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William Howe named commander in chief of British army

William Howe named commander in chief of British army


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General William Howe is named the interim commander in chief of the British army in America on October 1 1775, replacing Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. He was permanently appointed to the post in April 1776.

General Howe’s first major battles against his American counterpart, General George Washington, including the Battle of Bunker Hill, came during the Patriot siege of Boston. They proved to be disappointing failures that resulted in a British retreat from Boston in March 1776. Howe and the British army redeemed themselves, however, with a victory over Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island in August. Just one month later, Howe led a British invasion of New York City. While successful during the fall of 1776, many believe General Howe missed an opportunity to crush General Washington and the Continental Army by not pursuing the Patriots as they retreated from New York.

Howe again defeated Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, but decided to then launch an attack against Philadelphia instead of coming to the aid of British General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga as planned. Without the support of Howe and his men, the British army at Saratoga was overwhelmed and forced to surrender to American General Horatio Gates on October 17, 1777. The American victory at the Battle of Saratoga was one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War and General Howe’s decision not to support it proved a major failure in judgment.

Burgoyne placed the blame for the British loss at the Battle of Saratoga squarely on Howe’s shoulders. Within a month, Howe requested that he be relieved of his duty as commander in chief of the British army, and, in the spring of 1778, he was replaced by General Henry Clinton. Upon his return to England, Howe received so much criticism that, in 1779, Parliament was forced to open an investigation into his military conduct in America.

Howe was cleared of any wrongdoing by the investigation and went on to become the governor of Berwick. Upon his brother’s death in 1799, Howe inherited his Irish title and was named a viscount. He also became governor of Plymouth and a privy councilor (advisor to the king) prior to his death on July 12, 1814, at the age of 84.

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William Howe

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William Howe, in full William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, (born August 10, 1729—died July 12, 1814, Plymouth, Devonshire, England), commander in chief of the British army in North America (1776–78) who, despite several military successes, failed to destroy the Continental Army and stem the American Revolution.

Brother of Adm. Richard Lord Howe, William Howe had been active in North America during the last French and Indian War (1754–63), in which he earned a reputation as one of the army’s most brilliant young generals. Sent in 1775 to reinforce Gen. Thomas Gage in the Siege of Boston, he led the left wing in three costly but finally successful assaults in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Assuming supreme command the following year, Howe transferred his forces southward and captured the strategic port city of New York, severely defeating the Americans at the Battle of Long Island. A competent tactician, he preferred maneuver to battle, partly to conserve scarce British manpower, but also in the hopes of demonstrating British military superiority so convincingly that the Americans would accept negotiation and reconciliation with Britain.

When active operations were resumed in June 1777, Howe moved his troops to the south bank of the Delaware River and won two successive victories over the Americans at the Battle of Brandywine (September) and the Battle of Germantown (October). His next winter was spent in the occupation of Philadelphia. Howe recognized his failure, however, to destroy the modest force of Gen. George Washington, then encamped at nearby Valley Forge. His Pennsylvania campaign had furthermore exposed the troops of Gen. John Burgoyne in upper New York state and led to the disastrous British defeat at the Battle of Saratoga that fall. Under increasing criticism from the British press and government, Howe resigned his command before the start of operations in 1778.

Returning to England, Howe saw no more active service but held a number of important home commands. He succeeded to the viscountcy on the death of his brother in 1799 upon his own death, without issue, the peerage expired.


William Howe

A talented and experienced soldier from a family that produced many talented and experienced soldiers, William Howe nonetheless became the scapegoat for the British failure to crush the American Revolution early on. In spite of several crushing victories over General George Washington on the battlefield, Howe’s inability to capture him or completely destroy the Continental Army as a fighting force ultimately led to France’s entry into the war and Britain’s ultimate defeat.

From his very first moments, Howe lived his life amongst the upper crust of British society. Born in 1729 in Nottinghamshire, Howe’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all represented their town in the House of Commons, eventually earning the title of viscount in the Irish Peerage. On top of that, Howe’s mother was the daughter of Sophia von Kielmannsegg, an illegitimate half-sister of King George I himself. It is fairly surprising, therefore, that very little material exists on the Howe’s personal life, particularly his childhood and education. We know that his father, Emmanuel, died while serving as Governor of Barbados when William was five and we know that his mother, Charlotte as a relative of the Royal Family, was a frequent sight at court, and Lady of the Bedchamber to Princess Augusta, mother of King George III. We also know that he attended the prestigious Eton school, but did not go on to University, and we have very little data about his aptitude as a student. Almost everything else is unknowable. With a blue-blooded pedigree like his, though, it is no surprise that Howe and his three brothers enjoyed an easy path to success in life regardless. His eldest brother, George, joined the army, while the other two chose maritime careers. Richard joined the navy and eventually rose to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, whereas Thomas worked for the East India Company and became a noted explorer. After leaving Eton at seventeen, William decided to follow George into the army, and purchased a commission as a dragoon officer in time for the War of Austrian succession, serving mainly in Flanders.

Howe’s next military experience was also the first that brought him to North America. Following the disastrous Braddock Expedition of 1755, the British military returned with a vengeance two years later with the goal of conquering no less than all of French Canada. Howe performed well during the Conquest of Canada, commanding a light infantry unit at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, but he suffered several personal tragedies along the way. His eldest brother and head of the family, General George Howe, died in an ill-fated assault on Fort Carillion (renamed Fort Ticonderoga), and General James Wolfe, a close friend of William’s since the Austrian War, also fell in battle in the effort to take Quebec. Still, the campaign was a rousing success, and left Howe with a firm grasp on effectively commanding troops on North American terrain.

Howe’s proven skills on the battlefield allowed him to rise to the rank of General by the war’s end, and between signing of the peace treaty and the firing of the first shot at Lexington, he spent his time developing new training manuals for the army as well as arguing for fairer treatment of the American colonies as a Member of Parliament. Whatever sympathies he had for the Patriot cause did not affect his sense of duty, however, and he arrived once again in North America with Generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne to relieve the besieged city of Boston and put down the rebellion. His first action in the war was at Bunker Hill, where he personally led no less than three assaults at the entrenched colonials. He demonstrated much personal courage during the battle, but still faced heavy criticism, much of which Howe agreed with, for removing the rebels from the Charlestown Peninsula at so great a cost.

Despite the heavy casualties at Bunker Hill, Gage granted Howe command over all British troops in North America on October 11 th , 1775. He managed to hold the city for a few more months, until George Washington’s artillery chief Henry Knox managed to fortify Dorchester Heights with a battery on March 4 th , 1776. Howe saw that the situation had become untenable and made the decision to abandon the city and retreat to Canada, but he wasted no time in striking back. With the arrival of fresh British and Hessian reinforcements, Howe took the initiative to move against New York City in coordination with his admiral brother Richard. Setting out from Halifax in late June and reaching Long Island by July, Howe attempted to open negotiations with Washington, offering pardons in exchange for an end to the insurrection. Washington refused, and confronted Howe’s invasion force in late August right where Prospect Park in Brooklyn lies today. Howe engaged, outflanked and smashed Washington at the Battle of Long Island, inflicting over 2,000 casualties and putting Washington on the run. Over the next few months, Howe slowly but surely drove the Patriot commander out of New York and into New Jersey while the Continental Army slowly disintegrated from repeated losses and desertion. For this victory, Howe received a knighthood in the Order of the Bath as New York City became the new British headquarters and remained in their hands for the rest of the war.

As Washington evacuated New York, the winter months that traditionally brought an end to the campaigning season had arrived, and while in pursuit Howe must have hoped that the dreadful conditions could permanently sink what was left of the Patriots’ low spirits. How surprised he must have been, then, to learn that Washington managed to ambush the Hessian garrison he had placed at Trenton, New Jersey the day after Christmas, only to evade capture and assault his rearguard under General Charles Cornwallis at Princeton a few days later. Despite his overwhelming victories, Howe had not taken Washington out of the fight just yet.

Nevertheless, Howe still believed he could score a swift, decisive victory over the rebels, should he find and take the proper target. And so he set his sights on the de facto capital the rebellion: Philadelphia. After wintering in New York, Howe and his army set out and landed in Head-of-Elk, Maryland and marched north to Pennsylvania. Outside the city, Howe encountered Washington’s renewed Continental Army once more at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11 th , 1777. This was the single largest engagement of troops on North American soil for the entire war, with over thirty thousand troops involved, and once more, Howe exploited a critical flaw in Washington’s troop deployment, giving him the chance to outflank and drive the enemy from the field. His victory appeared to be so complete that two weeks later, Howe and his army entered and occupied Philadelphia without a fight, then defeated Washington once more at Germantown in October, but despite this string of victories, Howe’s strategy laid the foundation for Britain’s ultimate defeat. While Howe remained focused with the capture of Philadelphia, fellow British General John Burgoyne had hoped for his support in cutting off the northern colonies from their neighbors by capturing the Hudson River Valley. Abandoned by Howe, Burgoyne soon met total defeat at the hands of Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold at Saratoga, which convinced France to enter the war on America’s behalf. Meanwhile, Howe seemed more than willing to winter in Philadelphia, fraternizing the city’s high society, while leaving Washington to his devices in Valley Forge. The home he used as his headquarters and residence, in a twist of irony, later became the homes of George Washington and John Adams during their presidencies decades later. His extended stay in Philadelphia earned him the ire of a few of his potential allies, however, including American loyalist and former delegate to Continental Congress Joseph Galloway, who later testified to Parliament that the general had passed up several golden opportunities to destroy Washington’s army and capture him. By the time Howe received word of approval for his resignation and evacuated the city in March, he had failed to accomplish any of his strategic aims: Washington and his army remained unbroken and Continental Congress did not disperse but quickly relocated to nearby Lancaster. Upon returning to New York, Howe relinquished command of North America to Sir Henry Clinton and made the trip back home to England. Despite some participation in the later French Revolutionary Wars, Howe never saw action again and served in various bureaucratic functions instead. He passed away, childless despite a long marriage to a woman named Frances Connelly, in 1814.


