Admiral Richard Howe — Commander of the British Royal Navy

1726–1799

Richard Howe was an Admiral in the British Royal Navy and commanded forces during the Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1778. He is often criticized for failing to take advantage of situations that may have ended the war as early as 1776.

Richard Howe, Admiral, British Royal Navy

Admiral Richard Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Who was Richard Howe?

Richard Howe was an Admiral in the British Royal Navy and commanded the British Royal Navy’s North American Station during the American Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1778. He is often criticized for failing to take advantage of situations that may have ended the war as early as 1776. Following the British defeat during the Saratoga Campaign, he resigned his commission. Before returning to England, Howe briefly engaged the French fleet at the Battle of Rhode Island.

Richard Howe Facts

  • Date of Birth: Richard Howe was born on March 8, 1726, in London England.
  • Parents: Howe’s parents were Emanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, and Charlotte von Kielmansegg.
  • Siblings: His older brothers were George Howe and William Howe.
  • Died: Howe died on August 5, 1799, in London, England, at the age of 73.
General William Howe, Illustration
General William Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Early Military Career of Richard Howe

Richard Howe was the brother of George Howe and William Howe. When he was young, he joined the crew of a merchant ship called the Thames, starting in 1735.

Howe’s naval career started on July 16, 1739, when he joined the crew of the HMS Pear. He was promoted to Lieutenant on May 24, 1744, and to Captain on April 10, 1746.

Howe distinguished himself during the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in North America (1754–1763), and was highly regarded in both Britain and the American Colonies. 

During the war, Howe served alongside Admiral Boscawen in 1755. As the war carried on, he also started his political career. On May 23, 1757, he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Dartmouth, a position he retained until he joined the British peerage in 1782. Howe fought at Rochefort in September 1757 and the Battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20, 1759. 

In 1762, he officially assumed his duties in Parliament, redirecting his focus on politics. He held various positions within the government and served as a Lord of the Admiralty from 1763 to 1765 and later as Treasurer to the Navy. 

During the Falkland Islands crisis of 1770, he held the position of Rear Admiral, commanding the Mediterranean fleet.

Richard Howe Goes to America

When the American Revolutionary War started in 1775, Howe believed it was possible to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, which likely led him to take a passive approach in executing his orders. 

In 1776, he was appointed as the top military leader in North America and tasked with negotiating with American leaders. Howe arrived in New York in July 1776 and joined his brother, Sir General William Howe. William was in command of the British land forces and was also serving as a negotiator.

The initial plan was to take control of important port cities along the coast, including New York.

Criticism of Richard Howe

Howe’s tenure in America remains a subject of controversy. His family had established longstanding connections with America, and he met with Benjamin Franklin in London as early as 1774 to discuss the unrest and a political solution.

During his time in America, Howe had more than one opportunity to use the strength of the British Navy to do significant damage to the Patriot Cause, but he chose not to.

  • During the Battle of Long Island (August 27–30, 1776), Howe failed to capture the Continental Army.
  • He defied orders by not using naval forces to punish the Patriots. 
  • Howe refused to impose a strict blockade or carry out punitive attacks on coastal towns. 
  • He allowed fishermen to continue their trade without interference. 

However, Howe was not entirely at fault for the turn of events that took place in New Jersey. There were many factors at play, which he could not control, including:

  • Howe insisted on using military authority and political power to quell the rebellion and expressed dissatisfaction with the limited scope of the commission he and his brother, William, were granted to conduct the war.
  • He received orders to blockade the coast to keep French supply ships away, but it was impractical to blockade the entire coastline with the number of ships at his disposal.
  • Worse, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich and the First Lord of the Admiralty insisted on retaining the majority of the British Navy in British waters, instead of sending more to America.
  • Richard also had to support William’s military operations and prioritized those military actions over others he could have taken.
  • As with many other British operations during the war, Howe’s forces suffered from a shortage of supplies.

Early on, Howe’s inaction did not have a significant effect on the course of the war. British forces captured New York City and forced General George Washington and the Continental Army to retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

Howe Arrives in New York

Upon Richard Howe’s arrival off Staten Island on July 12, 1776, it became clear that William’s army was too small and poorly equipped to launch an assault on New York. 

As a result, the Howe brothers found themselves in a waiting game. Between July 12 and July 18, Richard led a small force far up the Hudson to the Tappan Sea, deep behind the rear of General Washington and the Continental Army.

Due to the inability to attack New York, the Howes initiated negotiations with Patriot leaders on July 14, even though they knew they had little to offer. Unfortunately, the negotiations were a failure

New York Campaign

Once William felt the army was adequately equipped, they prepared for a campaign to take New York City.

Richard landed on Long Island on August 22. William achieved a significant victory at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, which effectively trapped General Washington’s forces against the water. 

Battle of Long Island, Lord Stirling Leads Maryland Regiment
This painting depicts fierce fighting at the Battle of Long Island. Image Source: Wikipedia.

