During the eight-year American Revolution no geographical region was more important to Continental and British forces than New York’s Hudson River. Since the river separated New England from the other states, control of the Hudson meant control of America. In 1777 British General John Burgoyne advanced south from Canada, planning to seize Albany, New York and cut the rebel colonies in two. Largely due to the exploits of hero (later-turned-traitor) Benedict Arnold, Americans captured Burgoyne’s column at Saratoga, New York. Undaunted, Redcoats under Henry Clinton settled in New York City in 1778 intent on securing the vital waterway for good. To prevent this, George Washington moved the main Continental Army into the Hudson Valley Highlands. Among those officers charged with protecting the river was a North Carolina major general. He had previously seen action in the Southern Department, and now he devoted all his energy to denying the British access to this critical corridor. His name was Robert Howe. This is the story of his fight for American independence, first in the South and then throughout the Hudson River Valley.
An ardent Whig, as Americans who favored independence were known, Robert Howe led North Carolina into the fight for freedom. He was born near Wilmington in 1732 to a prosperous landowner and grew up amid the aristocracy. After briefly serving in the 1754-1763 French and Indian War, he joined the General Assembly, and within a decade he became a leading member of the colonial legislature. He first entered the patriot ranks when he petitioned George III and Parliament to repeal anti-paper currency laws, which would let North Carolina print paper money to stabilize its shaky economy. Howe was also outraged by Parliament’s direct taxation of the colonies beginning with the 1765 Stamp Act. Then in 1771 newly appointed Royal Governor Josiah Martin, under orders from London officials, sought to eliminate laws allowing colonial creditors to claim property owned by nonresidents to satisfy payment of debts — a practice called attachment. Incensed at this attempt to suppress a long-cherished right, Howe denounced Martin and joined patriots across America in claiming British policies were meant to “entrap America into slavery.” He even took to recording the names and actions of those loyal to the crown. In 1773 he established a Committee of Correspondence, and after Parliament closed Boston Harbor in response to the famed Tea Party, he organized and sent food to the beleaguered town. Learning of other so-called “Intolerable Acts,” namely putting Massachusetts under martial law, Howe joined the call for a Continental Congress and for North Carolina to form its own Provincial Congress. When the body assembled, he and fellow delegates vowed non-exportation of tobacco, pitch, tar and turpentine. He also supported the national Continental Association, whose stated purpose was to end all trade with Britain. When Martin condemned the patriots, Howe vilified the governor as an “enemy to the happiness of this colony.” Tensions mounted and quickly reached the breaking point.
As 1775 dawned, Robert Howe joined those preparing for war. He trained local militia, and in July he marched on Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River, causing Governor Martin to flee to a British warship. The Provincial Congress took over governing the colony and organizing the military. Howe was promptly appointed colonel of the 2nd North Carolina. In December he marched north to Norfolk, Virginia, which was being threatened by British and Loyalist troops. Throughout January 1776 Howe engaged British warships and landing parties seeking to capture the city. During one battle, he was hit in the thigh by a spent musket ball, but he paid little attention. Instead, he focused all his energy on driving the enemy back to their ships. When the fighting ended, much of Norfolk lay in ruins. To deny the British access to the crucial port, Howe burned what remained of the city. His actions won praise from Virginians and North Carolinians and led the Continental Congress to promote him to brigadier general. Upon learning British troops were about to invade Charleston, South Carolina, Howe raced south to fortify the city. He then took command of the Continentals shielding Charleston itself, but saw little action since the main battle occurred on nearby Sullivan’s Island. After the British were repulsed, he marched into Georgia to protect the state from raiders operating out of occupied Florida. By spring 1777 the threat was temporarily neutralized, and Howe returned to Charleston where he assumed command of the entire Southern Department, winning promotion to major general later that fall.
The general devoted himself to bolstering Charleston’s defenses. Seeing the city was the South’s preeminent port, he begged the Continental Congress for additional troops and resources and lobbied state leaders to obstruct the harbor and reinforce Sullivan’s Island and other strategic points. He similarly urged Georgians to fortify Savannah and Sunbury, but he found them more concerned with enemy activity in south Georgia. Under pressure, Howe led an expedition into the region during summer 1778. Despite extreme heat, lack of provisions and refusal of militia to serve under him, he doggedly drove out the British and Loyalist marauders. But the danger was not over. British officers were planning a full-scale invasion of the South. Confoundingly, Georgia’s leaders appeared indifferent. When the British finally appeared in front of Savannah on December 23rd, Howe had only six hundred South Carolina and Georgia Continentals and one hundred Georgia militia to meet the threat. Still, he resolved to defend the city and took up position at Fair Lawn Plantation, southeast of Savannah. He engaged the British on the 28th, but the main battle came the following day. Using a path on Howe’s right flank, British troops attacked his rear, routing the Georgia militia. The remaining enemy force hit his front. Howe put up a brief fight before withdrawing. He successfully evacuated the South Carolinians — but a refusal to obey his orders resulted in the loss of Georgia’s Continentals as well as the garrisons at Sunbury and Augusta. With Georgia lost, Howe moved into South Carolina where he met General Benjamin Lincoln, his replacement as department commander. After informing Lincoln of the dire situation, Howe made his way to George Washington’s headquarters in the Hudson Highlands, the most strategic area in the American struggle.
