The British Military in New York City, 1776

      In 1776, the Howe brothers brought an impressive force to bear against the American rebels in New York City.  Was it the best in the world?  The land and naval force was strong in many ways, but it had a number of faults and failures.

     The Royal Navy component in all likelihood was the best in the world.  It had the advantage of size, but it would later find itself strained to deal with the rebels, the French, and the Spanish combined, and the lack of a naval buildup early in the war invited foreign intervention at the first sign of failure in North America.  At the start of the war, the Royal Navy had about 130 ships of the line compared to 90 French and 75 Spanish. (1)  By August 12, there were 300 warships and 400 transports in the New York area under Admiral Richard Howe supporting the nearly 32,000 troops of his brother William.(2)  Without this massive troop transport and logistical ability, crushing the rebellion would have been out of the question.  The trouble was, using ships to support the army, and for other purposes, meant that in the summer of 1776, only 15 of Admiral Howe's 73 ships were available to blockade the American coast, several thousand miles in length, making an effective blockade impossible.  So by the end of 1776, the rebels had imported 80% of the gunpowder they would use up to the end of 1777.  (2.1)  Another hinderance was the lack of repair facilities, forcing Lord Howe to send ships to the Caribbean or England for repairs and maintenance.  By the winter of '76 - '77, 40 % of his ships were away being repaired.  (2.2)     

     Leadership in the navy was adequate for the task.  Technological advances were eagerly embraced during the era, such as hull coppering and the adoption of the carronade, albeit late, indicating progressive leadership.(3)  Tactical innovations came about as admirals increasingly gained the courage to ignore doctrine and break the enemy line, forcing a more decisive melee.  This trend eventually led to decisive victories at Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar.(4)  Nevertheless, the Royal Navy would be sorely tested when France and Spain entered the war due to British failure on land.  The 1781 surrender at Yorktown was largely a result of losing naval superiority.  Similar British disasters were entirely possible at Savannah, Newport, Gibraltar, New York City, and the planned invasion of Britain, which, if successful, could have wrecked the entire British financial system and ended the war.

     An inefficient bureaucracy was responsible for provisioning the large army across the Atlantic Ocean, and the deficiencies of this transport system gravely hurt the army.  Transports were mostly hired elderly ships nearing the ends of their lives, and there were never enough.(5)  This was compounded by the difficulties of the sea crossing.  A storm which could scatter a convoy, or an unfavorable wind could keep a convoy in port.(6)  In addition, dock workers went on strike in October 1776, delaying the army's much needed supplies.(7)  Further, corruption and mismanagement in food procurement led to spoiled and inedible provisions.(8)  Once in America, the rebels exploited the British supply situation whenever possible by removing all food, livestock, and horses from areas given up to the enemy. (9)

     Provisioning the men was difficult enough, and horses, because of the vast amount of forage they consumed and the difficulty of their transport, were considered a luxury item.  Previous wars had even shown the difficulty of transporting horses from Britain to continental Europe, so sending them across the Atlantic was difficult indeed.  Not only would the wagon train suffer, fewer horses were available for artillery and cavalry.  For the 1776 campaign, over 3,600 horses were used, but the two light dragoon regiments totaled only about 400 of this total.(10)

     Despite these difficulties, the flexibility offered by the navy was tremendous.  Although supply concerns contributed to the decision to evacuate of the army from Boston to Nova Scotia, naval power made it possible. (11)  Impressively, after reinforcements arrived, the expedition to New York began at the same time as the reinforcement of Canada and the failed expedition to Charleston which then reinforced Howe.(12)  This strategic flexibility was enhanced by amphibious assault tactics perfected in the Seven Years War.  After the Howes took Staten Island, the crossing to Long Island on August 22nd with 15,000 troops was launched from there.  In ninety boats, 4,000 troops crossed in the first wave, followed only two hours later by the main force from the transport ships.  Three frigates and two specially designed shore bombardment ships provided supporting fire if the landings were opposed.(13)  This amphibious ability was used again at Kip's Bay, later in Howe's turning movement at Pell's Point, and Cornwallis' attack on Fort Lee on the far side of the Hudson.(14)  At Kip's Bay on Manhattan Island on September15, five ships with around seventy guns bombarded the militia defenders.  Eighty-four boats with 4,000 troops landed and swept the fleeing militiamen away.  In six hours more, another 9,000 had landed.(15)  The only valid criticism of this operation, and it is a major one, is that the army command placed a heavy importance on securing the beach head and did not cut off and destroy the American forces retreating north from New York City.

