William and Richard Howe are well remembered for their role in the American Revolution. But their older brother George Howe might have been the man to prevent America from liberating itself from English control — had he lived long enough.
Admiral Richard Howe conducted the ultimately unsuccessful British naval blockade of America during the Revolution. General William Howe commanded British forces as the Revolution broke out, directing the fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill. But their older brother George took the fast track to military glory 20 years earlier.
Virtually everyone who met George Howe loved him. William Pitt, responsible for the British military in America during the French and Indian War, spotted George’s brilliance as a leader. He probably preferred him to his commander in America, James Abercrombie. But Abercrombie had better connections and more military seniority. So Pitt sent Abercrombie to America as the leader of the army and Howe as his second.
George Howe’s men also loved him. When Howe arrived in Boston in 1757 he began studying his new surroundings. He sought out the advice off New Hampshire’s Robert Rogers and John Stark, as well as and Connecticut’s Rufus and Israal Putnam. He took a scouting mission with Robert Rogers before a campaign to take Fort Ticonderoga from the French. Howe quickly grasped that the British Army’s traditional approach to war would result in disaster against the French and their Indian allies. Rogers had converted him to the methods of the ferocious Rogers Rangers.
In 1757 and 1758, Howe prepared his regiment to do battle with the French in New York. He converted his men to guerrilla fighters. He had them cut their long coats short and remove lace from the uniforms. Ornate hats were shrunk down to better suit the forest fighting. Brown and green uniforms replaced red, and he had wool leggings issued. Fashionable long hair, including the general’s own, was cut short. He ordered all excess baggage left behind.
Howe cautioned his British troops against looking down on their American counterparts. The country cousins might look ragged, but they were needed, and he wanted a blended force of Americans and British to work cooperatively rather than competitively.
To help ease any grumbling about the changes, Howe led by example. He ate the same rations as the common soldier and laundered his own clothes. And he cut his own hair and altered his uniform in the same fashion as his men. His own tent contained little more than a blanket and a bearskin.
In July of 1758 Howe’s regiment and his methods got an early test. On July 6 Howe lead his men, along with a Connecticut militia unit, northward on the shore of Lake George in New York, toward Ticonderoga (called Carilon at the time).
Connecticut’s Israel Putnam acted as scout. The small force encountered a detachment of the French Army and a quick skirmish broke out. Howe’s forces acquitted themselves well, inflicting 300 casualties and taking 148 prisoners. They suffered few casualties of their own.
However, one of the men killed in the fighting was General Howe himself. He died, at the age of 33, in the arms of Israel Putnam.
The news of Howe’s death shocked the New England colonies. The Massachusetts general assembly voted to spend £250 to erect a monument to Howe in Westminster Abbey. But its full impact would only be felt later.
Abercrombie would go on to lead a disastrous assault on Fort Ticonderoga. Despite having six times the force of the French, the British and American troops at Ticonderoga suffered a massive loss.
After the outbreak of the American Revolution, New Hampshire General John Stark said he could finally reconcile himself to the loss of George Howe. He imagined, if Howe had not died in New York in 1758, he would have led the British troops against him.
Thanks to Lord Howe, by Frank Wickes. This story last updated in 2022.