Rt. Hon. Gen. Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief in North America

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Rt. Hon. Gen. Henry Clinton, KB, MP

Birthplace: Newfoundland
Death: December 23, 1795 (65)
London, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom
Place of Burial: Windsor, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Son of Hon. George Clinton, Admiral of the Fleet and Ann Clinton
Husband of Harriet Clinton
Father of Augusta Dawkins; Gen. Sir William Henry Clinton, GCB, KCH and Lt.-Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, GCB, GCH
Brother of Lucy Mary Roddam and Mary Willes

Managed by: Carlos F. Bunge
Last Updated:

About Rt. Hon. Gen. Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief in North America


General Sir Henry Clinton KB (16 April 1730 – 23 December 1795) was a British army officer and politician, best known for his service as a general during the American War of Independence. First arriving in Boston in May 1775, from 1778 to 1782 he was the British Commander-in-Chief in North America. In addition to his military service, due to the influence of the 2nd Duke of Newcastle, he was a Member of Parliament for many years. Late in life he was named Governor of Gibraltar, but died before assuming the post.

He came from a noble family that could trace its lineage to 1066 and had a long history of service to the Crown. The son of an admiral of the fleet, he had two sons who continued the family tradition of high command: General Sir William Henry Clinton (1769–1846), and Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton (1771–1829).

Early life

Henry Clinton was born, probably in 1730, to Admiral George Clinton and Anne Carle, the daughter of a general.[1] Early histories sometimes claim his birth year as 1738;[citation needed] according to biographer William Willcox, Clinton claimed in a notebook found in 1958 to be born in 1930, and that evidence from English peerage records places the date of birth as 16 April.[1] Willcox also notes that none of these records give indication of the place of Clinton's birth.[2] Historian John Fredriksen claims that Clinton was born in Newfoundland,[3] although his father was not posted there before 1731.[1]

Little is known of the earliest years of Clinton's life, or of his mother and the two sisters that survived to adulthood.[1] Given his father's naval career, where the family was domiciled is uncertain. They were not obviously well-connected to the seat of the Earls of Lincoln, from whom his father was descended, or the estate of the Dukes of Newcastle, to whom they were related by marriage.[2] In 1739 his father, then stationed at Gibraltar, applied for the governorship of the Province of New York; he won the post in 1741 with the assistance of the Duke of Newcastle (who was his brother's brother-in-law).[4] However, he did not actually go to New York until 1743; he took young Henry with him, having failed to acquire a lieutenant's commission for the 12 year old.[5] Henry's career would also benefit from the family connection to the Newcastles.[6]

Records of the family's life in New York are sparse. He is reported to have studied under Samuel Seabury on Long Island, suggesting the family may have lived in the country outside New York City.[6] Clinton's first military commission was to an independent company in New York in 1745. The next year his father procured for him a captain's commission, and he was assigned to garrison duty at the recently-captured Fortress Louisbourg.[6] In 1749, Clinton went to Britain to pursue his military career. It was two years before he received a commission as a captain in the Coldstream Guards.[7] His father, after he returned to London when his term as New York governor was over, procured for Clinton a position as aide to Sir John Ligonier in 1756.[8] [edit] Seven Years War Further information: Great Britain in the Seven Years War

By 1758 had risen to be a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Foot Guards, which was later renamed the Grenadier Guards. Despite the ongoing Seven Years' War, Clinton was not called into a campaign until 1760.[9] That year he was sent to Europe, where he saw action under Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick at Corbach and Kloster Kampen. He was seriously wounded in the Battle of Freiberg, where his gallantry brought him wide public notice. Clinton distinguished himself as an aide-de-camp to Brunswick, with whom he established an enduring friendship.[10] In the summer of 1762 he was promoted to colonel,[11] receiving the command of the 12th Regiment of Foot in 1766. Portrait of Sir Henry Clinton

During these early years, he formed a number of friendships and acquaintances, mostly with other officers serving in Brunswick's camp. These included Charles Lee and William Alexander, who styled himself "Lord Stirling"; both of these men would face Clinton as enemies in North America. He formed long-lasting and deep friendships with John Jervis, and William Phillips; Phillips later served under Clinton in North America, and Jervis rose to prominence in the Royal Navy. He also made the acquaintance of Charles Cornwallis, who would famously serve under him as well.[12] [edit] Family and marriage

While Clinton was campaigning with the army in 1761, his father died. As the new head of the family, he had to unwind his father's affairs, which included sizable debts as well as arrears in pay. Battles he had with the Board of Trade to over his father's unpaid salary lasted for years, and attempts to sell the land in the colonies went nowhere; these lands were confiscated during the American Revolution, and even his heirs were unable to recover any kind of compensation for them. His mother, who had a history of mental instability and played only a small part in his life, died in August 1767.[13]

