Sunday, March 17, 2019

Episode 088 British War Plans for 1776

Two weeks ago, we said goodbye to Gen. Howe’s army as they evacuated Boston for Halifax.  At the same time Washington began redeploying the Continental Army to face wherever the British Army struck next, presumably New York City.  Last week, we popped in on the Americans around Quebec, also waiting to see what the British would do next.

British go “all-in” with Military Option

Back in London, the North Ministry had spent the winter preparing for full scale warfare.  After the battles and Lexington and Concord, and later Bunker Hill, it became clear to all that the colonials were not going to back down with a small show of force.  If Britain wanted to keep the American colonies they would have to hit them hard and with everything they could muster.  Today I want to go over the war planning and deployments that will take us all the way through 1776.

Lord Germain (from Wikimedia)
In London, King George III had become actively involved in the planning and policy making for the war.  Unlike the first and second King Georges, George III sought a more active role in actually governing Britain, not just sitting as a figurehead mostly focused on his ancestral home in the German state of Hanover.

King George had given his full support to Prime Minister, Lord North who you may recall won an overwhelming victory in the 1774 elections, meaning he would not have call another election until 1780.  Although there were no formal parties in British politics.  Everyone referred to North and his political allies as Tories.  The opposition party used the term Whig.  In 1775, North had replaced his step-brother, Lord Dartmouth with Lord Germain as Secretary of State for American Affairs.  Germain was much more on board with the idea that the Americans needed to feel more military strength and less attempted accommodation if they were ever going to resolve the ongoing disputes.  Germain’s view aligned much more closely with that of North and King George.

Raising a Serious Army

Gone were the days when British officers bragged they could conquer all of America with 5000 soldiers.  The Americans had proven they were not pushovers, and the American population was in the millions.  Raising an army with which to overwhelm the colonies was no easy task.  A few decades later, we will see the Napoleonic wars which involved millions of soldiers fighting and dying.  But in 1776, the King did not have the ability to send the entire population off to war.  Armies tended to be small and expensive to run.  Remember that only one year earlier, Gen. Gage had requested 10,000-20,000 reinforcements.  Lord Dartmouth all but laughed at him.  Those numbers were unthinkable.

In 1775 before they really began to gear up for the war, Great Britain maintained an army of less than 50,000 soldiers worldwide, less than 40,000 if you only count infantry.  The bulk of these were needed in Britain.  They kept 12,000 soldiers in Ireland, which was always ready to rebel if there were no soldiers to keep them in submission.  The government garrisoned another 15,000 in England in order to suppress possible domestic rebellions or deter any invasion from Europe.  They already had about 8000 in America.  The other 10,000 or so were spread all over the world, defending outposts in Gibraltar, the West Indies, Africa, and many other colonies.
Hessian Soldier (from Kokomo Herald)

The British could not deploy large numbers of soldiers from existing outposts without risking an uprising in those places.  So when the North Ministry proposed sending around 40,000 soldiers to America, they needed some serious recruitment.  These soldiers would also cost a lot of money.  Remember, the whole reason we were in this mess was because the government was still paying off debts from the last war and did not want to keep raising domestic taxes.  Now they had to raise more taxes and go deeper into debt in order to control colonies that were supposed to reduce taxes and debt.  But they figured, a short term show of force would lead to decades of submission and payment of colonial taxes, so it would pay off in the long run.

As I discussed before, the Ministry increased recruiting at home, mostly in Ireland and Scotland.  They also hired mercenaries from abroad, mostly from the German states, including the bulk of them from Hesse-Cassal and Brunswick.

The army buildup also necessitated a naval build up.  Britain had never before sent so large a force so far overseas.  Transporting and supplying the troops would be a major undertaking for the navy.  Britain also had to go on a shipbuilding and ship buying binge to support the army.

The numbers vary depending on sources, but generally, the Ministry planned to send about 32,000 troops to New York and about 8000 to Quebec.  About a quarter of the troops sent to New York were German mercenaries, what most people call Hessians.  The force in Canada included about 3000 German mercenaries, primarily from Brunswick.

