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Mars and Fortuna

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution. By Troyer S. Anderson. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.50. Lafayette, a Life, By Andreas Latzko. Translated by E. W. Dickes. New York: Double-day, Doran, and Company. $3.00. Rochambeau, Father and Son: a Life of tht Marichal de Rochambeau and The Journal of the Vicomtc de Rochambeau. By Jean-Edmond Weelen. Translated by Lawrence Lee. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00.

It would be pleasant to think of the war for American independence as a great, spontaneous undertaking in which our brave ancestors rose up as one man and through sheer courage overwhelmed the vastly superior British forces. But there are no revolutions of that brand; they are all ugly, disagreeable affairs. That minority of grim, determined men who led the rebellion did indeed have almost insurmountable obstacles to overcome, and yet there were momentous factors which favored them. There has been no period since the Revolution—except perhaps near that end of the World War—when we could have broken away so easily from England. Irish patriots, too, have been willing to die for liberty, but they were not able to break away in centuries of trying. It is amusing to think of the luck which led our ancestors to hit on the one time in two hundred years which afforded the greatest chance of success. England was all but bankrupt after the Seven Years’ War, her inhabitants rioting, her Ministry weak and divided, Ireland in rebellion, her two great parties split into factions, her colonial policy wavering and changing with each change in ministry. Her confusion was the rebels’ salvation. They were fortunate, too, in the men selected to crush the rebellion: General Sir William Howe at the head of the army, his brother Admiral Lord Richard in command of the navy.

It has long been a baffling question as to whether they deliberately refused to conquer the haggard, tattered horde which Washington was forced to refer to as an army. In “The Command of the Howe Brothers During the Revolution,” Troyer S. Anderson does his best to justify their actions, but it is not enough to rehabilitate their military reputations. He plunges into the middle of the story, telling nothing of what went before and nothing of what followed, and ignores altogether the personal side of the British officers. Their father was an Irish viscount, their mother the illegitimate daughter of George I. They were, therefore, cousins to the King—one reason, perhaps, why they dared flout his orders with impunity. Both were members of Parliament and both were ardent Whigs. Sir William had been elected from Nottingham on the understanding that he would not fight the Americans; he had said much to his constituents about the righteousness of the rebels’ cause. The Revolution was looked on in England as a civil war, and the Whigs honestly believed that if the colonists lost their fight, they themselves would lose their own constitutional liberties. Officers in every grade flatly refused to serve against the Americans, some throwing up their commissions, others retiring on half-pay. Vice-Admiral Keppel, who of the naval officers probably stood highest in public esteem, declined to serve “in line of America.” Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who formerly commanded in America, likewise declined to lead the forces against the rebels, saying he could not bring himself to fight against the colonists who had fought so well under him. It was natural that the choice should then fall on General Howe, who had a distinguished record in the field. “Is it a request or a command?” he asked, when the appointment reached him. He was told that it was a command. This meant that as a soldier he was forced to a line of action which as a good Whig and member of Parliament he opposed.

It was inevitable that these conflicting roles should affect his conduct. He and his brother the Admiral were sent with the sword in one hand and the olive branch in the other. They looked upon themselves as peace commissioners, coming out in British warships which they rechristened with such unwarlike names as the Good Intent, the Amity, the Friendly Admonition, the Father’s Goodwill. But it was now too late to conciliate the rebels. Yet it would have been an easy matter to crush the tatterdemalions whom Washington was patiently trying to coax into discipline. For the rebels did not flock to the rebel standard; a long journey into Maryland was productive of only one recruit. On one occasion the men of a regiment expressed their disapproval of their colonel by throwing him over a fence. Both officers and men felt at liberty to leave whenever they became dissatisfied. They not only left, but there was no article of the scant public stores which they did not take with them, one deserter having been caught carrying off a cannon ball as a present for his mother to use in pounding her mustard! Washington fought his greatest battles with his own countrymen, with the evils of short enlistments, the envy of politicians, the greed of traders, not with General Howe.

Sir William certainly had no heart for exchanging shots with those whom he considered his injured, rather than sinning, fellow-countrymen. When he evacuated Boston, he left them two hundred cannon and such a vast store of military supplies as they were not to see again until the French came to their aid two years later. He appeared to keep ft close and loving eye on his enemy, always giving them ample time to recruit their full strength, always breaking up his own fine force into stationary and isolated fragments. One British wag suggested that he be elevated to the peerage under the title Lord Delay Warr. The three winters he spent in quelling the rebellion were passed by him in great comfort in the three principal cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Perhaps it would have been Charleston’s turn next. When summer came, he went through the form of a little fighting, and then hastened back to his Mrs. Lorimer, his cards, and his wine.