Arriving in the North, Howe was posted to Connecticut with orders to fend off raids from British-held Long Island, but his attention soon shifted to the lower Hudson River. In May 1779 Redcoats seized the vital defenses at Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point. On July 16th Howe led Continental troops against Verplanck’s Point with the intent of compelling the enemy’s retreat. Upon reaching the fort, he bombarded the garrison before ordering his men to attack. As soldiers surged forward, however, British reinforcements approached and threatened to cut off their escape. With no choice, Howe withdrew to American defenses at West Point. Two months later he was again ordered south towards New York — this time taking a position at Pine’s Bridge, within striking distance of British troops at Kings Ferry. Anticipating the arrival of French ships, General Washington sought to attack New York and directed Howe to engage and capture the two thousand Redcoats stationed along the Hudson as they marched south to help defend the city. The French never came, but the British did abandon King’s Ferry in October — though it was by water rather than by land. When enemy troop transports anchored in the Croton River, which flowed into the Hudson, fear of a Redcoat attack mounted, and five hundred men raced to join Howe’s line of defense. The general eagerly awaited battle, but the British continued on to New York. With the danger past, Continental troops went into winter quarters, but Howe’s duties were just beginning. On February 21, 1780 Washington placed him in command of American forces at West Point, the most crucial chokepoint along the most important river in colonial America.
Like his commander-in-chief, the general viewed West Point as the “key which locks the communication between the Eastern and Southern states.” So it was with great distress he found the fort crumbling and the garrison undermanned. He set about rebuilding the north redoubt and the surrounding fortifications, including recaptured Kings Ferry. Additionally, he oversaw repair of the chain which spanned the river and blocked passage of enemy warships. Most importantly, upon learning enemy spies were in the region, he barred unknown civilians from using the West Point Ferry and dispatched his own spies to monitor British movements. His efforts intensified as spring began and the threat of a British advance grew. On June 20th British forces moved up the Hudson, and Howe prepared his forces for a fight. On the 27th, however, the enemy turned back, leading Howe to believe the British had simply “intended to perplex, confuse and harass” the Americans. He remained at his post throughout summer, but by early fall, he yearned for a return to field command instead of a static fort. His departure allowed an opening for General Benedict Arnold to take command of the garrison and implement his treasonous plot to give West Point to the enemy. When Arnold’s counterpart, British Major John Andre, was captured, thereby thwarting the treachery, Howe served on the board that convicted and sentenced Andre to death by hanging.
In the aftermath of the conspiracy, Robert Howe spent the brutal winter of 1780-81 encamped at West Point. After helping quell mutinies by Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops, he again took up command of the post. As summer began, however, Washington ordered Howe to participate in an attack on New York City, and he subsequently led his men south to Dobbs Ferry. On July 15th he learned British ships had attacked American vessels at Tarrytown, New York. Wasting no time, the general raced his troops into town and was soon in sight of the enemy. He fired on the Royal Navy ships, and within minutes they were fleeing down the Hudson where they came under heavy fire from American batteries at Dobbs Ferry. Having yet again secured the river, Howe directed his men to rescue the precious ordinance onboard the burning American ships and to extinguish the flames. He then resumed probing towards New York. This movement convinced British General Henry Clinton to keep his army in New York in case of an attack, even after Washington moved south to besiege and eventually capture Lord General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Sadly, General Howe did not witness the momentous triumph — instead, he remained along the Hudson to safeguard against another British advance.
In the months following Yorktown, the general remained in the northern theatre, though he was initially preoccupied with defending his conduct in the 1779 Savannah campaign. After hearing testimony proving he had faced overwhelming odds and uncooperative Georgians, a court-martial fully exonerated him. Returning to active duty, Howe kept his division alert for British movement, but by summer 1782 threat of an attack was largely nonexistent. He remained with the army until peace was established in 1783. Sadly, however, the ensuing years were dismal ones for the North Carolinian. He was plagued by financial woes, and by 1785 he was in such poverty he appealed to Congress for relief. That same year he returned to North Carolina where he received a hero’s welcome. In 1786 he won election to the state’s General Assembly. The campaign’s strain had taken a toll, however, and he contracted bilious fever. Robert Howe died on December 14, 1786, just as the nation he helped forge was on the cusp of becoming one united country.
Although Robert Howe is not as well known as other Continental Army commanders, his accomplishments are no less noteworthy. Even before fighting erupted, he railed against British tyranny and committed himself to America’s liberation. As head of the Southern Department, he steadfastly defended the Carolinas and Georgia from invasion. His greatest success though came in New York’s Hudson River Highlands. There he repelled repeated Redcoat forays up the vital waterway and ensured his nation remained intact. Although castigated, but later vindicated, for perceived failings in the South, Robert Howe never wavered, finding renewed purpose in the North. He ended up the highest-ranking Revolutionary officer from North Carolina — a devoted patriot, start to finish.