(William Howe, Wikimedia Commons)
David Smith, Whispers Across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution, (NY: Osprey Publishing, 2017).
If it’s true that George Washington lost all his battles, but won the war, then it’s equally true that Sir William Howe won all his battles and lost the war. Of course, neither premise is accurate, but they pithily sum up the conventional interpretation of each commander’s accomplishments on the battlefield, wrong as they may be. Washington’s role as Commander-in-Chief has come under increased scrutiny as Americans revisit their history. His chief adversary, however, Sir William Howe, has largely escaped focused study. David Smith set out to rectify that shortfall in his doctoral dissertation, which became the basis of Whispers Across the Atlantick. Historians should thank him for it.
Primary source material in Howe’s hand is limited. He did not write as well or frequently as many of his contemporaries, which may explain a reluctance to correspond frequently. Fortunately, as Smith was working on his doctorate, an early draft of Howe’s address to the House of Commons explaining his decisions during the Revolution came up for auction, creating an opportunity for historians to examine Howe’s after-the-fact justification for his actions. Smith builds his book around this narrative, offering small snippets at the beginning of each chapter, commenting on what Howe hoped to achieve in that portion of his speech, and then relating and analyzing the relevant military operations.
Whispers Across the Atlantick is a tightly argued and focused military biography and command study. Smith paints the events of Howe’s life in broad strokes and then primarily for their impact on his military training and outlook. Like many of his contemporaries, Howe saw service in the colonies during the French and Indian War, eventually coming to specialize in the tactics and organization of light infantry, which tended to emphasize independence and speed in their operations.
Although Howe at first appeared committed to an aggressive approach with the Americans and focused on a generally agreed strategy of dividing New England from the rest of the colonies by controlling the Hudson River, Smith demonstrates that Howe consistently missed opportunities through inaction, delays, or indecision. Whether it was failing to secure key ground in Boston (Dorchester Heights), waiting too long for reinforcements at Halifax, taking too long to land on Long Island and then allowing the Continentals to escape Brooklyn, and then again at Manhattan, Howe demonstrated a consistent reluctance to engage in the decisive, pitched battle that would exploit superior British discipline and tactics and end the rebellion. Or, so they thought in London and so Smith argues. Instead, Howe preferred to maneuver the Americans out of their fixed defenses, which he successfully did in both New York and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, he drifted away from a strategic focus on the Hudson, proposing side forays into Rhode Island, the south, occupying New Jersey, and eventually rounding all the way through the Chesapeake Bay to attack Philadelphia. Howe’s campaigns in America were not what London had expected. Through it all, Howe fought with his fellow generals, some of whom wanted his job. Smith generally credits Sir Henry Clinton, Howe’s subordinate, with being the mastermind of Howe’s battlefield successes, relying perhaps too much on Clinton’s interpretation of events, for which we have more material, even as he acknowledges the vanity and insecurity that colored Clinton’s judgment vis-à-vis Howe.
Unfortunately for Howe, his poor communication skills, sour relationships with fellow generals and uncertainty in his dealings with Lord Germain, the American Secretary, led to private attacks, insinuations, and whispers in London that he was not up to the task of putting down the rebellion, nearly three years of war had failed to do. His requests for significant reinforcements, which may have been beyond Britain’s means at the time, at the end of 1776 and again in the spring of 1777 eventually led Germain to lose confidence in his general. When that became clear, Howe resigned and eventually offered the aforementioned self-defense in the House of Commons. Smith passes a harsh judgment on Howe as a general, concluding “he had no strategic vision” (Kindle loc 3932) and “Having been given the army, he seemed nonplussed over what do with it and showed a total lack of understanding over the distinction between tactical and strategic success. He was undoubtedly the wrong man for the job.” (Kindle loc 4151)
Smith’s argument is tight and well written, moving swiftly from event to event, yet offering enough color to keep the casual reader interested. Because he focuses on Howe’s generalship, Whispers Across the Atlantick becomes a history of debates over British military strategy from 1775-1777 and Howe implemented it, or not. That tight concentration makes the book successful, but also highlights a limitation. Smith introduces politics into the book primarily through the lens of how it affected Howe’s relationship with Germain or King George III, not how it affected Britain’s overall approach to the war. Britain’s misreading of political dynamics in its colonies or the interplay between strategy and politics in war receive just passing mention. Consequently, Smith’s book will not be the last word on British conduct of war’s early phases or General William Howe. Instead, it will serve as a welcome launching point for future examinations of the American Revolution from London’s perspective. For that, Revolutionary War historiography owes Smith a vote of thanks. I look forward to his next work.