Sunday, July 14, 2019

Episode 105: Staten Island Peace Conference

After General Howe conquered Brooklyn and Long Island, he decided to take a couple of weeks before invading Manhattan Island, at the time, often called York City.  Howe did not want to crush the colonials.  His invasion of Long Island had proven to the colonists that they could not stand up to his forces.  Rather than shed more blood, Howe looked for a way to get the rebels to surrender and put an end to all of this.

Gen. Howe Celebrated

Howe, of course, intended to take Manhattan.  It was only a question of whether the Continental Army would surrender before or after the British moved into the city.  Howe’s pause was an attempt to end things without further demonstration of the destructive power of his army.

During this pause, General Howe sent back his report of the defeat of the Americans on Long Island.  He did not go out of his way to emphasize Washington’s amazing escape, so London celebrated the victory as a vindication of the plan to use overwhelming force.  The King made General Howe a Knight of the Bath and promised the conquering hero other rewards when he returned home victorious.  So, congratulations to William Howe becoming “Sir William.”  Of course, Howe would not learn of this honor for months, but it shows just how ready officials in London were to receive some good news and name a hero.

Howe Brothers as Peace Delegates

General Howe, seemed less interested in military victories than in being a diplomat who could heal the political differences between Britain and the colonies.  Remember, both of the Howe brothers were Whig members of Parliament who generally supported a policy of accommodation with the colonies.  Neither of them had wanted the war.  General Howe had even promised his constituents in the last election that he would not serve in America.  Howe obviously broke this promise.  His stated reasoning was that if the King called on him to go, he really could not refuse.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
That actually was not entirely true.  Howe was 112th in rank and seniority at the time. A great many of those ahead of him were too old or infirm to command troops overseas.  But a great many also simply demurred and told the ministry they did not want to serve in America.  They did not want to snuff out the rights of their fellow Englishmen.  Crushing a rebellion of British subjects was not popular in England.  While a solid majority in Parliament supported military action, a substantial minority did not.  Even among those leaders who supported military action, few wanted to be remembered for crushing such a rebellion.  No one wanted to be remembered as the Butcher of Boston or the Butcher of New York or wherever the final showdown occurred.  Therefore, many generals simply found excuses not to go to America.

While the Howe brothers were sympathetic to that view, they decided that if they went, they could perhaps prevent a wholesale slaughter of colonists in order to instill fear and obedience. They knew they would need to use military force, but hoped they could negotiate a peaceful solution once the colonists saw that force and realized they could not resist it.

One of General Howe’s constituents wrote him to criticize his decision to deploy to America in violation of his campaign promise.  In his response, Howe indicates his views in more detail:
One word for America: you are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country. I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people … With respect to the few, who, I am told, desire to separate themselves from the Mother Country, I trust, when they find they are not supported in their frantic ideas by the more moderate, which I have described, they will, from fear of punishment, subside to the laws.
In other words, a radical minority had somehow pushed an agenda that America should be independent of England. The majority of colonists were simply suffering under the tyranny of those radical local leaders.  When the military asserted control in the colonies, the moderates would be free to express themselves and the radical leaders would have no choice but to back down.

Historians have long debated what Gen. Howe’s true motives were in prosecuting the war.  They point to numerous instances where Howe had the enemy within his grasp and simply allowed it to escape.  Washington’s escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago is one example.  Another will happen Howe will let the Continentals slip out of Manhattan that I will discuss in an upcoming episode.  There are still more examples we will see as his army chases the Continentals across New Jersey and fails to take Philadelphia.

Some have argued that Howe never really wanted to win, that he supported a common Whig notion of the colonies getting at least semi-independence from Britain.  In a letter to Germain before the New York campaign began, Howe said that an early decisive battle was critical to British victory.  Without such a victory, the colonists would never submit to British sovereignty.
It is most likely that they [the Patriots] will act on the defensive, by having recourse to strong intrenched situations, in order to spin out the campaign, if possible, without exposing themselves to any decisive stroke.
So why didn’t Howe push hard for a decisive stroke at New York before pausing for his peace conference?  Some think the answer is that he really did not want to win.