     The British army brought to New York by Sir William Howe was not a well balanced force due to logistical limits set upon it.  As mentioned before, the cavalry was only a small fraction of the force, giving Howe a poor scouting ability as well as a small after-battle pursuit force.  After landing on Long Island, Howe took a full four days for reconnaissance when the American line was only three miles long and the route of march extended only nine miles from the landing site.(16)  It was, in fact, only upon reaching the Jamaica Pass that Howe learned that this obstacle was unoccupied.(17)

     Artillery was limited by poor colonial roads and rough terrain.  The light 6-Pounder was the practical limit these roads could handle and although the 3-Pounder was so portable that it could be carried by four troops, it lacked the firepower of a heavier gun.(18)  Once again, the difficulty in transporting horses and their forage created problems.  During the campaign, Howe found it necessary to purchase horses and wagons along with drivers for his artillery.(19)

     Each infantry regiment of about 475 men, one of the ten companies was light infantry and another company was composed of grenadiers shock troops.  This pre-war innovation of Gen. Howe's allowed each regiment to have its own skirmishers, or more frequently, to form all these companies into battalions as an elite advance guard for the force.(20)  At least later in the war there were many examples of whole regiments advancing in an extended order or skirmish line as part of the line of battle, a clear break with European tradition.

       The high quality of British troops is often touted, but they were not always successful.  At Harlem Heights on September 16th, the poorly trained Americans pushed the British forces back a mile after combat that closed to forty yards.  These British troops were among the best available, the Light Infantry, the Black Watch, the Grenadiers, the 33rd Regiment, and the Hessian jagers.(21)  At Throg's Point, twenty five American riflemen successfully defended an un-planked bridge crossing and a later a ford, preventing a 4,000 man British force from advancing and cutting off the American line of retreat from Manhattan.  During Howe's subsequent landing at Pell's Point, an American brigade held off the 4,000 attackers more than once, and withdrew voluntarily only after nightfall.(22)  At White Plains and again at Fort Washington, British and Hessian troops were repulsed at least once before eventual victory.(23)  So although the British troops were adequate for the task, the army was hardly invincible and suffered from a dangerous arrogance. 

     More importantly, competent political administration at home was lacking.  The army was composed of only 45,000 troops in 1775, and the government was forced to hire German mercenaries to create an adequate force for the task.(24)  A British officer blundered greatly when he told the mercenaries that the Americans would not take them prisoner.  Their resulting brutality further strengthen American resolve.  The minister of war, Lord George Germaine, had at the battle of Minden in the Seven Years War allegedly disgraced the army he now administered.  He was largely responsible for the disasters to come at Saratoga and Yorktown through his lack of coordination and common sense, and due to his thirst for personal control.(25)  For the New York campaign, the administration authorized the Howe brothers to make peace with the rebels, but the instructions were unrealistic and inflexible, allowing negotiation only with those who would submit to the crown.  American opinion was divided on independence, and British policy did not exploit this, but instead pushed many toward the rebel side.  During brief peace negotiations, the Howes ignored interesting and realistic American hints that independence could be interpreted to mean local political control combined with a British alliance. 

     Leadership also had its faults in the field, as is shown by a consistent failure to follow up victories with decisive pursuits.  Many British commanders had sympathy for the rebels politically, and Sir William Howe was no exception.  This, along with an unrealistic expectation of successful peace negotiations made him less willing to destroy the enemy.  Instead he sought to merely defeat and discourage the enemy so that they would seek a negotiated settlement.  Despite being urged by Gen. Clinton to transport the army to Westchester north of the city and cut off all hopes of an enemy escape, Howe instead opted to land on Long Island to face the American army directly. (26)  An easy victory there was due in no small part to the American failure to defend the Jamaica pass, which, it is said could have been held by a few hundred men for a number of hours. (27)  The Americans were pushed back to their Brooklyn defenses, but at least one section was completely undefended, and others required urgent work to make them defensible.  Gen. Clinton detected this weakness and planned a decisive war-winning attack, but he was overruled by Howe. (28)  A storm even ruined American cartridges, but the eager troops were kept from storming Brooklyn Heights to finish the victory.  Despite favorable winds, the Royal Navy did not cut off the American retreat, and Washington escaped.(29)

    Faced with the Americans on Manhattan, Howe rejected Clinton's advice to land in the Bronx then move to cut off the American retreat at Kingsbridge.  Instead, he landed directly on Manhattan.  (30)  At Kip's Bay on September 15th, Howe paused halfway across Manhattan Island with no opposition, allowing the rebel forces in New York City to escape and establish a defensive line across the island.(31)  Howe then decided to use his amphibious capability to turn the Americans out of Manhattan.  After landing at Pell's Point, Howe paused for two days while Washington moved out of danger to White Plains.  Following victory there, Howe failed to pursue or take advantage of Washington's detachment of Charles Lee to the Hudson Highlands as the main army retreated to New Jersey.  As Carleton advanced south from Canada, nearly taking Ticonderoga, a British capture of the highlands would have made New York state virtually untenable to the rebels.  As events transpired, the Hudson Highlands became a vital part of the American defense later in the war, blocking any British move north into New York state.  As early as the next year the British would pay for their failure as crown forces in New York City failed to meet up with Burgoyne's offensive.

