General Howe’s Problem

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

On October 17, 1777, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne capitulated with his army to Major General Horatio Gates.  Probably no later than 5 pm that day the “Monday morning quarterbacking” began.  Burgoyne himself would memorably look over the events in his book A State of the Expedition from Canada in 1780 and blame everybody and his brother…excepting of course, John Burgoyne.

It’s been said that success had many fathers, but not so with failure.  However, there were many failings along the long road to the meeting at General Gates’ marquee some took place far from the Upper Hudson Valley.  One that is often cited is General Sir William Howe’s failure to ascend the Hudson, unite with Burgoyne and save the British Empire in North America.

According to received knowledge, Burgoyne planned for three (3) prongs using the waterways of New York to invade the American interior.  Once in control of these waterways, notably the Hudson River, New England would be isolated, and after the other recalcitrant colonies were shown the error of their naughty ways, the British could deal with those Yankee troublemakers.  What spoils everything is General Sir William Howe, who doesn’t want Burgoyne to be the Revered Hero, and spitefully throws a spanner wrench into the gears by sending his army to capture Philadelphia.

“I have no special regard for Satan…” begins a witticism from Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  General Sir William Howe does not usually inspire great regard either, but making Howe the villain in the Burgoyne defeat is rather lame.  General Howe was never ordered to ascend the Hudson.   Burgoyne’s plan called for two (2) armies to operate in Northern New York with the intention of capturing Albany, the head of navigation on the Hudson.  Once they were successful, Burgoyne would open communications to General Howe, who would decide what was to be the next step.

Why did Howe go to Philadelphia?  Certainly there was rivalry among the various British commanders  (and the record shows more than a bit of animosity among American officers, too), but the real reason for Howe taking Philadelphia was General Washington’s Continental Army, holed up in northern New Jersey.

General Washington’s army was located there following a long hard campaign in 1776.  During the summer and autumn, Washington’s half-trained troops were defeated and out-maneuvered by General Howe’s forces, losing the City of New York and almost the war.  By late autumn, Washington thought the “game was pretty much up.”  All things indicated the end of the rebel army, so Howe went into winter quarters, garrisoning towns across the Jerseys.

Washington then launched his unexpected winter campaign, an act of utter desperation.  The gamble paid off, resulting in victories at Trenton and Princeton.  Not only did he capture a parcel of German troops, beat up on British regulars, but escaped again from General Howe’s efforts to catch his army.  Washington & Co. took up winter residence centering on Morristown, New Jersey, where reinforcements from the Hudson Highlands had been assembled along with local militia. Morristown was essentially safe from the British thanks to the Watchung Hills.  They are not very tall, but they form a demarcation point in New Jersey’s terrain: to their north and west, the ground is rather hilly; south and east, things flatten considerably.  The few passes through the hills could be watched.  The position also allowed Washington to have secure “lateral communications” to New England and Pennsylvania along a road that was better than most.  Being behind the hills, Howe could not interrupt those communications.

From this safe base Washington attacked Howe’s outposts.  By spring of 1777 Howe’s control of New Jersey had been reduced to Sandy Hook, [Perth] Amboy and [New] Brunswick.

Howe could not ignore Washington’s presence, but he could not get at him either.  Washington could threaten Howe easily, but should Howe come after him, Washington had viable retreat options.  Howe might threaten several objectives like the Lower Hudson Valley or Philadelphia, but Washington was poised to hamper any such actions.

Howe tried a series of unsuccessful maneuvers in June 1777 to lure Washington out of his positions.  Washington stood pat, and Howe realized that he needed better bait, and that had to be Philadelphia.  The problem was that to march overland toward the City of Brotherly Love left Howe’s flanks unprotected.  Howe had to play his trump card: The Royal Navy.

The move put Washington on the horns of a dilemma, duly noted in An Impartial History of the War in America Between Great Britain and Her Colonies from Its Commencement to the end of the Year 1779:

“The preparations for this grand expedition  excited general alarm throughout the Continent.  Boston, the North River, the Delaware, Cheaspeak[e] Bay, and even Charles-Town, were alternately held to be its objects.  General Washington, in pursuance of the intelligence which he  constantly received from New-York, and the other islands, was constantly dispatching expresses to put those places upon their guard, against which from immediate information, he supposed for the time the storm to be directed.  It was one of the manifest advantages of proceeding by sea, that it was impossible for Washington directly to know where the storm would fall.  He must therefore  keep his position; and the King’s army must necessarily make a considerable progress towards its object, before he could be in a condition to resist them;  and such a progress would not leave him that choice of posts, by which hitherto  he had avoided general
action.”

Washington’s military situation was unenviable.  By going to sea, Howe effectively pinned Washington in place, as he had no clear idea of Howe’s intentions.  This not only set up the likelihood of fighting on grounds of Howe’s choosing, but also forced the rebel forces to spread their meager resources thin against any eventualities.  As for the worsening situation for the Northern Army, Washington could only watch, unable to send much aid, no matter how desperately needed.

Howe eventually sailed into the Chesapeake ending the mystery of his intentions.  Washington moved his army to the south and west of Philadelphia, just as Howe wanted.  He outmaneuvered Washington and captured Philadelphia.  General Howe’s move toward Philadelphia was based upon military consideration, not spite.   He showed a realistic appraisal of the situation: attacking Washington head-on would have been costly and probably futile.  Howe also recognized that the only way to get Washington from his secure position was to threaten an objective that had to be defended.  The best way to reach it was to use the British advantage of sea power.

Howe showed some rather clever strategic thinking in the summer of 1777.  Fortunately for the cause of American Independence, Howe stumbled, failing to destroy Washington’s army

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