The Patriot: John Eager Howard (Book Review)

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“Remember Howard’s warlike thrust…” 

— from “Maryland, My Maryland,” (State’s Anthem) by James Ryder Randall

John Eager Howard (1752-1827) was one of Maryland’s finest sons. He was a distinguished infantry officer in the Revolutionary War from the summer of 1776, until 1781. Later, he got involved in politics, serving as governor of Maryland, a state senator, and finally, in the U.S. Senate.

When you enter the harbor of Baltimore, his namesake, Fort Howard, now defunct, will be found to the starboard side of your vessel. In addition, one of the major streets in downtown Baltimore City is named for him, as is one of Maryland’s 23 counties. [1] Yet, Howard’s intrepid military exploits haven’t been chronicled in a book, until now.

Thanks to authors, Jim Piecuch and John Beakes, Howard comes alive again in a military biography worthy of such a legend.  Its title is: “Cool Deliberate Courage; John Eager Howard in the American Revolution.” Well written and fully documented, the book is 164 pages long. Focused on Howard’s career in the military, the authors, with a wide brush, also retell the story of that war, whose victory by the gallant rebels over the then-mighty British Imperial War Machine helped to establish the American Republic.

I think Marylanders, especially, are going to love this tome. Why? Because so many of Howard’s daring comrades in arms were Marylanders, too, such as Col. Otho Holland Williams; Gen. Mordecai Gist (a cousin of Howard’s); Captain William Smallwood, (whose now-defunct namesake fort is found opposite Fort Howard); Captain Daniel Dorsey; Col. Moses Hazen; Brig. Gen. Rezin Beall; Col. Josias Carvil Hall; Major John Cradock (a boyhood friend); and Gen. Samuel Smith. Their roles, as part of the fabled “Maryland Line” in the Revolutionary War, are intertwined and recounted, to some extent, with Howard’s riveting personal story.

It’s Gen. Samuel Smith’s statue which sits today on top of Federal Hill overlooking Baltimore’s celebrated Inner Harbor. A mile or so away, a splendid equestrian monument to Col. Howard can be found in the northern quadrant of Mt. Vernon Square, at the intersection on Charles and Madison Streets.

Although, Col. Howard was born in Baltimore County, at the family’s large farm at “Garrison Forest,” about 10 miles northwest of Baltimore City, he lived most of his life in the city, at his estate, “Belvidere,” located at what is now the intersection of Calvert and Chase Streets. It was Col. Howard who contributed the land for Mt. Vernon Square, mentioned above, where the first large-scale monument to George Washington was erected in this country.

After the war, Col. Howard used some of his private resources to assist “needy veterans.” He also “either sold at a reduced price or gave real estate” for the building of the Rome Catholic “Basilica of the Assumption,” which was later established at the N/W corner of Cathedral and Mulberry Streets. (Yours truly attended high school, 1951-55, directly across the street at Calvert Hall.)

At age 24, then Captain Howard, first saw action with the Continental Army on October 28, 1776, near White Plains, New York, at “Chatterton’s Hill,” when his company helped “to cover [Gen. William] Smallwood’s retreat.” He also participated, on Oct. 4, 1777, in the “Battle at Germantown,” north of Philadelphia. There, the authors report that Howard “led his troops in a successful attack and kept them in order during the subsequent retreat.”

With respect to the “Battle of Monmouth” in New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, his unit, the “Maryland 4th,” on Gen. George Washington’s orders, took up a “defensive position,” as the Americans chased the arrogant Brits out of New Jersey.

It is in the “Southern Campaign,” particularly in the Loyalist-infested Carolinas, (1778-81), where Howard came of age as a military leader and forged his reputation. This campaign was directed successfully by the Major-General from Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene.  At almost every turn, although suffering a “tactical defeat” here and there, Green emerged with a “strategic victory,” which eventually led to his opponent General Charles Cornwallis surrendering of his army to General Washington and to our steadfast French allies, at Yorktown, VA, on Oct. 19, 1781.

Meanwhile, the then Lt. Col. Howard was in the thick of the battles at Camden, Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, and Eutaw Springs.  It was at Eutaw Spring, on Sept. 8, 1781, where he was seriously wounded. Howard took a debilitating shot to his left shoulder, which also “broke his collar bone.” The authors cover each of these intense battles in great detail, literally, putting you with the brave Howard in the line of the Redcoats’ fire.

However, the battle, that is forever connected to Col. Howard’s persona is “Cowpens,” located in present-day South Carolina, near its border with North Carolina.  In charge was Daniel Morgan, Brigadier-General, one of the heroes of the “Battle of Saratoga.” He was larger than life figure and a quintessential rebel.  Morgan had “an enduring hatred of the British,” the authors explain. As a young man, in 1755, he served as a “waggoner” on General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated expedition to Fort Duquesne. Morgan struck a British officer and received “several hundred lashes as punishment.” It was always pay-back-the-Brits time for Morgan.

Cutting to the chase, Cornwallis targeted Morgan and sent 1,100 of his elite troops, led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, to finish him off, on Jan. 17, 1781. Morgan had about 1,000 troops, which included militia and Continentals alike. Historically, the Americans did not do well when charged by British troops with fixed bayonets. They did much better, however, when they could use the forest as protection and exercise their often lethal sharp shooting skills against the enemy. “Cowpens,” because of its terrain, with the Broad River at its back, required a new strategy.

The authors said: “Morgan decided to form his army in three lines. The furthest in advance, a screen of militia sharpshooters…The militia in the second line…would fire two or three volleys…then withdraw… finding safety behind the Continentals…The Continentals [with Lt. Col. Howard] posted on the highest ground…would then face the ‘weakened’ British forces, with [Col. William] Washington’s cavalry…” ready to assist with his men and the other units, to finish the job off.

One American soldier, at Cowpens, said the Brits advanced on our position, “as if certain of victory.” As planned, the militia fired a volley and then “fell into the rear” of Howard’s right flank. His troops “reestablished their formation as soon as the militia passed.” Tarleton then ordered his “Light Dragoons” to pursue the “fleeing militia,” which they did, “slashing away with their sabers.” But, this is when Tarleton got his first surprise from the rebels. Col. Washington led a fierce “counterattack that forced the British horsemen to withdraw.” At this moment, Howard, with about 350 men, “occupied the center,” of the line, had to face the “bulk of Tarleton force.” When Howard directed some of his men to “reform at a right angle,” it appeared to Tarleton that a “crushing victory was at hand.” His troops “rushed forward,” about 800 of them, right at Howard. It was a moment of truth.

When the Brits got to about “thirty yards of his line,” Howard gave “the order to fire. The results were unexpected and deadly… The British never recovered…a general flight ensued….Spurring his horse forward, Howard rode at the head of his troops among the scattering Highlanders.” As the Continentals “made their countercharge, [Col.] Washington horsemen drove off the British Calvary attempting to outflank the American right.”

As a consequence of the stunning victory at Cowpens, “American morale soared,” and Col. Howard “at last received the well-deserved recognition of his service.” Greene, himself, underscored that Howard “was one of the heroes of the day.”

Finally, when the old warrior John Eager Howard died on Oct. 12, 1827, an obituary appeared in the “Baltimore Gazette.” It rightly said of him: “The example of such a citizen is a legacy to his country, of more worth than the precepts of an age.”


[1]. On North Howard Street in Baltimore City, at 29th Division Street, and just above MLK Blvd., is found the “5th Regiment Armory.” The building was named in honor of “Maryland 5th Regiment,” which was formed by Col. Howard, beginning on Dec. 21, 1781, at Major-General Nathanael Green’s request, who “put him in charge of recruiting troops for a new Continental unit.”