Sir Henry Clinton’s Generalship

Critical Thinking

April 27, 2021
by John Ferling Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

“My fate is hard,” Sir Henry Clinton remarked after learning that he had been named commander of the British army in May 1778, adding that he expected to someday bear “a considerable portion of the blame” for Britain’s “inevitable” lack of success.[1]

There were good reasons for Clinton’s pessimism. Not only was France entering the war as America’s ally, but Lord George Germain, secretary of state for America, directed Clinton to abandon Philadelphia and detach eight thousand troops elsewhere, chiefly to St. Lucia. Despite being left with thousands of fewer troops than Britain had committed to America during the previous year, Clinton was ordered to act with the “utmost vigour,” seek to retain Britain’s hold on New York and Newport, endeavor to bring George Washington to battle, and initiate “an attack . . . upon the southern colonies.”[2]

Four years later Clinton’s premonition of disaster came true, as did his fear that he would be held responsible for Britain’s debacle. In the wake of Yorktown he was assailed in England as having been irresolute and overly cautious, and as a commander without a strategic plan.[3] In the 1960s, Clinton’s biographer, William B. Willcox, in collaboration with a psychotherapist, went even further. They portrayed Clinton as craving power, though subconsciously he felt that “he ought not to have it.” This profound conflict rendered Clinton “unable to use” the authority he possessed, resulting in a “paralysis of will” that doomed him to failure.[4] Most historians have since depicted Clinton as capricious, indecisive, inordinately tentative, muddled, ruinously inactive, lacking a strategic vision, or fatally inhibited by his sense of inadequacy. Summarizing the judgment of two generations of scholars, one wrote that Clinton was “his own worst enemy.”[5]

Perhaps the time has come to take a fresh look at Clinton’s generalship, one not tethered to psychohistory and that above all considers the perplexities he faced.

During his initial four months in command Clinton faced multiple crises. He responded audaciously to each emergency. Days after assuming command, Clinton complied with Germain’s order to relinquish Philadelphia, marching his army to New York rather than taking it by sea, a choice made partially from a desire to bring on an engagement with Washington. His wish came true when the Continental army attacked at Monmouth. Clinton counterattacked, forcing the Americans to retreat and take up defensive positions. Repeated British assaults were repulsed and the day’s battle ended without a victor. Given that his army, accompanied by nearly three thousand displaced Pennsylvanians, was strung out over several miles, Clinton concluded that another day of fighting would gain nothing. He resumed his march, hopeful the enemy would attack again. Washington disappointed him.[6]

Within days, Clinton faced greater troubles. A superior French squadron under Vice Admiral Comte d’Estaing arrived, posing a threat to New York. The British escaped the peril when d’Estaing concluded that his warships were too heavy to enter New York Harbor, but also as a result of Clinton’s hurried response. Before d’Estaing could imperil Britain’s vessels shielding the harbor, Clinton rushed 1,800 men and artillery to Sandy Hook. According to the Royal Navy’s second in command, d’Estaing was foiled because Clinton’s speedy action doomed the French to “lose their ships” should they sail within range of the harbor.[7]

Clinton thereafter guessed correctly that the Allies would turn to Newport, occupied by 4,700 British troops under Sir Robert Pigot. Eleven days before the Allied commanders concurred on a Newport campaign, Clinton sent Pigot more than 1,800 troops, artillery, and sufficient provisions to sustain the garrison through a lengthy siege. The reinforcements were in place thirteen days prior to d’Estaing’s arrival, eighteen days before additional troops sent by Washington joined Gen. John Sullivan—commander of the Continental army in Rhode Island—and more than three weeks before the last rebel militiaman appeared.[8]

The joint Allied campaign came to naught when a thunderous Atlantic storm crippled the French fleet and forced it to limp to Boston for repairs. However, Sullivan opted to remain on Aquidneck Island, hopeful that d’Estaing would soon return. Clinton spotted an opportunity and acted boldly. He personally led a force of 4,300 men toward Newport. Clinton’s plan was to trap Sullivan’s army of seven thousand on Aquidneck Island between Pigot’s force, advancing from the south, and his own descending from the north.[9]

Clinton’s plans derailed when his voyage was slowed by contrary winds and Sullivan learned of the impending danger. The Americans evacuated the island less than twenty-four hours before Clinton arrived. By the narrowest of margins, said Clinton, Sullivan had escaped from “being very critically circumstanced.”[10]

Throughout 1778, Clinton had acted intrepidly and ably, even spectacularly. He had responded to existential challenges in New York and Newport, and he had come within a whisker of inflicting a crumpling blow to a large American army on Aquidneck Island.