I don’t think that is the case.  One reason much of this is a mystery is that Howe’s personal papers were destroyed in a fire in the early 1800’s, before historians could dig into them.  So his real motives are probably lost forever.

A more plausible theory for me though is that Howe was shaken by the loss at Bunker Hill.  At that time, General Gage was still overall commander, but Howe led the charge on the hill that day.  The massive losses, especially among his officers, left a long held impression that he should not simply rush into colonial defenses. Although speed and surprise could be effective in battle, they greatly added to the risk of loss.  Howe did not want to see a massive loss of officers and men that he could not easily replace.

Howe also wanted to impress the colonists with the idea that the regular army was invincible.  Moving more slowly and allowing time for logistics and planning might also allow for the enemy to escape.  But having the Continentals run away from the regulars was better than creating even a small risk of a Continental victory.  If regulars got too spread out while pursuing a retreating enemy, they set themselves up for ambush.  Even a relatively minor win could destroy the impression of inevitability that Howe wanted to convey.

Therefore, Howe moved his army slowly and methodically, pushing back the enemy and always stopping to ask if they had had enough and were ready to talk peace.

Admiral Richard Howe was even more eager to negotiate a peace than his brother William.  Admiral and General Howe both worked closely and regularly discussed diplomatic initiatives.  Richard had insisted on being named a peace commissioner before he agreed to take command of the fleet in America.  He had wanted to be a one man commission, but the ministry insisted on having other commissioners.  They did not necessarily trust the Admiral not to give away too much.  Admiral Howe, though, was not interested in working with others. After considerable and heated negotiations they settled on naming Gen. William Howe as the only other commissioner.  Admiral Howe could hardly fight having his own brother on the commission.

Admiral Richard Howe
(from Wikimedia)
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that even before the British captured Brooklyn, Admiral Howe had sent a letter to General Washington calling for peace talks.  Washington had refused that letter because Howe refused to address it to him as “general.”  This was not simply ego.  It was that Washington had no desire to discuss peace with Howe.  He knew that Howe could not address him as “general” without implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Continental Congress, which gave Washington that commission.  Even after Howe got a messenger to meet with Washington in person, Washington made clear that he had no authority nor desire to talk about any sort of settlement.  The Howes, therefore, decided the colonials needed a little more demonstration of British power, and went ahead with his invasion.

The relatively easy invasion of Long Island showed that the so-called Continental Army and the militia were no match for the British regulars.  Loyalists were already beginning to emerge around New York, just at Howe expected.  If the radical leaders in the so-called Continental Congress would see that, perhaps they would be willing to back down and return as loyal subjects, as long as they received pardon for their misguided actions over the previous couple of years.  Howe decided to see his capture of Long Island was enough, and tried once again to discuss peace terms.

Sullivan Carries a Message

The British army had captured several Continental generals among its prisoners from the battle of Long Island.  On August 28, even before Washington had made his escape from Long Island, the Howes invited two of their prisoners, Generals John Sullivan and Lord Stirling to dine with them.  The British had captured both officers in Brooklyn.  The men discussed the course of events and whether they would carry a message to the Continental Congress calling for a Peace Conference.  Now that the Howes had proven they could crush the Continental Army whenever they wanted, they hoped to avoid further bloodshed by getting the Continental Congress to give up on all this independence nonsense and accept the sovereignty of the King and Parliament.

General John Sullivan
(from Wikimedia)
Gen. Stirling refused to cooperate with the enemy, but Gen. Sullivan seemed convinced, at least enough to deliver their message to Congress. Admiral Howe released Sullivan on parole and allowed him to return to the American lines in New York.  There, Sullivan met with Gen. Washington and received permission to go to Congress to deliver Admiral Howe’s message.  Washington still adamantly believed that peace negotiations were foolish.  He also thought Sullivan was naive to think the British would ever offer a negotiated settlement with any acceptable terms.

