Washington Plays Hardball with the Howes

The War Years (1775-1783)

November 17, 2015
by John L. Smith, Jr. Also by this Author


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Summering on Long Island in 1776 was no vacation for Gen. George Washington. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he was attempting to build defenses and ready his raw soldiers to directly confront the best warriors of the British Empire.

It was July 1776, and on paper Washington was dividing his fifteen thousand troops into defensive positions on both Long Island and Manhattan, even though at least a quarter of them were sick with smallpox. He was also aware, aside from Congress expecting New York to be held at all costs, that Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s defensive assessment of New York was grim. Lee correctly saw that New York, essentially an island, could not be defended in any way given the mastery of the waterways (the New York harbor, and the Hudson and East rivers) by the British navy.[1] And the bad news was that the enemy navy was on its way.

The enemy army, under Maj. Gen. William Howe, had just arrived. They had completed unloading the massive number of troops, ordnance, munitions and provisions by the conclusion of the day on July 4. Howe’s 130 ships carried the British and Hessian soldiers, eventually numbering thirty-two thousand troops sent for the sole purpose of putting down the rebellion. It was “the largest expeditionary force that Great Britain had ever assembled, or would muster again until World Wars I and II, so vast that it looked to one New Yorker like ‘a forest of masts’ began to drop anchor at Staten Island”.[2]

The army-commander-Howe was now just waiting for his older brother, the navy-commander-Howe. Specifically, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe. Or “Black Dick,”[3] as he was affectionately called. And in a great example of colonial “shock and awe,” “Black Dick” Howe made his entrance known to the city of New York and to the rebels.

Late in the day on July 12, five British ships, including the forty-gun HMS Phoenix and the twenty-gun HMS Rose, sailed up to the Battery at the tip of Manhattan Island. Like the Keystone Kops, American defenses immediately fell apart. Some soldiers ran for cover, others just stood there staring at the war ships; a few tried shooting their out-of-range weapons at the vessels from their spots at Paulus Hook and Manhattan. When loaded and fired, a cannon belonging to an American artillery company blew up, killing the six men manning it.

The Phoenix and the Rose then entered the Hudson River, unchallenged, and began a two-hour cannonade of New York to the horror of the residents and civilians. Washington wrote, “When the Men of War passed up the River the Shrieks & Cries of these poor creatures running every way with their Children was truly distressing.”[4] By the end of the day, the two British ships anchored some thirty miles up the Hudson River at Tappan Zee (Tarrytown) where their orders were to cut off rebel supplies with the help of local Loyalists.

Then, like the grand finale of a finely-tuned masterpiece, the British man-of-war, the sixty-four gun HMS Eagle, sailed into view and dropped anchor at Staten Island. Royal Navy cannons saluted the arrival. It was the flagship of General Howe’s brother, Admiral Lord Howe. The Howe brothers had arrived and were ready to wage war.

But first, the Howes would extend the olive branch of peace.

It seems that Parliament and Lord Germain had sent the Howes to the colonies with some oddly-ambiguous orders: just before you annihilate the American rebellion, see if the rebels will come to their senses and surrender. The Howes were sent partly as peace commissioners, stemming mostly from the demands of Admiral Howe as a condition of his accepting the commission. His brother, General Sir Howe seemed the least understanding of the two brothers, maybe because of his time at Bunker Hill and the Boston siege. While he said he was looking for a “decisive action … to terminate this expensive war,”[5] he also believed that the whole revolution was boiled up by a “contagion” of “firebrands of sedition” by “rascally banditti.” [6] Together, he and his brother, Admiral Lord Howe, wanted to try to give peace a chance.[7]

On Sunday, July 14, Lord Howe sent Lt. Philip Brown,[8] in a small boat and under a white flag of truce, toward lower Manhattan. Brown’s boat was stopped between Staten Island and Governor’s Island[9] and asked what his business was? He said he carried a letter from Lord Howe addressed to “George Washington, Esqr. New York.”