    There was still a very good opportunity to end the war in 1776, however.  Howe ordered Clinton to take 6,000 men to Newport, Rhode Island in order to gain an ice-free port for the winter.  Clinton urged Howe to let him instead land along the Delaware River to capture Philadelphia and cut off Washington's retreat.  Howe rejected the plan.  Further, Howe did not allow Clinton to cut off Washington as he withdrew past Manhattan Island and across the only bridge over the Hackensack River.(32)  Instead, Cornwallis pursued the American army through New Jersey, but orders temporarily prevented him from advancing beyond New Brunswick, preventing a vigorous and potentially decisive pursuit in unusually favorable weather.  The opportunity to destroy Washington before he retreated behind the Delaware was lost.(33)  After Washington's unmolested retreat across the Delaware, the pursuing Cornwallis was unable to follow because the horse shortage prevented a mobile bridging unit from being maintained.  Logistical problems and the desire to gain political control through New Jersey forced the British to disperse, allowing Washington to save the Revolution with his desperate and successful attack at Trenton.(34)  In a sign of what was to come during the rest of the war, American patrols had regularly crossed the Delaware, thoroughly harassing their opponents and eliminating their ability to scout.(35)  Harsh treatment of civilians resulted in the formation of guerilla bands through New Jersey which harassed British communications and prevented effective picketing.  This made Washington's surprise attack possible, and in the future, it ensured American control of any area not strongly occupied by the British.

     Washington's desparate counter-offensives at Trenton and Princeton would be decisive.  The rebels now controlled the New Jersey countryside, and they prevented farmers from supplying the British.  Meanwhile British supply problems had led to looting, which turned many Loyalists and neutrals into patriots.(36)  Deprived of the rich farmlands of New Jersey, the British remained dependent on inadequate and irregular supply shipments from Britain for the rest of the war. (37)  At one point after French intervention, the British army in New York was just one supply convoy away from disaster.  When Washington took up winter quarters in Morristown behind an easily defensible mountain range, his flanking position effectively prevented a direct British advance on Philadelphia.  After discovering this in his sparring with a rebuilt American army in the spring of 1777, Howe moved on Philadelphia by sea, leaving Burgoyne to his own devices - and to eventual surrender at Saratoga.  Taking a longer route through the Chesapeake Bay rather than the Delaware Bay took a month's time during the campaigning season.  An additional 3 to 4 weeks were required for the fleet to return to the Delaware and support the capture of the river forts, a requirement for the army to remain ashore. (37.1)  Had Howe been fighting a more competent enemy in the Philadelphia Campaign, his habit of dividing his army could have led to disaster at either Brandywine or Germantown.  At Germantown notably his army was divided to secure a Delaware River supply line.  Logistics continued to be a decisive factor.  In 1781, British efforts in South Carolina were stymied by guerilla attacks on their supply lines.  Cornwallis's reckless response was to invade first North Carolina, then Virginia, leading to American liberation of the south and Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. (38)     

     In conclusion, the quality of the force brought to New York was high, but it cannot in full confidence be called the best in the world. Amphibious ability and troop training were pluses, but because of transport and logistical problems, a mobile well-supplied and well-balanced force was not possible.  The young and questionable leadership failed to destroy the enemy and end the rebellion despite frequent opportunities.  Had this force been presented with a competent European enemy, success would not come so easily.  The lack of total victory in 1776 led directly to British defeat in the war.


1. Preston, Antony, and David Lyon and John Batchelor, Navies of the American Revolution.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975., 146

2. Gruber, Ira D., The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution.  New York: Atheneum, 1972. 101

2.1 Gruber 136, 140

2.2 Gruber 202

3. Preston 42-62

4. Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution.  Harrisburg, PA.: Stackpole,1969., 131

5. Curtis, Edward E., The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution.  New York: AMS Press, 1969., 124, 130

6. Curtis 127

7. Curtis 128

8. Bowler, R. Arthur.  Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975, 101

9 Fleming, Thomas.  1776: Year of Illusions 299

10. Bowler 60

11 Bowler 62-63

12. Symonds, Craig L., A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution.  Nautical and Aviation Publishing, 1986., 25

13. Gruber 110

14. Symonds 29

15. Ward, Christopher, The War of the Revolution.  New York: MacMillan, 1952., 242-44

16. Fortescue, J.W., A History of the British Army, Volume 3.  New York: MacMillan, 1902., 183

17. Ward 218

18. Mollo, John, and Malcolm McGregor, Uniforms of the American Revolution.  New York: Sterling, 1975.,15

19. Curtis 7

20. Curtis 4-5

21. Ward 250-1

22. Ward 257-8

23. Ward 264, 273

24. Curtis 3

25. Fortescue 397

26. Fleming 309-310

27. Fleming 314

28 Fleming 320

29. Ward 232

30. Fleming 347-8

31. Symonds 27

32. Fleming 411-12

33. Fleming 420-1

34. Bowler 58

35. Fleming 437

36. Bowler 79

37. Bowler 65-66

37.1  Gruber  236, 248

38. Bowler 51

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