Families. You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. We are in the middle of a family drama right now in the U.S.A., and have yet to see how that will turn out. We all hope for the best, I am sure, and in the meantime, I am reminded of a family drama that played out in a quite different, though equally dramatic fashion, in the 18th Century while this nation was being formed.
In the early 18th Century in London, England, four sons were born to Emanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, and his wife, Charlotte, who was the illegitimate half-sister of King George I. These remarkable four fellows, George, Richard, Thomas and William, all went on to become highly capable officers, serving their country proudly and honorably in various military capacities during their lifetimes. The two who would have an impact on American lives would be Admiral Richard Howe, and General William Howe.
William joined the British Army when he was 17, and fought brilliantly in various European conflicts until, at the rank of Major General, was sent to military service in America. For years before this assignment, he had made it very clear in Parliament and other venues that he was “generally sympathetic to the American colonies” and asserted that “the entire British army could not conquer America.” When King George called on him to serve, Howe accepted, claiming that “if he did not, he would suffer the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress.”
The General sailed for America in March, 1775, accompanied by fellow Major Generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, and upon arriving in Boston in May of that year, discovered that war had in fact broken out. Howe was assigned to serve as second in command under General Thomas Gage, who immediately assigned Howe to lead the operation against the colonists in what became known as The Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe himself bravely led his troops in the first two charges against the Americans, with the third assault finally “gaining the objective, but the cost of the day’s battle was appallingly heavy.” Howe himself described the battle as a “success…too dearly bought.”
When General Gage returned to England, in October of that year, Howe took over as Commander in Chief of the British Army in America. General Howe was called upon by the powers that be in London to implement the abandonment of “Boston and the establishment of bases in New York and Newport, Rhode Island in an attempt to isolate the rebellion to New England.” Howe thus made the hugely significant decision to remain in Boston for the winter, and to resume his campaign against the colonists in the spring of 1776. What this meant was that Howe never attempted to engage the Continental Army, which gave it and its highly capable leader, General George Washington, time to regroup, train and begin the formation of what was to become the formidable fighting force that eventually defeated the British in the Revolutionary War.
Howe also took advantage of his respite to begin a rather notorious affair with the wife of a Loyalist, a lovely colonial named Elizabeth Lloyd Loring, while thoroughly enjoying himself at the gaming tables in the Boston area. Nonetheless, by January, 1776, Howe’s role as Commander in Chief was “cemented with a promotion to full General in North America.”
With the arrival of Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox at Boston in March of 1776 with the heavy artillery he had astonishingly brought with him from Fort Ticonderoga, General Howe, along with his British forces and their Loyalist compatriots, had no choice but to evacuate the city. Eventually landing in Staten Island, Howe decided to delay any further conflict until reinforcements arrived, thus waiting until mid-August before launching The Battle of Long Island. This coincided with the arrival of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, a fellow colonist sympathizer, to America. This was yet another delay that proved to be quite costly to General Howe, as it gave the colonists time to “improve their fortifications and increase the size of their Continental Army with additional militia.” When this battle finally began, Howe attacked the majority of the American positions, though not all, causing fellow General Henry Clinton to question why Howe had not organized an assault against the remaining fortifications. Howe’s answer was “the troops had for that day done handsomely enough,” and instead “began siege operations, methodically advancing on the entrenched Americans,” a tactic which allowed George Washington “to successfully orchestrate a nighttime strategic withdrawal across the East River on the night of 29-30 August, aided by a thick morning fog.”
It was later said that “had Howe attacked Brooklyn Heights (site of the non-assaulted fortifications) the capture of even half of Washington’s army, and possibly Washington himself, might have had a significant effect on the rebellion.” Considered responsible for another victory, though seemingly another Pyrrhic one, Howe was knighted as “a reward for his victory on Long Island.”
The arrival of General Howe’s brother, Richard, brought with it a potentially highly significant assignment: “the authority to treat with the rebels,” i.e., to make peace. Though a meeting was arranged, the Howe brothers had not been given the authority to recognize colonial independence, which was the deal-breaker as far as the colonials were concerned. With the failure of these negotiations, conflicts resumed, though as per usual, Howe restrained his troops from following those of General Washington too closely, enabling the Continental troops to escape various traps to continue to fight another day, while earning Howe an increasing amount of criticism for “failing to decisively defeat the Continental Army during the New York campaign.”
In the meantime, Admiral Howe was receiving his own amount of criticism, as when he first arrived to the American shores, he had been ordered to “institute a naval blockade of the American coastline,” an effort he was disinclined to make. The Admiral claimed he had too few ships to accomplish this blockade effectively, so “as a result, large amounts of covert French supplies and munitions were smuggled to America.” It was later suggested that Howe’s “limited blockade…was driven by his sympathy with and desire for conciliation with the Americans.” Such suggestions of distrust with their leadership, and demonstrated sympathy with the colonists’ cause, were responsible for the brothers’ decision to “decline to serve further,” and they then implemented their return to England where they found it necessary to “justify their conduct in America.” These inquiries were conducted as late as into 1779, at which time the conclusion was reached, with the results being “inconclusive.”
Do Americans owe these remarkable brothers thanks for their efforts on behalf of the American colonists by their somewhat passive aggressive actions in 1776 and 1777? We shall never know for sure, but we do know that the Howe brothers stood together and consistent in their very real affection for the Americans of the 18th century, and some observation tells us that that affection was acted upon.
Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.