Although Germain repeatedly urged him to implement a new British strategy adopted following Saratoga, Clinton was less active in 1779. Britain’s latest strategic plan—the southern strategy—aimed at retaking Georgia and South Carolina, and possibly North Carolina. If the rebellion in those colonies could be quashed, Britain might emerge from the war with a vibrant American empire that included Canada, trans-Appalachia, several southern colonies, and a bevy of sugar islands in the Caribbean. Once d’Estaing’s fleet departed for the Caribbean late in 1778, Germain saw nothing to prevent Clinton from carrying out the plan.[11]

Clinton had a different, and not unreasonable, perspective. With the grave threats of 1778 behind him, he at last complied with his orders to relinquish a substantial chunk of his soldiery. The “very nerves” of his army “dissolved,” said Clinton, despite likely rebel threats and d’Estaing’s almost certain return in the summer. Clinton maintained that he needed fifteen thousand men to adequately defend New York against a joint Allied attack, but he possessed barely thirteen thousand. “My zeal is unimpaired,” Clinton told Germain, but he insisted that until he was reinforced, he must “remain on a most strict defensive” footing.[12]

In fact, Clinton was not totally inactive. In December 1778 he dispatched three thousand men to retake Savannah, a campaign that succeeded spectacularly when the city fell and Georgia’s royal government was restored.[13] In May 1779 a flotilla sent to plunder in Virginia sowed widespread destruction and liberated over five hundred slaves.[14] Later that month Clinton seized the enemy forts at Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point that covered King’s Ferry in the Hudson Highlands. As his successful strike impeded the enemy’s movements and interrupted their communications, Clinton believed that Washington would have to risk “an action” to recover what had been lost. Washington called Clinton’s act “one of the wisest measures” he had “yet pursued,” but he shrank from a fight. All “we can do is lament what we cannot remedy,” Washington remarked.[15]

Clinton considered an attack on West Point, an action that unquestionably would have forced Washington to fight. Both commanders understood that if West Point fell, Britain would control the Hudson River to Albany, detaching New England from the other states and dooming the American cause. The post, remarked Gen. Henry Knox, the Continental army’s artillery chieftain, was “the object of greatest importance, on the Continent, and to the maintenance of which every thing else ought to give place.”[16]

Horatio Gates, the American general, believed that Clinton could have captured the post had he acted immediately after his foray at King’s Ferry. Knox, however, was confident that the fortress was “too strong . . . to admit even of an Attempt[ted siege] much less a storm.”[17]

Clinton chose not to attack, but his decision was not due to a paralysis of will. Mindful that the enemy would spare nothing to safeguard West Point and unaware of the installation’s defenses—other than that Washington had been given nearly four years to secure the citadel—Clinton rejected a chancy campaign that might substantially reduce the prowess of his already shrunken army on the cusp of d’Estaing’s expected return.[18]

Clinton instead ordered destructive raids along the Connecticut coast, hopeful the sorties might draw Washington into the field. When the American commander did not move, Clinton concluded that there was little “chance of forcing Washington to [a general] action.”[19]

Since Savannah’s fall the previous December, Germain had prodded Clinton to act to restore royal rule in South Carolina. Clinton, in turn, advised London that he would unleash the campaign in October when the miasmic southern summer ended. However, late that summer Clinton learned that d’Estaing was returning. Certain that the enemy’s target was New York, Clinton consolidated his army, recalling the troops near King’s Ferry and withdrawing all British forces from Rhode Island, a step that Germain had sanctioned.[20]

