In 1732, Robert Howe was born in Brunswick County, North Carolina. He emerged as the colonies’ highest-ranking officer during the Revolutionary War. In November 1786, Howe died at his home in Brunswick County.
His military career began in 1754, when appointed Captain of the Bladen County militia. In 1756, Howe was appointed Justice of the Peace and was elected to represent Bladen County in the General Assembly from 1760 to 1775.
While in the General Assembly, Howe and Royal Governor William Tryon established a friendship. In 1761, Tryon appointed Howe to the Supreme Court for the Wilmington District, and in 1766, to the Court of Exchequer. From 1765 to 1767 and from 1769 to 1773, Howe commanded Fort Johnston. During the 1760s, Governor Tryon called on Howe and his Fort Johnston troops to put down the Regulator Rebellion.
During the 1770s, Royal Governor Josiah Martin and Howe frequently disagreed. In 1771, Martin replaced Governor Tryon and shortly afterward removed Howe from the Court of Exchequer; in 1773, he relinquished Howe of command of Fort Johnston. The attachment clause controversy further divided Howe and Martin. The provincial government deplored the attachment clause, which allowed creditors to “attach property owned in North Carolina by non-residents . . . to satisfy their debts.” Governor Martin supported the decision to remove the clause, but colonial lawmakers were determined to keep the law intact. While leading the movement to keep the attachment clause, Howe associated with the Sons of Liberty and the American struggle for independence.
North Carolina’s General Assembly met in 1773 and established a Committee of Correspondence. Howe was one of nine committee members assigned to investigate Parliamentary Acts that “may relate to or effect the British Colonies in America.” The Committee reported their findings to all colonies and united the fight for America’s freedom.
In 1775, Howe trained the Brunswick County militia, received a colonel’s appointment, and assumed command of the Second North Carolina Continentals. Howe led his 428 officers and men to Norfolk, Virginia to reinforce Colonel William Woodford’s army, then battling Lord Dunmore. He assumed command of the American troops and defeated Lord Dunmore. Although Howe had proved his military prowess, the Second North Carolina Regiment disbanded shortly after the battle in Norfolk.
Afterwards, Howe was appointed military advisor for North Carolina’s Provincial Congress. In 1777, he led North Carolina troops to meet Major General Charles Lee, commander of the Southern Department. Now a major general, Howe was the highest ranking North Carolinian in the Continental Army. When General Lee left the Southern Department, James Moore assumed command. However, in the spring of 1777, Moore was ordered to North Carolina and Howe became Commander of the Southern Department and the highest-ranking officer in the South.
As Commander of the Southern Department, Howe was to defend the southern colonies. In the summer of 1778, Howe led the Continentals to the Georgia-Florida border to attack the British troops at St. Augustine, Florida. Fearing defeat, Howe urged Congress to abandon the campaign. But Congress persisted. After several months of chasing the British, Howe retreated northward. The campaign in Florida was disastrous for Howe. His inability to unify command undermined American ability to win.
Howe’s reputation was tarnished by his defeat in Florida, so he desperately wanted to prove his worth. He led the troops of the Southern Department to defend Savannah, Georgia. Howe lost the city in December 1778, however, after a surprise attack by Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell. Soon after, all of Georgia fell to the British and Howe was relieved as commander of the Southern Department.
Beginning in 1779, Howe served with General George Washington on the Hudson, commanded troops protecting the Connecticut border at Ridgefield, and in 1780, commanded Fort West Point. Although Congress appointed him in 1785 as part of a commission to negotiate the land in Ohio with western Indians, Howe returned to North Carolina, where the General Assembly passed a resolution thanking him for his devotion to the state. In hopes of gaining a state legislative seat, Howe campaigned in Brunswick County, but in November 1786, he suffered a fever and died.
Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major-General Robert Howe and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1991) and Hugh F. Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill, 1971).