But the negotiation process apparently put further British attacks on hold and gave Washington time to shore up his defenses in New York.  Also, the decision for peace talks was one that Congress should make, not him.  So, Washington sent Sullivan to Philadelphia to deliver Howe’s message.

Sullivan arrived in Philadelphia on September 2.  He met with Congress to discuss the possibility of a peace conference. By now, Sullivan’s reputation had sunk pretty low.  Not only had he lost Canada, and then lost in battle on Long Island, but he had agreed to cooperate with the enemy in arranging this supposed peace conference.  Some members of Congress accused Sullivan of being a dupe for Howe’s plan to kill American independence.

After delivering his message, Sullivan could not return to the army.  Under the terms of his parole, he had to wait until the Americans returned a British general of the same rank in exchange for him.  Congress had to release British General Richard Prescott, who had become an American prisoner nearly a year earlier with the fall of Montreal, before Sullivan could return to active duty.

Peace Delegation

Congress debated whether to send a delegation to Howe’s proposed peace conference.  Many argued the conference would simply work to divide people against the war effort.  In the end though, Congress did not think it could reject the proposal for a meeting.  Congress voted to send a delegation made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge.  All three men were hardcore patriots who were not likely to find much common ground with the British diplomats.  Adams especially considered the whole affair as a distraction from the war and an attempt to divide moderates, who were losing nerve in the face of the large British military force at New York.

Franklin, Adams, and Rutledge confer with
Admiral Howe. (from Wikimedia)
Even if they wanted to, the delegation did not have any authority it make any agreements.  The members could listen to what Howe had to say, ask questions, and report back to Congress.

On September 9, the delegation left Philadelphia for New York.  Along the way, the delegates had to stay overnight in New Brunswick New Jersey.  The inn was so full, that Adams and Franklin had to share a bed. They apparently got into a fight over whether or not to leave the window open at night.  For diplomats, they seemed to have difficulty even getting along with each other.

They arrived two days later on September 11, where they took a British-controlled ferry from New Jersey to Staten Island. They met a delegation of British officers under a flag of truce.  The delegation planned to leave one officer with the Americans as a hostage to guarantee their safe return.  Adams told Franklin he thought the idea was absurd, and requested that the officer return with them to Admiral Howe.

Billop House Summit

Admiral Howe met with Congressional delegates.  His brother General Howe did not participate.  The Admiral hosted the meeting at the home of a Tory named Christopher Billop on Long Island.  A Hessian guard unit had been living in the house for some time and it was a smelly mess.  Howe had his men do their best to clean up the house in a hurry, and put out a meal for the delegates.

Howe was apparently greatly impressed that the Congressional delegates had returned with their hostage, thus indicating that they trusted Howe’s honor to return them safely.  That, however, was probably the high point of the meeting.

When Howe learned that the delegation did not have authority to agree to anything, he considered ending the negotiations right away.  But since he really wanted to see if the talks had any possibility of leading anywhere, he continued the discussion.

The next hurdle was that Howe insisted on meeting with the men as private citizens, not recognizing them as a delegation from the Continental Congress since that body was an illegal assembly without any valid authority.  But the delegates insisted that they represented Congress and Howe, again, allowed the discussions to proceed.

Howe and Franklin had discussed possible resolutions before when Franklin was still living in London.  Howe pointed out that the ministry would agree to end all direct colonial taxes if the colonies would tax themselves to raise the money that the empire needed.  This was the essence of the Conciliatory Resolution that Parliament had passed a year earlier, and which Congress had rejected.

Rutledge then asked if Howe had authority to cancel the Prohibitory Act, which banned all Colonial transatlantic trade.  Howe noted that he could not void an Act of Parliament, but that he could suspend enforcement if the Americans ceased hostilities.  Since Howe could not offer anything of substance, other than agreeing not to hang everybody, any settlement would require that the colonies surrender, then wait to hear what terms London would give them.  That was simply a nonstarter for the delegates.