Clinton soon discovered that d’Estaing’s objective was Savannah, though he believed that following his success there, the French admiral would sail for New York. Both Clinton and Washington prepared for that eventuality, but d’Estaing never came north. His assault on Savannah ended disastrously, after which he returned to France. An elated Clinton called d’Estaing’s repulse “the greatest event that has happened [in] the whole war.” Eager to take the field, Clinton, rapidly prepared for his long awaited move against Charleston. “This is the most important hour Britain ever knew,” he said. “If we lose it, we shall never see such another.”[21]

Britain could not have had a better-prepared leader for conducting the Charleston campaign. Clinton was contemplative, intellectually curious, a voracious reader—especially on military history and the art of war—and was widely regarded as a superior strategist. He had entered the army while in his teens, served with distinction in two conflicts before the War of Independence, and arrived in America shortly after Lexington and Concord. During the next three years Clinton compiled a commendable record, including command of a 1776 expedition that reclaimed Newport. When General John Burgoyne was trapped in New York in 1777, he appealed to Clinton for help. Clinton acted immediately, capturing three rebel forts well up the Hudson. At Fort Clinton, he spurred on his men “by scal[ing] the top of the mountain, himself carrying the British colors, which he kept holding aloft while his troops . . . carried the post.” But as this occurred during Gen. William Howe’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Clinton lacked the manpower and naval arm to save Burgoyne’s ill-fated army.[22]

Just after Christmas, 1779, Clinton with 8,700 men sailed south and carried out a textbook siege of Charleston. It culminated in May with the surrender of more than five thousand American defenders. Clinton’s triumph was America’s Saratoga. He had accomplished more than any British commander in the six-year-old war, and his victory triggered celebrations throughout England. One onlooker thought Clinton was “the most popularman in England” and some believed his conquest enabled war-weary Britain to remain at war.[23]

A jubilant Clinton giddily exclaimed that he had “conquered the two Carolinas in Charleston.” His confidence swelled when thousands of Loyalists signaled an eagerness to take up arms and the colony’s former royal attorney-general advised that it would be “very practicable” to reestablish British control.[24] In June, Clinton put Charles, Earl Cornwallis, in charge of the pacification of South Carolina and Georgia, leaving him with nearly 8,500 regulars that he expected to be augmented by large numbers of Loyalists. Clinton felt that Cornwallis would have sufficient numbers to successfully complete his mission, unless a “superior fleet shows itself.”[25]

Meanwhile, convinced that Washington was likely in a “state of unsuspecting security” at Morristown, Clinton planned to assail his foe with land and naval forces when he came north. The plan went awry when the army in New York, unaware of the commander’s intentions, landed troops in New Jersey, bogged down, and suffered heavy losses. Clinton had no choice but to call off his attack and extract the endangered force.[26] As at Aquidneck Island, ill fortune may have cheated Clinton out of a breathtaking achievement.

Nevertheless, Clinton was upbeat, even thinking the rebellion might be “near its end.” The American economy had collapsed, morale appeared to be sagging within the enemy camp, a Franco-Spanish invasion of England had failed, and Cornwallis’s initial reports were optimistic. Furthermore, Cornwallis destroyed General Gates’s rebel army at Camden in August, the fourth crushing blow that the Americans had experienced in the South in twenty months, with losses totaling more than eight thousand.[27]

Amidst the tsunami of welcome tidings, an enemy naval squadron—which included a French army under General le Comte de Rochambeau—arrived in Newport in July 1780. During the next two months Clinton faced crucial decisions about how to respond to the threat, and the choices he made provided fuel for the later charges that he was irresolute and inordinately cautious.

