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A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution.

Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon have filled a noticeable void in Revolutionary history with the first full biographical treatment of Robert Howe, North Carolina's highest ranking Revolutionary officer and, at the war's end, the seventh in seniority among the major generals of the Continental Army. Although hampered by the absence of a corpus of Howe's personal papers, the authors by dint of wide-ranging research uncovered scattered Howe correspondence which they successfully combined with voluminous government records. The result is a fairly traditional biography that explores not only the life but the times of Major General Howe, integrating him well into the pre-revolutionary struggle in North Carolina and the subsequent war effort in the Southern Department and New York.

Scion of a wealthy South Carolina family that helped to settle the Lower Cape Fear region in North Carolina, Howe emerges as a gentleman and sophisticate who devoted his life to public service in a quest for fame and glory. Admittedly Howe was a libertine, whose dalliances caused embarrassments, including, no doubt, the legal separation from his wife. However, the authors believe that Howe's positive attributes far outweighed his character flaws. He was an energetic and effective legislator in North Carolina before the Revolution; his military reputation, contend the authors, has overshadowed his contributions as a statesman. Howe was in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement in North Carolina, clashing with royal Governor Josiah Martin - as a principled patriot, not, as often asserted, because the governor had deprived Howe of his command of Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River and his office as Baron of the Court of Exchequer in North Carolina.

The Revolution offered Howe an opportunity to quench his thirst for fame, though his ambition and command were always tempered by a respect for the Whig principle of civilian control of the military. Howe sacrificed his effectiveness on occasion in order to assuage state and national politicians. Bennett and Lennon follow Howe from his commission in the Continental Army to his assumption in 1777 of the command of the Southern Department, a thankless theatre of action that proved "a graveyard of American generals" (p. 154). Howe lost Savannah and Georgia to the invading British in 1778, but managed to escape, and was reassigned in 1780 to the command of the Hudson River Highlands, where he spent much of the remainder of the war. After the Georgia debacle and a subsequent court-martial for the loss of Savannah in which Howe, according to the authors, was very properly acquitted with highest honors, the North Carolinian retained the confidence of George Washington, who placed Howe in charge of West Point, appointed him to preside over various court-martials (Benedict Arnold and Alexander McDougall), and enlisted Howe's help to quell a mutiny by New Jersey troops in 1781. Howe reluctantly resigned his commission at war's end to return to his plantation in North Carolina, where he was elected to the state's General Assembly in 1786, but died before he could be seated.

A Quest for Glory is a most flattering portrait of Howe, and probably should be considered in conjunction with Philip Ranlet's "Loyalty in the Revolutionary War: General Robert Howe of North Carolina" (The Historian, 53 [Summer 1991], 721-742), which treats Howe much less sympathetically. Ranlet contends that Howe embezzled public funds while commander of Fort Johnston, a matter that Bennett and Lennon fail to mention; believes that the decision in Howe's court-martial for mishandling Savannah was wrong; and makes a strong circumstantial case for Howe's offering his services to the British by 1780 (which offer Howe wisely reconsidered after the Benedict Arnold affair), a charge that Bennett and Lennon lightly dismiss.

Despite expected scholarly disagreements, Bennett and Lennon have produced a reasoned and thoughtful biography of one who played a key role in instigating the Revolution in North Carolina and in securing independence for the states, though he was unsuccessful in his quest for glory.
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Author:Watson, Alan D.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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