Sir William Howe: The Man Who Could Not Quell a Rebellion

By all accounts, William Howe seemed to be the perfect choice to lead the British Army in its quest to put down the rebellion in British North America following the events outside of Boston in April 1775. Coming from a military family and rising within the officer ranks due to his experience in the field, Howe had distinguished himself as a capable general. As he sought to replace Gen. Thomas Gage in Massachusetts, Howe’s objectives were invariably clear: overwhelm the rebels and wait for them to relent their hostilities. In the first year of his command, he certainly seemed to have the upper hand against the Continental Army. However, several factors would come into play that ultimately cost William Howe his chance of being a British war hero: the man who destroyed the United States before it gained its birthright.

British General William Howe.

Young William was born in 1729 into the family of Emanuel Howe and Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg. Sophia was the recognized illegitimate half-sister to King George I, providing the family with a royal prestige that helped carry the Howe name far in British politics. Emanuel inherited a baronetcy claim in 1730, giving him the title of “2 nd Viscount Howe,” and served as Governor of Barbados until his death in 1735. William’s two older brothers, George and Richard, grew up in the military tradition, with George rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the British army in the 1750s and Richard becoming an admiral in the Royal navy. George was killed during the British attempt to take Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 during the Seven Years War with France. Highly-respected, George was given honors within North America and Massachusetts helped fund a memorial in his name, something the remaining Howe brothers never forgot.

It seems William Howe won his appointment to succeed Thomas Gage because of a combination of his experience, his family name within the Court of King George III, and because of his attachment to his brother’s legacy – something the Crown hoped to leverage on susceptible colonists. All of these played into his nomination as commander in chief in 1775. His brother, Admiral Lord Richard “Black Dick” Howe, would eventually accompany him to North America, in charge of the British naval fleet. The brothers were given strict instructions from the North ministry and from Secretary of State for North American George Germain. They could issue pardons to rebels who renounced their war against the Crown, but they were forbidden to hold any sort of peace negotiations. The reason for this latter arrangement was the British government did not want to recognize the Continental Congress and Continental army as legitimate entities. Keeping their status as illegal kept the ball in the court of the Crown.

General Howe, along with generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, arrived in Boston at the end of May 1775 with an additional 4,200 British soldiers to reinforce the estimated 5,000 under Gage’s command. Having learned of Lexington and Concord, Howe set about trying to isolate the rebels by taking the high ground in and around Boston. This would prevent any Americans from gaining a tactical advantage as they occupied the town. American spies learned of their plan and quickly set to building breastworks along Breed’s Hill, a steep mount above the village of Charlestown on the peninsula north of Boston Harbor. Overly confident that the superiority of the training and size of the British troops would scare off the rebels, Gage commanded Howe to proceed with a battle plan to land several launch craft on the eastern bank of the peninsula and march columns of soldiers to take the breastworks. On June 17, as they did, the Americans, holding the high ground, held off two British attempts. With a third British assault – one that saw Howe dividing his forces into two columns to encircle the top of the mount - the Americans fell back to Bunker’s Hill and over the slender neck of land that connected the peninsula to Massachusetts. The British had successfully taken the hill but lost over 1,000 soldiers in the process. The victory was severely costly to British morale, particularly on Howe, whose judgment and confidence some historians have suggested was affected for the remainder of the war. Sir Henry Clinton, one of Howe’s subordinates, was also quite critical of Howe’s planning. Clinton had wanted to secure the neck behind the American position to cut off their ability to retreat however, this suggestion was dismissed, and became one of the many disagreements between the British commanders that inflated their suspicions of one another in the coming years.

A nineteenth-century depiction of the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775.

At the same time, Massachusetts was the ground for posturing among the warring sides, Canada had become another priority for either side. The British wanted to take command of the Hudson River, hoping its closing to American navigation would effectively cut off New England from the remainder of the continent, essentially containing the rebellion. The Continental Congress had the aspirations of assuming the Canadian colonists were equally resentful of their British authorities and would readily fight to join in the cause of the colonies. American efforts proved futile, and the assumptions made by members of Congress were highly audacious, to be frank. But some success did occur in upstate New York. Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2, 1775, to officially take command of the new Continental forces. As he struggled to access and build a functioning army, he also had to contend with a lack of artillery among the Americans. Henry Knox, a book store owner in Boston, was given the task of retrieving the heavy munitions from Fort Ticonderoga. Knox’s successful journey – hauling thousands of tons of cannon by oxen through winter conditions from upstate New York to Boston – was nothing short of remarkable. The Americans finally had cannon to strike the British, but what to do with them?

As this was happening, Howe had assumed command of British forces from Thomas Gage. Plans were being made to move operations further south to New York in the spring of 1776. While keeping his time in Boston over the winter months, it seems Howe became enchanted with the wife of a loyalist, and other endeavors to pass the time may have taken his focus away from plotting how to rid himself of Washington. By March, Howe had reports of the American positions adjacent to Boston. Plans were being made to send two amphibious assaults on their position. At the same time, on the night of March 4, Washington directed his men to build fortifications on Dorchester Heights, the highest point in Boston harbor. Using makeshift sleds, they were able to overcome the late-winter conditions and establish an impregnable foothold that would allow them to fire the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga unopposed on the British in Boston or the Royal navy moored in the harbor. The next day, seeing what had been built overnight, Howe famously declared, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”

The British, very wary of another hill-assault following Breed’s Hill, decided against an attack after a winter storm further delayed their plans. Howe capitulated and abandoned Boston at the promise from Washington that his cannon would not reign down on the British soldiers filling the naval ships. The Siege of Boston was over with an American victory. While the news was welcomed and celebrated in Massachusetts, both commanding generals knew this was just the beginning.

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis

New York City was the obvious target, and both sides knew the next battle would likely be different than what had occurred in Boston. Washington quickly assembled his army and moved them down into Manhattan and Long Island to fortify the high ground at Brooklyn Heights. Once again, he was relying on the topography to aid whatever his soldiers lacked in battle experience. The British had waited offshore to allow for the reinforcements to arrive, giving Washington precious time to build his fortifications. But what Washington and the rest of the Americans had not counted on was the arrival of the bulk of the British forces sent to reinforce the 8,000 or so troops under Howe’s command. These forces, numbering about 22,000, also saw the arrival of Howe’s brother, Lord Richard Howe to command the Royal navy. As the fleet crept towards the Narrows between Staten Island and Long Island, many Americans commented that it looked like the entire city of London was afloat. The British landed on Staten Island to establish their beachhead. On August 27, the British crossed the mouth of the Hudson River and landed on the southwest corner of Long Island. From there, Howe, along with Clinton, moved a large portion of their army around the left flank of the American positions. As the Continental forces concentrated their efforts on the British columns in front of them, Howe’s army went undetected until it was too late. Confusion and inexperience won the day for the Americans (not the last time this would happen facing Howe), and the army was pushed back behind the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights. Thinking he had the Americans beaten, Howe called off any further advances for the day, despite protests from Clinton and Maj. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. In a stroke of bad luck for the British, the American army silently evacuated the west bank of Long Island in the early morning hours of September 28. When the British awoke and advanced, they found an empty shoreline. In the coming weeks, Howe would successfully drive the Americans from Manhattan Island and the northern outskirts of the area. It was a complete reversal from Boston for William Howe, who would soon become Sir William Howe for his victories in New York, the new command center of British operations for the war.

Washington escaped across New Jersey and settled on the western banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. He started the New York campaign with a force of 12,000 men. By December, his forces were below 3,000. Who hadn’t been taken prisoner or died from battle or disease had deserted. And unless something was done, the remainder of his men were likely to walk away at year’s end when their enlistments were up. It was the darkest hour for the American cause. For the British, the rebellion seemed to be happily coming to end for his Majesty. Howe extended a series of garrisons throughout central New Jersey a string of detachments running from New Brunswick west to Princeton, Trenton, and then south to Bordentown. He placed these garrisons in the hands of Hessian and Scots troopers soldiers of fortune hired by the British government to help them win the war. Howe remained confident the 3,000 or so soldiers could manage any skirmishes that broke out over the winter months. But despite some clear indication that Washington was planning an attack, no one within the British chain of command took it as a serious threat. The events that would unfold between December 21, 1776, through January 3, 1777, would change the course of the war and history forever. With two victories, Washington was able to save the war for American independence, and subsequently give the British command a serious black eye.