However, William was hesitant to launch a direct assault on the American earthworks, and unfavorable winds prevented Richard from deploying ships into the East River in time to intercept Washington’s escape on the night of August 29–30.

Afterward, the responsibility fell on Richard to gather boats, transports, and warships in the East River for a planned landing at Kip’s Bay, Manhattan. This expedition required precise weather conditions, resulting in a delay.

Staten Island Peace Conference

During this pause, the Howes once again attempted negotiations with Patriot leaders, which collapsed on September 11. 

Landing at Kip’s Bay

Within a matter of days, Richard maneuvered vessels into the East River, allowing the troops to land at Kip’s Bay on September 15. The successful landing forced the Continental Army to withdraw to Harlem Heights, on the lower half of Manhattan Island.

Washington’s Retreat

Following the Battle of Harlem Heights, Washington was forced to withdraw from New York. With the British in pursuit, he crossed New Jersey and made his way into Pennsylvania.

As the Continental Army moved toward Pennsylvania, it appeared the Patriots would lose the war. As a result, many colonists, particularly in New York and New Jersey, showed their support for the British in November and December of 1776. 

Trenton and Princeton

With confidence in the Patriot Cause waning, Washington decided to make a bold move. On the night of December 25, he crossed the Delaware River and won a stunning victory over British forces stationed at Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Painting, Leutze
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Washington followed the victory at Trenton with another, winning the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The victories reinvigorated the Patriot Cause and magnified the passive approach of the Howe brothers.

Howe’s Philadelphia Campaign

Despite the disaster in New Jersey, Howe continued to refuse to pursue an aggressive strategy in 1777. Instead, he supported his brother as he moved his army from New York to the Chesapeake, so he could capture Philadelphia.

Once again, the brothers were troubled with delays, including the late arrival of ships from Britain, the necessity of monitoring General Washington’s movements before selecting a place to land troops, and the subsequent decision to disembark in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Philadelphia was eventually occupied on September 26, but it took nearly two more months for  Howe and his ships to reach the city, arriving on November 23.

Burgoyne’s Campaign Ends in Disaster

Meanwhile, a British Army led by General John Burgoyne invaded New York, expecting William Howe to march his army to Albany and meet there. It would have effectively cut the New England Colonies off from the others and may have ended the war. However, without Howe’s support, Burgoyne’s campaign failed. In October 1777, Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saragota, which was another significant turning point in the war. Soon after, France agreed to support the Patriot Cause.

Battles of Saratoga, Burgoyne's Surrender, Trumbull
This painting depicts the British surrender at Saratoga. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Howe Brothers Resign

Although the Howe brothers were able to capture Philadelphia, they were unable to deal a crushing blow to Washington and the Continental Army.

Upset over the limitations of his authority and the lack of support he received from Britain, William resigned from his commission. Richard followed suit in 1778. 

General Henry Clinton took command of British land forces, replacing William Howe. However, there was no immediate replacement for Richard. 

The Battle of Rhode Island

While Howe waited for a replacement, Clinton ordered him to sail to Rhode Island to confront a French fleet under the command of Charles-Henri Theodat, comte d’Estaing. The French joined American forces, under the command of General John Sullivan at Newport.

On August 10, 1778, Howe sailed to Rhode Island Sound and engaged the French. However, before a full-scale naval battle could ensue, a hurricane unexpectedly struck, causing both fleets to disperse. 

Although Howe did not achieve victory over the French, d’Estaing’s fleet suffered significant damage from the storm, prompting it to seek refuge in Boston for repairs. 

As a result, Sullivan was forced to abandon his attack on Newport during the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29, 1778.

General John Sullivan, Portrait, Illustration
General John Sullivan. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Richard Howe’s Return to England and Death

Howe returned to England where he was critical of the government’s handling of the war.

He later distinguished himself by leading an expedition to relieve Gibraltar in 1782. 

He also played a significant role in the initial stages of the wars with France that commenced in 1793. 

Howe enjoyed popularity among the common seamen, who affectionately called him “Black Dick.” 

In 1797, during the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, he served as the government’s primary negotiator and helped bring an end to the affair.

Howe died in London on 5 August 1799.

Richard Howe Significance

Richard Howe is important to United States history for the role he played as commander of the British Royal Navy in the early years of the American Revolutionary War.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Admiral Richard Howe — Commander of the British Royal Navy
  • Date 1726–1799
  • Author
  • Keywords Richard Howe, American Revolution, American Revolutionary War, Who was Richard Howe, What did Richard Howe do during the American Revolutionary War, When did Richard Howe take command of the British Royal Navy, Where did Richard Howe fight during the American Revolutionary War, Why is Richard Howe criticized for his role in the American Revolutionary War, How did Richard Howe contribute to the American Revolutionary War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 8, 2023

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