Robert Howe, Continental army general, was born in 1732 in New Hanover County, the son of Job and Sarah Howe. Local tradition states that Howe was educated in England, although no evidence exists to support the claim. In 1754 he married Sarah Grange, although the two separated in 1772. The number of children that he fathered in the marriage remains open to debate, and Howe was reputed to have been a womanizer.
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Howe inherited a considerable fortune from his parents and grandparents, owning several large plantations in the New Hanover and Bladen counties. He served in several minor public posts in Bladen County, including as a militia captain and magistrate in the 1750s and 1760s. After Brunswick County formed, Howe was elected to the colonial assembly, a post he held for six consecutive terms. He also served as a militia officer for Brunswick County, and commanded Fort Johnston from 1769 to 1773. During the War of the Regulation, Howe commanded that artillery of Governor William Tryon at the Battle of Alamance.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, Howe served as a member of the Wilmington Committee of Safety and led the local militia that took control of Fort Johnston. On September 1, 1775, Howe was appointed colonel of the 2nd North Carolina Continental regiment. He and his regiment served briefly in eastern Virginia, although they did not see combat. In March 1776, Howe and James Moore were promoted to brigadier generals in the Continental line. While he was serving in South Carolina, Howe’s plantations were burned by British troops.
After the death of James Moore in 1777, Howe was appointed to succeed him as commander of the Southern Department and was promoted to major general on October 20, 1777. Francis Nash then took Howe’s position as brigadier. He led an aborted attempt to capture St. Augustine, Florida, in 1778. Howe did not wish to lead the expedition but felt pressure from both South Carolina and Georgia authorities. The acrimony between the civilian leaders and Howe led to a duel with Christopher Gadsen, although neither man was injured. In the fall of 1778, Howe led the defense of Savannah, but was outflanked and forced to surrender the city. He was court-martialed for the loss of the city, but was acquitted “with the Highest Honor.”
In 1779, Howe was ordered to the north, where in June he led a bungled assault on Fort Lafayette at Verplanck’s Point in New York. Howe served the remainder of the war in the north, primarily in the Hudson Valley area. He sat on the court-martial board that convicted British Major John Andre of spying in 1780, and helped quell the mutiny of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Continental lines in 1781.
Howe returned home in 1783 at the war’s end, intent on resuming his life as a planter. In 1786 he was elected to the House of Commons, however he died on December 14, while traveling to the meeting of the body. He was the highest-ranking officer from North Carolina to serve in the American Revolution. According to one tradition, David Walker, an early nineteenth-century black abolitionist who wrote An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, was born in 1796 on a plantation formerly owned by Robert Howe.
William Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 218-219—sketch by Hugh F. Rankin
Joshua Howard and Lawrence Babits, Fortitude and Forbearance: The North Carolina Continental Line in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (2004)
Hugh Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (1971)
William Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, VI-X (1888-1890)
Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina, XI-XXIII (1895-1904)
Major General Robert Howe