Gibraltar Governor Henry Clinton, (Sir) (1730-1795), army officer, was born on 16 April 1730, the second of the three surviving children of George Clinton (1686-1761), naval officer, governor of New York, and MP, and his wife, Anne (d. 1767), the daughter of General Peter Carle.
Education and early service
To an unusual extent, Henry Clinton’s early development was shaped by his father and his father’s family. Captain George Clinton, a diffident man and a marginally successful naval officer, was at sea for nearly all of his son’s childhood. In 1741 Captain Clinton turned to his brother’s brother-in-law, the powerful first duke of Newcastle, for help with his career and mounting debts. Newcastle arranged to have him promoted admiral and appointed royal governor of New York. So it was that Henry Clinton, whose childhood had been spent in the company of a strong-willed mother and two sisters, was transported in 1743 to a remote provincial capital to live among colonists who resented his privileged status. Young Clinton was intelligent and he had the benefits of a sound, basic education-perhaps through tutors and travel, probably through the Revd Samuel Seabury’s school at Hempstead, Long Island. But his appearance-he was not handsome-and early experiences seem to have encouraged what his father described as a family disposition towards diffidence. He never gained the confidence in himself or the skill in working with others to match his considerable intelligence.
Clinton’s career in the army was also shaped by his father and his father’s family. In 1745 Admiral Clinton obtained his son a lieutenancy in an independent company of infantry at New York and a tour of duty with a detachment sent to occupy the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton. By the autumn of 1748 Captain-Lieutenant Henry Clinton was asking for leave ‘to go to France’-presumably to study his profession (23 Oct 1748, 23 June 1749, TNA: PRO, WO 25/3191). His leave granted, and having been promoted captain, Clinton sailed for England in the summer of 1749. It seems likely that he then went to France. If so, he returned to find that the duke of Newcastle had secured him a commission in the elite Coldstream Guards (as lieutenant and then as captain, 1751-8) and, eventually, appointment as aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Sir John Ligonier. Following further promotion, as captain and then lieutenant-colonel in the 1st foot guards (1758-62), he accompanied his new regiment to Germany in June 1760 to serve against the French as a volunteer and aide-de-camp with the celebrated young commander Prince Charles of Brunswick. Clinton saw action at Korbach and Kloster Kamp in 1760, won Prince Charles’s admiration, and was promoted colonel (1762). He went home after being wounded in late August 1762. Brief as his active service had been, Clinton emerged from the Seven Years’ War with a reputation as a brave and knowledgeable officer and a student of the art of war.
Secondary commands, 1769-1778
During the years between the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence, Clinton advanced steadily in the army, entered parliament, and enjoyed a happy, if brief, marriage to Harriet Carter (1747-1772), the daughter of Thomas and Martha Carter, of St James’s, Westminster, and Penn, Buckinghamshire. The couple were married on 12 February 1767. Clinton was colonel of the 12th foot from 1766 to 1778, took part in summer manoeuvres in 1767, accompanied his regiment to Gibraltar, where he served as second in command in 1769, and was promoted major-general in 1772. He also sat in parliament on the interest of his cousin, the second duke of Newcastle, for Boroughbridge (1772-4) and, later, Newark (1774-84). But on 29 August 1772 his wife died after giving birth to her fifth child in five years of marriage. Clinton was profoundly depressed by Harriet’s death. Her parents and two sisters moved into his house in Weybridge, Surrey, to care for his children-two of whom, William Henry Clinton (1769-1846) and Henry Clinton (1771-1829), became generals in the Napoleonic era. Clinton then sought to escape his grief by accompanying fellow officers to observe the Russo-Turkish War in 1774 and by accepting appointment as third in command of British forces in North America in February 1775.
Clinton reached Boston on 25 May 1775 to start three years of frustrating service under generals Thomas Gage and William Howe. He made sound plans for defeating the rebellious colonists, but he was rarely successful in advocating or carrying out those plans. At Boston in 1775 he failed to dissuade Gage from launching a costly frontal attack on rebel forces on Charlestown Neck, the battle of Bunker Hill. The following year, after becoming second in command and leading an abortive expedition to the Carolinas, he also failed to persuade Howe, the new commander-in-chief, to accept plans for trapping and destroying the continental army at New York. And in 1777, after a brief winter’s leave in England, during which he learned the government’s plans, Clinton was unable to convince Howe that he was expected to co-operate with a British army advancing south from Canada in a summer campaign along the Hudson. Howe, ignoring Clinton’s arguments and the government’s plans, took his army to Pennsylvania by way of Chesapeake Bay. He left Clinton to hold New York city and to do what he could to favour the British forces from Canada. When in early October Clinton made a bold dash up the Hudson, Howe promptly stripped him of the troops he was employing to open the river. Clinton, thoroughly frustrated with Howe, asked to resign as soon as he learned that the Canadian army had surrendered.
