Philadelphia, or at least to postpone such a move. Instead, Clinton, in his own words, ‘with all deference suggested the many great and superior advantages . . . from a cooperation of his whole force with General Burgoyne on the River Hudson’.
That same week, Washington, collating snippets of intelligence from spies about the embarkation of various regiments on transport vessels in New York, reasoned, like Clinton, ‘there is the strongest reason to conclude that General Howe will push up the river immediately to cooperate with the army from Canada’. Both the rebel C-in-C and the British second-in-command understood that a two-pronged movement of this kind would bring together 25,000 redcoats and most likely crush the American Army.
Clinton thought he had convinced Howe, but on 18 July the latter informed him that he would shortly set sail with the substantial fleet (now carrying 15,000 troops) that had gathered in New York harbour and that Clinton should assume command of the New York garrison. Three days later, a messenger arrived and told them that Burgoyne had taken Ticonderoga. Both Clinton and Howe therefore knew the thrust from the north had begun in earnest.
Howe’s fleet finally sailed on 23 July, on a course for the south. ‘I could not to the very last bring myself to believe it,’ Clinton wrote later. ‘I was persuaded he intended to deceive us all.’ Finally, the scales fell from Clinton’s eyes: going south was no clever ruse prior to turning about and sailing the fleet up the Hudson; Howe was taking his army in the opposite direction to Burgoyne.
The distance overland from New York to Philadelphia is roughly 100 miles. A man on a good horse could cover it in a few days. But Howe’s sea journey, complicated by contrary winds and his own indecision, took a whole month. Cooped up on board their smelly transports, short of rations and information, many of Howe’s officers worried about wider events. One Hessian colonel wrote home to Germany:
If I dared to tell you what I think of our present situation. I should say outright that our expedition into these parts of the south is not to my liking. For if, instead of coming here, we had set sail for New England and joined Burgoyne’s army, we should without fail have forced that province and its capitol to their duty before the end of the month . . . we should have had one of the most glorious campaigns, and perhaps peace before the end of it.
This letter was addressed to the Prince of Prussia, and it is important to note how closely the American events were being watched in every European capital. When news of Ticonderoga’s fall finally reached Paris, it stymied the vocal war party there. The French, anxious to gain revenge for the loss of Canada eighteen years earlier, had been supplying the Americans with muskets, cannon and powder. Many ‘volunteers’, professional officers, had also crossed the Atlantic in order to help Washington’s army. Even so, there was a reluctance to wage all-out war against Britain. They had no intention of doing it — with all the risks that war entailed — if Howe’s forces were about to crush the rebellion. Everything depended upon the 1777 campaign. In Spain and the Netherlands, too, those who felt the time was ripe to relieve George III of some of his colonial possessions awaited news.
It was early September before Clinton, in New York, received further word of Burgoyne’s progress. Messages had to be smuggled through the forests, and the information, in a letter dated 6 August, was already a month old. Burgoyne had begun the most difficult part of his advance — the inland stage — south of Lake Champlain, through the forested back country, towards the Hudson. This passage of just a few dozen miles had not been easy for Amherst in 1759 and was proving even less so for Burgoyne. Rebel militias were swarming about the British column and had started a process of blocking and flooding the route south. Even so, Burgoyne’s message did not yet show signs of alarm. Clinton replied to him on 11 September that he hoped by the 21st to set off from New York up the Hudson with the long-promised diversionary push towards Albany.
On the same day Clinton wrote, Howe succeeded in his aim of getting Washington to stand a general action in defence of Philadelphia. The American C-in-C had taken up a defensive position along Brandywine Creek, a river about twenty-five miles south-west of Philadelphia. Howe later justified his strategy for 1777 by saying that striking at the rebel capital would force Washington to fight, and that ‘the defeat of the rebel regular army is the surest road to peace’.
Washington’s dispositions that morning exploited the defensive value of the creek, with cannon and infantry ready to attack any British who crossed one of several fords. The weakness of his position was that, even though he extended his divisions over several miles, there were fords on his flanks that he could not cover. The rolling ground, with thick copses between the fields, made it very difficult for either C-in-C to have a good idea what was going on outside his immediate environ.
