Henry Clinton

Half length color portrait of General Sir Henry Clinton in military uniform and dress sword
General Sir Henry Clinton by Andrea Soldi

The British Museum

Quick Facts
British army officer and politician. Commander in Chief for North America from 1778 - 1782.
Place of Birth:
Newfoundland, British Canada
Date of Birth:
April 16, 1730
Place of Death:
London, England
Date of Death:
December 23, 1795
Place of Burial:
Windsor, England
Cemetery Name:
Windsor Castle, St. George's Chapel

All, all shrink from the subject, had not circumstances made me in some degree the scapegoat, I perhaps - who may also have had my share of blunders - might have found myself in the same disposition. I admit there has been blame. I admit also I may have had my share. God knows there is enough for us all. - Sir Henry Clinton

General Henry Clinton famously arrived with Generals William Howe and John Burgoyne aboard the Cerberus in British occupied Boston in 1776. This triumvirate of British Army generals had an incredible impact on the course of the American Revolution. General Howe soon replaced General Thomas Gage as the British commander in chief. Howe's early tenure in the position suffered strategically as he bizarrely also served as a peace commissioner. Sir Henry Clinton replaced Sir William Howe as commander in chief of the British army in 1778. With France's entry in the war and her alliance with the United States of America, Clinton faced an increasingly global, imperial war and had fewer men left to face the rebellious Americans. Ultimately, Clinton, despite having early successes in the southern campaign, oversaw the British defeat in America and was replaced in 1782 by Sir Guy Carleton

Military Pedigree

Clinton possessed significant military experience before the start of the American Revolution. He grew up partially in America, where his father was the royal governor of New York. Through his father's family, Clinton was related to the seat of the Earls of Lincoln, opening the doors to an illustrious military career. His military career spanned fifty years. He joined the army at fifteen, and, at the age of twenty-one, he received an officer's commission into the elite infantry regiment of the Coldstream Guards. Clinton served in Canada during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 - 48). In the Seven Years' War, he served with his regiment in Germany under General John Manners, the marquess of Granby, who commanded British forces sent to reinforce the prince of Brunswick. Clinton was seriously wounded at the Battle of Freiberg on October 29, 1762, causing him pain thereafter. Together with Howe and George Germain, later the Secretary of State for America in Lord North's cabinet during the American Revolution, he became a protégé of Field Marshal Sir John Louis Ligonier, a man credited for being the mastermind of British victory in the Seven Years' War. 

In 1772, Clinton was promoted to the rank of major general. The death of his wife that year likely triggered his decision to travel. In 1774, he crossed Europe to Vienna and the Balkans to observe the Russo-Turkish War in Bulgaria. At the time of his appointment as third in command in America in 1775, he was an experienced officer and a veteran of warfare, who had studied under some of the greatest military commanders of the era. His personality, however, proved to be a barrier to effective relationships with fellow senior officers in the American war. Clinton's long list of character faults included hypersensitivity, shyness, jealousy, and anger. On the other hand, he was the most intellecutal of the British generals in America. He read widely on military history. He was a cautious commander, preferring to gain victories at the cost of few casualties. As a subordinate commander, he favored flanking maneuvers over frontal assaults. This preference can be seen in his attempt to alter Gage's proposed plan of attack at Bunker Hill and his successful flanking march on the American army on Long Island. Following the removal of General Gage in September 1775, Clinton became second in command to Howe. Their relations were quickly strained, leading Howe to send Clinton on separate missions, starting with an expedition to the south with a fleet under Commodore Sir Peter Parker

