- Early Life: 1729-1774
William Howe was born in England on August 10, 1729. His grandmother had been the mistress of King George I, which made him and his two brothers George III's illegitimate uncles. He was educated at Eton. On September 18, 1746, he became a cornet in Cumberland's Light Dragoons. He was promoted to Lieutenant the following year. On January 2, 1750, he joined the 20th Foot and was promoted to Captain on June 1st. It was during this time that he became friends with James Wolfe, who was then Major of the regiment.
On January 4, 1756, Howe became Major of the newly raised 60th Regiment, which was redesignated the 58th Foot the following year. He commanded the unit as part of Maj. General Jeffery Amherst's operation against Louisburg in July 1758. He commanded the light infantry under Maj. General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec, Canada on September 13, 1759. On December 17, 1759, he was commissioned Lt. Colonel. He then spent the winter in defense of Quebec. He again commanded a unit at Amherst's capture of Montreal in 1760. He commanded a brigade at the siege of Belle Isle in 1761. In 1762, he was the adjutant general of the army that captured Havana, Cuba.
Following his oldest brother George's death in 1758, he had served in Parliament and would hold that office until 1780. In 1764, he became Colonel of the 46th Foot in Ireland. He became Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1768. In 1772, he was promoted to Major General. In 1774, he took over training of Light Infantry companies, where he took notice of Captain Patrick Ferguson. As tensions rose concerning the American colonies, he and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, were sympathetic to the colonists.
American Revolution: 1775-April 1776
On February 21, 1775, Howe received orders for assignment to America. He arrived in Boston on May 25, 1775 onboard the Cerberus along with fellow Major Generals John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. It was his proposal of a frontal assault that Lt. General Thomas Gage adopted. Howe was given field command of the operation. After waiting for high tide to make a suitable landing, Howe led his troops up Breed's Hill against the American fortifications on June 17, 1775.
The Americans drove them back not once but twice. However, Howe would not be denied. He ordered his men to drop their packs and led a third charge up the hill. The Americans were now running low on ammunition and the British finally overran the position. The victory had come at a high cost with a nearly forty percent casualty rate, including several of Howe's officers, but the general had acquitted himself well, personally leading the advances.
On October 10, 1775, Howe replaced General Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America during what was to be a "temporary" absence by Gage. Howe was also given the local rank of full General. After the Continental Army Commander-in-Chief General George Washington secured Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbon and then mounted artillery, Howe ordered an evacuation of forces to Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. In April 1776, Howe was formally appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the 13 Colonies, while Maj. General Guy Carleton was named Commander-in-Chief in Canada.
Howe Secures New York City : May 1776-January 1777
On June 25, 1776, Maj. General William Howe arrived off Sandy Hook. On July 2, he landed on Staten Island without opposition with 9,300. After receiving reinforcements from his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, as well as other Hessian and British reinforcements from England and the arrival of the expedition that had failed to capture Charleston, Howe had over 31,000 troops. Of those men, when he began operations in August, 24,400 of them were fit for duty.
On August 27, 1776, General Howe soundly defeated General George Washington's forces at the Battle of Long Island in a brilliant tactical display. However, instead of pursuing the Americans and making the rout complete, he halted. This allowed the Americans to pull off their own brilliant operation in evacuating from the area on August 29-30. After speaking with Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe about their role as peace commissioners, captured Continental Maj. General John Sullivan was allowed to go speak to the Continental Congress. He was able to pursuade Congress to meet with the brothers. A committee was appointed on September 5 and on September 11, 1776, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge met with Admiral Howe after General Howe excused himself. Admiral Howe was honest in that he had to receive the approval of London on anything discussed and that he had no real negotiating power.
Following the unsuccessful peace conference, General Howe landed his troops at Kip's Bay on September 15, 1776. Again, Howe perhaps missed an opportunity to decimate General Washington's troops. His advance guard was repulsed at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16. He now halted for nearly a month. Howe resumed his operations on October 12 and by October 18, had outmaneuvered Washington, forcing the Continental Commander to abandon Harlem Heights and leave Fort Washington isolated.
An assault on Fort Washington failed on October 27, but General Howe again defeated General Washington at the Battle of White Plains on October 28. Again, instead of pressing forward against the retreating Continentals, he turned back to capture Fort Washington, which had been bypassed. The fort was easily overrun on November 16, which netted the British 3,000 prisoners and a host of supplies. Only the Fall of Charleston would prove to be a more costly defeat in men and supplies for the rebels than Fort Washington. Howe then occupied Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on November 20. In less than three months, Howe had driven Washington from not only New York City, but even New York state.
General Howe now began preparing to enter winter quarters. He detached 6,000 troops under Maj. General Henry Clinton to sail to Newport, Rhode Island. He also detached forces under Lt. General Charles Cornwallis to chase General Washington south of Brunswick, New Jersey and create a safe zone in northern New Jersey. On December 13, 1776, he entered winter quarters, while permitting Cornwallis to establish distant outposts at Trenton, Princeton, Burlington, Bordentown and Pennington, while his main camp was located at Brunswick. However, after General Washington's twin victories at Trenton on December 26, 1776 and Princeton on January 3, 1777, Howe ordered Cornwallis to pull back, leaving outposts only at Brunswick and Perth Amboy.
American Revolution: 1777-1778
While General George Washington continued to send out raids and conduct small operations to harass the British during the Winter of 1777, Maj. General William Howe was content to remain in New York City. Rather than military activities, Howe filled his time with social activities. Finally in June 1777, he began maneuvers in northern New Jersey hoping to draw Washington into exposing himself to attack. When he had no success, he withdrew back to Staten Island, completely evacuating New Jersey by June 30, 1777.
On July 23, General Howe sailed from Staten Island with 15,000 troops. Howe sailed to Chesapeake Bay and landed at Head of Elk, Maryland and began marching northward on August 28, 1777. On September 11, he defeated General Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. On September 16, he began moving north again. Rain prevented another engagement between the two generals at Warren Tavern, Pennsylvania. Howe now outmaneuvered Washington along the Schuylkill River and occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777 without a fight. Howe repulsed Washington's attack at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. Although some minor operations continued in the vicinity, Howe began preparing for quartering at Philadelphia for the winter.
On October 22, 1777, Howe requested that he be relieved. On April 14, 1778, he received word that his resignation had been accepted. On May 18, his officers staged an extravagant festival in Howe's honor. On May 20, Lt. General Henry Clinton assumed the duties of Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America and five days later, Howe sailed for England. Politics now now became the battleground. Maj. General John Burgoyne had arrived in England in May, 1778 on parole following his defeat at Saratoga. William Howe arrived in July and his older brother Admiral Richard Howe arrived in October. These three had been some of the moderate military leaders who had opposed war with the colonies, but accepted command in America.
After the War: 1778-1814
General Burgoyne blamed Howe for his defeat since Burgoyne's plan had counted on the support of another force from New York City. Instead of moving north in support of Burgoyne, Howe had undertaken his own campaign to the south. Finally, after criticism continued to build, Parliament opened an investigation in May 1779. The investigation concluded inconclusively on June 29. Howe refused to join the opposition against the current government.
In 1782, Howe was made Lt. General of the Ordinance. On October 23, 1793, he was promoted to full General. In 1795, he was named Governor of Berwick. In 1799, following the death of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, he succeeded to the Irish Viscount. In 1803, he resigned his post as General of the Ordinance due to poor health. He died after a long illness on July 12, 1814. At the time of his death he was a privy councilor and governor of Plymouth. He had no children.