Sir Henry Clinton

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

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). □

Clinton, Sir Henry

views updated May 29 2018

Clinton, Sir Henry (1730–1795), British general.Sir Henry Clinton succeeded Sir William Howe as commander in chief of British forces in the American colonies in 1778. Clinton inherited an army demoralized by Burgoyne's defeat at the Battles of Saratoga and a war radically altered by France's 1778 alliance with the Americans. An aggressive and annoying junior officer, Clinton had continually bombarded Howe with ambitious plans to crush the Continental army. As commander in chief, however, Clinton acquired Howe's caution. He fought the Continental army only once in 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth. In 1779, his army saw only limited action that included taking two minor American forts. The next year, Clinton captured Charleston. This brilliant victory, however, could not overcome his reputation for caution. London named a more aggressive general, Lord Charles Cornwallis, his second in command in 1779; now Clinton was ordered back to New York and Cornwallis took over in the South. Powerless to intervene in Cornwallis's campaigns, Clinton nevertheless became the scapegoat for Cornwallis's devastating defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Replaced by Gen. Guy Carleton in 1782, the embittered Clinton returned to England. He devoted the rest of his life to defending his tattered reputation.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


William B. Willcox , Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, 1964.
George A. Billias , George Washington's Opponents, 1969.

Jon T. Coleman

Clinton, Sir Henry

views updated May 23 2018

Clinton, Sir Henry (1730–95). Clinton was a grandson of the 6th earl of Lincoln, son of an admiral, and related to the dukes of Newcastle. He joined the army in 1745, fought in Canada during the War of Austrian Succession, and in Germany during the Seven Years War. By 1772 he was a major-general, acquired credit at Bunker Hill, and was appointed second in command in America under Howe. In 1778, after Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, he became commander-in-chief. In 1780 he scored a major victory at Charleston, when 6,000 rebels surrendered with 300 guns, but outright victory eluded him and, like most generals, he called for reinforcements. He was allowed to resign in 1782 after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and was subsequently involved in acrimonious controversy. He has been severely criticized as peevish, neurotic, rising only to mediocrity, but it was not an easy war to win.

J. A. Cannon

About this article

Sir Henry Clinton

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic