19 April 2011

Howe's Costly Error

On 10 April 1777, Richard Henry Lee, in Philadelphia, wrote a letter to General Washington on his thoughts for the upcoming campaign:

“I think they [the British] cannot purpose coming here, because the water securities ageinst such a plan are realy formidable, and the situation of the land, where the water obstructions are fixed, is such, that great delay, and probable ruin forbids the enterprize, as they cannot so fix land Batteries as to remove the strong Vessels that protect the Cheveaux de Frise, added to the numerous fire rafts & Fire Ships that in a narrow water with strong current may destroy their Fleet. Your Army Sir feeble as it is, and the North river, are more tempting Objects, because they are not strong, and because the defeat of the one, or the acquisition of the other, would avail our enemies greatly” (1).

At this point of the season, the British in New York were beginning to stir. Washington maneuvered his men into position so that they would be prepared for a British attack up the Hudson or on Philadelphia. General William Howe’s plan for the campaign was to take Philadelphia and then support Burgoyne’s thrust from Canada once he reached Albany. In Howe’s mind, his plan matched perfectly with the goals of the British Ministry. Lord George Germain agreed with the plan, if only Howe can close his Philadelphia operations in time to assist the expedition from Canada (2). Washington was made aware of these potential plans. Richard Henry Lee, at the Congress in Philadelphia, had received a letter from Arthur Lee, who wrote from Bordeaux, France on 20 February 1777. R.H. Lee forwarded part of the letter to Washington on 29 April. It read, in part: “Boston is certainly to be attacked in the Spring. Burgoyne is to command. Howe will probably turn against Philadelphia. The Government expects great advantages from dissentions in Pennsylvania” (3).

Howe decided to take his army by sea to avoid attacks on his flanks through New Jersey, to lessen desertions from his army, and to avoid preserving the long communication lines from Philadelphia, across the Delaware River, through New Jersey to New York City. Howe attempted a number of smaller drives into New Jersey, hoping to bring Washington’s army down from his fortified position for a decisive engagement. Though Howe almost succeeded in late June, a month of the campaign had been wasted (4). In fact, more than a month had been wasted. The Americans were expecting the British to move in April, in May the latest.

After 47 days aboard ships, the British army finally landed at Head of Elk on 25 August. By this time, Burgoyne had already retaken Fort Ticonderoga, but had suffered a large loss of men at Bennington. The British, on their march to Philadelphia, were harassed by the Americans, but it was not until they reached Brandywine Creek that a battle occurred. Despite victory at Brandywine, Howe still needed to gain control of the Delaware River in order to supply the city of Philadelphia. Howe still made no move to send reinforcements to Burgoyne. Burgoyne, instead of temporarily halting his campaign to await word from Howe, continued. After the British took Philadelphia, Washington attempted to dislodge them, resulting in the Battle of Germantown on 4 October. Only days later, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army to the Americans under General Horatio Gates at Saratoga.

No longer needing to send any men up the Hudson, Howe had to take control of the Delaware. A series of forts and chevaux-de-frise blocked their path. It was not until mid-November that the Americans abandoned Fort Mifflin, effectively giving the British command of the river.

With the surrender of nearly 6,000 men at Saratoga, along with arms and accoutrements, the British garrisons at Ticonderoga and Crown Point retreated to Canada. By the end of the year, the British occupied only New York, Philadelphia and Rhode Island (5). Furthermore, the French were impressed enough to openly declare for the Americans – a treaty of alliance was signed on 6 February 1778. Spain and Holland also backed the Americans.

Howe’s failure to follow through on the strategic plans for 1777 probably cost Great Britain her American colonies. Victory along the Hudson would have allowed the British to separate the New England colonies from the rest, as had been proposed the year before. Instead, the British would not only have to re-conquer her American colonies, but they were now propelled into a world war by Howe’s decisions in taking Philadelphia.


(1) Chase, 118.

(2) Mackesy, 122-3.

(3) Chase, 301.

(4) Mackesy, 125.

(5) Wood, 171.


Chase, Philadner D., ed. The Papers of George Washington, March - June 1777. Vol. 9. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Wood, W.J. Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781. Chapel Hill: Da Capo Press, 2003.