In the wake of its humiliation in the colonies, the British government found a ready scapegoat in General Sir Henry Clinton—but did he deserve the blame?
On Sept. 15, 1776, five warships of the British Royal Navy anchored in the East River opened fire on American positions surrounding Kips Bay, a cove on the eastern shore of Manhattan. The ferocious bombardment prompted many of the inexperienced militiamen to flee. British troops then mounted an amphibious assault, routing the remaining defenders, nearly capturing General George Washington and winning New York City—albeit only temporarily—for King George III.
The British victory at Kips Bay was largely the work of then 46-year-old Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton, an experienced and capable officer who had spent several years in New York as a young man and who had seen extensive combat in Europe during the 1756–63 Seven Years’ War. Assigned to North America in May 1775, Clinton quickly proved himself less hide bound and more innovative than General Sir William Howe, commander of all British forces on the continent. Appointed to replace Howe in 1778, Clinton—by then a knight of the Bath—seemed the one man who might keep America British, an opinion shared by observers on both sides of the war. Yet a scant four years later the once esteemed Clinton was widely pilloried as the man responsible for Britain’s defeat at the hands of the upstart Americans.
Born circa 1730, possibly in Newfoundland, Clinton was the son of Royal Navy Admiral George Clinton, who served as colonial governor of New York from 1743 to 1753. Young Clinton’s first military assignment was with a locally raised militia company, but he soon departed for England and ultimately obtained a captain’s commission in one of the regular army’s prestigious foot guards regiments. He first saw action during the Seven Years’ War, and his steady rise through the ranks was a credit to both his acknowledged tactical skills and his political connections.
Clinton was a gifted and successful soldier who anticipated the retrospective criticism of every modern armchair general in his brilliant critiques of Howe, his commander in America. Clinton had advised against a daylight frontal assault at the June 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill and had suggested British forces fortify Dorchester Heights before Washington and his forces could. Howe’s adoption of Clinton’s plan of attack at the Battle of Long Island helped secure one of the most successful British victories in the Revolutionary War.
Although Clinton’s first independent campaign—in South Carolina in the summer of 1776—was a fiasco, he quickly recovered with his command of the Kips Bay assault. Clinton considered Howe too timid and advocated a bolder strategy against Manhattan —a landing north of King’s Bridge to cut off Washington’s retreat across the Harlem River. Clinton had warned Howe that his chain of posts across New Jersey was too thinly spread, a warning borne out by Washington’s success at Trenton. He foresaw and tried to prevent the disastrous train of events that led to Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne’s October 1777 surrender at Saratoga. Left in what he called “a damned starved defensive” in New York, Clinton nevertheless created a diversion for Burgoyne by marching north into the Hudson Highlands, which in turn unnerved American Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates into offering Burgoyne particularly generous surrender terms.
As commander in chief for North America from 1778 to 1782, Clinton was a gifted strategist who grasped the realities of the war and understood the precarious military situation facing the British. As the son of an admiral and brother-in-law of two others, he particularly understood the importance of British naval supremacy in supporting the army in America. He foresaw the threat of French naval intervention, and he repeatedly forewarned that British military units operating outside New York could be stranded should a superior French fleet arrive in American waters. He knew Britain had come close to defeat on several occasions before the September 1781 defeat at Yorktown, and he never took it for granted he would have naval support.
Unlike most of his British military and political peers, Clinton understood that force alone was not enough to retain possession of the colonies. Even if Britain were able to conquer the country, he questioned whether it was worthwhile to possess absent the affections of its people. Thus he argued for the need “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America.” Although he dismissed the idea of conquering America “without the assistance of friends,” he was skeptical of government faith in Loyalist support. This was apparent during his April 1777 London meeting with Lord George Germain, the British secretary of state for the colonies. Germain asked Clinton a rhetorical question in which he suggested the rebels would be unable to raise an army for the next campaign and were growing less able every day. Clinton replied that the inability of the rebels was “[no] greater than ours.” When Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis invaded Virginia in 1781, Clinton wrote that it was a pointless endeavor if “we have not their hearts (which I fear cannot be expected in Virginia).…Though we may conquer, we shall never keep.”
Clinton saw little value in taking territory only to abandon it. He was therefore disparaging of government plans to send expeditions to rally Loyalists, make them self-sustaining and then withdraw. Withdrawal, he insisted, would leave the Loyalists at the mercy of the rebels, thus deterring others from rallying to the royal standard. Clinton regarded such a cut-and-run policy as a betrayal of trust that would also encumber the army with a refugee problem. He respected the fighting abilities of the Continental Army and the leadership of George Washington, calling instead for solid campaigns that gained ground and then retained it with permanent garrisons of regular troops.