This penchant for the flesh-pots, as well as his Whiggish reluctance to fight the war for Lord North’s Tory Ministry, cannot be overlooked in its bearing on the campaign. If one discounts its importance, try to imagine Washington—who during his seven years of march and bivouacs, visited his beloved Mount Vernon only once and that on the way to York-town—heading for a congenial winter resort from which nothing could move him until summer. Picture him sitting late at the faro table, looking often on the wine when it was red, and dallying with a “sultana” instead of starving and freezing with his pinched, famished soldiers at Valley Forge. Sir William’s personal courage was never questioned, for long before he left every one of his subordinate officers lying with their faces to the daisies on Bunker Hill, he had proved himself a brave soldier and an able commander. And Lord Richard had for more than twenty years always been found where his country needed him most. There is, of course, no evidence of definite collusion between the Howe brothers. But certain it is that Lord Richard, the erstwhile resourceful Admiral, whose eighty-one ships would have been enough to stretch from Boston to Charleston and still keep within sight of each other, now acted with as much slowness and caution as though the little rebel fleet outnumbered him ten to one. And certain, too, that Sir William, who in other days had led in person the forlorn hope up the narrow pass at Quebec, now made mistakes of which any sergeant would be ashamed, and the last gunpowder he smelled in America was that of the fireworks at his gay farewell Meschianza, Despite Mr. Anderson’s able defense, we are forced to agree with “Old Put,” the wolf-hunter, who faced Sir William behind the rail-fence at Bunker Hill that day: “He’s either our friend or he ain’t no general.”

It did not break France’s heart to find her neighbor across the Channel in such a predicament. Ever since England had stripped her of Canada thirteen years earlier, she had been biding her time. While the French government cared nothing about the liberty of Americans except as a means of humbling and enfeebling England, there was a young musketeer in the household of Louis XVI who did. Biographies of him spring perennially from the ink-horn, but rarely has one been written in such distinguished style as Andreas Latzko’s “Lafayette, a Life,” the charm and trans-lucence of which is retained in the translation by E. W. Dickes of the Manchester Guardian. It is truly an international biography: an Englishman translates an Austrian’s story of a Frenchman whose reputation was built in Amer- ica. Although Lafayette lived to command the National Guard in the French Revolution of 1830, he reached the zenith of his career in America nearly fifty years before. For the Continental Congress, overawed by his noble lineage and his fat money-bags, stultified itself by making the awk- ward, red-headed adolescent a major-general in its republican army. It was natural that the language of the louis d’or should speak toCongress in its time of need; but Mr. Latzko thinks it highly significant that the service of the young millionaire who came to fight against obsolete notions of aristocratic regimes was accepted by the Congress, supposed by Lafayette to be so democratic, purely because of his illustri- ( ous connections in France.

The young marquis was a valuable asset to the American cause, but that his reputation has overshadowed that of the commander-in-chief of the French forces, Comte de Rochambeau, the last of the King’s marshals, is a grave historical injustice. Napoleon made no such mistake. He jeered at Lafayette’s soldiering; but long after the Revolution, when | receiving Rochambeau in the presence of his staff officers among whom was a former aide-de-camp of the Marshal, he pointed to them, exclaiming, “General, here are your pupils!” Rochambeau, unlike Lafayette, was a seasoned soldier of fifty-five when he came to America, a lieutenant-general, the veteran of many campaigns. Lawrence Lee’s translation of Jean-Edmond Weelen’s life of the Marshal, to which is appended a journal of the war in America by his son the young Vicomte, does something to atone for the ungrateful oblivion into which we have permitted his name to fall. Further absolution would be gained by the translation of the great French soldier’s “Memoires Militaires, Histor-iques et Politiques.” For it was he who planned the York-town campaign. Defeating Cornwallis was a simple problem compared to the strategy which Rochambeau had to employ in bringing Washington over to his scheme and in inducing the commander of the French fleet to see it through. Washington was bent on an attack on New York, and Roch-ambeau’s instructions not only placed him under orders of the American general but directed his attention to the same objective. When he learned that Admiral deGrasse had accepted his suggestion to sail for the Chesapeake rather than the Hudson, Rochambeau made dispositions which convinced the British that New York was to be attacked, proposed that Washington command the Virginia campaign, and turned southward to meet Cornwallis.

With tie victory at Yorktown, the amazing struggle for American independence had been won, despite the indifference of the masses and the greed of many of its leaders, primarily through the contributions of three generals: George Washington, Sir William Howe, and the Comte de Rochambeau. But for them the Fathers, instead of founding our Republic, would have been lined up, listening with hard, uneasy faces to the penalty for treason.


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