Samuel G. Howe in Greece, 1824-1830
Dr. James W. Trent Jr.
Samuel G. Howe was twenty-three years old and a recent graduate of the Harvard Medical School when in November 1824 he left Boston to sail to Greece. Like many Americans of the time, Howe was awe struck by the Greek Revolution that had begun in 1821. Imbued with the time’s Romantic spirit embodied in the exploits of Lord Byron but also filled with a touch of self-doubt, the young physician was ready to become in Greece what he longed to become: an American champion of Greek independence.
Fighting a guerilla war, the Greek rebels had had military success against their Ottoman overlords, but in 1823 a civil war broke out among the Greek factions. Just as those factions were coming to a fragile resolution, Pasha Ibrahim, led forces of Egyptian soldiers into the Morea where they joined with Turkish fighters and caught the Greek forces, already depleted from war, completely off their guard. By the end of May, Navarino and then Tripolitza had fallen to Ibrahim’s onslaught. In June he laid siege to Nauplion. When Howe arrived in Greece in January 1825, he found himself in the midst of what appeared to be a Greek defeat in its quest for independence. Howe witnessed and participated in fierce fighting. He came to admire Greek fighters for both their ferocity and their perseverance.
In March, at Nauplion he wrote to his father, to his college chum William Sampson, and to his benefactor Edward Everett, the chair of the Boston Committee for the Aid of Greece, about the conditions that he found in the country. In the case of the correspondence to his father and Sampson, the letters appeared the following September in the Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot and in the Boston Courier, and began a pattern by his father, Sampson, and eventually by Everett of publishing Howe’s letters in local newspapers. Boston readers hungered for information about happenings in Greece. Before long, newspapers throughout New England and even as far away as Illinois and Virginia were regularly publishing Howe’s letters.1
In August 1825, Greek revolutionary authorities appointed Howe physician to the Greek forces on the island of Crete. Soon after his arrival there, he became pessimistic about the Cretan forces, but he delighted in the medical experiences and skills that he was acquiring. In his journal, he wrote, “During this time I have dressed more difficult wounds than I should have an opportunity of seeing in Boston in years, and performed more operations than might have fallen to my lot during my life had I stayed at home.”2 In November, he left Crete and returned to Nauplion, only to fall sick with typhus. The following November he moved to the island of Hydra to become a naval physician and surgeon on the ship, Karteria. In February 1827, the ship encountered its first enemy fire, and Howe reported that he had killed a Turk. He wrote in his journal that he was not sure whether the killing evoked pleasure or pain.3
During the last six months of 1827, Howe put aside most of his medical practice to distribute food and clothing to the Greek citizenry. At the time, he spoke Greek fluently, and he had come to appreciate the needs of the war-torn Greek people. Of special concern to Howe were women and children affected by years of warfare and general social and economic displacement. On two of the Greek islands, Astros and Poros, the already distraught citizenry was even more distressed by the influx of refugees from recently fallen Athens. To these islands Howe took provisions from the United States that had recently arrived on the Six Brothers ship. Among his concerns was the risk that his supplies might be stolen by pirates who roamed among the Greek islands or taken by Greek officials who would expropriate the provisions for their own use. After July, Howe distributed more provisions that he received from the Philadelphia and Boston Greek Committees to the citizens of the eastern Morea. Again, he was distressed by the suffering of the citizenry.4
On 20 October 1827, after nearly six years of fighting, the war of independence came to an abrupt end as the combined forces of the British, French, and Russian navies destroyed the Egyptian navy at the Battle of Navarino. The next month, with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in Greece, Howe left the country to return to the United States to obtain American supplies and provisions for the newly independent nation. What Greece needed in the postwar years were first daily provisions and then capital to rebuild what in 1827 were utterly destroyed towns, villages, and cities that had not for centuries functioned as a nation.
On 5 February 1828, Howe arrived in New York aboard the Jane. He had with him one of Lord Byron’s helmets and one of the poet’s swords, and letters ready to be sent to Greek committees in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Within a few days of his arrival, the cities had printed circulars distributed throughout their neighborhoods announcing his arrival and describing the dire circumstances of the otherwise victorious Greeks. In the three northeastern cities, the committees went to work using Howe’s celebrity presence, including his firsthand accounts of the war and its aftermath, to generate money and supplies for Greek relief. He gave speeches and talks throughout the Northeast. By the end of May he had raised $50,000, and by the time he left for Greece in September he had raised another $10,000. Besides money, he had managed to persuade women’s groups to donate clothing and shoes and farmers to donate grain and other food provisions. Just as he had used the stage and the platform to revitalize the American public about the plight of the ordinary Greek citizen, so too had he pursued his goal of writing a history of the Greek war. In August 1828, about a month before he left to return to Greece, Howe published An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution.5
In November upon his arrival back to Greece, he began to employ Greek men and women to build an orphanage, and later to construct a functioning harbor at Aegina. In the spring with the harbor repairs completed, the Greek government awarded Howe the Chevalier of the Greek Legion of Honor. (The nickname, “Chev,” that his close Boston friends first gave him and that his wife, Julia Ward Howe, called him throughout their marriage came from this award.)
With the work completed at Aegina, Howe moved his sights to another part of the country where relief was needed. On the Isthmus of Corinth near the town of Hexamilia were people whose houses had been destroyed during the war. There he founded a farm colony, with land given by the new Greek government to the residents in and around Hexamilia. He called the farm colony alternatively Columbia and Washingtonia. In either case, the point of its name was to remind its inhabitants that the source of the seeds for their farm and for the supplies that they received was the American relief committees. In May 1829, there were 150 women and seventy-five men working the land, and there were fifteen newly built houses at the colony. Using funds from the new American Greek committees, he realized his hope for a colony school. In the spring of 1829, Howe established a Lancastrian school. He expressed pleasure at seeing the children come to school to learn their alpha, beta, gammas. As Howe claimed years later, his efforts with the hard-working farm colonists were the happiest time of his life. In June 1830 with his work completed, he left Greece for Paris and then returned to the United States.6 In Greece, Howe learned to champion a gallant cause by doing the challenging and persistent work necessary to achieve social and institutional change. In Greece, he became a hero, a chevalier, but most of all a humanitarian.
1 Samuel Gridley Howe’s letter to his father appeared in Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, 17 September 1825, 1. His letter to William Sampson appeared in the Boston Courier, 14 September 1825, 2. Among letters seen in national newspapers were Providence Gazette, 21 September 1825, 1; Edwardsville [Illinois] Spectator, 22 October 1825 1; and Richmond Enquirer, 22 November 1825, 1.
2Laura E. Richards, ed. Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe – Greek War (Boston: Dana Estes, 1906-1909), 129-30.
3 Ibid., Letters and Journals, 209.
4 James W. Trent Jr. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 38-40.
5 Ibid., 41-43. Samuel G. Howe, An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution (New York: White, Gallaher White, 1828).
6 Trent, The Manliest Man, 43-50.
Howe, Samuel G. An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution. New York: White, Gallaher White, 1828.
Howe. “Condition of the Greeks.” Richmond Enquirer, November 22, 1825.
Howe. “Interesting Letter from Greece.” Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, April 17, 1825.
Howe. “Letter from Greece,” Rhode Island American and Providence Gazette, September 21, 1825.
Howe to Joseph N. Howe. Edwardsville Spectator, October 22, 1825.
Howe to William Sampson. Boston Courier, September 14, 1825.
Richards, Laura E., ed. Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe – Greek War. Boston: Dana Estes, 1906-1909.
Trent, James W., Jr. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.