Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy

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Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy

CLINTON-CORNWALLIS CONTROVERSY. Whether Sir Henry Clinton, as British commander in chief in North America, or Charles Earl Cornwallis, as commander of the British army in the South, was more responsible for the British defeat at Yorktown, and thus in America, led to a controversy that began in 1781 and ended only with Clinton's death in 1795. Cornwallis claimed that he had received from Clinton positive orders to entrench at Yorktown and await relief by sea. The energy and enterprise that Cornwallis had shown throughout the war in the South was not in evidence at that critical point. Clinton in late 1779 had made the decision to divide the British army in North America between New York and Charleston, South Carolina, and thus staked the survival of the army on the ability of the Royal Navy to maintain control of the sea lanes along the North American littoral. But he had not ordered Cornwallis to move north from South Carolina, first to North Carolina, and then to Virginia. And he had not positively ordered Cornwallis to sit down at Yorktown and await rescue. In truth, the Royal Navy had let down both army commanders. Its central administration at London had not put enough ships in commission, so that it was reduced to sending squadrons to follow the French across the Atlantic instead of blockading the French fleet in its harbors. Thomas Graves, its commander in North America, did not act aggressively with the ships he did have, and so he forfeited the only possible way he had to make up the deficiency. Clinton and Cornwallis could have, together, fixed the blame where it belonged, on the navy, but long-standing personal animosities led them to accuse each other of negligence.

Clinton opened the controversy while still at New York, publishing a pamphlet of his correspondence with Cornwallis before the end of 1781. He published a longer narrative shortly after he arrived home in 1782. Cornwallis responded with an answer to Clinton's narrative, and Clinton shot back with observations on the answer. An anonymous Cornwallis supporter then replied by pointing out alleged errors in Clinton's narrative. The controversy continued to simmer for another dozen years, but Cornwallis, the more astute politician, was already the victor where it counted, in the corridors of power. He went on to reap further glory and enhance his reputation as governor-general in India; Clinton never held another command.

SEE ALSO Clinton, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Yorktown Campaign.


Stevens, Benjamin F., ed. and comp. The Campaign in Virginia, 1781: An Exact Reprint of Six Rare Pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy. 2 vols. London, 1888.

Wickwire, Franklin, and Mary Wickwire. Cornwallis: The American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton and the War of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1964.

                         revised by Harold E. Selesky