William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, KB, PC (10 August 1729 – 12 July 1814) was a British General who was Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the American Revolutionary War, one of the three Howe brothers. He was knighted after his successes in 1775 and was henceforth Sir William, inheriting the viscountcy only upon his brother Richard’s death in 1799.
Howe’s record in the war was marked by the costly assault on Breed’s Hill known as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the successful capture of New York City and Philadelphia – the latter of which would have significant strategic implications.
Early life and career
William was born in England, the third son of Emanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe and Charlotte, the daughter of Sophia von Kielmansegg, Countess of Leinster and Darlington – a half-sister of King George I. This connection with the crown may have improved the careers of all three sons, but all were also very capable officers. William’s eldest brother was General George Howe, who was killed at Ticonderoga in 1758. His next brother was Admiral Richard Howe, who joined him in America during the revolution.
He entered the army when he was seventeen by buying a Cornet’s commission in the Duke of Cumberland’s Dragoons in 1746. By the next year, he was fighting as a Lieutenant in Flanders as a part of the War of the Austrian Succession. After this war, he joined the 20th Regiment of Foot where he became a friend of James Wolfe.
During the Seven Years’ War, Howe’s service first brought him to America. His service in this conflict did much to raise his reputation. William commanded a regiment at the siege of Louisbourg and led a successful amphibious landing. This action, carried out under fire, won the attackers a flanking position and earned Howe his commander’s praise.
Howe commanded the light infantry under Major General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec, Canada on September 13, 1759. He led a fighting ascent to gain position on the Plains of Abraham, clearing the way for Wolfe’s army to assemble before that battle. His actions here earned him the rank of Brigadier General. He earned further fame in the capture of Montreal under Jeffrey Amherst before returning to England. Howe also served in the capture of Belle Isle, off the French coast, in 1761. He was adjutant-general of the force that captured Havana in 1762.
In 1772, Howe was elected a Member of Parliament for Nottingham. This was not unusual, as the election of 1761 sent more than 60 army officers to the British House of Commons. He was generally sympathetic to the American colonies. He opposed the Coercive Acts, and, in 1774, assured his constituents that he would resist active duty against the Americans. But when the time came and King George called in 1775, he sailed for America.
The American Revolutionary War
Major General Howe arrived at Boston, on May 15, at the head of the 4,000 additional troops sent to General Thomas Gage. Gage’s orders were to clear the American Army and break their Siege of Boston. Howe’s plan was to take Cambridge, but the Americans fortified the high ground above the town.
Howe planned to crush the American’s position by massive assault. He was thus in command at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Personally leading the left wing of the attack, Howe’s assault gained the objective, but the cost was appallingly heavy. General Henry Clinton called it “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”
While Howe was not injured in the battle, it had a pronounced effect on his spirit. The daring, aggressive commander, who had served with Wolfe, became the slow moving General who was reluctant to seek direct confrontation. His concept that those in open rebellion were a small minority of Americans who would fold with a display of force was shattered. Howe’s report to Lord Germain called for 19,000 additional troops and included the prophecy that “…with a less force….this war may be spun out until England will be heartily sick of it.” This “genial six-footer with a face some people described as ‘coarse'” in private revealed a marked lack of self-confidence combined, not surprisingly, with a noted dependence on his brother Admiral Lord Howe and the elder Howe’s opinions.
The New York Campaign
On October 10, 1775, he replaced Lieutenant General Thomas Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America when Gage returned to England. He became Sir William when he was knighted in 1775. In April of 1776, the appointment was made permanent, although forces in Canada were placed under Guy Carleton. He defeated General George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776. But Howe’s refusal to allow his army to follow up their victory with an assault on Washington’s lines on Brooklyn Heights allowed the Continental Army to successfully accomplish a nighttime strategic withdrawal across the East River, aided by thick fog the next morning. Had Howe attacked Brooklyn Heights, as his subordinate General Henry Clinton and others urged him, with his full force of 33,000 men, he may well have captured Washington’s entire army and possibly even ended the Revolutionary War there and then. His failure to do so is generally considered to be the greatest missed opportunity of the War. In September 1776, he ordered the execution of Nathan Hale for espionage.
The Philadelphia Campaign
On 30 November 1776, Howe wrote George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville, Secretary of State for America, that he would send a 10,000 man force up the Hudson River to capture Albany, New York. Howe later changed his mind and informed Germain that the Albany Expedition would be postponed until after Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was secured. Germain received this letter on 23 February 1777.
Howe’s campaign began at Head of the Elk Maryland, southwest of Philadelphia. On September 11, 1777, Washington attempted to stop the British movement near Chadds Ford along the Brandywine Creek in the Battle of Brandywine. Howe defeated Washington, and after several weeks of maneuver, Howe entered the city.
Consequences of the Philadelphia Campaign
Concommittant with the Philadelphia Campaign, General John Burgoyne led an expedition – the Saratoga Campaign south from Montreal to capture Albany and join the cancelled New York-Albany expedition. Burgoyne’s campaign had been approved 28 February 1777, after Germaine had been notified that Howe was not moving up the Hudson to Albany. Whether Germain told Burgoyne about Howe’s revised plans is unclear; presumably he did. Whether Germain, Howe, and Burgoyne had the same expectations about the degree to which Howe was supposed to support the invasion from Canada is also unclear. Some have argued that Howe failed to follow instructions and essentially abandoned Burgoyne’s Army; others suggest that Burgoyne failed on his own and then tried to shift the blame to Howe and Clinton.
Regardless of which claim is true, the defeat and surrender of Burgoyne’s expedition at Saratoga, New York dramatically altered the strategic balance of the conflict. Support for the Continental Congress, suffering from Howe’s successful occupation of Philadelphia, was strengthened and the victory encouraged France to enter the war against Britain. Spain and the Netherlands soon did the same. The loss also further weakened the current British government under Lord North.
After the revolution
Howe resigned in 1778, and, on May 20, Sir Henry Clinton took over as commander-in-chief of British armies in America. (See also Commander-in-Chief, North America)
Howe returned to England. In 1782, he was sworn a Privy Counsellor. When his brother, Richard, died in 1799 without surviving male issue, he inherited the Irish title and became the 5th Viscount Howe. In 1814, he was governor of Plymouth where he died. He is buried at Holly Road, Garden of Rest in Twickenham, England. Since he died without surviving male issue, and having no further living brothers, the Viscountcy died with him.