While the French fleet was still at sea, Clinton—hoping to assault Rochambeau before he could establish adequate fortifications—mobilized a force of six thousand that was to be unleashed the moment he learned of the enemy’s arrival. But a crucial week passed between the French landing and Clinton’s notification that his foe had come ashore. Furthermore, neither Clinton nor the navy was aware of the enemy’s size. Both wanted more information before acting, which delayed the operation. Once they agreed to strike, further delays arose owing to the navy’s need to take on water and its inability to sail due to adverse winds. By the time Clinton could move—three long weeks after the French landing—intelligence reported that Rochambeau commanded upwards of six thousand regulars, who would be augmented by rebel militia, and that all the while he had buttressed his defenses. Clinton knew of the excessive losses that d’Estaing’s numerically superior force had suffered when assaulting a smaller entrenched adversary at Savannah. He also recollected all too well the British catastrophe in attacking amateur colonials ensconced in entrenchments constructed the night before at Bunker Hill. Clinton cancelled the strike.[28]

A successful attack would have had a momentous impact on the course of the war. A massive failure would have erased the gains made at Charleston and bolstered American morale. No one can know what would have happened had Clinton attacked, although Rochambeau contended that twelve days after landing—which would have been at least five days, and probably more, before the British could have struck—his “position was rendered respectable.”[29] In light of Rochambeau’s assessment, Clinton appears to have made the proper choice.

Rhode Island would not go away. In mid-September, Admiral Sir George Rodney arrived with several ships of the line, causing some French leaders to give “themselves up for lost.” Clinton initially saw things in the same light and pledged men for an attack, but his ardor soon cooled. The French had now been given seventy-five days to prepare their defenses. In addition, a siege was “impractical,” both because Rodney could not stay for long and the British would have inadequate artillery, given that Clinton—fearing that Washington would assail Manhattan while thousands of British troops were elsewhere—was not about to remove his heavy guns from New York.[30] Victory would hinge on a bloody assault. Success was far from predicable.

However, Clinton did not turn away from fear of failure. He opted instead for an alternative that offered a bigger prize with far fewer losses. He now knew unequivocally that Benedict Arnold, who commanded West Point, was ready to defect and hand the installation to the British. The West Point option was virtually certain to be the least costly and, if Arnold’s treachery succeeded, America’s quest for independence would be thwarted.[31]

Arnold’s treasonous plan unraveled and Clinton’s gamble failed, a misstep with possibly costly consequences for Britain’s war effort. However, lacking a crystal ball, Clinton could not foresee that Arnold’s act of betrayal would founder.

From this point forward Clinton focused on what he thought would someday be an inevitable Allied attack on New York and, more immediately, on the southern strategy. Cornwallis’s early confidence had waned in the face of robust partisan resistance, prompting him, in September, to make an incursion into North Carolina. His object was to recruit Loyalists and close the supply routes through which essential provisions flowed to the guerrillas and rebel armies in the southern theater. His foray ended in October in disaster at King’s Mountain.[32]

Despite that setback, Clinton for the first time entered a new year—1781—“sanguine in my hopes” that the war could be brought to a successful conclusion in the coming months.[33] One reason for Clinton’s optimism was that he had rethought his southern strategy. The result was an imaginative plan. From the outset, Cornwallis’s orders had been to concentrate on crushing the insurgency in South Carolina and Georgia. He might take steps to “recover North Carolina,” but only so long as doing so was “consistent with the security” of South Carolina. Cornwallis’s mission remained unchanged.[34]

Clinton, too, recognized the necessity of sealing the supply routes that ran into the low country, and in December he dispatched an army under Benedict Arnold to Virginia. In March, Clinton deployed a much larger army under General William Phillips to the Old Dominion. Phillips, with 5,500 men, was to establish a Chesapeake base, raid rebel supply depots, and interdict shipments of arms and munitions to South Carolina. Clinton also anticipated that Phillips’s presence would compel Virginia to “call back” its militiamen in the Carolinas, facilitating Cornwallis’s suppression of the rebellion in the low country.[35]

Clinton’s plan broke down following Cornwallis’s return to North Carolina early in 1781 to cope with a new rebel army under General Nathanael Greene. In engagements at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, and a fruitless pursuit of his adversary through North Carolina’s backcountry, Cornwallis lost roughly 40 percent of his army. An even greater blow to Clinton’s plan occurred in April when Cornwallis, in violation of his orders, abandoned South Carolina and marched to Virginia.