As I’ve mentioned before, the use of German mercenaries provoked outrage in the colonies.  They accused the King of bringing outsiders into a family feud, treating the colonists as a foreign enemy.  It became one of the justifications for the Declaration of Independence.  If the King treats us as a foreign enemy, then we owe him no allegiance.

Some of these troops were already in North America and the rest did not come over all at once.  General Cornwallis had taken several regiments to the Carolinas where he met up with General Clinton.  But they knew they had to rejoin General Howe in New York within a few months.  About 8000 were already there, Howe’s occupying army in Boston and then in Halifax.  Still, it was a huge and costly logistical problem to get the troops into place and to supply them once there.

Admiral Richard Howe

Getting such a large force across the Atlantic was unprecedented.  Britain had never sent such a large force so far away.  Indeed, no country would have such a large trans-Atlantic crossing again until the end of the age of sail, and World War I.

Transport and support of the army would require a massive fleet  Britain would commit over 150 ships, more than half its fleet, to the American mission.   The Ministry decided the new fleet would need a new commander, they appointed Admiral Richard Howe.

Admiral Howe came from British aristocracy.  His father was a Viscount and member of Parliament.  His mother was the illegitimate child of King George I.  Even so, Howe did not have a particularly comfortable life.  His father had money troubles.  To help get him solvent, Howe, received an appointment as Governor of Barbados, which paid £7000/yr, a very lucrative sum a the time.  It meant that family had to pack up and move to the West Indies.  As with so many Europeans that moved to the West Indies, Gov. Howe served for less than three years before he caught a tropical disease and died in 1735.  Richard was only nine years old at the time.  The family moved back to London where Richard’s older brother George inherited his father’s title.

Richard had only a prominent family name.  That was good enough to get a naval commission as an ensign at age 14.  Howe earned a reputation as a no-nonsense officer and later commander.  He served in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, including a prominent role in the famous battle of Quiberon Bay.  By the end of the Seven Years War he had been promoted to commodore.

Richard’s real road for advancement came in a way he almost certainly did not want.  In 1758, his older brother George died in America during the assault on Fort Carillon that I discussed back in Episode 10.  Since George had no children, Richard inherited the family title, making him a viscount and a peer.

A the end of the war in 1763, Lord Howe received an appointment as a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, part of the Admiralty Board.  He also served Treasurer of the Navy beginning in 1765. In 1770, he moved up to rear admiral and deployed as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in November 1770.

Richard Howe (from Wikimedia)
By the time the American conflict reached its crisis point, Lord Howe sat as a well respected legislator, administrator, and combat officer.  He seemed ideally suited to take command of the North American station in 1776.  But beyond his reputation, Howe had one other thing going for him.  His little brother General William Howe, had just become the army’s Commander for North America.

The British Army and Navy commanders had consistently fought with one another in North America, and in most other stations.  General Gage and Admiral Graves had a notorious feud which only got worse each year.  The current relationship between General Howe and Admiral Shuldham was a little better, but still not great.  Each branch had its own separate duties and priorities.  Each reported back to a different command structure.  Neither wanted to take a secondary role to the other.  Perhaps having two commanders who were brothers, would aid in the necessary cooperation between the army and navy.  In February 1776, Admiral Lord Howe received his promotion to Vice Admiral and received his orders to take command of naval forces in North America.

War and Diplomacy

The one big concern that the ministry must have had was whether the Howe brothers would pursue the proper strategy.  Both General Howe and Admiral Howe had opposed a hard line position against the colonies for years.  Both brothers served in the House of Commons.  Even though Admiral Howe was a Viscount, his peerage was in Ireland, which did not qualify him for the House of Lords.  He would receive an Earldom nearly a decade later and sit in the House of Lords then, but in the 1770’s Lord Howe sat in Commons as a representative of Dartmouth.