In the spring of 1777, British forces were brought into New Jersey to try and draw Washington out of his hiding place in the northern foothills of the state into a major engagement. Both armies were low on supplies, and a war of foraging enraptured much of the territory with minor skirmishes erupting here and there until June. On the 26 th , after weeks of Howe failing to bait him down, Washington moved into the valley as the British evacuated to Staten Island. Sensing his chance, Howe swung the entire army around and marched on the Americans near Metuchen, New Jersey. The Battle of Short Hills was short-lived, much to the frustration of Howe and Cornwallis, as Washington quickly retreated into the mountains before the main British forces arrived. Fed up, Howe quit New Jersey and moved off to Staten Island and eventually New York to regroup. But once again, it was no secret what his intentions were.

Howe’s strategy during the time he was commander in chief has been ridiculed and highly debated among historians. While it is clear he was a capable leader, its also clear that he gave Washington, whether through faults of his own or indeliberate, too many chances to retreat or regroup at precious moments where a more aggressive British response could have produced a drastically different outcome. Whether this is legitimately fair to Howe remains up for debate the British commander was fighting a war on how eighteenth-century military training dictated it. He also was unprepared, as was nearly the entire British command and a governmental body, to fight an insurgency and guerilla war on a continent that would be nearly impossible to contain at any given time. The Americans knew this or came to realize it during the war. The British, for all their confidence, training, and history with the colonies, did not until it was too late.

Battle of Germantown - October 4, 1777

His eye was on Philadelphia, the rebel capital. Washington knew this too. One of the reasons the Americans remained encamped within earshot of the British in New Jersey through the spring of 1777 was to make any march on Philadelphia miserable for Howe’s army. Sensing this, the British commander opted to take Philadelphia by another direction. In July, he set sail for the Chesapeake Bay and planned to march from the south to attack Pennsylvania. Once again, Howe gave Washington time to plan his defenses. The British landed at Head of Elk, Maryland in late August, and marched northward. Howe’s army approached Chadds Ford from the southwest on September 10. The Continentals under Washington had positioned themselves on the eastern bank of the Brandywine Creek. On September 11, the battle commenced that saw the largest number of participants in the entire war. And once again, Sir William Howe deceived the American commander. Washington had sent scouts along the creek prior to the British arriving to note access points where they might try to cross and flank them. Apparently, some of the scouts missed a forge north of the American position, one that Gen. Howe exploited brilliantly during the battle. Much like what happened in Brooklyn, while one portion of the British army engaged the Americans head on, Howe swung wide right around the American lines and flanked them from the north with a large detachment of troops. It took the Continentals by complete surprise and quickly altered Washington’s plans. Seeing the battle as lost, Washington ordered the retreat and the main American forces fell back as other detachments fended off Howe’s advance. What promised to be a major battle turned into a huge rout and victory for the British. Howe had beaten Washington with the same maneuver, again. In the coming weeks, the Americans would try and entice another major engagement. Torrential rains and a misjudged mission that led to American Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s forces being annihilated at Paoli led to an unceremonious taking of Philadelphia by the British on September 26. Washington tried one more time to draw Howe into a major fight, but the efforts on October 4, 1777, at Germantown unraveled before the American commander’s eyes, and he was forced to retreat. As the winter months approached, the Americans slunk into their winter encampments west of the city at Valley Forge while Howe and the British enjoyed the comforts of Philadelphia.

All was not well, however. Further north, a British army of 8,000 troops under the command of Gen. John Burgoyne had just been badly beaten and forced into a humiliating surrender at the hands of American Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Burgoyne’s army had been in desperate need of supplies and reinforcements, and after being unable to navigate the hostile countryside, they positioned themselves to defend against an increasingly overwhelming American presence. The ripple effects of this British defeat were immediately felt in Paris, where American diplomats had been courting the French government for military support and sovereign recognition. With Saratoga, King Louis XVI formally declared his support to the United States, making the rebellion no longer a British insurrection, but a potential world war. Howe had been instructed to reinforce Burgoyne in the spring of 1777, but the British commander proposed a plan to take Philadelphia in the hopes of forcing the rebel government to capitulate. Burgoyne and the British government were under the initial impression that Howe intended to move on Philadelphia in the spring, whereas he could then send reinforcements north to Burgoyne. When it was clear he would not be attacking until the fall, Howe was sent mixed messages from secretary Germain and the North ministry. Coupled with these messages, it’s clear Howe did not have much respect for Burgoyne’s army, and his own inclination to take Philadelphia as a prize he could use to bolster his reputation slowed any urgency he might have had to assist his fellow British commander. It seems when Howe learned of Burgoyne’s defeat in October 1777, it was enough for him to tender his resignation as commander in chief. He, along with the British, would remain in Philadelphia until late May. On May 18, 1778, a huge festive party was thrown in his honor, known as the Mischianza. Howe departed for London on May 24, and his subordinate, Sir Henry Clinton, commander of New York, took over as commander in chief of the British Army in North America.

Along with his brother Richard, who also resigned, they faced censor and court-martial upon their returns to England. However, nothing was ever proven, and Howe spent years defending his leadership in the British press. He would regain his stature within the British army and serve during the French Revolutionary Wars before retiring and dying childless to his wife Frances, in 1814. Despite how his tenure ended, and as we view the several commanding generals of the American Revolution, it must be said that Sir William Howe did most things correct, given his knowledge and military training. What is inexcusable perhaps is his inability to view the war in terms beyond his own personal doings. Certainly, he was not alone in this manner, which helps us explain how separate commands and conflicting messages from a distant government played against British objectives to win the war. Had he been more aggressive, and less sympathetic and indifferent – and understood who and what he was fighting – it is plausible Sir William Howe would be remembered as the British general who put down the American rebellion rather than one of the generals who lost England her American colonies.


Had Sir William Howe fortified the Hills round Boston, he could not have been disgracefully driven from it: had he pursued his Victory at Long Island, he had ended the Rebellion: Had he landed above the lines at New York, not a Man could have escaped him: Had he fought the Americans at the Brunx, he was sure of Victory: had he cooperated with the N. Army, he had saved it, or had he gone to Philadelphia by land, he had ruined Mr. Washington and his Forces: But as he did none of these things, had he gone to ye D———l before he was sent to America, it had been a saving of infamy to himself and of indelible dishonour to this country.”

These searing words, from a secret memorandum found in the British Headquarters papers, were written by Sir Henry Clinton, the man who succeeded Sir William Howe as Commander in Chief of the British army in North America. They sum up one view of this strange general into whose hands George III first confided the power to extinguish the rebellion of his North American colonies. But it is by no means the only view. When Howe was relieved as Commander in Chief in 1778, we have John André’s testimony that “the most gallant of our officers, and those whom I least suspected of giving such instances of their affection, shed tears while they bade him farewell.”

To Loyalist Joseph Galloway, on the other hand, Howe was nothing but a colossal blunderer. “Blunder upon blunder is incessantly rising in its view,” he wrote in a pamphlet after Howe resigned, “and as they rise they increase in magnitude … so that their possibility almost exceeds the utmost extent of our belief.” Even more sinister was the opinion of another Loyalist, who wrote a letter from New York describing both the General and his brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe, who at the same time commanded the British fleet in American waters. “The Howes are both antiministerial men,” the Loyalist wrote, “and their minds are poisoned by faction: they have endeavoured by every means to spare the Rebellion in order to give it and the Rebels an air of consequence at home.”

The British Parliament was as baffled by William Howe as everyone else. After he resigned, a committee investigated his conduct of the war. Howe submitted his vast correspondence with Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for American Colonies, plus a fortypage narrative numerous other witnesses, including such distinguished generals as Charles Cornwallis, testified, mostly in Howe’s favor. But the committee never made a report.

American opinion of Howe is equally confused and confusing. Alexander Hamilton called him that “unintelligible gentleman.” Israel Putnam said flatly that Sir William was either “a friend of America or no general.” And John Adams wrote to his wife that it was “impossible to discover the designs of an enemy who has no design at all.” But Major General Charles Lee, who knew Howe well, hailed him as an “executive soldier in which capacity he is all fire and activity, brave and cool as Julius Caesar.”

This much we certainly know: During his two and one half years as British Commander in Chief, William Howe never lost a battle when he was in personal charge of his army. Every time he met Washington in the field, he thrashed him unmercifully. Yet Howe failed to end the rebellion. Again and again, Washington escaped to fight another day. The climax to this strange reversal of the rules of war was Saratoga. While Howe was whipping Washington at Brandywine and Germantown and capturing Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States of America, he was simultaneously turning his back on John Burgoyne and his northern army, to the ultimate disaster of the British cause. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga brought France into the war and turned a family quarrel into a world conflict for which England was totally unprepared. Even as he marched his triumphant regiments into the rebel capital, Howe could justly be accused of losing the war.

