N.C.’s Only Major General
North Carolina’s only major general during the American Revolution remains an enigma today. A New England visitor observed of Robert Howe, “’He was formed by nature and his education to shine in the senate and the field… (as) a favorite of the man of sense and the female world.’”1 Born to a plantation owner near Brunswick Town in 1732, he was sent to England for school. After returning, he was elected to the Provincial Assembly. He was also named to the treasury court by the royal governor, so he did not openly oppose the Stamp Act. Howe joined the militia, may have fought in the French and Indian War2, and afterwards was placed in command at Fort Johnston. There he appears to have embezzled some of the fort’s funds to help cover his horse-racing debts.3 Howe was in charge of the artillery for two campaigns against the Regulators, including at the Battle of Alamance. Married in 1754 to Sarah Grange, the marriage fell apart due to his womanizing, and they separated in 1772.
As revolution broke out, he was elected to the Provincial Congress, and helped lead the 1775 attack that burned down Fort Johnston! At a dinner party shortly after, he threatened to tar-and-feather a female Loyalist who embarrassed him.4 The congress gave him command of an N.C. Continental Army regiment. After capturing Norfolk from the Virginia royal governor, he was raised to brigadier general and sent to help Charleston. While there, British troops burned his plantation at Howe’s Point, now part of Sunnyvale Military Reserve near Southport. He wrote, “They have done me the honor to disfurnish my House… of chairs, tables, glasses, china and plate. All they took is suppos’d to amount to £1500…” (around $260,000 today5). He inherited command of the Southern Continental Army and was promoted to major general, but was hampered by southern politicians. Howe was in charge of two failed campaigns against St. Augustine in Florida, ordered against his advice.6 He was relieved of command and transferred north, perhaps due to a romantic affair.7 Before leaving, he lost Savannah to the British in 1778; as in Florida, lack of militia troops played a major role, and Georgia had ignored his advice to fortify. Though court testimony suggested he might have sought revenge, he was cleared of blame.8 Howe demanded a duel with one detractor, grazing the man’s ear.
He fought at the Battle of Stony Point (N.Y.), and commanded both the fort at West Point and the Hudson River spy network. However, some evidence hints that Howe, upset at his treatment, was open to switching sides, as his West Point successor Benedict Arnold did.9 After a 1781 transfer to Gen. George Washington’s army, though, Howe crushed a mutiny by New Jersey soldiers. Post-war he returned to his home and was elected to the General Assembly. But on the way, he died suddenly at a friend’s plantation upriver, at age 54. Buried on Sarah’s family farm a few miles away, his gravesite was lost, and may have washed away into the Cape Fear River.10
- Dacus, Jeff, ‘General Robert Howe’s Alleged Treason’, Journal of the American Revolution, 2017 <https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/10/general-robert-howes-alleged-treason/> [accessed 6 August 2021]
- Lewis, J. D., ‘The Continental Army – Major General Robert Howe’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2009 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/continental_army_robert_howe.html> [accessed 29 July 2021]
- ‘Major General Robert Howe Chapter | Profile’ <https://www.ncdar.org/MajorGeneralRobertHowe_files/html/profile.html> [accessed 29 July 2021]
- Rankin, Hugh F., ‘Howe, Robert’, NCpedia, 1988 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/howe-robert> [accessed 29 July 2021]
- Ranlet, Philip, ‘Loyalty in the Revolutionary War: General Robert Howe of North Carolina’, The Historian, 53.4 (1991), 721–42
- Russell, Phillips, North Carolina in the Revolutionary War (Charlotte, N.C.: Heritage Printers, Inc., 1965)
1 Rankin 1988.
2 Ranlet 1991.
5 Quoted in Dacus 2017; value conversion from Nye, Eric, ‘Currency Converter, Pounds Sterling to Dollars, 1264 to Present’ <https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm>.
6 Advice: Ranlet.
9 A British deserter who later earned praise in the Virginia militia named him, and was supported by another man who spoke with British commander Sir Henry Clinton. Edmund Fanning, a target of the Regulators (see Hillsborough), was said to have mentioned Howe as a possible candidate when later serving as secretary to Royal Gov. William Tryon of New York (formerly of N.C.). See Ranlet (1991) for a full description of the evidence, and Dacus (2017) for an opposing view.
10 Howe Chapter.