Historians have often found striking similarities between Howe and Washington, especially during the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777 when they shared a gentleman’s regard for one another as commanders in chief.
The two generals both served in the French & Indian War (1754-1763), also known as the Seven Years war, which pitted the colonies under British rule against those of New France. That meant that the young George Washington essentially fought as an equal with Howe, even though the British were known to look down on the Americans.
The next time the two men met, they were on opposite sides of a war and fighting for control in what was known as the Patriot siege of Boston including the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17th, 1777.
Personally, the two men shared common interests despite their vastly different upbringings.
Howe was born into an aristocratic family in Plymouth, England, in 1732 – three years after Washington – but had the kind of wealthy upbringing that the young George might have envied, according to Caroline Tiger, author of General Howe’s Dog. Tiger writes that Washington did not admire anyone’s wealth so much as have a striving for the gentleman’s lifestyle. The young George was only 11 when his father died and he left home and went to work as a surveyor at the age of 16, the same year he embarked on a self-guided course of study in decorum and social manners.
At the time of the Battle of Brandywine, Washington and Howe shared a slew of common interests such as horsemanship, fox hunting, raising hounds, gambling, and attending social functions. They also married relatively late in life and their wives had no children.
Still, it may of their backgrounds serving in the French & Indian War that led them to have similar world views, especially when it came to understanding the terrors of war and a disdain for military bureaucracy. Even Howe’s victories over Washington in the New York and Pennsylvania Campaigns of 1777 did not prevent Howe from being chastised for his lack of follow-through after the British occupation of the colonial capital of Philadelphia famously went nowhere.
After nearly nine months of struggling with inadequate supply lines, bored and restless troops, not to mention the pending arrival of the French Navy on the East Coast, Howe was forced to vacate the city by June of 1778.
That April, Howe’s letter of resignation was finally accepted in London and a new British commander-in-chief was named. Howe had sent the letter a month after his victory in September at the Battle of Brandywine, but his complaint that he had been inadequately supported in the campaigns of 1777 fell on deaf ears. In contrast, Howe’s military success in 1776 prompted the King of England to knight the general as “Sir” William Howe.
In recent years, historians have examined Howe’s true motives and have said that Howe sympathized with what he perceived to be the average everyman, the “humble” colonist and “his demands for equal rights.” As Tiger puts it, “As much as [Howe] believed in the monarchy, he also believed in the rights of the individual.”