Southern Expedition 1776

The expedition proved an abject failure. Its original goal was to join and support the loyalists of North Carolina, where Clinton would be reinforced by troops from Ireland, commanded by Charles Lord Cornwallis. Upon the fleet's arrival in North Carolina, they learned of the defeat of loyalists at Moores Creek Bridge. Debating on a new target, Clinton favored establishing a naval base along the coast of Virginia to disrupt American supply lines. Admiral Parker favored attacking Charleston, South Carolina and establishing a base on Sullivan's Island. Admiral Parker had his way, and the fleet sailed south. The expedition failed for a variety of reasons. General Clinton, very susceptible to sea-sickness, landed with over 2,000 soldiers on an island adjacent to Sullivan's Island. His refusal to lodge aboard the Bristol, Parker's flagship, prevented close coordination and added communication difficulties to an already poor working relationship. The British believed Breach Inlet, the body of water between Sullivan's Island and Long Island where Clinton placed his army, to be eighteen inches deep. In fact, it was several feet deep, which prevented the infantry from assisting Parker's fleet in capturing the South Carolinians' palmetto-log fortification. The Battle of Sullivan's Island, fought on June 28, 1776, ended in American victory, embarassing the might of the Royal Navy. Clinton and Parker blamed each other for the defeat. It was the last major British offensive in the south for another three years.

New York & Rhode Island Campaigns

On returning to join Howe in August 1776, Clinton burnished his reputation by distinguishing himself in the conquest of New York. At the battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776), Howe followed his suggested plan of attack, resulting in one of the great British victories of the war. Clinton personally led the encirclement of the left wing of the Continental Army. It was the only time Howe adopted a proposed plan of action from Clinton. Clinton's advice on the pursuit of Washington's army and not to spread British garrisons too thinly across New Jersey were all ignored. In December 1776, Clinton captured Newport, Rhode Island, a desirable harbor for the Royal Navy's operations along the American coast. 

Following his success at Newport, Clinton asked and received permission to return to England. While in England, he defended his actions at Charleston and sought to resign from serving under Howe. King George III refused Clinton permission to resign and ordered him to return and serve under Howe while also awarding Clinton a knighthood and membership in the Order of Bath. Sir Henry Clinton was unhappy at his return to America but hoped that he might replace Burgoyne when the two armies united at Albany, severing the rebellious colonies along the Hudson River.

Commander in Chief, North America 1778 - 82

This dream was never realized as Clinton was left to command in New York as Howe took the majority of his army on a campaign to capture Philadelphia, which did not serve British strategic interests as an advance along the Hudson River to join Burgoyen's army would have. After Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, Howe's days as commander in chief were numbered. After a winter occupying Philadelphia, the British army returned to New York. Clinton assumed the role as commander in chief after Lord North's cabinet recalled Howe as there were few alternative candidates and Clinton was already in America. Lord North advised against appointing Clinton, arguing that it was inadvisable to employ a general who wanted to resign and who complained continually. 

As commander in chief, Clinton was a gifted strategist who grasped the realities of the war and understood the difficulties facing the British. Clinton presciently feared a scenario in which the British would lack naval superiority and become vulnerable to the French. He also voiced concerns that without winning the hearts and minds of the Americans British military efforts would be in vain. He saw little value in taking territory only to abandon it and dissapoint local loyalists and leave them exposed to reprisals. Clinton mourned the loss of thousands of his troops, over 5,000 troops sent to serve in the Caribbean. He doubted whether Great Britain would ever have the resources to replace them.

Despite the significant drop in manpower, Clinton received orders from Lord North's cabinet to wage a new campaign in the southern colonies upon the theory that loyalist support would augment the fewer regular soldiers available. In December 1778, Clinton complied by sending one thousand troops to attack Georgia. Under the command of Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, the army captured Savannah where Campbell boasted that he had "ripped one star and one stripe from the rebel flag of America." The success caused Clinton's superiors in Great Britain to favor expanding the campaign and target South Carolina. Clinton recognized that concentrated efforts to the south would diminish his hopes to defeat Washington's army around New York. The year of 1779 in the northern theater would be marked by probing attacks and counter-attacks in the Hudson River valley to no great effect. General Washington hoped for the arrival of a French naval fleet to allow his army to attack the British in New York City in 1779, but the fleet did not arrive. 

British Southern Campaign & Arnold's Treason

After the British successfully defended Savannah against a combined Franco-American siege in the fall of 1779, Clinton felt able to begin a major offensive against South Carolina. In late December 1779, Clinton embarked for Charleston. His force consisted of 8,700 soliders and 5,000 sailors, together with ninety transports and ten warships under the command of Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. A stormy voyage delayed the arrival of Clinton's force to the shores of South Carolina. Landing first at Simmons Island, known today as Seabrook Island, the British approached Charleston over land from the south. The Royal Navy sailed up into the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, contributing their naval artillery fire to the siege. The British bottled up the patriot army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, on the peninsula of Charleston. Rather than evacuating the city and keeping the army intact to oppose the British, Lincoln felt pressured by civilian authorities to defend the city. After a three-month siege and the city subject to increasing British artillery fire, the Continental Army surrendered on May 12, 1780. Ultimately, it was a tremendous victory for Clinton, particularly given his failed attack on Sullivan's Island in 1776. It was the largest loss suffered by the patriots during the Revolution, with over 3,000 soldiers taken prisoner. 

