Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Howe, William (1729-1814)
HOWE, WILLIAM, fifth Viscount Howe (1729–1814), general, was younger son of Emanuel Scrope Howe, second viscount Howe, by his wife Mary Sophia, eldest daughter of Baron Kielmansegge. His elder brothers were George Augustus, third viscount Howe killed at Ticonderoga and Richard, earl Howe, K.G. [q.v.], the admiral. William Howe was born on 10 Aug. 1729. He was educated at Eton, and on 18 Sept. 1746 was appointed cornet in the Duke of Cumberland's light dragoons (Home Office Mil. Entry Book, xix. ff. 386-7), in which he was made lieutenant on 21 Sept. 1747. The 'duke's dragoons,' as the regiment was called, was formed out of the Duke of Kingston's regiment of horse after the battle of Culloden, served in Flanders in 1747-8, and was disbanded at its birthplace, Nottingham, early in 1749. Howe became captain-lieutenant in Lord Bury's regiment (20th foot) 2 Jan. 1750, and captain on 1 June the same year. He served in the regiment until his promotion, Wolfe being major at the time, and afterwards lieutenant-colonel commanding the regiment. On 4 Jan. 1756 Howe was appointed major in the newly raised 60th (Anstruther's) foot, which was renumbered as the 58th foot (now 1st Northampton) in February 1757. He became lieutenant-colonel on 17 Dec. 1759, and the year after took the regiment out from Ireland to America, and commanded it at the siege and capture of Louisburg, Cape Breton. Wolfe, a personal friend, wrote soon after: 'Our old comrade, Howe, is at the head of the best trained battalion in all America, and his conduct in the last campaign corresponded entirely with the opinion we had formed of him' (Wright, Life of Wolfe,p. 468). Howe commanded a light infantry battalion, formed of picked soldiers from the various regiments employed, in the expedition to Quebec under Wolfe. He led the forlorn hope of twenty-four men that forced the entrenched path by which Wolfe's force scaled the heights of Abraham Before dawn on 13 Sept. 1759. After the capture of Quebec the light battalion was broken up, and Howe rejoined the 58th, and commanded it during the defence of the city in the winter of 1759-60. He commanded a brigade of detachments under Murray in the expedition in 1760 to Montreal, which completed the conquest of Canada. He likewise commanded a brigade at the famous siege of Belle Isle, on the coast of Brittany, in March-June 1761, and was adjutant-general of the army at the conquest of Havana in 1762. When the war was over no officer had a more brilliant record of service than Howe. He was appointed colonel of the 46th foot in Ireland in 1764, and was made lieutenant-governor of the Isle of Wight in 1768 (Home Office Mil. Entry Book, xxvii. 266). When Howe's elder brother, the third viscount, fell at Ticonderoga in 1758, his mother issued an address to the electors of Nottingham, for which the viscount had been member, begging their suffrages on behalf of her youngest son, then also fighting for his country in America. The appeal was successful (cf.HoraceWalpole, Letters, ii. 173). Howe represented Nottingham in the whig interest until 1780.
He became a major-general in 1772, and in 1774 was entrusted with the training of companies selected from line regiments at home in a new system of light drill. This resulted in the general introduction of light companies into line regiments. After training on Salisbury Plain, the companies were reviewed by George III in Richmond Park and sent back to their respective regiments. The drill consisted of company movements in file and formations from files.