Going out to meet the boat at the waterfront were three Continental Army officers: Henry Knox, Joseph Reed and Samuel Webb. Washington, who had already consulted with his three officers, told them not to even accept any addressed document which didn’t recognize the sovereignty of the new United States of America and the correct military rank of Washington as general. Henry Knox wrote of the encounter with Lt. Brown:

The officer… rose up and bowed, keeping his hat off. “I have a letter, sir, from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.”

“Sir,” says Colonel Reed, “we have no person in our army with that address.”

“Sir,” says the officer, “will you look at the address?” He took out of his pocket a letter which was thus addressed:

                                    GEORGE WASHINGTON, ESQ.,

                                                NEW YORK


“No, sir,” says Colonel Reed, “I cannot receive that letter.”

“I am very sorry,” says the officer, “and so will be Lord Howe, that any error in the superscription should prevent the letter being received by General Washington.”

“Why, sir,” says Colonel Reed, “I must obey orders.”

“Oh, yes, sir, you must obey orders, to be sure.”

Then … we stood off, having saluted and bowed to each other. After we had got a little way, the officer put about his barge and stood for us and asked by what particular he chose to be addressed.

Colonel Reed said, “You are sensible, sir, of the rank of General Washington in our army?”

“Yes, sir, we are. I am sure my Lord Howe will lament exceedingly this affair, as the letter is quite of a civil nature, and not a military one. He laments exceedingly that he was not here a little sooner.”

Which we suppose to allude to the Declaration of Independence, upon which we bowed and parted in the most genteel terms imaginable.[10]

It was all about r-e-s-p-e-c-t, in Washington’s eyes … and in the eyes of everyone around him. Respect for himself and for his country by the enemy. “From the British perspective, dignifying Washington with the title of ‘General’ would legitimize him and the American troops as honorable combatants rather than rebels and traitors …”[11] Washington wrote to John Hancock later that same day and assured Congress that refusing Howe’s letter wasn’t about trivial protocol that Washington called “punctilio”:[12]

I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio, but in this Instance … I deemed It a duty to my Country and my appointment to insist upon that respect which in any other than a public view would willingly have waived.[13]

Washington, it seemed, was also irritated that in the same conversation between Lieutenant Brown and Joseph Reed, Brown had tried the intimidation route, saying “… that he (Lord Howe) had great Powers.”[14] In reality, the only power granted to the Howes in their peace commissioner roles was the power to grant pardons and no power at all to negotiate a peace treaty.[15] In fact, the fine details of the Howe brothers’ orders had the rebels surrendering every part of their “political and military bodies” along with “all the forts and posts,” and reinstating the King’s men into power again.[16] But it didn’t matter to Washington anyway. He had vocalized his opinion months earlier when the rumor was raised of a peace commissioner team possibly coming to America. He didn’t trust the British, then or now, and considered British peace overtures as attempts “… To distract, divide, & create as much confusion as possible …”[17]

Ambrose Serle, Lord Howe’s secretary, was haughty and indignant when he heard that Lieutenant Brown’s mission had been refused because of rebel protocol:

So high is the vanity and the insolence of these men! … There now seems no Alternative but War and Bloodshed, which must lay at the Door of these unhappy people. They pretend (or rather have pretended) to seek Peace, and yet renounce it. The Faction have thrown aside all Appearances at length, and declare openly for Independence & War.[18]

In his journal, for one more jab at George, Serle called Washington, “… a little paltry colonel of militia at the head of banditti or rebels …”[19] But Lord Howe wanted to give it another try. On July 17, Howe sent Brown back with the same letter, but this time it addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”[20]

No dice. Declined again.

Ok, so Lord Howe tried a new tactic. On the next day, July 18, Howe sent a messenger, Capt. Nesbit Balfour, to ask if George Washington would meet personally with Howe’s high-up adjutant general – Col. James Patterson. Surprisingly, the answer came back as positive!

