Philadelphia, 1777-1778

In 1777-1778, the American Revolutionary War was raging, and a British army officer based in Philadelphia, Guards Brigade battalion commander Brigadier John Howard, penned three remarkable letters to Thomas Villiers, the 1st earl of Clarendon (2nd creation).

Print illustration of the Battle of Germantown, 1777, by Christian Schussele, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Germantown, by Christian Schussele, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first letter was written on the 14th of October 1777, from Germain Town Camp [sic], ten days after the Battle of Germantown, a major battle in the campaign for Philadelphia. British commander Sir William Howe had captured Philadelphia in September 1777 after winning the battles of Brandywine and Paoli and on the 4th of October, George Washington launched an ambitious counterattack against British forces based at Germantown on the outskirts of the city. The attack failed, partially foiled by a thick fog which hampered communication, but Howe chose not to pursue the Continental Army as it retreated, and at the onset of winter withdrew his forces to Philadelphia, while the Americans, largely unscathed, wintered in Valley Forge.

Brigadier Howard’s 14th of October letter to Thomas Villiers gives an eyewitness account of the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine that September, opening with a description of the circumstances and objectives of the campaign for Philadelphia:

From the natural strenth of this Country, in extensive Woods, Stong Posts, and Rivers, all military operations must be slow. And more especially in a country where we cannot depend upon the information or friendship of one single inhabitant; for either from motives of fear, interest, or enmity, we find America universally against us

He continues:

As this Province and its neighbourhood has been the chief supply of the Rebel Army, and Philadelphia the seat of their imaginary government, it being the Heart of their new created Empire, the Rebels judged they could not risk too much to keep it in their possession

After describing the manoeuvres at Brandywine, Howard describes the Battle of Germantown:

Gen[era]l Washington, with all the force he could possibly collect together, has since attacked us in our Camp: He was very much favoured in his approach to it by a very thick fog: We had thirteen Battalions less that day than at the Affair of the Bradywine and notwithstanding this diminution of our strenth he was repulsed with very considerable loss

But the letter is not entirely upbeat. Howard continues with an argument for more troops in the face of an insurgency:

Notwithstanding these successes, I must beg leave here to remark, that we have yet a very formidable Enemy to contend with; as it is the strenuous united efforts of America, that invariably perserveres with unremitting zealous rage against our cause. For this reason, my Lord, when any Post is to be occupied by us, for the security of magazines, Forrage, Stores or Country that should be covered, as we cannot put confidence in the People either for information or defence, it puts us under the necessity of making such considerable Detachments that it weakens the […] army

Not mentioned in this letter, possibly because Howard was unaware of it, was that a week earlier the British had suffered a major defeat in the Saratoga campaign. Following this, British prime minister Lord North made serious moves towards a settlement that would end the war, sending the Carlisle Peace Commission to America to negotiate with the Continental Congress for a form of self rule.

Brigadier Howard’s next letter was written from Philadelphia on 19 April 1778, as the Carlisle Commissioners were sailing toward America. Howard enthuses about two draft Parliamentary Bills which had just arrived on American shores, proposing to abolish taxation in America. Howard is confident that they will help to turn Americans against the war (he was certainly correct that the American leadership was concerned):

The military part of their continental people who act as […] Generals etc will not like to return to the Cobblers Stall or Hatters shop from which they came and they of course will reject every idea of pacification, but the Inhabitants at large I believe will, or at least ought, to receive it with satisfaction

And he remains concerned, and scathing, about American opposition:

I have just heard that the continental Governor of the Jerseys has burnt at Trenton, by the hands of the hangman, the copy of the Draught of this Bill which has been published: your Lordship will judge by this what zeal and rage exists among them, and what enemies they are to every subordinate order of good government.

Still in Philadelphia on 10 May 1778, following both the Continental Congress’s rejection of the peace terms offered by the draft bills and America’s alliance with France, Howard writes a more despairing, and prescient, third letter:

It is easy to win a Battle, but very difficult, nay almost impossible, to retain a country against the will of its inhabitants; in doing which, we fight against ourselves, by the difficult maintenance and keeping up the army that conquer’d it. I am convinced it is wasting our strenth to carry on, for any lenth of time, interior active operations of war.

He was not arguing for retreat, however:

I am as well convinced the only way to have made the Americans return to their duty was, and is, by chastisement; I mean, my Lord, by burning every town, village & house that were not materially our friend.

He concludes:

Had we proceeded, in the course of our service in this country, with this rigor, this rebellion had been long ago ended, and without it, give me leave to assure your Lordships, if Great Britain sends us fifty thousand men, it will not do

Howard’s brutal, scorched earth proposition might make for an interesting counterfactual history, but he was correct in one way, as we know: although war was waged for years to come, the British were not able to retain the country against the will of its inhabitants. On 3 September 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the United States at last achieved its independence.

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022. This work was funded by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries, and the Friends of the Bodleian.

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