British General Sir Henry Clinton, General William Howe’s Opinionated Second in Command During the American Revolutionary War

English: General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander ...
General Sir Henry Clinton

It is common knowledge that the Ministerial Forces of King George the Third stationed in America during the War of Independence were as much absorbed in quarreling with one another as in fighting the rebel army, not due to differences over strategy, but because of personal friction. Simply put,  there was little, if any cooperation among these highly self-absorbrd aristocratic gentlemen. No two officers illustrated this more so than the supreme commander, General Richard Howe and his second in command, General Henry Clinton. These two highest ranking officers had been at odds since the first days they locked egos in Boston. Howe was obstinate, moody, and had little patience for upstart subordinates who knew far more than their superiors, whereas Clinton proved early on to be a trying colleague – aloof, sensitive, and combative with a persistent proclivity for hounding his superiors with advice.

General Sir William Howe Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in North America

Clinton exasperated Howe with suggestions that were always sound, sometimes brilliant and almost never accepted. After accepting command of the army following Gate’s departure, Howe tried to escape Clinton’s petulance by sending him on an expedition to the Carolinas, but the invasion was a failure and Clinton showed up for the New York campaign and resumed plaguing headquarters with a stream of proposals. Howe would confide among friends over dinner that by some cursed fatality, ‘he and General Clinton could never draw together,’  whereas Clinton complained in letters home to England that he ought to be given the reins of command because he knew better than anyone else how to use it.   The bickering continued until Howe left home for England, turning command over to someone convinced he had all the answers; General Clinton.

Clinton was born on April 16, 1730.  His father was Commodore George Clinton who, at the time of Henry’s birth, was governor of Newfoundland. His father acquired the governorship of New York and in 1741, moved his family there. Clinton continued schooling in the colonies and later joined the local militia in 1748. He returned to England in 1751 and bought a captain’s commission in the Coldstream Guards. Clinton was a talented officer and rose rapidly through the ranks by purchasing further commissions.

Seven years after entering the army, now 28 years of age, Clinton reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 1st Foot Guards. In 1760, at age thirty, he became aide-de-camp to Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. He distinguished himself in the Seven Years’ War and was promoted to full colonel two years later. He received the command of the 12th Regiment and the following year married twenty year old Harriet Carter in 1767.

His marriage to Harriet was a happy one. The couple would have four children together: Harriet, Augusta, William, and Henry – William and Henry would obtain titled service in the military, both achieving Lt. General Sir William and Henry Clinton. On May 2nd, 1772, now aged 42, Clinton was promoted to major general. Within a couple of months, his cousin Henry Pelham-Clinton, the 2nd Duke of Newcastle, helped him gain a seat in Parliament. One month later, his wife Harriet died while giving birth to their fifth child who did not survive. Clinton had a strong attachment to Harriet and was devastated by the loss. He delayed taking his seat in Parliament and instead traveled to the Balkans where he studied the Russian military. After her death, he seems to have transferred the attachment he had for Harriet to her family: her father became a second father to him (his own had died years before); her sisters took charge of his children and brought them up while he was involved in the American Revolution. He never remarried. Clinton’s children by Harriet would remain with his sisters when he returned to England where he raised a family by a mistress, but little is known from this union.

Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775. Grenadiers and Light infantry during their second assault of Breed’s Hill.

After returning from the Balkans, he took his seat in Parliament. In March, 1775, Clinton joined Major Generals William Howe and John Burgoyne on the HMS Cerberus to set sail for Boston to aid Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. After one month in port, General Henry Clinton accompanied Major General Howe in the June 17, 1775 assault on Breeds Hill in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In October of 1775, Howe replaced Gage as supreme commander of British troops in America and Clinton was appointed his second and promoted to Lieutenant General. From then until 1782, except for a brief period when he returned to England, Clinton remained in the Americas. For the most part, his tenure was one of strife and conflict, first with his superior and later with his colleagues in the admiralty and subordinates within the army.

Dorchester eights in 1776 upon which Washington would place his cannon, forcing the British to evacuate Boston on May 17, 1776.

Shortly after being made second in command, Clinton strongly advised Howe to secure Dorchester Heights against American occupation. His advice went unheeded which ultimately resulted in Washington placing cannon along the heights and forcing Howe to evacuate Boston nine months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, May 17, 1776.

Battle of Charlestown, June 28, 1776.

Shortly after Clinton became Howe’s second, the supreme commander was happy to send the annoying Clinton south to Charlestown, South Carolina. His small fleet and 1,500 men was to take advantage of military opportunities there. He coordinated an attack against Charleston with Naval Commander Sir Peter Parker. The attack was an embarrassing failure. Clinton, because of the terrain and underestimating the American strength, could not press the attack. Parker attacked Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island, which proved more heavily fortified than anticipated. With the fleet heavily damaged, they aborted the attack and set sail for New York City, arriving in time for the New York campaign. While Clinton was occupied in South Carolina, his fears were realized and the Dorchester Heights were fortified with rebel cannon from Fort Ticonderoga which forced Howe to abandon Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Clinton, at forty five years of age, was a good looking man. He had a full round face and large eyes set far apart beneath thick black eyebrows. He took himself with great seriousness, but on most subjects other than himself, he had a fairly good sense of humor.

Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776.

While in New York, Clinton continued to press his commander with advice on how to conduct the war: where to invade, what forces to assemble, the timing of proposed actions and how to conduct them once they were underway. He complained that they were frittering away their great military advantage by moving too slowly. His superior virtues of were so self-evident, to his mind, that he could not understand their continued rejection by Howe. He continued therefore surprised, disgruntled, and anxious to escape from an intolerable position. No doubt Howe’s rejection of Clinton’s counsel may have been due in part to the tactless way in which Clinton pressed his opinion. Only once did Howe accept Clinton’s recommendation for a flanking attack on Long Island, which resulted in total success and complete rout of American forces.

Clinton moves against
American forts along the Hudson River; Fort Clinton (named for New York patriot general Clinton) and Fort Montgomery.

In December of 1776, Howe got rid of Clinton again by sending him and 6,000 troops to capture Newport, Rhode Island. Howe then found reason to send Clinton back to England with dispatches. While in England, Clinton was knighted with the Order of the Bath for his role in the victory on Long Island. In the spring of 1777, Clinton returned to New York to find Howe moving the bulk of the army south to capture Philadelphia. He left Clinton in command of New York City. With the main British army in Pennsylvania, Clinton was left with a small occupying force. He quickly saw the need to try and aid General Burgoyne who, with a large force of British and Hessian troops, was attempting to cut the colonies in half by capturing the Hudson River Valley. He did send some troops north to attack the forts in Westchester County, but was turned back by superior American forces.

After the devastating loss of Burgoyne’s forces at Saratoga in 1777, Howe resigned and so command of the British Forces in America was given to Clinton on March 21, 1778. Though Clinton craved authority and proposed acting swiftly, once given command, he became a cautious commander. He continued to draft massive plans for troop movement and attacks, but that was all. None but the invasion of South Carolina and the capture of Charlestown ever materialized. He continued to argue and fervently disagree with those around him, however he did so now as commander.

To Clinton’s credit, those with whom he worked were not the most cooperative men to deal with. As previously stated, Howe was stubborn and myopic; Clinton’s second in command, General Charles Cornwallis was petulant and headstrong; Parker with the Royal Navy lived in an intellectual vacuum; and Admiral Arbuthnot, Commander of the British Fleet in the Americas, would have driven any man crazy with frustration.

Clinton led the successful siege of Charlestown, from March 29th to May 12th, 1780. It resulted in the surrender of General Lincoln’s entire force, the largest of the American Revolutionary War.

After personally seeing to the successful beginning of the southern campaign, Clinton returned to New York City in May of 1780. It is then that all the bickering between superior officers became so apparent that it eventually lead to a complete breakdown of communications and ultimately to defeat. General Cornwallis continued the invasion of the south hoping to draw in large numbers of loyal troops to the British side. When this did not materialize, a war of attrition began to set in. As the campaign progressed, Cornwallis grew further and further away from his commander and their relationship became more acrimonious. Part of the blame may lie with George Germain, Secretary of State for America in Lord North’s cabinet, whose correspondence with Cornwallis convinced the junior officer to disregard orders from his superior and consider himself to be an independent command.

All this led to a French Fleet bottling the British southern army at Yorktown, Virginia. While Clinton organized a relief force and set sail, the American and French forces forced the surrender of Cornwallis’s command. In June of 1782, after four years at the helm of British forces, Clinton turned over his command to Sir Guy Carleton and set sail for England.

Once in England, Clinton spent much of his final years trying to redeem his reputation publishing evidence that much of the blame for the British defeat lay with others. He saw occasional military service and served in Parliament as M.P. for Lauceston from 1790-1794. He accepted the governorship of Gibraltar in 1794, but never made the journey to the island, dying in December of 1795.

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Clinton, Henry/ Stevens, Ed Benjamin Franklin.  The Campaign in Virginia.  1781: An Exact Reprint of Six Rare Pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy.  2011:  British Library Historical Print Editions.  Online Archives.

Leckie, Robert.  George Washington’s War.  1992: Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY.

Russell, David Lee.  The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies.  2000:  McFarland & Company Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina.

Schecter, Barnet.  The Battle for New York.  The City at the Heart of the American Revolution.  2002:  Walker & Company, New York, NY.

Wyatt, Frederick & Willcox, William B.  Sir Henry Clinton: A Psychological Exploration in History.  Article:  The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 3-26.

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