At high noon, Saturday, July 20, Colonel Patterson was rowed to the Battery dock in lower Manhattan, where an American delegation was waiting for him. To keep Patterson from the indignity of being blindfolded (a usual security measure), he was instead just escorted to the nearby temporary home of Henry Knox at No. 1 Broadway.[21] Washington’s Life Guards (like today’s Secret Service) stood guard at the door as Patterson entered the room where he saw Henry Knox, Joseph Reed, and a few other officers.

Then Patterson saw George Washington. Henry Knox recounted to his wife that Washington was clad in full battlefield uniform, saying Washington was “very handsomely dressed and made a most elegant appearance,” and that Patterson “appeared awestruck, as if he was before something supernatural.”[22] Knox continued, “In the course of his talk every other word was ‘May it please your Excellency,’ ‘If your Excellency so please …’”[23]

After the sufficient groveling, Patterson got down to the point of his meeting.[24] He laid Lord Howe’s letter on the table, still addressed to: George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.

Washington looked at it but wouldn’t pick it up, complaining about the line of et ceteras after his name. Patterson, well-rehearsed to that point, merely explained that the et ceteras meant, like, everything after that.

Washington came back sharply, “It does so – and anything!”[25]

Patterson then launched into another well-rehearsed speech about the benevolence of His Majesty (the wrong thing to say to Washington) and that the Howes had been sent to the colonies to try “to accommodate this unhappy dispute”[26] between Britain and His Majesty’s subjects. Knox wrote:

The General said, he had heard that Lord Howe had come out with very great powers to pardon, but he had come to the wrong place; the Americans had not offended, therefore they needed no pardon. This confused him.

After a considerable deal of talk about the good disposition of Lord and General Howe, he asked, “Has your Excellency no particular commands with which you would please to honor me to Lord Howe and General Howe?”

“Nothing, sir, but my particular compliments to both” – a good answer.[27]

Washington sent Colonel Patterson back with the colonial equivalent reply of “Tell them to have a nice day.” But first, ever the elegant host, Washington invited Colonel Patterson “to partake of a small collation,”[28] a small snack. Patterson thanked his host, but declined, saying he’d had a late breakfast. And oh yeah, he knew he had to get back so that the Howes could now start crushing the insolent rebels.[29]

“Patterson is then escorted back to his barge, disappointed, but ‘Sociable and Chatty all the way.’”[30]



[1] “… it is so encircle’d with deep navigable water, that whoever commands the Sea must command the Town”; Charles Lee to George Washington, February 19, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0242, accessed October 21, 2015). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 3, 1 January 1776 – 31 March 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 339–341.

[2] John Ferling, Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 124.

[3] George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, ed’s., Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1957), 156.

[4] Washington to the New York Convention, August 17, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0051, accessed October 21, 2015). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 6, 13 August 1776 – 20 October 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase and Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994). 54–55.

[5] Troyer Steele Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1936), 121; also David McCullough, 1776 (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 2005), 143.

[6] Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 98.

[7] “In Mar. ’76, … Lord Richard Howe … informed Germain that he would not accept a commission that limited his brother and him to the use of armed force.” From Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution, 149; also in Mark Mayo Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, NY: David McKay Co., Inc. 1976), 845. Lord Howe wanted he and his brother to “have wide-ranging powers to grant pardons and to offer concessions,” but this was deeply opposed by Lord George Germain who, under threat of his own resignation wanted “pardons restricted to those who swore oaths of allegiance, with no additional concessions.”; from Germain to General Irwin, September 3, 1775, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Stopford-Sackville Manuscripts, 2:136, 137; also O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 91.

[8] Henry Knox explained that Lt. Philip Brown was “captain of the Eagle, man-of-war …”. Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 156.

[9] Gen. Charles Lee called Governor’s Island “Nutten Island” in Lee to Washington, February 19, 1776,” Founders Online, footnote 2, accessed October 21, 2015.

[10] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, July 15, 1776 in Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 156 – 157; also Noah Brooks, Henry Knox: A Soldier of the Revolution, Major-General in the Continental Army and Washington’s Chief of Artillery (New York, NY: Cosimo Books, 1900), 56.

[11] Edward G. Lengel, ed., This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 53.