When the rupture with the colonies occurred, Howe, who condemned the conduct of the government, and told the electors of Nottingham (as they afterwards remembered) that he would not accept a command in America, was the senior of the general officers sent out with the reinforcements for General Gage [see Gage, Thomas, 1721-1787]. They arrived at Boston, Massachusetts, at the end of 1775. Howe wished to avoid Boston, on account of the kindly feeling of the province towards his late brother (a monument to the third viscount was put up in Westminster Abbey by the state of Massachusetts), and on account also of his disbelief in Gage's fitness for the command (De Fonblanque, Life of Burgoyne). Howe commanded the force sent out by Gage to attack the American position on Charleston heights, near Boston, which resulted in the battle of Bunker's Hill, on 17 June 1775. Howe, with the light infantry, led the right attack on the side next the Mystic, and, it is said, was for some seconds left alone on the fiery slope, every officer and man near him having been shot down. After two repulses the position was carried, the Americans merely withdrawing to a neighbouring height. Howe became a lieutenant-general, was transferred to the colonelcy of the 23rd royal Welsh fusiliers, and was made K.B. in the same year. On 10 Oct. 1775 he succeeded Gage in the command of the old colonies, with the local rank of general in America, the command in Canada being given to Guy Carleton [q.v.] Howe remained shut up in Boston during the winter of 1775-6. Washington having taken up a commanding position on Dorchester Heights, Howe withdrew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, evacuating Boston without molestation on 6 March 1776. Learning at Halifax that a concentration of troops on Staten Island (for an attack on New York) was in contemplation, Howe removed his troops thither, and awaited reinforcements. Part of these arrived in the fleet under his brother, Viscount (afterwards Earl) Howe, the newly appointed naval commander-in-chief on the American station. The reinforcements reached Boston in June and Staten Island in July 1776. Letters patent under the great seal had in the meantime been issued, on 6 May 1776, appointing Howe and his brother special commissioners for granting pardons and taking other measures for the conciliation of the colonies. Their efforts were of no avail (Bancroft, v. 244-551). With additional reinforcements, including a large number of German mercenaries, Howe's force now numbered thirty thousand men, and he landed near Utrecht, on Long Island, 22 Aug. 1776. He defeated the American forces, but refused to allow the entrenchments at Brooklyn to be attacked, as involving needless risk. The entrenchments were abandoned by the Americans two days later, and on 15 Sept. Howe captured and occupied New York. He defeated the enemy at White Plains on 28 Oct. 1776, and immediately afterwards captured Fort Washington, with its garrison of two thousand men, and Fort Lee. Cornwallis [see Cornwallis, Charles, first marquis], with the advance of the army, pushed on as far as the Delaware, and wintered between Bedford and Amboy, and Howe, with the main body of the army, went into winter quarters in and around New York, where Howe is accused of having set an evil example to his officers of dissipation and high play (Bancroft, v. 477). He did not take the field again until June 1777, when the army assembled at Bedford. But Washington was not to be drawn from his position, so Howe, leaving Clinton at New York, embarked the rest of his army, with a view to entering Delaware Bay, and thereby turning the American position. Contrary winds delayed the enterprise, and the troops did not reach the Chesapeake until late in August. A landing was effected; on 11 Sept. 1776 Howe defeated the enemy at Brandywine, and after a succession of skirmishes took up a position at Germantown on 26 Sept. Lord Cornwallis, with the grenadiers of the army, occupied Philadelphia next day. On 4 Oct. the Americans attacked Germantown, but were repulsed. On 17 Oct. Burgoyne's force, approaching from Canada, surrendered at Saratoga. Howe, who complained that he was not properly supported at home, sent in his resignation the same month. A number of movements followed, but Howe failed to bring Washington to a general action, and on 8 Dec. 1777 he went into winter quarters at Philadelphia, ' being unwilling to expose the troops longer to the weather in this inclement season, without tents or baggage for officers or men.' Bancroft accuses Howe of spending the winter (1777-8) in Philadelphia in the eager pursuit of pleasure, so that, to the surprise of all, no attack was made on Washington's starving troops in their winter quarters at Valley Forge, although their numbers were at one time reduced to less than five thousand men (ib. vi. 46-7). It should be said that in the opinion of Sir Charles (afterwards first Earl) Grey [q.v.], one of the ablest and most energetic of the English generals present, the means available were never sufficient to justify an attempt on Valley Forge (Howe, Narrative, p.42). Howe received notice that his resignation was accepted in May 1778. Before