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 into New 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 on William Howe
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).