[12] Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “punctilio” as “a minute detail of conduct in a ceremony or in observance of a code”; http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/punctilio, accessed October 22, 2015.

[13] Washington to John Hancock, July 14, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0218, accessed October 22, 2015). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, 16 June 1776 – 12 August 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 304–309; also in Lengel, This Glorious Struggle, 54.

[14] Washington to Hancock, July 14, 1776,” Founders Online; and Lengel, The Glorious Struggle, 54.

[15] Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution, 43; “They could grant the King’s peace and remove the restrictions upon trade, but before doing so they were to exact reasonable assurances that there would be no revival of the revolution.”

[16] The “reasonable assurances” (above) are specifically laid out as “the dissolution of all rebel political and military bodies, surrender all the forts and posts, and restoration of the King’s officials.” in Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 846.

[17] Washington to Joseph Reed, April 1, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-04-02-0009, accessed October 22, 2015). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 4, 1 April 1776 – 15 June 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 9–13.

[18] Ambrose Serle, July 14, 1776, Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed., The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, 1776-1778 (San Marino, CA.: Huntington Library, 1940), 33.

[19] Ron Chernow, Washington, A Life (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2010), 240.

[20] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, July 22, 1776, in Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 157.

[21] “He had an interview with General Washington at our house.” Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Patterson and Washington first discussed details of the like humane treatment of prisoners, and a prisoner exchange of dignitaries. “Memorandum of the Interview between Lieut. Col. James Patterson, of the Sixty-third Foot, British Army, and General Washington, July 20, 1776”. This eye-witness account by Joseph Reed of the hour-long meeting between Colonel Patterson and General Washington is footnoted in the following volume link of John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington pages 321-323, and makes fascinating reading. https://books.google.com/books?id=XdaxAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA321&dq=Memorandum+of+an+Interview+with+Lieutenant+Colonel+James+Patterson&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CFgQ6AEwB2oVChMI7p_axqDXyAIVyageCh2HfgHv#v=onepage&q=Memorandum%20Patterson&f=false, page 323, accessed October 22, 2015.

[25] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, July 22, 1776, in Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 157.

[26] “Memorandum of the Interview between Lieut. Col. James Patterson, of the Sixty-third Foot.”

[27] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, July 22, 1776, in Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 158.

[28] “Memorandum of the Interview between Lieut. Col. James Patterson, of the Sixty-third Foot.”

[29] In September 1776, while General Howe was actively planning the invasion of Manhattan, Lord Howe tried peace one last time. On September 11, Howe met personally with Continental Congress delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Rutledge. Howe had the same luck as the answer Washington gave him. In fact, when Howe reminded the group that he could only negotiate with them as “private gentlemen,” cantankerous John Adams quipped back, “Consider me in what light you please … except a British subject.” O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 99.

[30] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2004), 94.


  • There were similar situations during the Civil War, where the Union would not recognize the Confederates as representatives of a legitimate government. On one occasion, during a negotiation with the commander of the CSS Florida, this issues was resolved by the bearer of the letter reading it aloud before announcing who it had been sent to, so that the Confederate could refuse the letter because of an incorrect address, while still having heard the contents.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I share your Washingtonian feelings on this story. I thought it deserved being highlighted for the many curious people out there who hadn’t heard it.

      Thank you for commenting.

  • Gen. William Howe had a similar exchange with Gen. Washington the preceding March, at the end of the siege of Boston. When the American army sent back the letter to “Mr. Washington” then, however, it was a tacit acknowledgement that officers had read the letter and understood that Howe was preparing to leave the town. The two armies could thus reach a tacit agreement about letting the British sail away from the intact town without the Crown formally recognizing the rebel forces.

  • Thanks J.L.! I knew Washington and Howe had come to some sort of an “agreement” about Washington not bombarding the British vessels from Dorchester Heights (even though they had very little, if any powder) in exchange for the British not torching Boston and leaving the town (even though they had plans to leave anyway).