On February 12, 1767, Clinton married Harriet Carter, the daughter of landed gentry,[14] and the couple settled into a house in Surrey. There is some evidence that the marriage was performed in haste; six months later, the household accounts contain evidence of a son, Frederick. Frederick died of an illness in 1774, two years after his mother. Although Clinton did not write of his marriage, it was apparently happy. The couple produced five children: Frederick, Augusta (1768), William Henry (1769), Henry Jr. (1771), and Harriet (1772). Clinton's wife died on August 29, 1772, eight days after giving birth to Harriet.[15] It took him over a year to recover from the grief. He took his in-laws into his house, and his wife's sisters took over the care of his children.[16]


Upon the death of the Duke of Newcastle, his patronage was taken up by the latter's son and successor Henry Pelham-Clinton. Although he was at times instrumental in advancing Clinton's career, the new duke's lack of attention and interest in politics would at time work against Clinton. Clinton also complicated their relationship by treating the young duke more as an equal than as a noble who should be respected.[17] A second patron was King George III's brother the Duke of Gloucester. Clinton was appointed Gloucester's Groom of the Bedchamber in 1764, a position he continued to hold for many years. However, some of Gloucester's indiscretions left him out of favour at court, and he was thus not an effective supporter of Clinton.[18]

Peacetime service

In 1769 Clinton's regiment was assigned to Gibraltar, and Clinton served as second in command to Edward Cornwallis. During this time, Newcastle asked him to see after one of his (Newcastle's) sons who was serving in the garrison. The young man, described by his father as having "sloth and laziness" and "despicable behavior", was virtually unmanageable, and Clinton convinced the duke to put him into a French academy.[19]

Clinton was promoted to major general in 1772,[20] and in the same year he obtained a seat in Parliament through Newcastle's influence.[21] He remained a Member of Parliament until 1784, first for Boroughbridge and subsequently for Newark-on-Trent.[22] In April 1774 he went on a military inspection tour of the Russian army in the Balkans. He inspected some of the battlefields of the Russo-Turkish War with his friend Henry Lloyd, a general in the Russian army, and had an audience with Joseph II in Vienna.[23] He very nearly had the chance to watch an artillery bombardment, but it was called off by the onset of peace negotiations. Clinton was at one point introduced to the Turkish negotiators, of whom he wrote that "they stared a little, but were very civil."[24] He returned to England in October 1774, and in February 1775 was ordered by King George to prepare for service in North America.[25]

American War of Independence

Clinton, along with Major Generals William Howe and John Burgoyne, were being sent with reinforcements to strengthen the position of General Thomas Gage in Boston, and arrived on May 25, having learned en route that the American War of Independence had broken out, and that Boston was under siege. On June 17, Clinton was one of the British field commanders in the Battle of Bunker Hill. This assault to drive the rebels from the heights north of Boston was successful, but only at the heavy cost of over 1,000 British casualties.[26][page needed] Fearing that a similar situation would arise to the south of the harbour, upon Dorchester Heights, Clinton strongly advocated that British forces secure them against rebel occupation, but his warnings went unheeded by Howe, the senior officer in Boston. In January 1776, Clinton was sent south with a small fleet and 1,500 men to assess military opportunities in the Carolinas. During his absence, in March, his fears were realized when the Dorchester Heights were occupied and fortified by the rebels, causing the British to retreat to Halifax, Nova Scotia.[27][page needed] John Trumbull's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Clinton is in the center background, bareheaded and holding a sword.

In June, Clinton led an attack on Fort Sullivan near Charleston, South Carolina. It was a humiliating failure, and his campaign in the Carolinas was called off. The attack, made with the co-operation of the Royal Navy, failed because Clinton badly under-estimated the strength of the American forces in Charleston. The naval commander, Sir Peter Parker, engaged in an abortive attack on Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, which, being far more heavily fortified than anticipated, badly damaged the British squadron. Also present at the battle was Charles Cornwallis.

Clinton and his twenty-five ships rejoined the main fleet to participate in General Howe's August 1776 assault on New York City. Clinton presented arguments for launching an attack up the Hudson River, but these were dismissed by General Howe. Clinton was also responsible for the night flanking on the attack upon Brooklyn, this attack was carried on with success. After the British had established themselves at Gravesend on Long Island, Clinton's new plan of campaign was followed and proved a great tactical success in the Battle of Long Island, for which Howe was made a lieutenant general and created a Knight of the Order of the Bath.

