Portrait of Sir Henry Clinton, by Andrea Soldi, ca. 1762-1765. [1964.70.1]. Courtesy American Museum in Britain, Bath, U.K.The only son of a British Admiral, Sir Henry Clinton was raised in pre-revolutionary America.  His father served as Royal Governor of New York from 1743-1753. Clinton rose steadily through the ranks of the British Army, serving in Germany in the 1760s.  He arrived in Boston in 1775 and commanded troops under Generals Thomas Gage and William Howe at Bunker Hill with some distinction.   He proposed and led the double envelopment plan that routed the Continentals on Long Island in 1776 as General Howe’s second in command.  Clinton became Commander in Chief of the British Army in America in upon Howe’s recall in 1778 and led his forces to victories at Monmouth and Charleston.  Though an able tactician, he had many critics in the British Administration.  His failure to provide timely aid during the doomed Yorktown campaign and led to his resignation in 1781.

Clinton’s father was a largely undistinguished Royal Navy officer of an aristocratic family who lived a relatively full life to age seventy-five, dying when Clinton was thirty-one.  Clinton’s mother was the daughter of a British General who struggled with mental illness as a homemaker.  She died when Clinton was thirty-seven.  In terms of hereditary gifts, despite his lordly beginnings as an only son, Clinton carried the seeds of a wavering and unsteady personality.  

Clinton grew up steeped in the nepotistic world of favor seeking from high hereditary officials from the King on down.  He never had a permanent home as a child and never held a job outside of the Army until he served in Parliament from 1774 to 1784.  His interpersonal and political skills were weak.

Prior to his return to America in 1775, Clinton had seen action as a senior officer in Germany in the 1760s, serving as aide de camp to the Prince of Brunswick from 

1760-62.  He was known ever after as a member of the “German School” of continentally experienced British officers.  Fluent in French, Clinton was the most cerebral of all the British Generals in America.  He kept detailed notes of his years of military reading and was well known for his broad understanding of the political, economic, and geographic context of military policy.   Yet, like a number of other senior British officers, he had never once commanded more than a battalion of men in combat.  His instincts for strategy and tactics nonetheless were excellent, he was consistently brave, but his gravitas was lacking. He was known throughout the service as insightful, but diffident, frequently quarrelsome, impulsive and a loner.  Few subordinates liked working for him.  Still, he held the confidence of King and Cabinet throughout his service in America.

In 1767, Clinton married Harriet Carter, age twenty, a girl of modest means, half his age.  They lived together only five years.  She died tragically in 1772, eight days after the birth of her fifth child.  “Her death was a catastrophe for Clinton,” according to his biographer, William B. Wilcox.1 For upwards of a year he could not work or socialize.   He eventually lived out his life as an unmarried widower.  

Clinton served longer in America than any other British Commander.   From his first days in Boston in 1775 he sensed the war was a profitless enterprise.  He favored a peaceful settlement on almost any terms. He saw war in America for Britain as a business, not a cause.  Instead of taking and holding large rebel cities like New York and later Philadelphia, Clinton believed the decisive point was George Washington himself and the Continental Army, justifying energetic and perhaps costly pursuit.   General Howe could not be convinced of this.  

By late 1776, despite his stellar performance during the New York campaign, Clinton realized his relationship with General Howe had broken down over philosophic and personal differences.  He returned to England determined to resign his commission.  King George offered him a knighthood if he would stay on.  Clinton reluctantly agreed, but upon his return to New York in July 1777, little had changed.  

In almost every military situation he faced from Bunker Hill to the Southern campaigns of 1779-1781, Clinton suggested the right strategic approach to either his superiors, his direct subordinates, and/or his naval counterpart and every time but one (Long Island), they would not follow his advice.  Had General Howe simply followed the original plan for the campaign of 1777 and marched up the Hudson to link up with General John Burgoyne (as Clinton strongly favored) many experts believe the war could have been won.  Howe instead marched on Philadelphia and ultimately was relieved of his command.2  Clinton did lead a smaller force up the Hudson in 1777, but could not break through past Albany in time to relieve Burgoyne.

Upon his promotion to Commander in Chief in May 1778, Clinton found himself matched directly with his temperamental opposite in Washington, a man possessed of almost everything he lacked in personal strengths, even if the Continental Army he commanded was weak.  When France entered the war on the American side in February 1778, Clinton sensed he would never have the men, the ships, or the will to prevail over Washington by force.

In 1779, in alignment with the King’s wishes, Clinton responded to the French challenge by pursuing a Southern strategy that sought to employ modest numbers of British troops in the southern colonies where it was hoped loyalist sympathies ran strongest.  Clinton personally led 8,700 troops in a successful assault on Charleston, South Carolina, resulting in the capture of the city on May 12, 1780.  His forces took over 3,300 continental and militia troops prisoner (including seven generals), the worst Continental Army defeat of the war.  Initial pacification efforts and amnesties seemed to quell rebellion throughout South Carolina, but over-confidence on Clinton’s part led to a final proclamation on June 3 requiring those seeking protection as loyal subjects to take up arms in support of Britain.  This inflamed rebels throughout the colony and led quickly to armed insurrection.  Clinton left South Carolina in June with upheaval spreading and ordered his second in command, Lord Charles Cornwallis, to stay put in South Carolina and attempt to solve the problem.  Cornwallis essentially ignored this directive and began his own overland campaign into the interior of South Carolina and invaded North Carolina in 1781. 

Constantly fearful of an attack by Washington on the weakened garrison at New York (having given up a net 10,000 plus men to other theaters) and harassed by superior numbers of French naval forces off the coast, Clinton was reluctant to dispatch additional troops to Cornwallis in the Carolinas and Virginia in late 1780 and 1781. Relations and communications again frayed between Britain’s top commanders following Clinton’s hesitation to resign as planned after Charleston, resulting in the catastrophe at Yorktown.

Clinton was relieved in 1782, returned to England and spent the rest of his life defending his actions in America.  He died in 1795.

 

Andrew R. Bacas

George Washington University

 

Notes:

1. William B. Wilcox, Portrait of A General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, 1964, 25-29.

2. Wilcox, 15-20, 494.  See also Robert A. Doughty, Ira D. Gruber et. al., Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations From 1600-1871, (Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996), 154.

Bibliography:

Clinton, Sir Henry, Edited by William B. Wilcox, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

Doughty, Robert A., Ira D. Gruber et. al., Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations From 1600-1871, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Ferling, John, The Ascent of George Washington, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009. 

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Wilcox, William B., Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Buy Tickets What to See Calendar Shop Restaurant Donate Membership
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save