    But I didn’t know the agreement communication ran the course similar to the Manhattan letter. Thank you for filling in the details to complete the comparison loop between Washington and Gen. Howe.

    I think Lincoln Chafee said “In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid.”… and just tacitly implied instead.

  • “Washington wrote to John Hancock later that same day and assured Congress that refusing Howe’s letter wasn’t about trivial protocol that Washington called “punctilio”:

    ‘I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio, but in this Instance … I deemed It a duty to my Country and my appointment to insist upon that respect which in any other than a public view would willingly have waived.'”

    This *is* the same Washington who showed up for the Second Continental Congress in full dress uniform, which he wore every day, but then swore to Martha that he had ” . . .used every endeavor in [his] power to avoid . . .” the appointment.

    It seems to me likely that Washington was personally offended by the lack of titles, but that he was also a pretty fantastic showman and saw an opportunity here to make a point while also satisfying his personal honor. In other words it was more than just a duty to his country . . .

    1. I think you’ve touched on that public vs. private persona of George Washington. I’m not a Washington scholar, but know that his basic concepts about rank, respect and discipline were initially formed during his time as a Virginia militia colonel hanging with British army officers like Braddock. Don’t forget as early as 1757, he said “Discipline is the soul of an army” which included the great care given to one’s uniform as an officer. The uniform sets you apart as a leader. One of the first things he did in assuming command at Cambridge was to issue ways to differentiate the various ranks of officers to the enlisted men.

      Historians, I’ve heard, are split about why Washington wore his buff and blue military uniform to the Second Continental Congress. Aside from his French & Indian War claim to fame (and the fact that in keeping with protocol of the time, he was addressed as “Colonel Washington”), some say he was just there as a delegate showing that he was, in effect, ready to go to war if need be.

      Others echo the popular thought that he knew Congress would need to get around to establishing a Continental Army and he was not-so-subtly advertising for the job. He didn’t write his personal thoughts down in his diary (his diary is boring reading of usually things like the temperature and where he ate lunch/dinner), and if he did write his feelings to Martha, she burned almost all of his letters when he died.

      He did tell more than a few people after being commissioned commander-in-chief that he didn’t think he was up to the job. Again, without reading his mind, we don’t know if he was being stylishly humble… or if he was freaking out because he actually GOT the job. He also wrote that beginning that day, he thought it might mark the end of him (figuratively career-wise) or literally (he had his will made out and a copy sent to Martha).

      I also think he was a bit of a showman, like you say. He knew the power of image and performance. He was powerfully built and at almost 6’4″, he knew that the sight of him, on his majestic horse with sword and cape and looking very regal – as Washington could do – would always inspire and bolster the troops. It did! Fearless in battle, he lead from the front many times and instinctively knew he was the glue that kept the army together.

      He loved the Joseph Addison play “Cato” and had seen it many times; in fact he had it put on for the troops at Valley Forge. The hero, Cato, represented republicanism, liberty and virtue in ancient Rome while fighting the tyrant Julius Caesar. No coincidence there. The “performance” Washington did in quelling the Newburgh mini-rebellion was also pure theater and many or most critics think Washington planned that part of his address. He played the part well and the army officers were turned to mush.

      How much of all of that was Washington’s ego vs. patriotism? When the full weight all of the absolutely unbelievable problems Washington had to face and solve personally for eight solid years of war plays out, more than ego and “personal honor” has to be involved, I think. I think it boils down to his rock-hard, never wavering belief in “the Cause” of liberty and the “role” he had been cast to “play”.

      Thanks for your intriguing comment, John!

      1. I think one of the most telling clues about whether George Washington wanted the job of commander-in-chief is that he never proposed anyone else. As Peter Henriques wrote, when you’re 6’4″, wearing a military uniform, and heading every committee on military matters, it can’t come as a total surprise when people propose that you be the general.

        1. That’s a very good point, J.L. The only thing Washington did when his name was proposed and seconded, was to exit the room so that a frank debate could happen about Washington’s merits as commander. It’s not like he stood and said, “Actually I think Lee or Putnam would be a better choice.”

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