In December, Howe sent Clinton, in command of 6,000 men, to occupy Newport, Rhode Island, which he soon accomplished.

Commander in Chief

In May of 1778, after the failure of General Burgoyne's Saratoga Campaign, Clinton replaced Howe as Commander-in-Chief for North America. He assumed command in Philadelphia. France had by this time formally entered the war on the American side, and because of this Clinton was ordered by his government to send 5,000 of his troops to the Caribbean, which forced him to withdraw from Philadelphia. He conducted a skillful retreat from there to New York, fighting a rearguard action against Washington's army at Monmouth on June 28. Having thus concentrated his forces, for a time he pursued a policy of making forays from there. Before the year's end, though, he regained the initiative for the British by sending an expedition south, to strike at Georgia. This force took Savannah in December, and by early 1779 it had gained control of the hinterland.[27][page needed] General Sir Henry Clinton K.B. Commander-in-Chief of British troops in America. Published between 1770 and 1780.

This campaign in Georgia presumed strong silent Loyalist support that would appear as soon as the British were present in strength. The notion that the South was more likely to be friendly to British forces had been entertained by the American Secretary, George Germain for much of the war to date, a notion fed by Loyalist exiles in London.[29] While the South on the whole was less receptive to the concept of independence from Britain, which provided the market for most of their plantation goods, the expected wave of public support for the arrival of the British troops never materialised, leaving Clinton and his subordinates isolated. For much of the rest of the war in the South, British commanders attempted to mobilise Loyalist support, but the results were never as helpful as they had hoped.[28]

By late 1779, having called in troops from Newport, Clinton had assembled a strong force for the next step in this strategy, an invasion of South Carolina. Clinton took personal command of this campaign, and the task force with 14,000 men sailed south from New York at the end of the year. By early 1780, Clinton had brought Charleston under siege. In May, working together with Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, he forced the surrender of the city, with its garrison of 5,000, in a stunning and serious defeat for the rebel cause. It was during the siege and capture of Charleston that Clinton's inability to co-operate with equal ranking officers started to become more evident. Arbuthnot and Clinton did not work together well, and this feud was to last until the end of the war with disastrous results for the unity of the British high command.

Clinton then returned to New York, leaving 8,000 British troops in the southern theatre under the command of General Cornwallis, his second-in-command.[32] From New York, he oversaw the campaign in the South, and his correspondence to Cornwallis through the War showed an active interest in the affairs of his southern army.[33] However, as the campaign progressed, he grew further and further away from his subordinate. As the campaign drew to a close, the correspondence became more and more acrimonious. Part of this may be due to George Germain, whose correspondence with Cornwallis may have convinced the junior officer to start disregarding the orders of his superior and consider himself to be an independent command.[34]

In 1782, after fighting in the North American theater ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Clinton was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by Sir Guy Carleton, and he returned to England.

Letters from General Sir Henry Clinton during the Revolutionary War can be found in the political papers of his cousin, Henry Pelham-Clinton, in the Newcastle (Clumber) Collection held at Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham.

Later career

In 1783, he attempted to clear his name by publishing a Narrative of the Campaign of 1781 in North America in which he attempted to lay the blame for the 1781 campaign failures on General Cornwallis. This was met with a public response by General Cornwallis, who leveled his own criticisms at Clinton. In addition to writing his narrative, he resumed his seat in Parliament, serving until 1784.[35]

Not much is known about what Sir Henry did from 1784 until he was re-elected to Parliament in 1790 for Launceston, a pocket borough controlled by his cousin Newcastle. Three years later, in October 1793, Clinton was promoted to full general. The following July he was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, but he died at Portland Place before he was able to assume that post.[36]


Sir Henry Clinton held the command in America for four years, ending in disaster and defeat.[37] As a result, he was widely seen to share in the blame for the defeat, but some historians have since shifted more blame onto Cornwallis.[27][page needed] Clinton published a Narrative of the war, in an attempt to clear his reputation. He was, wrote Major Wemyss who served under him, "an honourable and respectable officer of the German school; having served under Prince Ferdinand of Prussia and the Duke of Brunswick. Vain, open to flattery; and from a great aversion to all business not military, too often misled by aides and favourites." Colonel Sir Charles Stuart described him as "fool enough to command an army when he is incapable of commanding a troop of horse." Mackesy argues that he was "a very capable general in the field."[37] Wemyss pointed out Clinton's real weaknesses: his interests were narrow, and he was crippled by self-distrust.[37]

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Rt. Hon. Gen. Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief in North America's Timeline

April 16, 1730
July 21, 1768
December 23, 1769
March 9, 1771
Stourton Parva, Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
December 23, 1795
Age 65
London, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom
Windsor, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom