General Robert Howe’s Alleged Treason


October 3, 2017
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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What if another Continental general had changed sides at the same point in the war as Benedict Arnold? During the Revolutionary War, and as late as 1991, there was speculation that Robert Howe, one of five generals from North Carolina in the Continental Army, was a traitor. Did the general attempt to change sides in a similar way as Arnold?

Robert Howe’s accusers have first attacked his character, painting him as a womanizer, thief, and friend to British leaders. Howe served North Carolina governor William Tryon during the War of the Regulators. Soon after, though, as a member of the colonial assembly, he clashed with the subsequent governor, Josiah Martin. During this time he also suffered financial setbacks and he was frequently short of cash. Doubtful of his abilities due to his financial troubles, the new governor revoked Howe’s appointed positions and accused him of embezzlement.[1]

Separated from his wife in 1772, Howe became known as a womanizer. In 1773 Josiah Quincy, Jr. of Massachusetts visited Howe and described him:

This gentleman is a very extraordinary character. Formed by nature and his education to shine in the senate and the field – in company of the philosopher and libertine – a favorite of the man of sense and the female world. He has faults and vices – but alas who is without them? His faults are those of high spirits – his vices those of a man of feeling.[2]

In 1775 Howe very publicly insulted a loyalist woman at a party and was embarrassed by her in return.[3] Combined with the charges of money mismanagement, these events were used by his enemies to paint a picture of a depraved character.

Despite efforts by some to focus on his questionable character, his neighbors showed their faith in him, electing Howe to the committee of correspondence for North Carolina in 1773 and then to the Provincial Congress. He showed Whig credentials by his leadership in an attempt to capture the royal governor; it failed, but did result in the burning of the loyalist stronghold at Fort Johnston.

Appointed to command the 2nd North Carolina Regiment as a colonel, Howe moved north into Virginia when that colony’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, raided the coastline. Howe took over command of all Continental forces in the area after the battle of Great Bridge. His dogged and aggressive defenses forced Dunmore to leave Virginia. Edmund Pendleton, president of the Virginia Convention, congratulated Howe:

If it may not seem unnecessary to speak of this worthy officer to you, Gent., we can with equal truth and pleasure assure, he has in everything conducted himself like a brave, prudent & spirited commander and given general Satisfaction to the Country and Army.[4]

Despite his appointment as a brigadier general in the Continental Army in March of 1776, at least one man thought Howe could do work for the King. A shadowy Tory merchant named Henry Kelly sent a letter to the British Secretary of State for America, Lord George Germain, about Howe:

it is with regret that he entered into the Provincial Service. He is the fittest Instrument I know to be made use of to serve this Country. Such a man rendering his forces useless may serve this Country more essentially than many regiments[5]

At the same time that Kelly was seeking to have Howe turned to the British side, the North Carolina Provincial Congress showed appreciation for Howe’s accomplishments:

Resolved, That Mr. President give thanks of this Congress to Brigadier General Howe, for his manly, generous and warlike conduct, in these unhappy times; more especially for the reputation which our Provincial troops acquired under him in the conflagration of Norfolk.[6]

Such announcements make it unlikely that Howe was dissatisfied with his treatment by the Colonial government.

Howe returned to North Carolina and then joined Charles Lee for the defense of Charleston as Lee’s adjutant. After the British were defeated and Lee received orders to return north, fellow North Carolinian James Moore became commander of the Southern Department. Moore died suddenly and the command of the Southern Department went to Howe.

If the British were intent on winning Howe to their side, they did a poor job of it. British raiders attacking Wilmington, North Carolina, destroyed a number of homes, including Howe’s:

They have done me the honor to disfurnish my House … of chairs, tables, glasses, china and plate. All they took is suppos’d to amount to £1500 … it is reported that they destroy’d all my Private letters & accounts, as if to injure me without benefit to themselves or their cause.[7]

Howe tried to put the conflict on a national footing but both the Georgia state government and the South Carolina state government refused to cooperate, signaling the states’ rights arguments that later Southerners would echo. This conflict between the Continental forces and militia was the principle cause of a failed invasion of British West Florida, despite a promising start led by Howe. Continuing conflicts with state officials culminated in Howe dueling with politician Christopher Gadsden, a future Continental general. Howe fired first and clipped Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden fired over his own shoulder into the air. The two amicably separated. The duel became the subject of a farcical poem by British Maj. John André.[8]