Howe exploited this by using 8,000 troops (just over half his men) to march in the early hours around Washington’s right flank. Meanwhile, the remainder of the army moved up to the front of the American positions, beginning a heavy bombardment to convince them that the main British assault would come in the obvious place. Howe’s manoeuvre — very similar to that of Long Island — succeeded admirably, and when his larger division attacked Washington’s flank that afternoon, the American army was thrown into confusion. Late in the day, Washington struggled to stabilise his right, while disengaging his army in order to save it. In the end, he succeeded, as once again Howe’s failure to pursue his fleeing enemy denied him the full benefits of victory.
The British C-in-C lacked vigour and aggression. One civilian who saw him on the morning of the battle recorded: ‘He was a large, portly man, of coarse features. He appeared to have lost his teeth, as his mouth had fallen in.’ This was what had become of the dashing light infantry officer who had stormed the Plains of Abraham. Howe at Brandywine was forty-eight years old. He was worn out and struggled to find a way to win. Some of those officers who were most frustrated by these failings spread rumours that his lethargy resulted from too much drinking and too much time in bed with his mistress.
When the British Army entered Philadelphia just over a fortnight later, Howe gained his objective for the 1777 campaign. It had taken him two months to get there from New York. Although his move on Philadelphia had produced the hoped-for general action, it had not been decisive. Congress had evacuated the city, and Washington was to make his camp near by. But what of Clinton and Burgoyne’s progress?
Between the Battle of Brandywine and Howe’s capture of Philadelphia, Burgoyne had been fought to a standstill on the banks of the Hudson near Saratoga. He was still well short of Albany, with the New England militias closing in on all sides. Burgoyne should have tried to fight his way out of the trap and back towards Lake Champlain, but instead gambled that he might still be able to get through to Albany, and sent a message to New York to that effect. Clinton had finally set out from New York on 3 October and managed, with the small force he could scrape together without exposing New York to capture, to take some key rebel fortresses guarding the Hudson River. By 16 October, his force was just forty-five miles south of Albany, but on that very day Burgoyne, beaten, surrounded and outnumbered, surrendered. Nearly 6,000 troops under his command went into captivity.
J.F.C. Fuller, an officer whom we shall meet again later, estimated the Saratoga capitulation as one of the decisive battles of world history. That might seem odd given the small numbers of troops involved and the remote scene of the action, but news of Burgoyne’s surrender triggered the French declaration of war, which was followed by similar announcements by Spain and the Netherlands. In Britain, the humiliating defeat destroyed the Parliamentary majority in favour of a vigorous prosecution of the war. After 1777, it became impossible to fund large-scale reinforcements to America. Such was the sympathy among Whigs for the American struggle for liberty and their schadenfreude at George III’s problems that fashionable ladies attended London parties dressed as Washington’s soldiers.
Between 1778 and 1783, Britain thus faced a worldwide onslaught against its interests from the combined forces of America, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Despite shipping thousands of troops from America to the Caribbean (further weakening the Crown’s war against the rebels), Britain lost most of its rich island possessions there to the French, as well as Florida and Minorca to the Spanish. Across the globe, the French were able to assemble powerful fleets and landing forces, which also succeeded in throwing Britain out of Senegal and southern India. It has been described as the loss of the first British Empire.
Eventually, caught out by the shuttling of French squadrons between the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard, this wider conflict also cost George III the Thirteen Colonies of America: a surrounded British force in Virginia was cut off from rescue by the Royal Navy and surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.
On the night of 18 May 1778, Philadelphia witnessed one of the strangest spectacles in its history. Processions of British officers dressed as knights, and young women as medieval damsels, celebrated a party. In a city gripped by war, there were tables groaning with food, fireworks and mock tournaments, and poetry was declaimed in the night air. This themed event, called the Mischianza, was staged as a ceremonial send-off for William Howe following his resignation. In accounts published at the time, it was described as an affectionate gesture from the officers who had served under him.
Leaving aside the fact that the British Army has always jumped at the chance to throw a party, it is interesting and only fair to point out that Howe was popular among many of his people right until the end of his command. He was correct and affable with the regimental officers he met on the march, and the soldiers appreciated his concern for their comfort.
Even as he sailed home, though, there was plenty of whispering that Howe was a failure. On his return he demanded a board of inquiry which he hoped would vindicate him. There were hearings for many months, but in the end there was no official report or ‘closure’ to the whole affair. The more people looked into his command, the more self-serving and feeble his excuses sounded: it was too cold to do anything in the winters of 1775/6 and 1776/7; it was too hot to do anything for much of the summer of 1777; the troops were too tired to finish off Washington after the Battle of Long Island; and so on.