leaving America his officers, with whom he was a favourite, gave him a grand entertainment, which they called a 'mischianza.' It opened with a mock tournament, in which seven knights of the 'Blended Rose' contended with a like number of the 'Burning Mountain' for fourteen damsels in Turkish garb, and it ended at dawn with a display of fireworks, in which a figure of Fame proclaimed in letters of fire, 'Thy laurels shall never fade.' The whole affair excited much animadversion and endless ridicule. Before leaving Philadelphia, Howe sent General Grant [see Grant, James, 1720-1806] to intercept Lafayette, who had crossed the Schuykill, following himself in support. Lafayette cleverly eluded Grant, and Howe returned to Philadelphia. He embarked for England on 24 May 1778, being succeeded in the command by Clinton [see Clinton, Sir Henry, 1738-1795]. Horace Walpole speaks of Howe's visits, after his return home, to the great camps which had been formed in expectation of invasion (Letters, iii. 134). He appears to have been a frequent speaker in the House of Commons on American affairs (Parl. Hist. vols. xix-xxi.) Early in 1779 Howe and his brother the admiral, thinking their conduct had been unjustly impugned by the ministry, obtained a committee of the whole house to inquire into the conduct of the war in America. Various witnesses were examined, but the inquiry was without result. The ministers could not substantiate any charge against Howe, and he on his part failed to prove that he had not received due support. The committee adjourned sine die on 29 June 1779, and did not meet again. Howe published a 'Narrative of Sir William Howe before a Committee of the House of Commons' (London, 1780, 4to), in which he solemnly declared that, although preferring conciliation, his brother and himself stretched their limited powers to the utmost verge of their instructions, and never suffered their efforts in the direction of conciliation to interfere with the military operations. There appears to have been some idea of reappointing Howe to the American command. In 1782 he was appointed lieutenant-general of the ordnance, and ex officio colonel en second of the royal artillery and engineers, and in 1785 was transferred from the colonelcy of the 23rd fusiliers to that of the 19th (originally 23rd) light dragoons. At the time of the Nootka Sound dispute Howe was nominated for the command of the so-called 'Spanish armament'—the force under orders for embarkation in the event of war being declared (Cornwallis, Correspondence, ii. 110). He became a full general on 23 Oct. 1793. After the commencement of the French war he had command of the northern district, with headquarters at Newcastle, and in 1795 commanded a force of nine thousand men encamped at Whitley, near Newcastle, the largest camp formed in the north of England during the war. Later, when the French armies had overrun Holland, he held the important command of the eastern district of England, with headquarters at Colchester.
On the death of Earl Howe, in 1799, Howe succeeded to the Irish title only as fifth viscount. He resigned his post under the ordnance, on account of failing health, in 1803. He had been appointed governor of Berwick-on-Tweed in 1795, and was transferred to that of Plymouth in 1805. He died at Plymouth, after a long and painful illness, on 12 July 1814, when the Irish, as distinct from the English, title became extinct.
On 4 June 1765 he married Frances, fourth daughter of the Right Hon. William Conolly, of Castletown, co. Kildare, and his wife, Lady Anne Wentworth. There was no issue.
Personally, Howe was six feet in height, of coarse mould, and exceedingly dark. He was an able officer, with an extensive knowledge of his profession; but as a strategist he was unsuccessful. American writers credit him with an indolent disposition, which sometimes caused him to be blamed for the severities of subordinates into whose conduct he did not trouble to inquire.[Foster's Peerage, under 'Howe;' Collins's Peerage, 1812 edit. vol. viii. under 'Baroness Howe; Home Office Military Entry Books, ut supra; Wright's Life of Wolfe; Knox's Narrative of the War (London, 1762); Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe (London, 1884), vol. ii. chap. xxvii.; Murray's Journal of the Defence of Quebec, in Proc. Hist. Soc. (Quebec, 1870); Colburn's United Serv. Mag. December 1877 and January 1878, account of 58th foot; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs, vols. iii–vi. passim; Bancroft's Hist. of the United States, vols. iv–vi.; Ross's Cornwallis Correspondence, i.20,23, 28–9, 31, 39, ii. 110, 282; De Fonblanque's Life and Opinions of Right Hon. John Burgoyne; Howe's Narrative before a Select Committee of the House of Commons (London, 1780); Parl. Hist. vols. xviii–xxi.; London Gazette, under years; Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th (iv.), and particularly llth (iv.)—Marquis Townshend's MSS.—and llth (v.)—Earl of Dartmouth's MSS.—Reports; Journal of Howe's Army in 1776; Brit. Mus. Egerton MS. ff. 7–9; Howe's Letters to General Haldimand, Addit. MSS. 21734 f. 149, 21807-8; Broad Arrow, 14 Sept. 1889, p.312; Gent. Mag. 1814, pt. ii. p. 93.]