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Philhellene Samuel Gridley Howe in the Greek War of Independence

Samuel Gridley Howe
The prominent American surgeon and abolitionist Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe because known as “The American Lafayette” for his service during the Greek War of Independence. Credit: Public Domain

In this year of the Bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence, the stories of many notable philhellenes are being told. One of the most prominent philhellenes of all was the influential American educator Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who revealed to the world the many horrors that took place during the War against the Ottoman Empire in his letters to the American people.

Many are aware of the crucial role that Dr. Howe played during the American assistance to the Greek War of Independence. However, the story bears repeating for another generation.

Dr. Howe, who was born into a prominent Boston family on November 10, 1801, attended the city’s elite Boston Latin School, becoming a physician after his graduation from Harvard Medical School. His grandfather, Edward Compton Howe, was known to have been one of the “Indians” at the Boston Tea Party during the American Revolution.


As a well-educated man of the nineteenth century, he was well-versed in the Greek language and in the history of Ancient Greece.

Later adopting two boys who had been made fatherless in the Greek War of Independence, he made caring for Greece and her people part of the very fabric of his life.

In 1824, just after Howe had earned his medical degree, he became enamored of the Greeks’ fight against their Ottoman oppressors during the Greek Revolution, inspired perhaps by the Romantic poet hero, his idol Lord Byron.

Samuel Gridley Howe as a Greek warrior
Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, portrayed as a Greek by the man who became his father-in-law, John Elliot. 1821-1840 Medium: Oil on canvas. Public Domain

“The Lafayette of the Greek Revolution”

Howe, fleeing what his compatriots said was the memory of an unhappy love affair, sailed for Greece, where he joined the Greek Army as a surgeon.

Once in Greece, however, his services were not confined to surgery. Fighting for the Greek cause was so much a part of him that his bravery, enthusiasm, and ability as a commander — as well as his humanity — soon won him the title “the Lafayette of the Greek Revolution.”

After engaging in many campaigns, Howe returned to the United States in 1827 in order to raise funds and supplies to help alleviate the desperate famine and widespread suffering in Greece that had been brought about by the War.

Howe’s heartfelt appeals, both in the form of letters and speeches he gave to groups, enabled him to collect about $60,000 which he spent on provisions, clothing, and the establishment of a relief depot for refugees near Aegina.

Howe raises much-needed funds for Greek War of Independence effort

This princely sum would amount to $15,090,000.00 in today’s money. But just as importantly as his work in raising monies for the heroic Greeks, tending to the suffering Greek people and writing eyewitness accounts published throughout the world at the time helped inspire other philhellenes to assist the cause.

Howe even formed another colony for exiles on the Isthmus of Corinth. After the War of Independence was won, Howe wrote an account of the revolt, called “Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution,” which was published in 1828.

Howe brought a number of Greek refugee children back with him to the United States — many of them not true orphans but who had been made fatherless by the War.

The Revolutionary-era orphans who came over to America during the years 1821-1829 almost always found homes with very prominent figures from American political life, including William Cullen Bryant along with Howe.

They received first-rate educations, including in the Greek classics, at prep schools such as Phillips Andover Academy, and later attended Harvard and other Ivy League universities.

At least one of this group, Dr. Evangelinos Sophocles, went on to become a venerable — and fearsome — professor at Harvard University. This brilliant man wrote the first (and to this date, the only) complete bilingual English/Byzantine Greek dictionary in the world.

Two of his own adoptive Greek children who rose to prominence in America were abolitionist and women’s rights activist John Celivergos Zachos and Christophoros P. Kastanes, also known as “Castanis.”

Kastanes was one of the children who survived the atrocity of the Chios massacre, which occurred in 1822. After being spirited away to the rarefied atmosphere of Boston society, he thrived and succeeded in his studies.

In 1851, Castanis wrote a book on his incredible life, called “The Greek Exile, Or a Narrative of the Captivity and Escape of Christophorus Plato Castanis.” Both his adoptive father Dr. Howe and his Greek brother, John Celivergos Zachos, were mentioned in the book.

Howe founds first school for the Blind in America

A polymath possessing nearly innumerable talents, Howe went on to found the Perkins School for the Blind, the first school for blind people in the United States. He came to devote his entire life to the disadvantaged and downtrodden, becoming a fierce abolitionist as well.