Clinton might have ordered Cornwallis to return to South Carolina, but he declined to take a step that would be contrary to the wishes of Germain. The American secretary, driven by the unrealistic notion that the “speedy suppression of the rebellion” in every state below the Potomac was within reach, now advocated “pushing our conquests” in Virginia. Clinton had never entertained the “smallest idea” of attempting to conquer that large and populous province. He lacked the resources for such an undertaking while simultaneously defending New York. Twice in April, Clinton cautioned Germain that posting a huge army in Virginia would be “attended with great risk unless we are sure of permanent superiority at sea.” Indeed, since early in the year Clinton’s plan had been to remove all but two thousand of the troops in Virginia during the summer, and in June he ordered Cornwallis to send artillery and nearly half of his army to New York. A month later, Clinton countermanded his order when he learned of Germain’s “great mortification” that any troops were to be removed from Virginia.[36] Clinton’s well-conceived plan for regaining two southern colonies had been reduced to shambles.

In the spring, he learned that a French squadron under Comte de Grasse would reach North America in late summer, posing a potential threat to Britain’s forces in either Virginia or New York. Five times that summer Clinton sent warnings to Cornwallis to prepare for the menace he might face.[37]

Clinton was unaware of de Grasse’s intentions, but he thought New York was the admiral’s likely target. He even believed that if de Grasse came to the Chesapeake and discovered that Cornwallis had prepared “a respectable defense,” the French admiral would opt instead to attack New York.[38]

From mid-summer onward, Clinton was immersed in the crisis that culminated at Yorktown, an outcome that led critics to saddle him with much of the blame for the disaster. Criticism of Clinton centered on three matters.

He was accused of committing “one of the foremost blunders of the war” by having not reinforced Cornwallis in Yorktown during the summer. But Clinton had no better idea of de Grasse’s intentions than did Rochambeau and Washington, who were preparing to fight in New York if the admiral came there and in Virginia if the Chesapeake was the fleet’s destination. Clinton guessed that New York was de Grasse’s target, a conclusion based on captured enemy correspondence and uncannily good intelligence that Washington and Rochambeau had agreed in May to attack New York. The “enemy will certainly attack” New York, Clinton predicted. If mistaken, however, he was confident that Cornwallis would have stockpiled sufficient provisions to see his army through a longer period than de Grasse could remain in the Chesapeake.[39]

Clinton was also assailed for not having struck when the Franco-American armies rendezvoused above Manhattan in early July. But persuaded that the enemy would attack New York, Clinton was not about to emerge from the sturdy defenses the British had constructed during the past five years, formidable emplacements that were a factor leading Rochambeau to favor a Chesapeake campaign over assailing New York. Clinton also knew that when augmented by militia, the Allied armies would possess enormously superior numbers. Clinton feared, too, that should de Grasse arrive during his and the navy’s absence, the door would be left open for the French squadron to seize control of New York Harbor.[40]

Clinton was additionally criticized for having failed to attack the Allied armies once they crossed the Hudson on August 19 and marched south. But for the next dozen days—until they crossed the Raritan River, the unmistakable sign that they were headed for Virginia—Clinton could only guess his enemy’s intent. He studied contradictory intelligence reports and the enemy took steps to fool him, which to some degree succeeded. However, Clinton’s judgment was shaped more by word from Rear Admiral Samuel Hood, who arrived in New York two days before the Allies crossed the Raritan. Hood, who sailed from the Caribbean several days after de Grasse’s departure, had scouted the entrance to the Chesapeake on August 25 and concluded—quite accurately—that the French squadron was not there. Sailing in faster copper-bottomed vessels, Hood had beaten his prey to the Chesapeake, but Clinton and the naval officers thought the information meant that de Grasse was en route to New York.[41]

On August 30, the Allied armies began crossing the Raritan. Britain’s, and Clinton’s, military disaster played out over the next two months. From his first day as commander, Clinton had feared that the hand he was dealt would deny him success and inescapably lead others to blame him for Britain’s ultimate failure. He was prescient.