Among those who had worked with the general most closely, there was plenty of criticism. One staff officer wrote probably the fairest assessment during the 1777 campaign: ‘Brave he certainly is and would make a very good executive officer under another’s command, but he is not by any means equal to C-in-C.’ The leader of a loyalist regiment heavily engaged at Brandywine was tougher: ‘His manners were sullen and ungracious, with a dislike to business, and a propensity to pleasure. His staff officers were in general below mediocrity.’ The most bitter but acute appraisal was made by Henry Clinton. In life the two men managed to maintain cordial relations, even though Clinton made clear that he held Howe responsible for missing many opportunities in 1776 and for a misguided strategy in 1777. However, a note later discovered in Clinton’s papers read: ‘Had [Howe] gone to the Devil before he was sent to America, it had been the saving of infamy to himself and indelible dishonour to his country.’
History, for some reason, treated Howe very leniently for at least 150 years. Much of what was written blamed others, notably Lord Germain. The American Secretary was regarded with particular distaste by many of the generals, because he had previously served in the army and been disgraced for cowardice at the Battle of Minden in 1759. But Piers Mackesy, in The War for America 1775-1783 (1964) managed a pretty credible vindication of Germain, based on the most comprehensive examination by any scholar of the state papers relating to the strategic direction of this war. Mackesy showed Germain to have been an effective mobiliser of the vast armies and fleets required for global war, whereas Howe and Clinton (succeeding as C-in-C) were described as ‘members of a stable political community who had arrived and could not be shaken from their perch . . . their fertility of invention was spent in devising reasons for inaction’.
Too many of Britain’s generals had turned into the same kind of highly paid ‘play it safe’ bureaucrats that officered the French Army of Marlborough’s time. The divisions over America among Britain’s landowning oligarchs had undermined the ability of their institutions — Parliament and the army — to win the war.
Howe was without doubt the person responsible for failing to crush Washington in 1776, when Britain had its best chance. The American victory at Trenton convinced the rebels that it was worth fighting on. Howe then failed to formulate a coherent strategy for the 1777 campaign, sending instead confusing alternatives over a period of months to London. Germain was guilty of errors, no doubt, but had the Commander-in-Chief in America been capable of thinking and acting like someone worthy of this lofty title, Germain’s influence on the strategy pursued during that pivotal year would have been kept to a minimum.
As for the disaster of Saratoga, clearly Burgoyne should have doubled back when it became clear how serious his predicament was. He alone got himself into the mess. Equally, though, Howe was the only person who could have got him out of it. Instead, the C-in-C ignored advice and took himself off to Philadelphia, having his number two with insufficient force to make a meaningful push on Albany. Clinton’s critique is hard to dispute: had Howe instead moved with his main army up the Hudson in July 1777, there would have been time enough to open the way to Albany before moving on to Philadelphia later. Such a plan would probably have saved Burgoyne, kept British forces more concentrated, and still forced Washington to give battle either in upstate New York or, eventually, near Philadelphia.
It is arguable whether Britain ever could have won a complete military victory in America. But I do think that Howe’s mismanagement of the command allowed the rebellion to grow and emboldened Britain’s enemies to wage a global war that was disastrous to its interests. Had the general ‘gone to the Devil’ before he ever took up the American command, there can be little doubt that the map of the world could look quite different today. Howe was not a completely useless general, since he had a very sound tactical touch (for example, at Long Island and Brandywine). He was, however, somebody without the faintest idea of strategy.
Victory could have been defined in 1776-7 as breaking Washington’s Continental Army, capturing or killing him and scattering resistance into guerrilla bands. Had this been done, France would not have intervened. The historical alternatives then become mind-boggling: the global French campaigns of 1778-83 bankrupted the country and led directly to the Revolution. A successful British general in America during 1775-7 might thus have forestalled those tumultuous events and thereby the consequent rise of Napoleon.
There can be no doubt, though, that the emergence of a militant revolutionary state in France, something Howe witnessed in his old age, was to present Britain with a threat of an altogether higher order. In the 1770s and 1780s it had been a fight for empire. In the 1790s and 1800s it was to be a struggle for national survival.