In 1837, Howe brought Laura Bridgman, a young deaf-blind girl, to Perkins, and taught her himself how to read and write. She became famous as the first known deaf-blind person to be successfully educated in the United States and later became a teacher at the school.

Howe, ever the Renaissance man, originated many improvements in teaching methods, as well as in the process of printing books in Braille. Besides acting as superintendent of the Perkins Institution to the end of his life, he was instrumental in establishing numerous institutions of a similar type throughout the country.

Wife Julia Ward Howe writes “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

On April 23, 1843, at the age of 41, Howe married the much younger Julia Ward, the daughter of wealthy New York banker Samuel Ward and Julia Rush Ward. Like Samuel, Julia was an ardent supporter of abolitionism and was later active in the cause of female Suffrage.

A polymath herself, she composed America’s iconic hymn the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the American Civil War.

Samuel and Julia’s oldest child, Julia Romana Howe, who lived from 1844 to 1886, married Michael Anagnos, a Greek scholar who succeeded Howe as director of the Perkins Institute.

Courageous abolitionist acts on behalf of enslaved Americans

In 1863, Howe was one of three men appointed by the Secretary of War to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, to investigate conditions of freedmen in the South since the Emancipation Proclamation and recommend how they could be aided in their transition to freedom.

In another of his many courageous exploits, Howe rescued an escaped slave, in clear violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, in October 1854, with the help of Capt. Austin Bearse and his brother.

The escaped slave, who had entered Boston Harbor from Jacksonville, Florida as a stowaway aboard the brig Cameo, lived the rest of his life in freedom.

Aided Cretans during Cretan Revolution in 1866

Howe made one last trip to his beloved Greece in 1866, in order to deliver relief to the Cretan refugees during the Cretan Revolution.

Brown University raised a flagpole and a monument dedicated to the philhellene Howe in 1935.

Newspaper accounts indicate over 3,000 attendees were present at that time.

Monument to Samuel Gridley Howe
Photo courtesy AHEPA

Many of Dr. Howe’s accounts that were published in the American press of the 1820s, relating the stories of the battles — and the many horrors and atrocities —  that had occurred during the War, are still remembered today.

“Greeks are led to worse than slavery and death”

The following account, written by Dr. Howe, first appeared in American newspapers, with the following notation above it, on August 29, 1826.


The annexed letter by Dr. Howe was received by a late arrival. Though it gives no late or encouraging information, it will be read with some interest by the friends of Greece.

Napoli April 30, 1826

“Dear Sir — I write you with an almost breaking heart. Missolonghi has fallen!

“Her brave warriors have thrown themselves in desperation upon the bayonets of their enemies— her women and children have perished in the flames of their own dwellings, kindled by their own hands, and their scorched and mangled carcasses lie a damning proof of the selfish indifference of Christian world.

“Christian, do I say? Alas! I fear Christianity has fled from the world. You send missionaries to the east and to the west and from pole to pole, millions are annually paid … of over endowed institutions, while the poor Greeks are left to worse than slavery and death.

“For ten months have the eyes of Christian Europe been turning upon Missolonghi; they have seen her inhabitants struggling at enormous odds against the Horrors of war and famine; her men worn out, bleeding and dying; her women gnawing the bones of dead horses and mules; her walls surrounded … yelling for the blood of her warriors, and to glut their hellish lusts upon her women and children.

“All this they have seen and not raised a finger for her defence, and at last they have seen the catastrophe. You may talk to me of national policy and the necessity of neutrality but l say a curse upon such policy… it is contrary to Christianity and humanity; it is a disgrace to our age, that two millions of Christians should be left to the Sabre and yoke of the Turk.

“Pardon me, Perhaps my language is too strong— but when I think of Missolonghi, when I think of the protracted sufferings of her inhabitants, many of whom I Knew, I cannot restrain my feelings………………………..

“Greece is in imminent danger, but I do not yet despair; if she falls be assured it will not be without a struggle, I shall have an opportunity of writing you again in a few days and then can give you a more correct opinion on the probability or improbability of her success.

Till then, adieu

S.G. Howe”

Dr. Samuel Ward Howe, noted philhellene and abolitionist, and a man whose generosity of spirit knew no bounds, passed away on January 9, 1876.

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