But history has judged Clinton unfairly. He was a good commander whose reputation has been scarred by groundless psychological conjectures that should be laid aside. Furthermore, scholarly characterizations of Clinton as indecisive and incorrigibly inactive ignore his swift and bold responses to the threats posed by Comte d’Estaing in 1778, his adept operation to trap Sullivan on Aquidneck Island, the countless efforts he made to bring Washington to battle, his capture of Savannah and Charleston, his initiatives aimed at impeding the flow of rebel supplies to the low country, and the numerous morale-eroding raids he ordered. He was unwilling to strike West Point and Newport, but a commander’s wariness to attack enemy targets about which little is known is on the whole a commendable attribute. Although portrayed by some as having no strategic plan, Clinton devised a superb formula for subduing the insurgencies in Georgia and South Carolina, and possibly North Carolina. Had it not been for Germain, a British army of only two thousand would have been posted at Yorktown after mid-summer 1781, a force so small that the Allies might have disregarded it and opted instead for a siege of New York.

Had Clinton made different choices during the crucial summer of 1781, the Yorktown disaster might not have occurred. Had the Royal Navy not lost its supremacy at sea for the third time in four years—a matter over which Clinton had absolutely no control—Britain would almost certainly have escaped the catastrophe at Yorktown.

Despite the staggering manpower challenges he had faced, by the spring of 1781 Clinton thought—and Washington feared—that the war might end with Great Britain in possession of New York and two or more southern provinces. To that point, Clinton’s generalship had brought Britain close to realizing the ends it initially sought after Saratoga.

Clinton’s generalship, like that of Washington, was a mixture of bold action and prudent caution, and for the lion’s share of the period after 1778 Clinton was the more active, more daring, and more successful of the two. Yorktown turned things upside down, making Washington an iconic figure and causing Clinton to be scorned as an unfit commander.


[1]Sir Henry Clinton to the Duke of Gloucester, October 10, 1778, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan (SHCP); Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative Of His Campaigns, 1775-1782, With An Appendix of Original Documents, ed., William B. Willcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 85-86; Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 213; William B. Willcox, “British Strategy in America, 1778,” Journal of Modern History, no. 2 (June 1947) 19:109.

[2]Lord George Germain to Clinton, February 4, March 8, 21, 1778, in K. G. Davies, ed. , Documents of the American Revolution, 21 Vols. (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1972-1981), 13:235; 15:57, 60, 74-76; O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 213.

[3]Solomon M. Lutnick, “The Defeat at Yorktown: A View from the British Press,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, no. 4 (October 1964): 72:471-78; William B. Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1962), 448-55.

[4]Willcox, Portrait of a General, xiv-xv, 52-54, 123-24, 311, 319, 394-96, 405-6, 446-48, 501-4; Frederick Wyatt and William B. Willcox, “Sir Henry Clinton: A Psychological Exploration in History,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., no. 1 (January 1959):16:3-26; William B. Willcox, “Sir Henry Clinton: Paralysis of Command,” in George Athan Billias, ed., George Washington’s Opponents: British Generals and Admirals in the American Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1969), 73-102.

[5]Franklin Wickwire and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis and the War of Independence(London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 336; Eric Robson, The American Revolution In Its Political and Military Aspects, 1763-1783 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), 136; Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 213, 409, 515; O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 214; Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789(New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 576; Stanley D. M. Carpenter, Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 71; Ian Saberton, The American Revolutionary War in the South: A Re-evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers (Tolworth, England: Grosvenor House Publishing, 2018), 25; Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitude, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789 (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 69.

[6]Clinton to Germain, June 5, July 5, 1778, Davies, Documents, 15:132, 159-63; Clinton, American Rebellion, 89-92, 98.

[7]Comte d’Estaing to George Washington, July 17, 1778, Philander Chase, et al., eds.,The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985—),16:90 (PGWR); Editor’s Note, ibid., 16:69-70n; Clinton, American Rebellion, 100; Willcox, Portait of a General, 238-39.

[8]Clinton, American Rebellion, 100-1; Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, July 27, 1778, PGWR, 16:185; Editor’s Note, ibid., 16:178n; Christian M. McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2011), 50-51, 72, 101-2.

[9]Clinton to Germain, September 15, 1778, Davies, Documents, 15:200; Clinton, American Rebellion, 102-3; McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign, 106-47, 152-69; Willcox, Portait of a General, 250.

[10]McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign, 170-205; Clinton, American Rebellion, 103.