Removed from command by pressure of the Georgian and South Carolinian politicians, Howe remained with the army until his successor, Benjamin Lincoln, arrived. The British invaded Georgia and moved to capture Savannah, forcing Howe to act in preparing defenses. The old conflict between state and Continental interests again reared its head and Howe found himself operating without much of what he needed. Taking a position between a river and a swamp, Howe was outmaneuvered when a slave showed the British a difficult path through the swamp. Howe’s men were forced to retreat after a small engagement and Savannah fell. Southern politicians pushed to court martial Howe for his failure. The actual trial took place in 1781, after Arnold’s treason, but the court found Howe innocent with the highest honor.[9]

Recalled to a command in the north, in July 1779 Howe called off an attack on Verplanck’s Point just before it was to begin. Again his critics pointed to his lack of judgment. Washington agreed with the decision and gave Howe command of the left wing of the army, stationed in Connecticut. Part of his duty was to serve as president of a court martial that found Benedict Arnold guilty of one charge of poor business practices in Philadelphia.

After Arnold’s trial, a deserter from the British claimed that he heard a story at the table of the secretary of William Tryon, the former royal governor of North Carolina, friend of Howe, and in 1779 governor of New York, that Howe wanted to change sides. Further hearsay evidence from the same deserter claimed that a commissary from the Continental Army had fled to the British and would serve as Howe’s intermediary.[10] The Board of War, to whom the deserter told his story, chose to take no action. Washington himself took no action.

Loyalist William Smith, brother of one of those that helped Benedict Arnold escape after his treason, wrote in his diary about a conversation with Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in chief:

There are other Generals like-minded with Arnold. On my assenting to it as probable, he questioned me as to the Person. I mentioned Bob Howe. He would not countenance nor gainsay my Suspicions, but asserted that he knew of others.[11]

The evidence is hearsay at best. There is no first hand account that Howe ever entertained treason and the only witnesses were dubious loyalist characters quoting second hand what they heard. Yet one author claims, “Howe’s career is not a shining record of integrity.”[12] Did he want to turn traitor just because he was a womanizer, had money problems and was a former friend of the British governor of New York? Howe had been a British colonial official many years before; did he still want that career opportunity?

Unsuccessful on the battlefield, with some unsavory character traits, there is no evidence that Howe was a traitor. Instead, his integrity is proven by the way his contemporaries treated him. The Board of War, his fellow officers sitting in a court martial and George Washington all found no reason to doubt his loyalty. He proved his fidelity throughout the war, as evidenced by his career after Arnold’s treason.

Howe served on the court martial that condemned Arnold’s fellow conspirator John André to death. In January of 1781 Washington chose Howe to put down the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line, hardly a job for someone the commander in chief had no faith in. In 1783 he was again the choice of Washington to put down the mutiny of Pennsylvania troops, even though he was no longer on active service. Congress thanked him:

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress be given to Major General Robert Howe, for the prudence and propriety with which he executed the enquiry into the late mutiny of a part of the Pennsylvania line of continental troops.[13]

Robert Howe served throughout the war with loyalty and determination. There was never a word of disloyalty by him or about him during the war except by Tories. He served his state in the assembly and was respected by his neighbors. He died in 1786 and his burial place is unknown. A cenotaph erected in Southport’s Old Smithville Burying Ground honors him. In 1955 a fictionalized account of the Arnold treason was made into a movie, The Scarlet Coat, and the part of Robert Howe was portrayed by John McIntire, better known as the star of television’s Wagon Train.


[1] Philip Ranlet, “Loyalty in the Revolutionary War: General Robert Howe of North Carolina,” Historian, 53:4 (June 1991), 726.

[2] Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991), 1.

[3] Ibid., 727.

[4] Letter from the Virginia Convention to the North Carolina Convention of Safety, January 10, 1776, in Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina, Volume XI, (Winston, M.I. & J.C. Stewart, 1895), 270.

[5] Ranlet, “Loyalty in the Revolutionary War,” 728.

[6] William L. Saunders, ed., The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 10 (Goldsboro, North Carolina Press, 1886), 544.

[7] Robert Howe to Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, Volume 1, 1754-1776 (New York Historical Society, New York, 1872), 402.

[8] Michelle Porter, “Major André Popularizes Revolutionary Events,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 3, 2016,

[9] Ranlet, “Loyalty in the Revolutionary War,” 737.

[10] Ibid., 740.

[11] Ibid., 741.

[12] Ibid., 741-742.

[13] Journals of the Continental Congress, Saturday, September 13, 1783, (jc02510))

One thought on “General Robert Howe’s Alleged Treason

  • Excellent article! Further, the British ravaged Howe’s North Carolina plantation, not something that one does to entice a turncoat! Howe’s plantation never recovered and he died destitute.

    Both Israel Putnam (for being too soft on Tories) and Philip Schuyler (for abandoning Fort Ti) also inappropriately endured the whispered charges of treason. In the end, what made Arnold’s treason so notable what that it was the only one.

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