The combat death of young George in 1758 on that New York battlefield made Richard the new viscount and family patriarch. Having gone to sea in 1736, the beginning of a six-decade career as one of Britain’s greatest fighting sailors, Richard by 1760 had participated in 57 naval battles, with many more to come. He so distinguished himself in the Seven Years’ War — known in America as the French and Indian War — that George III, who became king shortly before Britain’s triumphant victory in the struggle, later called Richard his “trusty and well-beloved cousin.”
William, who took an army commission in 1746, won fame in the same war by leading his troops up a near-vertical river bluff in Britain’s celebrated defeat of the French at Quebec in September 1759. Siblings nicknamed him “the Savage.” The fighting Howes emerged from the war as household names in Britain and America. Four Howe brothers would hold seats in Parliament.
In December 1774, Caroline initiated a three-month series of sociable chess matches in her Grafton Street townhouse against Benjamin Franklin, then an agent for colonial interests in London. She became the conduit for last-gasp British government efforts to avoid bloodshed in America. Nothing came of the efforts, but Franklin, who soon sailed home to join the revolutionaries, confessed, “I never conceived a higher opinion of the discretion and excellent understanding of any woman on so short an acquaintance.”
When the American rebellion became a shooting war in 1775, the crown turned to Richard and William, now a vice admiral and a major general, respectively. Forced to patrol a 1,000-mile American coastline, to escort supply and troop transports across the North Atlantic, and to support British Army operations, Richard made the best of a bad lot while battling American privateers and, soon enough, French warships allied with the rebels.
Flavell’s effort to resuscitate William’s military reputation is a heavy lift. General Howe commanded the bloody British catastrophe on Bunker Hill in June 1775, which left at least 226 redcoats dead, and he was the commander responsible for British defeats 18 months later at Trenton and Princeton. More damning, William contributed to Britain’s strategic incoherence with a meandering campaign against Philadelphia in 1777 that was wholly disconnected from a simultaneous sortie out of Canada toward the Hudson River — the prelude to America’s stunning triumph at Saratoga. He bore much culpability for Britain’s abominable treatment of American prisoners, thousands of whom died from hunger, disease and neglect.
By the time William was recalled to England in 1778 (he had requested to leave), followed a few months later by Richard, the prospect of a British victory had all but vanished. Five more years of war under different senior commanders would prove the point. At home the Howe brothers were pelted with fatuous assertions that they were war profiteers, or rebel sympathizers, or limp in their war-making — a charge that would baffle Americans whose men were bayoneted, women raped and towns burned. The Howes fought back in parliamentary hearings, pamphlet salvos and drawing room pleadings. But, as one critic observed, “The fault must be laid somewhere to account for the miscarriage of an undertaking which has been given out as impossible to fail.” Walpole concluded simply, “The Howes are not in fashion.”