Book Review

Smith, David. Whispers across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution. First. Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, 2017.

———. William Howe and the American War of Independence. First. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Despite a flurry of recent Revolutionary era biographies, there has not been a new memoir of British Revolutionary War General William Howe in almost 90 years. Additionally, there has been no comprehensive military assessment of Howe’s leadership of the critical 1776 and 1776 northern campaigns in over four decades. Interpreting Howe’s life and military career is a difficult task as it requires a deep understanding of the two sides of the Atlantic including the complexities of both British and Colonial politics. Perhaps further inhibiting 21st Century historians is the paucity of primary sources as there are no surviving Howe diaries or papers.

Historian David Smith takes on this challenge in a unique way. As a graduate student, a draft of William Howe’s famous speech to the British House of Commons justifying his conduct of the war became available to researchers. Smith’s analysis indicates that Howe’s draft disquisition contains extensive edits providing a window into the evolution his thinking as he defended himself from charges of mismanaging the British war effort. Many of Howe’s last-minute changes significantly alter the underlying rationale for his command decisions.

Distinctly using this new 85-page document, Smith authors two books on Howe, each with a separate audience in mind. The first volume, published in 2015 focuses on Howe’s leadership of the 1776 and 1777 campaigns in and around New York City and Philadelphia. Aimed at an informed Revolutionary war audience, this book analyzes military strategies and battlefield tactical decisions. It is especially illuminating of the mismatched interactions between Howe and his superior Lord Germain in London including the geographically imposed time constraints involved in the written communications.

Published in 2017, the second volume is aimed at a more general interest reader. Smith states in his introduction that this book is an attempt to understand the enigmatic Howe better and to round out his human qualities. This second book also focuses on the Revolutionary 1776 and 1777 northern campaigns and covers much of the ground of the 2015 volume. Given the dearth of eyewitness sources, Smith extensively quotes three Howe subordinates, General Henry Clinton, Lieutenant Loftus Cliffe and Hessian Commander Johann Ewald. Each of these sources has interpretive shortcomings as Clinton exhibited anti-Howe bias and Cliffe and Ewald served in junior positions and did not have an overall view of the battlefield or campaign strategies. At times, Smith ignores these limitations and overly generalizes these officers perspectives.

However, more disconcerting is a degree of sloppiness in Smith second book. For example on page 98, he cites Rufus and Israel Putnam as brothers when they are in fact cousins. Moreover, on page 191, the reference to 1776 should be 1777. While minor errors such as these do not call into question the book’s primary thesis, they detract from the reader’s confidence in other aspects of the book. The reader’s unease is further exacerbated by not having footnotes. While the publisher may have sought to simplify and make the book more approachable, the reader cannot directly and quickly assess the quality of Smith’s research. While not a footnote substitute, the bibliography is useful but does not contain definitions of source abbreviations which is distinctly unhelpful to the targeted novice readers.

Further unease with scholarship is present as Smith uncritically accepts previous historians judgments. On page 26, he asserts that denying Patriot trade across the Hudson River would deprive New England of needed grain from the Southern states. In colonial days, 75% of Americans were employed in agriculture, which yielded enough food for their surrounding communities, and New England was mostly self-sufficient. For a study of agriculture and foodstuffs in Colonial America, see The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins (page 60).

Even more concerning are Smith’s assertions on the military capabilities of the American soldiers and officer corps. On page 126, he states without offering any support that the “British opinion of the American soldier, never high, was sinking even lower.” This overgeneralization does not square with British accounts of Bunker Hill and the fighting around the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. In addition to overgeneralization, the book contains important mischaracterizations. On page 158, Smith describes Washington’s signature error as “dividing his army in the presence of a superior enemy.” While Washington is responsible for the loss of the isolated Fort Washington, most historians believe that Washington had no choice but to divide his forces defending New York City and that his most significant military misjudgments were his predilection to develop overly complicated battle plans.

In the end, Smith concludes that Howe did not follow subordinate and often critic Henry Clinton’s well-reasoned strategic advice and thereby missed opportunities to destroy Washington’s army. In hindsight with its more comprehensive understanding of the situation, Clinton’s proposals on the 1776 campaign strategy might have made military sense. However, Smith should have addressed why was Clinton so prescient in 1776 but so wrong in 1781 at Yorktown. In the end, William Howe never lost his connection to his supply or the Navy, was overwhelmingly victorious in the all the major battles and pushed Washington’s army to the brink of disaster. He did make command mistakes, but the British loss of its American colonies cannot be laid at his doorstep, that responsibility lies at the feet of his superiors in London.

Smith would better serve his readers with one publication written in the readable style of the 2017 volume, using the scholarly approach of the 2015 book and supported with comprehensive footnotes and by an easy to interpret bibliography. His extensive analysis of Howe’s newly available draft parliamentary speech is worthy of a clear record.


For additional information on William Howe and the earlier biographies, click.