In his military operations as commander in chief Clinton exhibited a measure of the tactical brilliance he had demonstrated as a junior officer. In obedience to his first order to abandon Philadelphia and withdraw to New York, he succeeded in extricating some 20,000 regular troops and 3,000 Loyalists with Washington’s army in pursuit and a superior French fleet off the coast. His opponents thus missed one of the best early opportunities to cripple the British on a scale far greater than Yorktown. Despite Washington’s claim of victory, Clinton deflected an attack at the June 28, 1778, Battle of Monmouth, resuming his march without the loss of a single wagon. Two years later Clinton reached the summit of his military career with his siege and capture of Charleston, S.C., at that time the largest and wealthiest city in the South. His plan to return north immediately and crush Washington’s army in New Jersey was foiled by a premature attack launched by his deputy at the behest of New York Loyalists.
Clinton never believed in focusing the British war effort in the South, instead advocating Washington’s defeat in New York —for which he thought it essential to capture the Hudson Highlands. He succeeded in taking the fortresses that served as the northern gateway with a view to capturing West Point, which he nearly achieved in 1780. Clinton had built up an effective espionage network from virtually nothing, and he personally initiated the correspondence to facilitate the betrayal of West Point by its commander, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. The plan was famously foiled, of course, when American troops captured Clinton’s agent, Major John André, and hanged him as a spy.
Despite Clinton’s notable tactical achievements, his superiors in London—and many of his own staff officers —perceived the North American commander as too cautious, engaging in a series of desultory campaigns and frittering away opportunities by remaining with the main body of his army in New York. During the 1779 campaign season in particular contemporaries criticized Clinton for his seeming inertia and for launching widely dispersed expeditions. As he awaited reinforcements and the return of a 5,000-man army from the West Indian island of St. Lucia, Clinton delayed the beginning of the campaign season for five months, but the troops from Britain did not arrive until August. British-appointed Chief Justice William Smith wrote in his journal that both Loyalist civilians and soldiers in New York were “disgusted and dispirited” by Clinton’s inactivity. According to Smith, “The Boys in the Army hint their Contempt of the General, and common Soldiers murmur.” Smith wrote deprecatingly about how Clinton was constantly on the move “and yet about Nothing.” Upon visiting a post of the Queen’s Rangers and light infantry, Hessian Captain Johann von Ewald “found that all the officers of this corps were speaking badly about General Clinton.” Ewald attributed it to boredom and “continual monotony,” together with the poor conditions—officers living in inadequate quarters and men sleeping in tents, with “ruined horses, worn-out clothing and empty purses.” Rebel satires also mocked Clinton’s inactivity:
What’s odd for Sir Harry, he nothing begun,
Kept close to his works—without firing a gun.
But, perhaps, th’ poor man could not get on his legs,
After sitting so long—like a hen o’er spoil’d eggs.
Clinton’s state of mind might have had much to do with his apparent inability to command. In August 1779 Colonel Charles Stuart of the British 26th Regiment wrote to his father describing a shocking encounter with Clinton, who with “tears in his eyes” said he felt “incapable of his station.” Unburdening himself, the general told Stuart, “Believe me, I envy that Grenadier who is passing the door, and would exchange with joy situations—no! let me advise you never to take command of an army.” Clinton told the young colonel he knew he was “hated, nay, detested in the army.” He expressed his determination to return home and claimed he had been so ill-used that he could “no longer bear with this life.”
Clinton had indeed tried to resign while still second-in-command to Howe, and he tried again after his appointment to senior command in 1778. His outburst in front of a junior officer was one of many manifestations of his neurotic personality; he could be hypersensitive, capricious, irritable and unable to accept criticism. Clinton felt it necessary to justify himself publicly for every reversal and to blame everyone but himself. He was a loner who failed to consult sufficiently with his senior officers and was unpopular with his men. Nevertheless, he was one of the most cerebral officers in the British army, possessing an extensive personal library of military manuals that he annotated and read in detail. His emotionalism reflected the reality of his overwhelmingly negative strategic predicament, one that all but precluded the possibility of Britain winning the American Revolutionary War.
In October 1779 William Tryon, the colonial governor of New York, expressed to Chief Justice Smith “his Apprehension that the poor Man [Clinton] knew not what to do.” Toward the end of that year in London, Loyalist politician Thomas Hutchinson wrote in his diary of the widespread belief that Clinton had “lain still all the summer, merely from indecision and a fluctuating state of mind.” This is also the retrospective view of many military historians, who regard Clinton’s virtual stagnation and multiplicity of disjointed offensives as mere excuses to waver and delay.
Clinton’s anxiety and apparent lethargy were no doubt exacerbated by superiors’ expectations that he win the war with fewer professional troops and less naval support than were available to his predecessors, while Britain was simultaneously at war with France and, later, Spain and Holland. His Majesty’s Government initially expected Clinton merely to maintain a defensive position and even gave him permission to withdraw from New York to Halifax. The cabinet was divided over whether to abandon the war in America to focus on the global war with France in the Caribbean, Europe and India. Clinton complained to his dying day that the 5,000 troops sent on an expedition to St. Lucia were crucial to his command, as they represented some of the finest officers and regiments in the British army. Those soldiers never rejoined Clinton’s army in New York, and he received just 4,700 reinforcements to make up for a loss of some 19,200 men. Britain’s naval presence also declined proportionally from 41 percent of the fleet in the summer of 1778 to just 10 percent by 1782. The presence of a superior French fleet in American waters in 1779 and early 1780 further thwarted Clinton’s ability to launch expeditions.
Clinton was also hindered by Britain’s inability to provide its North American troops with adequate supplies, on which the army was forced to rely after failing to occupy sufficient land to support itself. The shortages prevented him from campaigning earlier in 1779. Thanks to the work of the editors of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, it has become increasingly apparent that Clinton was right to expect a major joint attack by Washington and the French fleet in New York, an attack only averted by the decision of French admirals in two successive years not to engage in joint operations with Washington.
In the months before Yorktown, Clinton began to behave erratically, his strategy becoming almost incoherent. He suffered periodic spells of blindness; sent contradictory orders to Cornwallis in Virginia; alternated between fantastical schemes to reoccupy Rhode Island and Philadelphia; and quarreled disastrously with Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, whose support he needed for any campaign.
Again, Clinton’s behavior largely reflected the reality of his circumstances. The British government had by then undermined its commander, expressing its preference for the bolder strategy of Lord Cornwallis, with whom Germain corresponded directly from London. Clinton had ordered Cornwallis not to advance into North Carolina without first securing South Carolina, and not to enter Virginia until he had secured North Carolina. Clinton’s concern was the vulnerability of dispersed British forces should the French arrive with a superior fleet. He also deemed it essential to provide the Loyalists continued support. He was stunned when he discovered that Cornwallis had disobeyed his instructions and marched into Virginia, despite incurring high casualties at Guilford Courthouse, N.C. Finally, Clinton was thwarted in his efforts to rescue Cornwallis by delays in repairs to the fleet after its defeat at the naval Battle of the Chesapeake and the apparent obstruction of Admiral Thomas Graves. Clinton’s army and the fleet did not arrive off the Chesapeake until after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
Clinton spent the rest of his days insisting that superiors had made him a scapegoat for the British defeat in America. He embroiled himself in a public feud, exchanging a series of accusatory pamphlets with Cornwallis, and became obsessed with vindicating himself. He even had a dream in which an abject Cornwallis formally apologized to him for Yorktown. Clinton’s tirades fill two volumes of his papers. He laboriously worked on a three-volume justification of his conduct entitled An Historical Detail of Seven Years’ Campaigns in North America, not actually published until 1954.
These memoirs contain much fabrication. The distortions are not surprising, as Clinton had permitted a strategy that ran counter to his strategic instincts and which he did not devise. In accusing Cornwallis, Clinton obscured the real reason for the British failure at Yorktown. In reality, both commanders were acting under a misapprehension fueled by assurances from the home government that it would sufficiently reinforce the British fleet to combat the French. The loss of a British fleet would have had far greater global consequences than did the surrender of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown.
The tragedy of Clinton’s later life was that the British public was no longer interested in the “American War,” as they termed it. Memoirist Horace Walpole wrote that indifferent Britons quickly forgot the war, observing acidly that the specifics would forever remain obscure, as would its participants. Walpole believed his countrymen lacked the patience to sift through the “multiplicity of problematic questions” about the conflict, given that events had transpired at such a distance, ministers had concealed information, witnesses were lacking, and the various factions affirmed or denied allegations with equal heat. In his low estimation, the nation that had so warmly supported those who had waged the war “now forgot them with equal levity.” Clinton was well aware of the public apathy, but he believed Britain would again have to contend with America. He was proven right in 1812, though he regarded such a war as desirable due to the threat American expansionism posed to British commercial interests in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Clinton’s protest at being made a scapegoat was not the cri de coeur of a lunatic but the lament of a rational man who had commanded with insufficient resources and whose own government had undermined his authority. After Yorktown he had preserved the remainder of the British army in New York and Charleston, leaving George III and Germain the option to continue the war. Hessian Captain Ewald, who was present at Yorktown, believed it would have been “the greatest impossibility” for Clinton to have rescued Cornwallis. “To lay the entire blame on him [Clinton] is too severe,” he recalled, “because the chief mistake lay with the admiral of the fleet, who let himself be hoaxed by the Comte de Grasse [François-Joseph Paul] when the latter entered the Chesapeake contrary to expectations.”
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy is the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean and the just-published The Men Who Lost America.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.