Clinton moved to pacify the rest of South Carolina, following his success at Charleston. His proclamations backfired and served to ignite patriot resistance. On June 3, he issued a proclamation that required Americans to take a declaration of loyalty and be willing to take up arms in support of Britain. This proclamation contradicted earlier guarantees of pardons and paroles for prisoners of war. Partisan militia bands under leaders like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion proliferated in response to this proclamation, leaving the Carolinas a hornet's nest as Clinton left to return to New York. He left Lord Cornwallis in command of British forces in the south. Their relationship, previously friendly and cooperative, did not recover after the fall of Charleston as Clinton's resignation request was finally accepted by Lord George Germain. Cornwallis expected to be Clinton's successor. Clinton, however, declined to resign, having just achieved a great victory. Unfortunately for Clinton and Cornwallis, they later oversaw the failure of British arms in America. 

Upon Clinton's return to New York, he received bad news. His plan to surprise Washington's army in their encampment at Morristown, New Jersey had been ruined by the premature attack launched by General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, a Hessian officer left in command of New York. British hopes to end the war in a single decisive battle proved elusive. While despairing for additional reinforcements, Clinton worked on a secret plan in 1780. The American general, Benedict Arnold, was ready to betray the patriot cause. The betrayal and British plan to break the deadlock revolved around capturing West Point. Clinton's adjutant general, Major John André, supervised the British intelligence and spy network. Captured after meeting with Arnold with plans of West Point in his boot and wearing civilian attire, André was tried, convicted, and hanged as a spy. Clinton, saddened by the loss of André, kept his promise to Arnold and commissioned him a brigadier general in a loyalist regiment. His hopes that Arnold's treason would spur others to betray the American cause were never realized; in the words of one historian, "Arnold as traitor helped fix a powerful new image of the United States in the minds of its people."

With the collapse of his plans to capture West Point, Clinton spent the remainder of the war in Cornwallis' shadow. Unable to ignore government orders, Clinton reluctantly accepted the shift of the focus of the war to the south. He continued to send reinforcments to Cornwallis. Clinton, however, grew incredibly frustrated at the support shown for Cornwallis by the home government. The two generals had very different conceptions of strategy. Clinton thought it an error to advance until all resistance had been eliminated in Georgia and South Carolina while Cornwallis believed it was necessary to advance northward to defeat enemy forces and cut off the source of supplies for patriots further south. Given the geographic distance and length of time between correspondence, Cornwallis acted fairly independently of Clinton and fatefully invaded North Carolina and later Virginia. His forces, already suffering from the attrition of long campaigns, were stretched thin and vulnerable to the arrival of a French fleet. Yorktown, Virginia proved to be the location of the climactic battle of the American Revolution. Clinton defended his actions as commander in chief and attempted to shift the blame for British defeat in the war to Lord Cornwallis during his postwar years.

Postwar Life

Clinton's military career essentially ended with the American Revolution. While his rivals received significant promotions and honors, Clinton was only offered an Irish peerage, an unattractive title as it did not confer the right to sit in the House of Lords. Clinton tried to secure a parliamentary inquiry to clear his name, but he failed. Clinton advocated for the interests of loyalists after the war and supported their claims for compensation. In his retirement, Clinton traveled throughout Europe and spent time with his children. In his later years, Clinton's career had new life. In 1790, he returned to Parliament as member for Launceston, and he was promoted to full general the next year. In 1794, he received the governorship of Gibraltar, but he was too ill to ever accept the offer. Clinton died in London in 1795. 

Boston National Historical Park, Colonial National Historical Park, Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, Morristown National Historical Park, Yorktown Battlefield Part of Colonial National Historical Park

Last updated: July 11, 2020