What went on in Howe’s head is a question which historians have been debating ever since. Unfortunately there is very little genuine evidence. The Howe family papers were destroyed by a fire in 1845, and Sir William was not given to writing personal memoranda, in the style of Sir Henry Clinton. He was also a notably taciturn man, so there is even a scarcity of personal statements passed on by third parties. But the evidence we do have tells us a good deal, and most of it puts the Revolution in a light seldom seen in American textbooks.

When William Howe arrived in America in the spring of 1775, he was forty-five years old, a solidly built, six-foot soldier with snapping black eyes and a glittering reputation. In the French and Indian War he had been the daring young colonel who led the “forlorn hope” up the supposedly impregnable Heights of Abraham, to bring on the battle which won Quebec and Canada. Howe had fought with distinction in other actions, too, notably the siege of Havana and the foray against Belle Ishe oft the coast of France. Throughout his army career he had been known as a daredevil, a reputation he enhanced, in the intervals between wars, by a passionate fondness for the gambling table.

The Howe family had a tradition of friendship with America. The oldest brother, Lord George Augustus Howe, had died in the battle for Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 (expiring in Israel Putnam’s arms), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had erected a monument in his honor in Westminster Abbey. It was to Howe’s next oldest brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, that Benjamin Franklin turned in a last desperate effort to heal the growing breach between the colonies and the mother country.

The Howes were Whigs, members of an opposition to George III’s harsh colonial policy that included Edmund Burke and the violent Charles James Fox, who declared that if he had lived in America, he would have been among the first to take up arms against the Tory-dominated Parliament. William Howe held the family seat in the House of Commons, and in order to placate the pro-American merchants of Nottingham in the election of 1774, he had declared that he would never accept a commission to serve against America. More than a few of his constituents took a dim view of the way he forgot this campaign promise when George III proffered the job, and they let the General know it. On February 21, 1775, shortly before he sailed for America, Howe gave them a most significant answer.

My going thither was not of my seeking, I was ordered, and could not refuse without incurring the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress. So contrary are men’s opinions here [in London] to some with you, that instead of the grossest abuse, I have been most highly complimented upon the occasion by those who are even averse to the measures of the administration. Every man’s private feelings ought to give way to the service of the public at all times: but particularly when of that delicate nature in which our affairs stand at present … One word for America: you are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country. I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people … With respect to the few, who, I am told, desire to separate themselves from the Mother Country, I trust, when they find they are not supported in their frantic ideas by the more moderate, which f have described, they will, from fear of punishment, subside to the laws …

Almost every line of this letter is important. Howe speaks of “private feelings” which he frankly admits he is suppressing for the sake of public policy. Above all he bases his case on the supposition that he is going to the colonies not to oppress a free people, but to rescue the majority from the tyranny of a few demagogues. He also makes a special point of letting his constituents know that those “averse to the measures of the administration”—by which he meant men like Fox and Burke—have complimented him. Why would Fox —and especially Burke, who was about to make his great plea to the unheeding Parliament for the conciliation of the American colonies—compliment Howe, unless they thought he was going to heal wounds, rather than to make fresh ones?

But when Howe arrived in America on May 25, 1775, the time for conciliation was all but over. British and American blood had been spilled at Lexington and Concord, and the British army was penned inside Boston by an aroused host of New Englanders. On June 16, 1775, they seized a height known as Breed’s Hill, opposite Boston, and the next day General Thomas Gage sent Howe and a picked army of regulars across the harbor to drive the motley collection of patriots off their offensive perch. The Battle of Bunker Hill was Howe’s first fight with “the loyal and peaceable subjects” in America. Before his unbelieving eyes, he saw England’s best regiments decimated by the entrenched Americans, and only the most frantic efforts on the part of the General and his officers drove the battered redcoats up the hill one last time, to oust the rebels—out of ammunition now—from their fort. Always famed for his daredevil courage, Howe exposed himself fearlessly throughout the furious fight, but he wrote home to his brother that in the midst of the carnage, “There was a moment I never felt before.”

What was that moment? Was it the simple possibility of defeat? Howe had experienced that before. At the now-forgotten battle of St. Foy, the year after Wolfe’s victory at Quebec, Howe’s regiment had lost almost fifty per cent of its men, and the British had had to retreat helter-skelter behind Quebec’s walls, where only the arrival of reinforcements rescued them. The moment of Bunker Hill may well have involved something more complex: the horror of seeing men of the same blood slaughtering each other, the realization that he—and the British government—were wildly wrong when they “safely asserted” that “the insurgents are very few.” Finally, was there the born gambler’s flash of insight that this American war was “wrong” in the most profound sense of the word, and that in it British generals were never to enjoy that “luck” which most professional soldiers, and especially the daredevils, believe is as important in war as strategic genius? The questions are worth considering.

Not long after Bunker Hill, George III appointed Howe Commander in Chief of the British army in North America as successor to Thomas Gage, who had a reputation for losing battles and for being too “soft” on the rebels. Months of stalemate followed. Howe declared it was, impossible to act offensively from Boston with his small army—he had less than 10,000 men —and the government agreed. But the Navy, disastrously neglected during a decade of peace, could not immediately muster enough ships to evacuate Howe’s troops from Boston. Meanwhile, in spite of repeated demands from the Whig opposition, the King’s ministers did nothing to reverse the drift toward all-out war. Finally, early in 1776, they found a compromise which they hoped would satisfy both the truculent King and his supporters as well as the opposition. They decided to appoint Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe naval commander in North America, with the dual title of “peace commissioner.”

Lord Howe was far more reluctant than his brother to take a military command, and his negotiations with his own government are another revealing instance of the family’s thinking. The Admiral insisted that his brother be included as another peace commissioner, and he initially hoped the commission would be given broad powers of negotiation. But George Ill’s attitude toward the colonies soon left Admiral Howe with little more than the power to grant pardons, while he was ordered to assert Parliament’s right to tax, to demand payment for losses sustained by Loyalists, and to “correct and reform” colonial governments.

At one point, Howe almost resigned in disgust the King agreed that he ought to do so, for the good of the service. But George’s prime minister, Lord North, was as anxious as the Howes to reach an accommodation with America. North finally persuaded the Admiral to accept his commission and to rely for the success of his mission upon his personal charm and wide friendship with American leaders.

There is some evidence of a considerable gap between the King’s punitive written instructions and the verbal assurances Howe received from the Ministry. When he came home in 1778, the Admiral declared in Parliament that everyone knew he and the administration had an affair to settle. But an even more compelling motive for Howe’s acceptance of the enfeebled “peace commission” was his brother’s assignment to put down the rebellion. As the leader of the family, Lord Howe had almost certainly advised William to accept his general’s commission, which he could not resign now without being called coward, even traitor.

General William Howe, meanwhile, had retreated somewhat ignominiously from Boston on March 17, his departure hurried by the appearance of Washington’s cannon on Dorchester Heights (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE). During his nine months in the city, the General’s only triumph was the acquisition of blonde and beautiful Mrs. Joshua Loring as his mistress. Much has been made of this liaison, which continued throughout Howe’s American campaigns. Judge Thomas Jones, the Loyalist historian, compared Howe to Mark Antony, declaring Sir William sacrificed an empire for the charms of his Boston Cleopatra. A mistress was hardly remarkable among eighteenth-century English aristocrats, shocking though she may have been to pious Americans, and there is not an iota of evidence that Mrs. Loring ever had the slightest influence on Howe’s policies.

The General evacuated his forces from Boston, regrouped and refitted his regiments at Halifax, and joined his brother on Staten Island in the summer of 1776. Admiral Howe brought massive reinforcements of German mercenaries and English regulars, swelling the army to 32,000 men. Washington, against his better judgment, was committed to defend New York against this host with less than 20,000 soldiers, most of them untrained.

The Battle of Long Island was Howe’s first exhibition of his talents as Commander in Chief. On August 27, 1776, attacking Americans entrenched in the commanding Brooklyn hills, Howe faked a frontal assault with half his army and after an all-night flanking march swept in upon his astonished enemies from the rear. In an hour the affair had turned into a total rout, with redcoats and Hessians hunting demoralized Americans through the woods like rabbits. Three generals, three colonels, four lieutenant colonels, three majors, eighteen captains, forty-three lieutenants, and more than one thousand enlisted men were captured.

What was left of the trapped American regiments fell back to redoubts on Brooklyn Heights. The British and Germans, flushed with triumph and scarcely damaged (total British casualties were less than 400), surged forward to smash this last barrier between themselves and total victory. Behind the ramparts, Washington and some 9,000 badly shaken Americans awaited the inevitable assault. But as the redcoats exchanged opening fusillades of musketry with the defenders, orders came from the British rear to cease and desist.

