In a way, we have George Washington’s love of riding horses and breeding fox hounds to thank for his iconic role in the American Revolution. More importantly he upheld the standard that, even in wartime, a gentleman’s dog is not to be messed with. One of my favorite books, General Howe’s Dog: George Washington, the Battle of Germantown, and the Dog Who Crossed Enemy Lines, by Caroline Tiger (Chamberlain Bros., 2005) captures a little know act of kindness between opposing generals after a battle.
Homesick for Hounds
From Tiger’s well-written and researched account we learn that in 1775 Washington was homesick for his horses and hounds while a Virginia Delegate at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Away from his stable full of horses and his kennel full of hounds in Mount Vernon, Virginia, he brought one of his favorite hounds, Sweep Lips, to stay with him for comfort. One day as Washington walked Sweet Lips in the city, he came across the wife of Philadelphia’s Mayor Samuel Powell, an influential politician who also loved to fox hunt. After a dinner at the mayor’s home and through an introduction to the Gloucester Hunting Club in nearby New Jersey, Washington met other influential men who eventually secured his appointment as command of the struggling Continental Army. Tiger suggests we should thank Sweet Lips for being a chick magnet on the streets of Philadelphia and as a result securing our independence.
However, freedom didn’t come easy. Commander of the British troops, General William Howe, triumphed over Washington for years in many battles, always seeming to let the General retreat enough to fight another day. During the war, they politely wrote letters to each other complaining about food supply blockades, troop behavior, and burning buildings among other unfair tactics of war. In 1776, after the Delaware River crossing on Christmas morning, followed by victory at the Battle of Trenton against the Hessians, luck was beginning to change for the Continental soldiers. Washington, who likened war to hunting, foolishly galloped to the front lines during this battle and said afterwards, “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys.”
By September 1777, the British had captured Philadelphia, considered the nation’s capital, and encamped their troops northwest of the city in Germantown. Washington attacked in Germantown and nearly defeated Howe, before both sides retreated amidst confusion, fog and intermingling of troops. While Washington’s troops retreated back to their encampment at Pennypacker’s Mill, a fox terrier had joined them. Once discovered, one of Washington’s men read the inscription on the collar only to learn that the small dog belonged to General Howe. In all the confusion of the battle, the dog had followed them for 25 miles back to their camp.
General Howe’s Dog
Washington had to make a decision about this new interloper. According to the rules of military engagement at the time, dogs couldn’t be kept as prisoners of war and a man’s personal property should be returned. What to do? Being a gentleman, and ignoring an officer’s suggestion to make the dog a mascot, the General asked Alexander Hamilton, would who go on to become the first Secretary of the Treasury after serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp, to write a note to Howe.
The note as reproduced in the book reads: “Note to Sir William Howe. General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar, appears to belong to General Howe. October 6th, 1777.”
Tiger goes on to describe the dog’s return via a solider on horseback traveling 25 miles back to Germantown with a white flag in one hand and the little terrier in the other. She speculated that British troops most likely laughed at this solider deep in enemy territory carrying a little dog. One of Howe’s men wrote about the incident later: “The General seemed most pleased at the return of the dog. He took him upon his lap, seemingly uncaring that the mud from the dog’s feet soiled his tunic. Whilst he stroked the dog, he discovered a tightly folded message that had been secreted under the dog’s wide collar. The General read the message, which seemed to have a good effect upon him. Although I know not what is said, it is likely to have been penned by the commander of the rebellion.”
Unfortunately, as with much of history, Tiger tells us there is no record of what that second note tucked into the terrier’s collar might have said or what General Howe wrote back to Washington in return. She does tell us that, “We know that he appreciated the gesture, since later he referred to the incident as ‘an honorable act of a gentleman.’” To learn more about this book and its author visit www.carolinetiger.com.