J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gen. Howe Addresses the Selectmen

On Friday, 15 Mar 1776, Gen. Sir William Howe (shown here courtesy of NNDB.com) unburdened himself to the selectmen of Boston. Timothy Newell wrote it all down in his journal:

The General sent to the Selectmen and desired their immediate attendance, which we did accordingly. It was to acquaint us that as he was about retreating from the Town, his advice was for all the Inhabitants to keep in their houses and tho’ his orders were to injure no person, he could not be answerable for any irregularities of his troops.

That the Fowey man of war would continue in the harbour till the fleet sailed, loaded with carcases [shells] and combustibles, that in case the King’s troops met with any obstruction in their retreat he should set fire to the Town, which he wished to avoid—

That he thought it his duty to destroy much of the property in the town to prevent it being useful to the support of the Rebel army.

The General further said to us, that who ever had suffered in this respect (who were not Rebels) it was probable upon application to Government, they would be considered—

That Letters had passed between him and Mr. [George] Washington. That he had wrote to him in the style of Mr. Washington. That however insignificant the character of his Excellency, which to him was very trifling—it ought not to be given to any but by the authority of the King. He observed the direction of our Letters to him was—To his excellency General Washington, which he did not approve and whatever Intelligence had been given to the Rebels, tho’ in his letters to him, he did not charge him with being a Rebel. He further said he had nothing against the Selectmen, which if he had he should certainly have taken notice of it—

The General told us the Troops would embark this day and was told by General [James] Robertson it would be by three oclock. The Regiments all mustered, some of them marched down the wharf. Guards and Chevaux De Freze, were placed in the main streets and wharves in order to secure the retreat of Out Centinels. Several of the principle streets through which they were to pass were filled with Hhds. [hogsheads] filled with Horse-dung, large limbs of trees from the Mall [a tree-lined walk on Boston Common] to prevent a pursuit of the Continental Army. They manifestly appeared to be fearful of an attack.

The wind proved unfavorable, prevented their embarking. They returned to their quarters. Soon after several houses were on fire. The night passed tolerably quiet.
For me the most interesting part of these remarks was Howe’s complaint about the selectmen addressing Washington with the honorific “Your Excellency,” usually reserved for a general of governor. Despite the general’s protests, those remarks do smack of petty resentment and self-justification.

Furthermore, the question of how British commanders should address Washington would come up again on 14 July, in New York. I’ll quote from Joshua Micah Marshall’s New Yorker essay on how Gen. Howe’s brother tried to contact the American commander-in-chief:
[Adm. Lord Richard Howe] dispatched a young lieutenant, Philip Brown, with a letter addressed to “George Washington, Esq.” Brown arrived on Manhattan Island under a flag of truce, and on the shore to meet him were three of Washington’s most trusted officers. Hearing that he had brought a letter from “Lord Howe to Mr. Washington,” they rebuffed him, declaring that there was “no person in our army with that address.” Three days later, Howe’s emissary returned with a new copy of the letter—this one addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”—only to receive the same rebuff.

Finally, Howe sent to inquire whether General Washington would agree to receive a new emissary, Lieutenant Colonel James Paterson. The emissary was escorted to Washington’s headquarters, at No. 1 Broadway, for an “interview” conducted with all the crisp formality of eighteenth-century military life. After an exchange of pleasantries, Paterson placed on the table before Washington the same letter that his men had rejected only days earlier. Washington refused to acknowledge it. Hoping to move the conversation along, Paterson pointed out that the “etc., etc.” implied everything that might follow. Yes, it does, Washington replied, “and anything.”

From there the meeting swiftly reached an impasse.
If Newell and the selectmen had passed on Gen. Howe’s remarks to Washington—and they certainly spoke with him—then he might have been prepared for that later confrontation. He knew that the admiral’s brother saw meaning in titles and honorifics, “however insignificant.” And he had practice in refusing letters.

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