Sir William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe (1729-1814), was a British general best known for his service in the North American Rebellion. A member of a distinguished military family, Howe joined the army in 1746 and fought in both the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Year's War. In the latter he famously led the ascent of the cliffs at Anse-au-Foulon that enabled Wolfe's victory at Quebec in 1759.
Returning to England, Howe both served in Parliament and rose to the rank of major general, becoming known as an expert in light infantry. He was sent to Boston in 1775, along with fellow generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, to reinforce the occupying army under general (and Massachusetts governor) Thomas Gage. He arrived in May, after the outbreak of hostilities and the beginning of the siege of Boston by rebel militia. Shortly thereafter he commanded the assault on an entrenched rebel position in the Battle of Bunker Hill, winning the day but incurring more British casualties than in any other engagement in the Rebellion. In October of 1775 Gage was recalled and Howe became the overall commander of British forces in North America.
Following the agreed overall strategy of concentrating forces in New York City, Howe left Boston in March 1776 along with many loyal Massachusetts colonials who had been driven into the city by rebel mobs as the siege began. After a brief stay in Nova Scotia, Howe landed on Staten Island in July 1776 and began his campaign to capture and consolidate his hold on the city. This was largely accomplished by September, with the largest battle being his rout of Washington at Brooklyn Heights in August, a victory that led to Howe being knighted. Remaining rebel forces in northern Manhattan Island and the Westchester region north of the city were eliminated before winter, and Washington was driven into New Jersey. Howe also sent a force to take the city of Newport in Rhode Island.
Howe entered 1777 with a number of competing objectives -- to assist Burgoyne's drive on Albany from the north, to take the new seat of the rebel Congress in Philadelphia, and to maintain control of New York City. Against an outnumbered and disorganized rebel army, he was able to accomplish all of these, sending Clinton north where his decisive arrival at Saratoga enabled Burgoyne's victory and sailing a force into Chesapeake Bay to land an army to attack Philadelphia from the south. Howe's victory at Brandywine left Philadelphia unguarded, and the rebel leaders fled west to York, where they sued for peace the following year.
Howe was made viceroy of the four New England colonies under the military occupation between the end of hostilities and the adoption of the Britannic Design establishing the Confederation of North America. Because rebel sentiment was strongest there, his viceregal assignment was perhaps the most difficult of the four, but he had a difficult time. In Sobel's words, he was "unfit by temperament" for his role, and "pacification proceeded slowly".
Returning to Britain, Howe was eventually promoted to full general and saw some active service in the Trans-Oceanic War. In 1799 his elder brother Richard (a prominent admiral) died without issue, making William the 5th Viscount Howe and Baron Clenawly. He died in 1814, also without issue, and the title ended with him.
Howe has been criticized for recklessness at Bunker Hill and caution in the New York City campaign, in each case missing an opportunity to end the military phase of the Rebellion even more quickly. But he was an able overall commander, and fortunate enough in his subordinates (such as Burgoyne and Clinton) that he may fairly be given credit for defeating the insurrection.
Sobel's sources for William Howe's role in the North American Rebellion include Howe's memoirs Memoirs of the Late Rebellion, including a diary of events and recollections of a busy life as published in the London Antiquarian Society's Studies in Colonial History (London, 1865); Lord Henry Hawkes' "General Howe and the New York Campaign" (North American Review, Summer 1874); Matthew Hale's Howe and Washington: Contrasts and Comparisons (New York, 1956); Robert Mackreith's Lord Howe and the Rebellion (New York, 1965); and Sir Douglas Carlisle's The Four Viceroys: Burgoyne, Carleton, Howe, and Clinton (New York, 1967).