In Parliament, both Howes had opposed the Ministry’s hard line policies against the American colonies.  They opposed the Intolerable Acts in 1774 and argued for accommodation rather than confrontation.

Prime Minister Lord North, Secretary of State Lord Germain, and King George all clearly favored a much more aggressive approach, using military might rather than political accommodation to resolve the disputes.  Germain was probably the most aggressive, or at least the most outspoken proponent of a hard-line policy.  He advocated using the navy to bombard cities along the coast, and to have the army sack and loot the countryside.  The idea was to show the colonists what life was like when they rejected the protection of the King.  Once they had a taste of this, they would happily return to obedience and accept a few small taxes as the price of their peace and prosperity.

The Howes, however, supported the liberal views of the minority Whigs, men like William Pitt, Isaac Barre, and Edmund Burke.  The colonists had reasonable complaints that the ministry could accommodate.  The whole point of colonies were to bring wealth to the mother country.  When the colonies were happy, Britain thrived on the colonial trade.  These fights not only destroyed that profitable trade, but threatened to drive Britain into deeper debt with military costs to crush the colonial protests.  Further, using brutal tactics against the colonists would only push more of the population into the patriot cause.  The Howes saw the war as a civil war between family.  It only made the Empire look more weak and divided to the real enemy, France.

General Howe had pledged to his constituents that he would oppose serving in any military role in America.  He saw the plan as short sighted and wrong headed.  Richard Howe, did not speak as bluntly, but generally shared his brother’s views.

Both Howe brothers were especially sympathetic with the Americans.  They deeply appreciated the act of respect that Massachusetts had given them. The colony had created a memorial at Westminster for their older brother George after his death in battle in 1758.  Richard had also been on friendly terms with Benjamin Franklin during Franklin’s years in London.  The two of them found a great deal of agreement in colonial policy.

The Howe brothers’ views on colonial policy were not unique or even unusual among many top officers.  At least one source I read indicated there were more than 100 officers more senior to Howe when he took his command in America.  Many of these were probably older officers who had no interest in facing the rigors of war.  But a great many of them objected to going to war against their fellow subjects.  In the end, the Howe brothers both received orders to go to America and accepted them.  But one had to wonder how hard they would prosecute the war, and especially the hard-line policies which the Ministry seemed to prefer.

In the end, the Ministry decided that the Howe brothers would do their duty.  They would be the best suited to command the massive invasion planned to subdue the colonies.

Plan of Attack

Officials in London did debate the best way to end the rebellion.  Even within the majority who supported war over diplomacy, or at least some show of war to strengthen diplomatic negotiations, there were diverse opinions.  Some favored not using the Army at all.  The Navy could cut off all transatlantic trade.

Not having soldiers in the colonies was an interesting idea.  Colonists would have no target to vent their anger.  There would be no risk of another firefight like Lexington and Concord.  There would be no massive cost of an occupying army.  The navy would simply capture all trading vessels and confiscate them.  This would hopefully cover most of the costs.  More importantly, the colonies would simply suffer from a lack of necessary imports.  Quality of life would diminish.  People would blame the patriot leaders for their problems.  Eventually divisions between colonies, or even within colonies would arise, leading to chaos and possibly even bloodshed.  The people would eventually beg for the return of royal authority to restore order and allow prosperity to return.

Johnny Burgoyne
(from Wikimedia)
It was an interesting proposal.  However, that is essentially the strategy that Britain tried to treat the US during the Napoleonic wars.  It did not work then, and probably would not have worked in the 1770’s.  Instead, the Ministry backed the plan to send the massive invasion fleet along with a huge army that would shock and awe the colonists.  A few decisive battles would prove the military might of Britain.  Faced with military domination, the colonists would come to their senses, accept the authority of the King and Parliament, and agree that loyal obedience was better for all than rebellion.