Rather than accept his resignation, the British government decided during the winter of 1777-8 to make Clinton commander-in-chief and to adopt a new strategy for ending the rebellion: the surrender of the Canadian army and Howe’s own wish to resign had changed matters. To carry on the war with depleted regular forces, the government proposed to rely on the Royal Navy and loyal colonists to end the rebellion. Clinton was to try to engage the continental army in a decisive battle. Failing that, he was to withdraw from Philadelphia and co-operate with the navy in raiding the coasts of New England and sending a detachment of 7000 men to Georgia to join loyalists there in restoring royal government throughout the southern colonies.
Before he could carry out this new strategy, France intervened on the side of the rebels, and Clinton had temporarily to subordinate the American war to a wider war with France. In late March 1778, after France announced it had concluded a treaty with the United States, the British government ordered Clinton to send 5000 men to capture the French island of St Lucia in the West Indies and an additional 3000 to reinforce the Floridas. He was then to evacuate Philadelphia and use his remaining forces to defend British posts from New York to Newfoundland. Clinton received these instructions at Philadelphia in May, when he became commander-in-chief. He evacuated Philadelphia in June, marched and fought his way through New Jersey (engaging the continental army inconclusively at Monmouth), and co-operated with the British navy against a French squadron that ranged along the Atlantic seaboard from July to November. Not until November, when he had at last sent a detachment to St Lucia and the French squadron had gone, was Clinton able to concentrate on ending the American rebellion.
But, in pursuing the government’s new strategy of relying on the navy and loyalists to restore royal government, Clinton was markedly more cautious than he had been while serving under Howe. In late November 1778 he made a tentative start on recovering the south, sending some 3000 regulars to assist loyalists in restoring royal government in Georgia. When that start proved unexpectedly successful, he considered detaching more regulars to capture Charles Town. But he wasted nearly five months during the spring and summer of 1779 awaiting reinforcements, in mounting a diversionary raid in the Chesapeake, and in trying to lure the continental army into a decisive battle along the Hudson River at Stony and Verplancks points, 40 miles north of New York city. By the time that a reinforcement of 3300 sickly men arrived in late August, a French squadron was on its way to North America. Clinton withdrew his forces from Stony and Verplancks points, as well as Rhode Island, and prepared to meet the French at New York.
Charles Town and the south, 1780-1781
That winter, after the French had left American waters, Clinton undertook an expedition to South Carolina. He went south to take pressure off his forces in Georgia by capturing Charles Town and enlisting loyalists in pacifying South Carolina. On reaching Charles Town in February 1780 he saw an opportunity to do more than he had planned-to capture at Charles Town the principal American army in the south and to carry his offensive well beyond South Carolina and Georgia. He proceeded cautiously: surrounding, besieging, and capturing (on 12 May) Charles Town with its garrison of 3371 men and 300 cannon. He then moved quickly to exploit his greatest victory. He established armed camps in the interior of South Carolina, raised loyalist units, and called upon all colonists to swear allegiance to the crown. But he was all too quick to assume that he had ended the rebellion in South Carolina and that his second in command, Charles, Earl Cornwallis, would be able with relatively few regular troops-about one-quarter of the army in America-to restore royal government from Georgia to Virginia.
Clinton returned to New York in June 1780 to seek a decisive battle with the continental army and to resume raiding warfare in the north-indeed, to make his principal effort there. Yet in the year following his return to New York, a year in which he became paralysed by the arrival of a French squadron at Rhode Island and by disagreements with his naval counterpart, Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, he gradually shifted his army to the south and allowed Virginia to become the seat of the war. He did so because he lacked the confidence to control Cornwallis, who had the enthusiastic support of the British government. Clinton had ordered Cornwallis to restore royal government gradually, establishing loyalists in one province before going on to another. When Cornwallis chose instead to secure South Carolina by invading North Carolina, and when he suffered defeats and called for help, Clinton began sending reinforcements. Between October 1780 and May 1781 he made four separate detachments to the Chesapeake. But even then, even after three-fifths of his army was in the southern colonies, he still did not intend to concentrate there. And he was angry to learn in late May 1781 that Cornwallis had, unilaterally, taken his small army to Virginia, leaving the interior of South Carolina exposed to the rebels.
Clinton was not angry-or confident-enough to take command of Cornwallis’s forces or to pursue his own strategy during the critical summer of 1781. Knowing that the French were sending a powerful fleet to America and that British forces in the Chesapeake would be vulnerable to such a fleet, he had decided to leave only a small contingent of regulars in Virginia and to attack either Philadelphia or Newport. Yet when Cornwallis met his request for troops by threatening to withdraw from Virginia, Clinton allowed him to keep all of his forces and to establish a base at Yorktown. Once he had made these concessions to Cornwallis and to the British government’s preference for concentrating in the Chesapeake, he had to forgo his own plans and to rely on the Royal Navy to preserve Cornwallis from the Franco-American forces gathering in Virginia. The navy tried and failed to open the Chesapeake in early September, and on 19 October Cornwallis surrendered, the victim of his own insubordination and of Clinton’s inability to exercise authority.
