Sir Henry Clinton

Sir Henry Clinton (c. 1738-1795) was commander in chief of the British armies during the crucial years of the American Revolution.

Henry Clinton was the only son of George Clinton, governor of colonial New York. He entered the military, serving first in the New York militia and then in 1751 as a regular army lieutenant in the Cold stream Guards. He rose steadily in rank and displayed gallantry and capability during the French and Indian War in America. In the peace that followed 1763 he became colonel of the 12th Regiment and, after May 1772, major general. At this same time he was given a seat in the British Parliament, which he retained for 12 years.

Clinton's most sustained military service occurred during the American Revolution. He fought bravely at Bunker Hill but botched his command in the 1776 expedition to capture Charleston, S.C. He participated successfully, however, in the Battle of Long Island. Irritation with William Howe led Clinton to consider resigning, a threat he made periodically during his American command. (In 1777, he returned to England, now a lieutenant general, and was made a Knight of the Bath.) In the British battle design of 1777 Clinton was put in command at New York, while Howe moved against Philadelphia and John Burgoyne marched down from Canada. After Burgoyne's defeat and Howe's meaningless capture of Philadelphia, Clinton was the obvious choice to succeed Howe as commander in chief. In mid-1778 Clinton violated orders to evacuate Philadelphia by sea and instead led the British in a land retreat—under difficult conditions and with considerable skill—that included the Battle of Monmouth. For the next 2 years Clinton concentrated his forces around New York, undertaking successful though minor raids against coastal towns.

Clinton's greatest triumph—ironically also the beginning of the end of England's efforts to subdue its former colonies—was his second expedition against Charleston. He captured the city and 6000 American soldiers. This victory encouraged British hopes of conquering the Southern states. However, Charles Cornwallis was left in command when Clinton returned to New York. The relations between Clinton and Cornwallis revealed the same problems earlier apparent in Clinton's disagreements with William Howe. A flurry of orders and counterorders from Clinton in New York and George Germaine in London in effect left Cornwallis free to follow his own inclinations to Yorktown, and the result was his crushing defeat in October 1781. Clinton left his command the following May. While Cornwallis had a friendly reception in England, Clinton—his nominal commander—was blamed, and an acrimonious public debate between the two military leaders ensued.

In and out of Parliament, quarreling with relatives and critics, Clinton was nevertheless promoted to general in 1793 and became governor of Gibraltar the following year. He died at Gibraltar on Dec. 23, 1795. His two sons both rose to the rank of general in the British army.

Clinton was undoubtedly a difficult man. His short, happy marriage—ended by the death of his wife in 1772—was followed by a period of extreme depression. He was unsuccessful as a subordinate to Howe, frequently offering him what was regarded as impertinent advice. He was equally unsuccessful as a commander over Cornwallis, in part because he feared the latter as his chosen successor.

Further Reading on Sir Henry Clinton

Clinton's own account of his role in America may be found in William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782 (1954). An interesting biography is William B. Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (1964). For a careful study of the overall British problems of command see Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964).