Though the troop levels were unprecedented, the overall strategy was nothing new, nor much of a surprise to anyone.  Even 40,000 soldiers could not be everywhere to quell a population of about 2.5 million.  New England, for the moment, seemed ungovernable.  Instead, the army would focus on New York and Canada.  Gen. Howe, who still had the support of the administration after the evacuation of Boston, would command the force at New York.  Supporting Gen. Howe would be his older brother, Admiral Lord Howe,  The combined fleet under Howe would work with the Army.  It was hoped that with the two brothers in command, the traditional Army-Navy rivalry would not cause too many problems.

While the Howes took New York, General Burgoyne would return with the fleet to Quebec to break the siege there.  Burgoyne’s reinforcements would then fall under the command of the more senior General Carleton.  The forces in Canada would work their way down into New York, across Lake Champlain, retaking all the towns and forts that the Continental Northern Army had conquered.  Eventually, the Canadian force and the Howe’s main force from New York would link up along the Hudson River.  This would cut off and isolate New England from the rest of the colonies.

From there, British forces would regain control of all the central and southern colonies, where officials believed there were still large numbers of loyalists waiting to turn out and support the King.  They only needed an army to rally around.  Regulars could also rely on loyal Indian tribes, and possibly even slaves to help crush the rebels.  Once local Tories were in control, the main body of regulars could move on to other colonies.

New England would be isolated and cut off from all trade, or invaded once the other regions were pacified.  But more likely, they would all surrender once they saw the full power of the British military in action.

Peace Commission

In the early months of 1776, the North Ministry, along with the active input of the King, worked to establish a Peace Commission.  Admiral Howe insisted that this be part of the effort to retake America.  This would not be like earlier efforts to compromise with the colonists and find a mutually acceptable political solution.  The Ministry had accepted that military might would be the only way to get the rebellious colonists to accept who was in charge.  But once British control became obvious to all, the King wanted to be merciful in allowing the rebels back into the protection of the Empire.

The Peace Commission’s authority went through great debate.  Admiral Howe, Lord North, Lord Germain, and Lord Dartmouth, who while no longer Secretary of State still sat in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, all threatened to resign.  But the King kept everyone in line.  The contentious debate was over how much authority the give the Peace Commissioners.  Could they promise to repeal taxes, or acts of Parliament?  Could they broker new political solutions or negotiate changes to royal charters?  In the end, the answer to all of these was “no.” The hardliners won the debate. The Peace Commissioners could only offer pardons to those who gave up and accepted obedience to the King and his government.  Any changes would have to wait until after military might reasserted sovereign authority.

Admiral Howe who remained politically opposed to the attempt to defeat the colonies militarily, still insisted that he and his brother General Howe have the authority as Peace Commissioners.  After defeating the enemy in battle, they could then be magnanimous in victory by offering pardons and bringing the war to a quick victory  Both Howes wanted to use this authority to bring a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, even if they did not have authority to make any political reforms.  When Admiral Howe set sail for America in May 1776, he carried these instructions for himself and his brother.

Whatever political concerns they had, the Ministry trusted them to do their duty well.  The Howe brothers would carry out London’s plan of attack.

Next week: as the Howe brothers prepare to invade New York, we take a look at General Washington’s preparations to stop them.

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Next  Episode 89: Washington Moves to New York

Previous Episode 87: Canada Spring, 1776

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Further Reading


British Army at Outbreak of the Revolution:

Admiral Lord Richard Howe:

Peace Commission of the Howes:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts Report on the manuscripts of Mrs. Stopford-Sackville, of Drayton House, Northamptonshire Vol. 2, Hereford: Hereford Press, 1910
(includes Germain’s correspondence related to America).

Barrow, John The Life Of Richard, Earl Howe, London: John Murray,1838

Donne, W. Bodham (ed) The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, Vol 1, London: John Murray, 1867.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Saxon, Gerald Brown The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1963.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Watson, J. Steven The Reign of George III 1760-1815, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Whiteley, Peter Lord North: The Prime Minister Who Lost America, London: Hambledon Press, 1996 (book recommendation of the week).

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