Billop House, Staten Island (from Wikimedia)
The delegates insisted that there could be no negotiations until London recognized American independence.  Franklin told Howe that there had been too much war and devastation for the colonies to return to the empire as the King’s subjects.  Howe knew that independence was a non-starter in London.

Although Franklin knew this would not go anywhere, he made the case for British acceptance of independence.  The United States were growing into a major force in their own right, and no longer trusted British rule.  The only way Britain might maintain control, would be to keep a large and expensive standing army in the colonies that would only impoverish both countries.  If Britain accepted independence, it could resume trade with America, receiving the goods and raw materials that benefited the British people.

Howe attempted to express sympathy for the American cause, but saw the only solution as some acceptable submission to the King.  Howe emphasized though, that he really thought he had the best interests of the colonies at heart.  At one point Howe said “If America should faile, I should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.”  To that, Franklin responded “My Lord, we shall do our utmost endeavors to save your Lordship that mortification.

The men talked cordially for about three hours, enjoying a few glasses of wine and a nice dinner together.  But it was obvious to all, that there was no common ground for negotiation.  Given that Howe could not make any political concessions and that the Congressional delegation made clear that they would accept nothing less than independence, the war would have to continue.

Peace Talks End

Howe returned the delegation back to New Jersey and, with his brother, drafted a joint report for Secretary George Germain back in London.  They noted that the Americans still insisted on recognition of independence.  For officials in London, this seemed like a joke.  When the King’s forces crush you in battle, you submit.  You don’t continue to insist on getting your way.  Clearly, the army had to continue to smash at the rebellion until its leaders got the point.

Similarly, the delegates reported back to Congress that Howe had zero authority to grant any political concessions.  Continued talks were pointless.  Adams wrote to his wife that Admiral Howe’s notion that Americans were ready to submit to the King only showed that “his head is rather confused.

The conference seemed to vindicate Howe’s political opponents.  If Britain planned to win, it needed to have less friendly conversations and more military victories.  Howe had seemed certain he could find a political solution to end the violence, but was clearly out of his league as a diplomat, or at least long overtaken by events.

While the delegates had not ever thought the conference would accomplish anything, they at least got to make their point and bought several weeks for Washington to reorganize his defenses in New York.  Of course the Howes were not worried about giving Washington more time.  They believed, correctly as it turned out, that they could push aside those defenses at any time of their choosing.

The talks did have one negative for the Americans.  In Paris, Silas Deane was still working to bring the French on board and to supply the Americans with arms and ammunition.  When word reached Paris that the British and Americans were in peace talks, the French immediately suspended covert assistance.  They were not going to risk a war with Britain if the colonies were going to turn around and make nice.  Fortunately, a few days later, Paris received word that nothing had come of the talks, and aid resumed.

Next Week:  A whole different Continental Army in the North attempts to stop the British in Canada from launching a second invasion of New York.

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Next Episode 106: Arms Race on Lake Champlain

Previous Episode 104: Submarine Warfare

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Further Reading


Lord Howe’s Conference with the Committee of Congress:

A Tale of Two Declarations:

Lord Howe Letter to Benjamin Franklin June 20, 1776 (sent July 12):

Benjamin Franklin letter to Lord Howe July 20, 1776:

Lord Howe Letter to Benjamin Franklin Sept. 10, 1776

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) (1780)

Barrow, John The Life of Richard, Earl Howe, Admiral of the Fleet and General of Marines, London: John Murray, 1838.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 2, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

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

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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

McCullough, David John Adams, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

McGuire, Thomas J. Stop the Revolution: America in the Summer of Independence and the Conference for Peace, Stackpole Books, 2011 (book recommendation of the week).

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Syrett, David Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography, Naval Institute Press, 2005

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Your podcasts are excellent, I have greatly enjoyed them. I do have a question about British controlled Canada during the American Revolutionary time period. I was wondering why the local inhabitants (UK, Irish & French) didn't follow a similar rebellious path as the Colonials down south. Weren't they also subjected to Taxation without representation? What made them stay loyal to the Crown versus initiate their independence? I think this would make for a good Podcast episode. :) Cheers - Michael