Major General John Vaughan, who was in command of a column of Grenadiers, was astonished, and sent back word that he could easily carry the redoubts, with little loss. But again the order arrived from General Howe to fall back, for “the troops had done handsomely enough.” Howe later explained that he did this because he saw that the American defenses could be had at “a cheap price” by “regular approaches.” In other words, siege techniques. This was certainly in accord with the standard eighteenth-century mode of making war. Armies were small and soldiers were precious (especially to Howe, who was 3,000 miles from any reinforcements). But Washington made this caution look foolish by shipping his entire army back to Manhattan two nights later.

The Howes were now in complete control of Staten Island, Long Island, and the waters surrounding Manhattan. The Americans did not have so much as a gunboat to oppose the immense fleet Lord Howe had brought with him. Even before the Battle of Long Island, two British warships had run the supposedly impregnable American shore batteries along the Hudson and anchored near Kingsbridge. From a military point of view, Washington was in a bag all Howe had to do was land above Manhattan and draw the string.

Moreover, the rout on Long Island had shattered American morale. “The country is struck with panic,” Nathanael Greene wrote to Washington, who himself reported to Congress that the defeat had “dispirited too great a proportion of our troops and filled their minds with apprehension and dispair. The militia are dismayed, intractable and impatient. … Great numbers of them have gone off in some instances, almost by whole regiments.” If Howe had struck hard and swiftly, it is difficult to believe that the American army could have survived.

Instead, the Howes spent the next two weeks as peace commissioners. Six weeks before, Lord Howe had sent a letter to Washington himself proposing a parley as a “means of preventing the further effusion of Blood” and arranging “Peace and lasting union between Great Britain and America.” Foolishly, he had addressed it to “George Washington Esqr,” thus ignoring the belligerent status of the Americans which the use of Washington’s military title would have implied. They were, the address inferred, merely traitorous subjects of the Crown who upon capture might be hanged. After a conference with his officers, Washington refused to accept the letter. Now the Howes tried again. Captured General John Sullivan was sent to Philadelphia with flowery words about an accommodation, and Congress grudgingly decided to send Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to see what the Howes had to say. It soon became apparent that the only power they had was to grant pardons, and the Americans refused to admit that they had done anything to warrant pardons. The conference quickly foundered.

The fruitless peace talks gave the Americans time to hail Washington’s retreat from Long Island as proof of his military genius, and generally stiffen their backs for the defense of Manhattan. Although Washington drew a large portion of his army back to the northern end of the island, lest Howe attempt the obvious maneuver of a landing above his lines, the American general left over 5,000 men under Israel Putnam at the lower end, and even his more withdrawn brigades would have been helpless against a sudden move by water, under cover of darkness. Washington had never before commanded more than a regiment in battle—Boston had been only a siege—and his conduct reveals the indecisive thinking of the learner.

But Howe did not land above the lines. On September 15, he sent his men ashore at Kip’s Bay, where today Thirty-fourth Street meets the East River. Troyer Steele Anderson, perhaps the best of the Howe historians, argues that not even the two weeks of peace maneuvers were really a delay, because Howe had to wait that long anyway for tides which permitted him to move his small assault boats up the Brooklyn shore by night. But this does not explain his failure to land above Manhattan and trap Washington, as the exasperated Henry Clinton begged him to do.

The Kip’s Bay landing was another rout for the Americans. The raw militia fled at the first barrage from the covering warships, and the regulars surged ashore without losing a man. A determined thrust across Manhattan might have trapped Putnam and his 5,000 defenders, most of them still at the tip of the island, but once more Howe was satisfied with the first chase, and let the real game get away. Harassed by their commander and his aides, one of whom was a twenty-year-old major named Aaron Burr, Putnam’s men quick-marched up the western edge of Manhattan and rejoined the main body on Harlem Heights. The same caution Howe had displayed at Long Island is an equally valid explanation, of course. He was conducting an amphibious landing, and his first thought was to consolidate his beachhead. Throughout his narrative before the House of Commons, Howe repeatedly emphasized caution as his first principle. He had, he said, labored constantly to hold down casualties and avoid a “check” which would give the rebels a chance to declare a victory.

A general who makes caution his byword can always point to disasters which might have happened if rash risks and undue haste had been his army’s policy. But more than one person has been puzzled by this sudden, passionate fondness for caution on Howe’s part, when all of his previous military career had exhibited a love of the long chance and the hair-raising gamble.

For a full month after his seizure of New York, Howe allowed Washington to sit on Harlem Heights practically unmolested, while the British troops were set to digging defensive fortifications. Looking back at it now, the situation seems almost comic. A great army of well-trained professionals, superbly equipped and supported by an unopposed fleet, has just routed its untrained enemy twice. Then what does the victorious general do? Go on the defensive! True, the skirmish called “the Battle of Harlem Heights” showed the Americans had some sting left. But that was little more than a brush between advance guards. Every evidence pointed to the inability of Washington to stand firm had Howe struck a massive blow.

Howe solemnly told the House of Commons it would have cost him 1,000 to 1,500 men to storm Harlem Heights, in his opinion an excessive price. But he had a more difficult time explaining why he wasted a month of the best campaigning weather sitting on lower Manhattan staring up at Washington. He said he was short of horses furthermore, none of the inhabitants of America was able to give him a “military description” of the terrain across which he would have to advance if he landed north of the American army.

This terrain was Westchester County, a region which abounded in Loyalists willing to serve Howe as guides and map makers. Even had that not been so, Howe’s excuse would still have earned ridicule. Bellamy Partridge, author of Sir Billy Howe , wrote: “Two weeks to find a short cut across from the Sound to the Hudson River! A matter of from five to eight miles! Washington would have run a survey across there in two days and in two weeks he could have made a topographical map of the district, with altitudes and the depth of all watercourses plainly indicated, in addition to the roads and clearings and favorable locations for combat.”

Nevertheless, when Howe finally decided to move, he did so masterfully. At three A.M. on October 12 he put his soldiers aboard his brother’s ships and slipped silently up the East River and through Hell Gate in a thick fog. But once they reached Long Island Sound, this know-how abruptly vanished. They landed the troops on Throg’s Neck, a marshy point of land that was virtually an island at high water twenty-five American riflemen concealed behind a woodpile were able to prevent their advance. Howe then went into camp, and spent six days on the Neck, while baggage and supplies were brought up from New York. Meanwhile, Washington was frantically evacuating his cumbersome column of 13,000 men from Harlem Heights over Kingsbridge, his one avenue of escape into Westehester. Shortages of wagons and horses reduced him to a crawl. The artillery had to be dragged by hand. In one of his worst military blunders, Washington left 2,800 men behind to hold Fort Washington, on the New York side of the Hudson, and another garrison at Fort Lee, on the Jersey shore opposite, both under the command of Nathanael Greene.

In a single night, Howe put all his men back aboard his ships and landed them at Pell’s Point, in presentday Pelham. He met some initial resistance from about 750 New Englanders under Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, but they soon fell back toward the main American army. Only six miles away, down a straight road which any Tory in Westchester would have been happy to show Howe on a map, the American army was still straggling across Kingsbridge in a long, exposed, disorganized line. Even the ardently pro-American historian Christopher Ward admits that if Howe had attacked “there could hardly have been any other result than a complete rout.” But Howe spent three days in New Rochelle, and then marched to Mamaroneck, where he spent another four days.

A rapid march to White Plains by Howe’s 4,000 light infantry could have seized the high ground around the village and pinned Washington and his army against the Hudson River. Instead, Howe let Washington do the seizing, and when the British arrived at White Plains they found the Americans blocking their path. Howe was forced to fight, after he had seemingly done everything he could to maneuver Washington out of New York without a battle.

At White Plains the armies were almost equal in size, and Washington had the advantage of choosing the field. But Howe’s first move, on October 28, unhinged the whole American position. He sent 4,000 men against Chatterton’s Hill, and after fierce resistance from entrenched Americans he threw in his cavalry, which totally demolished two regiments of rebel militia and forced the rest of the defenders to quit the hill. Chatterton’s gave Howe a position from which he could outflank the rest of Washington’s army. Moreover, Howe now lay between the Fort Washington garrison and the main army. It was the dream of every general. He was in a position to devour both American forces at his leisure.

But once again Howe dallied, while at White Plains Washington frantically threw up flimsy redoubts made of cornstalks from nearby fields, with earth clinging to their roots. Reinforced by two brigades from Manhattan, Howe now had 20,000 men. “A brisk drive,” Bellamy Partridge says, “would have scattered the patriots into the hills.” Another defeat probably would have destroyed Washington’s already dwindling military reputation. But Howe never made the climactic assault. During three days of inaction, he let Washington withdraw the bulk of his army northward to a stronger position at North Castle, and then, on November 4, the entire British army turned around and went clanking off to New York without firing another shot.

When asked why he had not pressed the attack at White Plains, Howe blandly told the House of Commons: “An assault upon the enemy’s right which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them that I have political reasons, and no other for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Some historians argue that Howe had received the plans of Fort Washington from a Tory spy, and seeing that he could take this pseudo-stronghold with ease, he decided to make that his final battle of the campaign season, then drawing to a close. If this thesis is true, then the “political reasons” would have been a desire to protect the Tory spy from the revengeful Americans. It is a feeble argument. In the first place, Fort Washington would still have been there after Howe had smashed Washington’s army at White Plains. He could have scooped it up as an afterthought on his triumphant journey back to Manhattan. In the second place, why didn’t Howe, who used fairly plain English in the rest of his narrative, say something about this spy, without revealing his name? “Political reasons” suggest something far larger—even a policy that was guiding Howe’s military conduct.

Howe did in fact capture Fort Washington, bagging 2,837 prisoners in a brilliant multipronged assault on November 15. Washington, meanwhile, again divided his army, carrying 5,400 men into New Jersey and leaving the rest to guard the Hudson. Only the violent entreaties of Lord Cornwallis persuaded Howe to pursue him. The American catastrophe at Fort Washington was almost repeated at Fort Lee, when Cornwallis led 4,000 picked troops across the Hudson and landed above the redoubts at dawn. Frantic haste on the part of Nathanael Greene got his men out of the place, with nothing but their muskets. Their blankets, a thousand barrels of flour, 400,000 cartridges, and dozens of precious cannon had to be left behind.

Washington was now being pursued by a general who had none of Howe’s tendency to dally. While the American army, disheartened by the loss of Fort Washington, melted away, Cornwallis hounded the remainder across New Jersey. Entering Newark as Washington’s rear guard went out the other end of the town, he pushed his troops twenty miles in a single day through a driving rainstorm, trying to catch Washington at New Brunswick before he forded the Raritan.

On December 1 Washington got his last man across the river as Cornwallis’ advance guard came up. The armies were within cannon shot of each other, and the river was “in a variety of places, knee deep only,” according to eyewitnesses. There was nothing to stop Cornwallis from charging across and falling on Washington’s dispirited remnant of an army, now barely ! 3,000 strong. Instead, the British sat down on the wrong side of the river, and did not move for four days. Orders from William Howe had arrived, forbidding them to advance until he had brought up “reinforcements.”

Again, caution perfectly explains such a decision. But when Howe arrived he brought only a single brigade, and they proceeded to move forward at a more familiar pace, giving Washington time to get his rear guard across the Delaware at Trenton just as the British advance guard reached the river bank. Charles Stedman, the British historian who was an officer in Howe’s army, says with dry sarcasm: “General Howe appeared to have calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time necessary for the enemy to make his escape.”

Washington had collected every available boat for seventy miles along the river, and drawn them to the other side. This supposedly stymied Howe. But there was a well-stocked lumber yard in Trenton, and four blacksmith shops. If Howe had wanted to cross the river, he could have built himself a small fleet in a week. There were no fewer than nine ferry landings for Washington to guard. The rebel capital of Philadelphia, already in panic, lay within a day’s march.

But Howe had no immediate interest in Philadelphia. Nor was he interested in destroying Washington. He only wanted to drive him out of New Jersey, so that he could get down to the business of restoring that territory to loyalty and order. He issued a proclamation offering pardon and the enjoyment of liberty and property rights to all who would sign a declaration of loyalty within sixty days. Even those who had fought in Washington’s army were included. New Jersey responded, almost en masse. To guarantee continued tranquillity, Howe established a series of strong cantonments along the Delaware, most of them manned by Hessians who had fought brilliantly at Fort Washington a month before.

It was now mid-December, true, and Howe, like almost all military commanders of that era, was anxious to get his troops into winter quarters. But was this excuse enough to discard total victory when he had it within his grasp? The answer would seem to be that Howe did not see total victory in military terms as the key to his policy. What he and his brother were aiming at, from the start, was peace by reconciliation. To achieve this they had to balance American extremists, who insisted on independence, against extremists of the opposite persuasion back home, who insisted on all-out repression. If they annihilated Washington and his army and captured the Congress, what would there be left to reconcile? The British extremists could be held in check only by making sure there was still an American force in being with whom to negotiate. The American extremists, on the other hand, had to be shown that they had no hope of winning independence against the might of Great Britain, and that to carry the rebellion further was folly. What better way to do this than to thrash the Americans repeatedly and drive them out of selected colonies, which could then be pacified and held up to the rest of the country as examples of British benevolence?

Howe’s letters to Lord Germain indicate this thinking. On September 25, before the fiasco at White Plains, he was writing: “I have not the smallest prospect of finishing the contest this campaign, not until the Rebels see preparations in the spring, that may preclude all thoughts of further resistance [author’s italics]. To this end, I would propose eight or ten line of battle ships, with a number of supernumerary seamen for manning boats … We must also have recruits from Europe, not finding the Americans disposed to serve with arms, notwithstanding the hopes held out to me on my arrival at this port.”

On November 30, Howe spelled out to Germain his plan for the next campaign. It was ambitious. An offensive army of 10,000 would move from Providence, Rhode Island, toward Boston another army of 10,000 would move up the Hudson River to Albany, leaving 5,000 men to defend New York finally, a defensive army of 8,000 men would cover New Jersey and pose a threat to Philadelphia, which Howe proposed to attack in the autumn. With the New England and middle colonies thus subdued, Howe planned to finish the rebellion in the winter by moving into Virginia and the Carolinas. Again, the phasing of his letter is significant. “Were … the force I have mentioned sent out, it would strike such terror throughout the country that little resistance would be made to the progress of his Majesty’s arms.” Once more, Howe is thinking in terms of discouraging the rebels, rather than of defeating them in the field.

To make his new plans work, Howe asked for 15,000 more men. He was turned down. Further, Washington and his little army proved unwilling to roll over and play dead: striking through the sleet at Trenton on Christmas night, they captured almost the entire 1,400man garrison of Hessians. The victory restored the patriots’ sinking morale. Howe at first called it a “misfortune,” but a few weeks later, he was writing what is perhaps his most revealing letter to Germain:

It is with much concern that I am to inform your Lordship the unfortunate and untimely defeat at Trenton has thrown us further back, than was at first apprehended, from the great encouragement given to the rebels.

I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war but by a general action …

“I do not now see.” Quite casually, perhaps without realizing it, Howe here admits that until Trenton, a “general action” was not included in his plan to end the war. Could this explain Washington’s repeated escapes from disaster at Long Island, Manhattan, White Plains, and throughout New Jersey?

Washington’s victory at Trenton could be attributed to the fortunes of war. But Germain’s refusal to send reinforcements seemed to Howe a low blow, especially since a well-equipped army was handed to General John Burgoyne for a descent from Canada to Albany. Burgoyne had a scheme of his own for ending the war. At Albany he would join with a force under Howe proceeding up the Hudson, and with another from the west under Barry St. Leger. If all went well, New England would be cut off from the rest of the colonies and the two halves of the infant nation could be conquered at will.

But a new note now enters Howe’s thinking: resentment. From Howe’s point of view, Burgoyne had stolen from him the soldiers he needed for the master plan he himself had proposed to Germain. Howe wrote to his lordship, telling him that the master plan would now have to be drastically altered. On April 1, 1777, he told Germain, “I propose to invade Pennsylvania by sea.” He admitted this meant evacuating the Jerseys, and added with irony: “Restricted as I am from entering upon more extensive operations by the want of forces, my hopes of terminating the war this year are vanished.”

Then, on April 5, Howe wrote to Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, telling him he had “but little expectation that I shall be able from the want of sufficient strength in the army to detach a corps in the beginning of the campaign to act up Hudson’s River.” Meanwhile, Germain in England wrote Howe approving his plan to invade Pennsylvania by sea. But at the same time he wrote to Carleton, assuring him he would write to Howe to “guarantee the most speedy junction of the two armies.” Alas for the hopes and dreams of George III, Germain never sent such a letter. All Howe ever got was a copy of Germain’s letter to Carleton, which nowhere contained a specific order limiting Howe to advancing up the Hudson River, and a paragraph in a later letter in which Germain, approving a modification of his Pennsylvania plan, trusted “it will be executed in time for you to co-operate with the army ordered to proceed from Canada.” A major disaster was shaping up: “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne would be fighting his way to Albany to join up with Howe, who instead would be on his way to Philadelphia.

Co-operating with Burgoyne was the one thing Howe had no interest in doing. His defense of his decision to sail to Philadelphia pulsates with resentment in every line: “Had I adopted the plan to go up the Hudson River,” he told the House of Commons, “it would have been alleged that I had wasted the campaign with a considerable army under my command, merely to ensure the progress of the northern army, which could have taken care of itself, provided I had made a diversion in its favour by drawing off to the southward the main army under General Washington. Would not my enemies have gone further, and insinuated that, alarmed at the rapid success which the honourable General [Burgoyne] had a right to expect when Ticonderoga fell, I had enviously grasped a share of the merit which would otherwise have been all his own? and let me add, would not Ministers have told you, as they truly might, that I had acted without any orders or instructions from them?”

Nevertheless, according to Clinton, Howe’s plan to sail to Philadelphia and turn his back on Burgoyne (who was in no trouble at that moment, it must be admitted) appalled every man in the army except for Lord Cornwallis and Major General James Grant. Among his papers there is a memorandum Clinton wrote to a friend at the time: “By God these people can not mean what they give out, they must intend to go up Hudson’s River & deceive us all, if they do I for one forgive.”

But Howe did mean what he said: on July 23 he put his men aboard his brother’s mighty fleet of 260 ships and set sail from Sandy Hook. Not even Washington could believe Sir William was going to desert Burgoyne, and for days the Americans were in a frenzy of uncertainty, distributing their army all over New Jersey so they could be ready to march north or south, depending on where Howe appeared. A week later, the Howes paused off the mouth of the Delaware. There, having been told that the Americans had blocked and fortified the river, they decided to bear away for the Chesapeake. Contrary winds and currents delayed them: not until August 14 did they enter the bay, and it took eleven days to reach Head of Elk, fifteen miles from New Castle, where the army disembarked.

Men and horses had suffered terribly from heat and from the shortage of fresh water. Almost all the animals had to be destroyed. And as the British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan acidly points out, the net result of this incredible voyage was to place the British army ten miles farther from Philadelphia than it had been at Amboy, in New Jersey, the previous December.

Even so, Howe was to have one more opportunity to achieve total victory. At Brandywine Creek on September 11, Washington grimly accepted the challenge of a “general action” to save Philadelphia, but he permitted Howe to repeat the tactics by which he had won the Battle of Long Island. While the Hessians under Knyphausen made a mock frontal assault at Chad’s Ford, Howe and Cornwallis swept around the American flank and appeared in the rear of John Sullivan’s brigade. These men, the bulk of the American right wing, were strung out along a two-mile line running through dense woods. Sullivan had to draw them in and shift them at a right angle to their first position to confront Howe. It was a dubious maneuver with untrained troops if Howe had attacked as soon as he reached Sullivan’s rear, Sullivan and perhaps the rest of the American army would have retreated. But the British had been on the march since early morning, and it was half past two. Howe ordered a halt for lunch. Such consideration was typical of Howe, and it was why his men loved him so much.

When the British attacked at three thirty, Sullivan’s men were the first to break. But the center fought well, yielding ground stubbornly, and when Knyphausen attacked across the Ford, he met equally fierce resistance from Anthony Wayne. Still, by nightfall the terrific pressure exerted by the British had reduced the American army to almost total disorganization. Except for a few regiments under Greene, Christopher Ward tells us, “thousands of beaten men, already dispersed before the final retreat and now uncontrolled by any sort of military discipline, thronged the road in utter confusion.” But Howe ordered no pursuit. His men were weary, and he let them spend the next day resting on the field. And on September 26 he reached his major objective, when Cornwallis entered the rebel capital with a force of British and Hessians.

Meanwhile, Burgoyne was meeting disaster in the wilderness. Surrounded by a militia army three times the size of his own, he surrendered at Saratoga on October 17. But even before Howe heard confirmation of this doleful news—in fact, on October 22, less than a month after he marched into Philadelphia—Sir William sent in his resignation. His actual words are again interesting: “From the little attention given to my recommendations since the commencement of my command, I am led to hope that I may be relieved from this very painful service, wherein I have not the good fortune to enjoy the necessary confidence and support of my superiors …”

As we have seen, there is considerable evidence that the service was “painful” to Sir William Howe from the day he arrived in America. His policy of peace by reconciliation had proved to be a will-o’-the-wisp. He was about to be crushed between Washington’s stubborn belligerence and the growing impatience of the “hard line” ministers in the Royal government. When he went home to confront his enemies in the ministry, he stoutly defended his original goal. “For, Sir, although some persons condemn me for having endeavoured to conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects … instead of irritating them by a contrary mode of proceeding, yet am I, from many reasons, satisfied in my own mind that I acted in that particular for the benefit of the King’s service. Ministers themselves, I am persuaded, did at one time entertain a similar doctrine …”

Not a minister rose to deny this statement. In fact it was the government, using its paid-up majority in Parliament, who hastily extinguished the Howe inquiry before it could reach any conclusion. Moreover, the government treated Howe with the greatest deference, handing him one well-paying sinecure after another until he died in 1814.

It seems clear that Sir William Howe was anything but a blunderer or a fool. Nor, though he enjoyed his bottle, his cards and the lady Loring, did he ever let them seriously interfere with what he set out to do in America. The mistake (perhaps, from a personal point of view, the tragedy) of Sir William Howe originated in the judgment of the King’s vacillating ministers, who gave him the job in the first place. The great Swiss military writer Jomini sums it up as a violation of the art of war. “To commit the execution of a purpose to one who disapproves of the plan of it, is to employ but one third of the man his heart and his head are against you you have command only of his hands.”


BRITISH COMMANDERS IN BNA: 1776-

The American colonies revolution changed Britain's military posture in North America. In October 1775 Lieutenant General William Howe, KB, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America. Howe had already requested more troops and on 29 June 1776, the first of 23,000 additional British regulars and 10,000 German troops arrived. General Howe was also joined by his brother Vice Admiral Richard Howe and 70 British war ships. A 27 August 1776 army report gave the total manpower as 31,625 officers and men. On 8 January 1777 there was a total of 25,253 in New York and nearby Rhode Island.[1]

The British were hard-pressed during the 1770s and were significantly distracted away from the the rebellious colonials in America by French and Spanish attacks in the Caribbean. After losing America during the Revolution and the formal 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain continued to follow up her colonial interests in North America in 1784. The British still controlled an enormous empire in the Americas. The following table identifies many of their leaders.[2] Dates indicate appointment or service. I have not included all personalities, but enough to indicate national colonial interest. Colonies were used as pawns to help make peace at the end of various conflicts, but the implied sovereign-ownership is accurate for the specific periods indicated.

After 1783, British focus shifted back to Québec and the remaining colonies in North America, and the generic term ‘British North America’ (BNA) was coined. (The term British West Indies (BWI) was used to define the Caribbean colonies.) Since Canada was not created formally until 1867, initial Canadian colonial history is focused in Québec. I have arbitrarily stopped after the 1867 year of Canadian interest.

The names are listed chronologically. Appointments are shown for the years only: note that titles changed over time. The most senior ranks are shown for the period of service - despite later promotions. I have not included all colonial British incumbents for sake of data bulk: but I have included most Canadian and American appointees, plus those in incidental Carribean and Central and South American positions. I have shown significant actions for some individuals.


Howe History, Family Crest & Coats of Arms

Howe is a name of ancient Anglo-Saxon origin and comes from the family once having lived near a hill or steep ridge of land. The surname Howe is usually derived from the Old English word hoh, which means heel or projecting ridge of land. However, it is sometimes derived from the Old Norse word haugr, which means mound or hill.

Furthermore, the name Howe may be derived from a residence in one of the many similarly named places: Hoe is in Norfolk, Hoo is in Kent, places called Hooe are in Devon and Sussex, Hose is in Leicestershire, places named Heugh are in Durham and Northumberland, and settlements called Hough are found in both Cheshire and Derby.

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Early Origins of the Howe family

The surname Howe was first found in Berkshire, where the name could also have been a baptismal name as in "son of Hugh," [1] while another reference claims the name has geographical significance as in the south: "a small round hill" and in the north: "a hollow place or plain." The medieval form of the name is "At How" and is usually synonymous with Hill, having derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "how," meaning "mountain." [2]

However, we must look to Cambridgeshire to find the first listings on the name, where Roger del Howes and Richard del Howes were listed there in the Hundredorum Rolls of 1273. [1]

"The church [of Withington, Gloucestershire] is a cruciform structure, principally in the Norman style, but partly of later date: among the monuments is a handsome one to the memory of Sir John How(e), his wife, and nine children, in a small cross aisle on the south side of the church, the burial-place of the family." [3]

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Early History of the Howe family

This web page shows only a small excerpt of our Howe research. Another 88 words (6 lines of text) covering the years 1066, 1671, 1654, 1656, 1625, 1679, 1659, 1679, 1627, 1676, 1660, 1676, 1635, 1692, 1611, 1701, 1648, 1713, 1673, 1685, 1689, 1691, 1657, 1722, 1700, 1735, 1722, 1732, 1733, 1735 and are included under the topic Early Howe History in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

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Howe Spelling Variations

Sound was what guided spelling in the essentially pre-literate Middle Ages, so one person's name was often recorded under several variations during a single lifetime. Also, before the advent of the printing press and the first dictionaries, the English language was not standardized. Therefore, spelling variations were common, even among the names of the most literate people. Known variations of the Howe family name include Howe, Howes, How and others.

Early Notables of the Howe family (pre 1700)

Notables of the family at this time include Sir John Howe, 1st Baronet (died 1671), an English politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1654 to 1656 John Grobham Howe (1625-1679), an English politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1659 and 1679, Member of Parliament for Gloucestershire Sir George Grobham Howe, 1st Baronet (c.1627-1676), an English politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1660 to 1676 Elizabeth Jackson Howe (c.
Another 76 words (5 lines of text) are included under the topic Early Howe Notables in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Migration of the Howe family to Ireland

Some of the Howe family moved to Ireland, but this topic is not covered in this excerpt.
Another 50 words (4 lines of text) about their life in Ireland is included in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Howe migration +

Some of the first settlers of this family name were:

Howe Settlers in United States in the 17th Century
  • Rice Howe, who settled in Virginia in 1618
  • Rice Howe, who arrived in Virginia in 1618 [4]
  • Daniel Howe, who landed in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1634 [4]
  • Edward Howe, who landed in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1635 [4]
  • Elizabeth Howe, aged 50, who landed in New England in 1635 [4]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Howe Settlers in United States in the 18th Century
Howe Settlers in United States in the 19th Century
  • George Howe, who arrived in New York, NY in 1811 [4]
  • William Howe, aged 25, who landed in New York in 1812 [4]
  • Michael Howe, who landed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1813 [4]
  • Eberh W Howe, who arrived in America in 1834 [4]
  • E C Howe, who landed in San Francisco, California in 1851 [4]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Howe Settlers in United States in the 20th Century

Howe migration to Canada +

Some of the first settlers of this family name were:

Howe Settlers in Canada in the 18th Century
  • Edward Howe, who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • James Howe, who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • Mr. John Howe U.E. (b. 1752) who settled in Saint John, New Brunswick c. 1784 he died in 1823 was a City Bellman [5]
  • Mr. Nathaniel Howe U.E. who settled in Canada c. 1784 [5]
  • Mr. Stephen Howe U.E. who settled in New Brunswick c. 1784 member of the Cape Ann Association [5]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Howe Settlers in Canada in the 19th Century
  • Thomas Howe, aged 20, a tinman, who arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1833 aboard the ship "Reward" from Cork, Ireland
  • Miss. Elizabeth Howe who was emigrating through Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, Quebec aboard the ship "Sobraon" departing 8th May 1847 from Liverpool, England the ship arrived on 29th June 1847 but she died on board [6]
  • Mr. Thomas Howe, aged 1 who was emigrating through Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, Quebec aboard the ship "Sobraon" departing 8th May 1847 from Liverpool, England the ship arrived on 29th June 1847 but he died on board [6]

Howe migration to Australia +

Emigration to Australia followed the First Fleets of convicts, tradespeople and early settlers. Early immigrants include:

Howe Settlers in Australia in the 19th Century
  • Miss Catharine Howe, (b. 1802), aged 26, Irish farm servant who was convicted in Kilkenny, Ireland for 7 years for stealing, transported aboard the "City of Edinburgh I" on 23rd June 1828, arriving in New South Wales, Australia, she died in 1862 [7]
  • Miss Catherine Howe, (Haw), (b. 1802), aged 26, Irish farm servant who was convicted in Kilkenny, Ireland for 7 years for stealing, transported aboard the "City of Edinburgh I" on 23rd June 1828, arriving in New South Wales, Australia, she died in 1862 [7]
  • Mr. George Howe, (Kettle, James, George, Happy), (b. 1799), aged 30, English ploughman who was convicted in Surrey, England for life for stealing, transported aboard the "Bussorah Merchant" on 1st October 1829, arriving in Tasmania ( Van Diemen's Land) [8]
  • Matthew Howe, who arrived in Adelaide, Australia aboard the ship "Bolton" in 1848 [9]
  • Charlotte Ann Howe, who arrived in Adelaide, Australia aboard the ship "Success" in 1848 [10]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Howe migration to New Zealand +

Emigration to New Zealand followed in the footsteps of the European explorers, such as Captain Cook (1769-70): first came sealers, whalers, missionaries, and traders. By 1838, the British New Zealand Company had begun buying land from the Maori tribes, and selling it to settlers, and, after the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, many British families set out on the arduous six month journey from Britain to Aotearoa to start a new life. Early immigrants include:


'General Howe Evacuating Boston

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Was Elizabeth Loring Patriot or Whore?

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art- Velvet bodice and satin-skirted robe mounted on jointed steel panniers
from the painting Les Adieux by Moreau Le Jeune Gift of the Museum of the City of New York, 2011

Elizabeth Loring is cited in some contemporary history books on the American Revolution with a small sentence that she was General William Howe’s mistress during his active duty in the thirteen colonies as Commander in Chief of the British Army during the Revolutionary War. Elizabeth Loring was married to Joshua Loring, Jr. who was appointed to the lucrative position of commissary general to the prisoners (it is speculated) in return for his acquiescence of the affair.

That they were reportedly lovers is hearsay and speculative gossip since we have no way of really knowing what went on behind closed doors. However, they were in each others constant company gambling and drinking. It is titillating to wonder what kind of husband could allow his wife to openly spend so much time in the company of his commander even earning herself the title of “Billy Howe’s Cleopatra”. New Jersey congressman, Francis Hopkinson penned his famous poem called “The Battle of the Kegs”

Sir William, he, snug as a flea,

Lay all the time a-snoring

Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm

Some disgruntled Loyalists of the period have even insinuated that Loring was the cause for the negligence that Howe showed as Commander in Chief. There were so many occasions that Howe could have wiped out the Patriot army, yet held back. An anonymous handbill was delivered to parliament concerning Howe’s failure to quash the rebellion: “General Howe was at New York in the lap of Ease: or, rather amusing himself in the lap of a Mrs. L____g, who is the very Cleopatra to this Antony of ours.” This reticence to act prompted even the Patriots to wonder what game Howe was playing. Patriot Israel Putnam was to note that Howe was “either a friend of America or no General.” Patriot General Lee also wrote of Howe: “He shut his eyes, fought his battles, drank his bottle and had his little whore.”[1]

What was Elizabeth Loring like? How could she have captivated a decadent titled battle worn career military man? I have not been able to find one image of her. She was a young 25 year old mother of two. Loring was described by her contemporaries as a “a very handsome woman, and noted for her love of play”. She was a” blue eyed flashing blonde” and “the favorite sultana lost 300 guineas at a single sitting”. What is even more interesting is that in 1778 she moved to England, reunited with her husband Joshua Jr. at the end of the war and had three more children with him.

What kind of man was Elizabeth’s husband, Joshua Jr.? In the words of a Loyalist contemporary “Joshua had a handsome wife. The general …was fond of her. Joshua had no objections. He fingered the cash, the general enjoyed the madam.” Joshua Jr. was described as a vile sociopath in Ethan Allen’s words:

This Loring is a monster!…There is not his like in human shape: He exhibits a smiling countenance, seems to wear a phiz of humanity, but has been instrumentally capable of the most consummate acts of wickedness…(clothed with the authority of a Howe) murdering premeditatedly (in cold blood) near or quite 2000 helpless prisoners…(at N.York). He is the most mean- spirited,cowardly,deceitfuland destructive animal in God’s creation below.[2]

[1] Revolutionary Ladies by Philip Young Copyright 1977 Alfred A. Knopf,Inc page 59

[2] Revolutionary Ladies by Philip Young Copyright 1977 Alfred A. Knopf,Inc p.71

Revolutionary Mothers Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin (First Vintage Books Edition Copyright 2005)

1776 by David McCullough (copyright 2005 Simon & Schuster Paperbacks)

Revolutionary Ladies by Philip Young Copyright 1977 Alfred A. Knopf,Inc.


Biography

William Howe was born on 10 August 1729, the son of a Viscount and the illegitimate half-sister of King George I of Great Britain. His mother's royal status helped in elevating the careers of William and his brothers George and Richard, and Howe fought in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. George was killed in the Battle of Fort Carillon in 1758, but William distinguished himself at the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, and the Battle of Havana in 1762. In 1764, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and he served as a member of Parliament with the Whigs. As a Whig, Howe was initially sympathetic to the plight of the American colonists, but he was sent to Boston in 1775 to assist General Thomas Gage in crushing the rebellion.

Following the Siege of Boston, Howe assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief, North America from Thomas Gage and led 32,000 British and Hessian troops into New York Harbor on 12 July 1776. Throughout the battles for New York, Howe attempted to negotiate with George Washington and held a conference with him on Staten Island, but the Americans refused to plead guilty when they believed that they had done nothing wrong. Howe won the Battle of Long Island in August and had driven the Americans out by November, imposing British rule over New York, which became his headquarters.

In 1777, Howe led his army south towards the American capital of Philadelphia while the Americans focused on fighting against John Burgoyne's army in the Saratoga Campaign, and he secured major victories at the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown before taking Philadelphia. Despite these successes, the plan to cut the colonies in two at Saratoga failed with John Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga in October, and Howe resigned his command in early 1778 while Washington was at Valley Forge. Henry Clinton replaced Howe, who returned home and died childless in 1814.



Comments:

  1. James

    Make mistakes. Let us try to discuss this.

  2. Tauktilar

    Thanks for support.

  3. Fenrilkis

    The article is interesting, but it seems to me that all these are fairy tales, nothing more.

  4. Arashigor

    There is something in this. Thank you very much for the information, now I will not make such a mistake.



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