Since the 12th, five British ships have been within sight of Manhattan Island. Upon seeing the ships, the American defense fell apart, some soldiers running, others gaping at the British, and few firing pointlessly at their out-of-range ships. Two of the ships entered the Hudson River unchallenged, and conducted a two-hour cannon attack of New York. Washington observed that “the shrieks & cries of these poor creatures running every way with their children was truly distressing.” This was followed by the entrance of the British man-of-war, the sixty-four gun HM Eagle, carrying none other than Admiral Lord Howe. The two Howe brothers had now arrived.
However, they had come with the power not only to engage in war, but to offer peace. It was still the hope of the British that the Americans would see the error of their ways, especially when they saw all of the ships with the armaments aimed directly at them.
On the 14th, a small boat under white flag was sent by Lord Howe to offer terms of peace. Philip Brown was in the boat and he carried a letter from Lord Howe to “George Washington, Esqr, New York.” Three Continental Army Officers (Henry Knox, Joseph Reed, and Samuel Webb) met with Brown, who, as Knox recalled, rose up, bowed, and said “I have a letter, sir, from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.” Colonel Reed understood well the importance of the designation of “Mr. Washington,” as opposed to his official title as General of the Continental Army. “Sir, Colonel Reed replied, “we have no person in our army with that address.” Perplexed, Brown pulled the envelope out again, showed it to him, and said, “Sir, will you look at the address?” Reed responded, “No, sir, I cannot receive that letter.” Replied Brown, “I am very sorry, and so will be Lord Howe, that any error in the superscription should prevent the letter being received by General Washington.” Colonel Reed said, “You are sensible, sir, of the rank of General Washington in our army?” Brown replied, “Yes, sir, we are. I am sure my Lord Howe will lament exceedingly this affair, as the letter is quite of a civil nature, and not a military one. He laments exceedingly that he was not here a little sooner.” By which Brown was saying that had he gotten there before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps that lamentable action could have been avoided.
Washington himself had no deep concern over refusing the overture, although he wrote to John Hancock on this day that “I would not upon any occasion sacrifice essentials to punctilio, but in this instance…I deemed it a duty to my country and my appointment to insist upon that respect which in any other than a public view would willingly have waived.” Nonetheless, at this point Washington was no longer looking toward reconciliation, and he saw British peace overtures as merely attempts “to distract, divide, & create as much confusion as possible.” Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, was disgusted by the American action. “So high is the vanity and the insolence of these men…There now seems no alternative but war and bloodshed, which must lay at the door of these unhappy people. They pretend (or rather have pretended) to seek peace, and yet renounce it. The faction have thrown aside all appearances at length, and declare openly for Independence & War.”
Washington believed, correctly, that the only offer Howe was permitted to make would be one of pardon. Washington, however, sought no pardon, either for himself or his people. In his eyes, they had done nothing wrong that admitted of a pardon.
Join us at Bow Tie Tours for Philadelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Enjoy our four-hour Independence Tour Extravaganza, which includes tickets to Independence Hall. For those true history fans, contact us about our American Revolution Vacation Packages, which includes a Washington Tour. (You may also wish to hear our current podcast, Washington 101). Civil War buffs will want to join us on our Gettysburg tour.