Cornwallis’s surrender effectively ended the American war and Clinton’s command-indeed, his active military service. He returned to England in June 1782 to devote the remainder of his life to redeeming his reputation, enjoying the pleasures of a complicated domestic life, and performing occasional duties as colonel of the 84th foot (1778-82) and 7th dragoons (1779-95); he was promoted lieutenant-general (1777) and general (1793). Finding that he was widely blamed for British defeat and that the king was unwilling to reward him for his American service, beyond having created him knight of the Bath on 11 April 1777, he undertook a prolonged, lonely defence of his command. He entered a destructive pamphlet war with Cornwallis and other, anonymous, opponents; he tried and failed to get an Irish viscountcy (the government offered a barony, which he declined); and he worked intermittently on his apologia, a long manuscript history of the American rebellion that did not see publication until 1954. But he also had the good sense to enjoy his families and friends. He installed his children and sisters-in-law at Portland Place, London, and Orwell Park, Suffolk, and set up his mistress from the American war, Mary Baddeley, nee O’Callaghan, the wife of Captain Thomas Baddeley (d. 1782), with their five children in Paddington. He also had an illegitimate daughter from his former liaison with a Mrs Preussen. Somehow he managed, after delicate introductions, to divide his time between these households and excursions abroad to Europe. By the 1790s other friends from the American war-the second duke of Northumberland and Clinton’s second cousin, the third duke of Newcastle-had found him a seat in parliament (for Launceston, 1790-94), an offer of active service (which he declined), and the governorship of Gibraltar (1794-5). He died, before going to Gibraltar, at Portland Place, on 23 December 1795.
Clinton’s reputation rests almost entirely on his service in the American War of Independence. His performance was sometimes energetic and inspired, usually sound, and almost always marred by his inability, by what historians have come to see as a disordered personality, to work well with other generals and admirals and to carry out his own plans. He clearly understood the war as a whole: the importance of gradually enlisting the support of the American people; of gaining control of lands that could provide food, fuel, and shelter for British forces; and of maintaining control of the seas about the colonies. He also understood the importance of avoiding costly defeats, of pursuing strategies and tactics that minimized risks to British regular forces. Yet he was so unsure of himself, so hesitant in exercising authority, that he could not translate his insights into British victory. Nor could he avoid being blamed for Lord Cornwallis’s climactic defeat at Yorktown. Clinton was a brave, knowledgeable officer who was unsuited by temperament to high command-especially in the long, difficult American War of Independence.
Ira D. Gruber
Sources W. B. Willcox, Portrait of a general: Sir Henry Clinton in the war of independence (1964) + I. D. Gruber, ‘Britain’s southern strategy’, The revolutionary war in the south, ed. W. R. Higgins (1979), 205-38 + I. D. Gruber, ‘The education of Sir Henry Clinton’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 72 (1990), 131-53 + I. D. Gruber, ‘George III chooses a commander in chief’, Arms and independence: the military character of the American revolution, ed. R. Hoffman and R. J. Albert (1984), 166-90 + The American rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s narrative of his campaigns, 1775-1782, ed. W. B. Willcox (1954) + M. Stern, Thorns and briars: bonding, love, and death, 1764-1870 (1991) + F. Wickwire and M. Wickwire, Cornwallis: the American adventure (1970) + P. H. Smith, Loyalists and redcoats (1964) + J. Brooke, ‘Clinton, Henry’, HoP, Commons, 1754-90 + W. Stokes, ‘Clinton, Sir Henry’, HoP, Commons, 1790-1820 + I. D. Gruber, ‘British strategy: the theory and practice of eighteenth-century warfare’, Reconsiderations on the revolutionary war, ed. D. Higginbotham (1978), 14-31 + R. A. Bowler, ‘Sir Henry Clinton and army profiteering’, William and Mary Quarterly, 31 (1974), 111-22 + R. Kaplan, ‘The hidden war: British intelligence operations during the American revolution’, William and Mary Quarterly, 47 (1990), 115-38
Archives JRL, MSS + U. Mich., Clements L., corresp. and papers | Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, Percy MSS + BL, letters to Lord Auckland, Add. MSS 34416-34460, passim + BL, corresp. with Sir Frederick Haldimand, Add. MSS 21807-21808 + Hunt. L., Hastings MSS + Norfolk RO, corresp. with earl of Buckinghamshire + U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Sir Charles Hotham-Thompson + U. Mich., Clements L., Germain and Knox MSS + U. Mich., Clements L., corresp. with John Simcoe + U. Nott. L., letters to Charles Mellish; corresp. with duke of Newcastle + official corresp. with the American secretary, CO 5/95-104 + corresp. with Lord Amherst, WO 34 + corresp. with Guy Carleton, PRO 30/55 + corresp. with Lord Cornwallis, PRO 30/11 + corresp. with Lord Rodney, PRO 30/20
Likenesses oils, c.1760, NAM · J. Smart, miniature, c.1777, NAM [see illus.] · T. Day, miniature, 1787, repro. in Willcox, Portrait of a general, frontispiece · S. Addington, miniature, 1793, V&A · Ritchie, engraving, repro. in G. A. Billias, ed., George Washington’s opponents (1969), following p. 78
Wealth at death left £400 in annuities from estates in Shropshire; £5800 in bequests; £5000 invested for his children; £4194 for Carter-Clinton children from marriage settlement; remainder of estate left to his sons by Harriet Carter: will