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A New Look at the Family Who Waged (and Lost) Britain’s War for America

The death in battle of young George in 1758 on this New York battlefield made Richard the new viscount and patriarch of the family. Having sailed to sea in 1736, the start of a six-decade career as one of Britain’s foremost combat sailors, Richard had fought in 1760 in 57 naval battles, with many more to come. . He was so distinguished in the Seven Years’ War – known in America as the French and Indian War – that George III, who became king shortly before Britain’s triumphant victory in wrestling, later called Richard his “faithful and beloved cousin”.

William, who received an army commission in 1746, rose to prominence in the same war by leading his troops along an almost vertical cliff during the famous British defeat to the French at Quebec in September. 1759. His brothers and sisters nicknamed him “the Savage”. The Howes fighters emerged from the war as household names in Britain and America. Four Howe brothers would sit in Parliament.

In December 1774, Caroline started a three-month series of sociable chess games at her Grafton Street townhouse against Benjamin Franklin, then an agent of colonial interests in London. It has become the conduit of the British government’s latest efforts to prevent bloodshed in America. Nothing came of the efforts, but Franklin, who quickly sailed home to join the revolutionaries, confessed: “I never conceived a higher opinion of a woman’s discretion and excellent understanding on such a short acquaintance. “

When the American Rebellion turned into a shooting war in 1775, the crown turned to Richard and William, now Vice-Admiral and Major General, respectively. Forced to patrol a 1,000-mile U.S. coastline, escort supply and troop transports across the North Atlantic, and support British Army operations, Richard made the most of an evil spell in fighting the American corsairs and, soon enough, the French warships allied with the rebels.

Flavell’s effort to resuscitate William’s military reputation is a heavy burden. General Howe commanded the bloody British catastrophe on Bunker Hill in June 1775, which left at least 226 dead in red tunics, and he was the commander responsible for the British defeats 18 months later at Trenton and Princeton. More damning, William contributed to Britain’s strategic inconsistency with a winding campaign against Philadelphia in 1777 that was totally disconnected from a simultaneous exit from Canada to the Hudson River – the prelude to America’s dizzying triumph at Saratoga. He was very guilty of Britain’s abominable treatment of American prisoners, thousands of whom died of starvation, disease and neglect.

By the time William was recalled to England in 1778 (he had asked to leave), followed a few months later by Richard, the prospect of a British victory had all but disappeared. Five more years of war under different senior commanders would prove the point. At home, the Howe brothers were bombarded with silly claims that they were war profiteers, or rebel sympathizers, or lame in their war – an accusation that would baffle Americans whose men were being bayed, women raped and the burnt towns. The Howes retaliated in parliamentary hearings, pamphlet salvage and oral argument in the living room. But, as one reviewer noted, “the fault must be laid somewhere on the failure of a business that was seen as impossible to fail.” Walpole simply concludes: “The Howes are not in fashion.

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Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds

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