[11]Germain to Clinton, August 5,December 3, 1778, March 31, September 27, December 4, 1779, Davies, Documents, 15:177-78, 279; 17:89, 224, 257.

[12]Clinton to Gloucester, October 10, 1778, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, SHCP; Clinton to Germain, July 27, September 15, October 8, 25, 1778, May 22, June 18, July 28, August 20, 1779 Davies,Documents, 15:173, 201, 210, 232; 17:129, 146, 170, 188-89; Clinton, American Rebellion, 119; 213; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 252-53.

[13]Clinton to William Eden, February 5, 1779, in Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783, 25 Vols. (London: Malby and Sons, 1889-1895), 12: No. 1258; Clinton, American Rebellion, 116-19; Clinton to Germain, May 22, 1779, Davies, Documents, 17:129-30.

[14]Clinton to Edward Mathew, May 20, 1779, Davies, Documents, 17:125; Clinton to Eden, May 20, 1779, Stevens, Facsimilies, 9: No. 997; John Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783(Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988), 204-8.

[15]Clinton to Eden, June 17 and 18, 1779, Stevens, Facsimilies, 9:No. 999; Clinton, American Rebellion, 122-26; Washington to William Fitzhugh, June 25, 1779, PGWR, 21:242; Washington to Horatio Gates, June 11, 1779, ibid., 21:129-31.

[16]Henry Knox to Washington, March 29, 1780, PGWR, 25:223.

[17]Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 Vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948-1957), 5:109; Knox to Lucy Flucker Knox, June 29, 1779, in Philip Hamilton, ed., The Revolutionary War Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 149.

[18]Clinton to Germain, June 18, 1779, Davies, Documents, 17:146.

[19]Clinton to Eden, September 4, 1779, Stevens, Facsimilies, 10: No.1066; Clinton to Gloucester, December 10, 1779, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, SHCP.

[20]Germain to Clinton, September 25, 1778, March 21, September 27, 1779, Davies, Documents, 15:208; 17:89, 224; Clinton to Germain, August 21, September 26, 30, October 28,1779, ibid., 17:190, 222, 230, 236-37; Clinton, American Rebellion, 145-49, 152.

[21]Clinton to Eden, November 19, December 11, 1779, Stevens, Facsimiles, 10: Nos. 1032, 1034.

[22]Willcox, Portrait of a General, 3-39, 48; 115-16, 153-55; O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 215-20; Clinton, American Rebellion, 55-56, 61-62, 70-84; Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, Howard C. Rice, ed., 2 Vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 1:96.

[23]Clinton to Germain, May 13, 1780, Davies, Documents, 18:86-89; Clinton,American Rebellion, 158-59, 164, 171, 177, 189; 171, 177, 189; Carl P. Borick, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 34-36, 49-65, 71-73, 96-108, 121-26, 130-34, 145-60, 247-50; Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in Revolutionary South Carolina, 1775-1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 181; John S. Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 148.

[24]Clinton to Gloucester, May 12, 1780, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, SHCP; Clinton to Eden, May 12, 1780, Stevens, Facsimilies, 7: No. 726; Clinton to Germain, May 14, June 4, 1780, Davies, Documents, 18: 90, 102; James Simpson to Clinton, May 15, 1780, ibid., 18:94-95.

[25]Clinton to Charles, Earl Cornwallis, June 1, 3, 1780, in Ian Saberton, ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War, 6 Vols. (Uckfield, England: The Naval and Military Press, 2010), 1:56-64 (CP); Sir Henry Clinton, Observations on Some Parts of the Answer of Earl Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative(1783), in Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia, 1781: An Exact Reprint of Six rare Pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy (London: 4Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross,1888), 105; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 320. Hereafter The Cornwallis Papers are cited as Saberton, CP.

[26]Clinton, American Rebellion, 191-92.

[27]Clinton to Eden, April 4, 1779, Stevens, Facsimilies, 12: No. 1280; Cornwallis to Clinton, June 30, August 23, 1780, Saberton, CP, 1:161-63; 2:15-16; Cornwallis to Clinton, August 21, 1780, Davies, Documents, 18:148-52; Clinton to Germain, August 25, 1780, ibid., 18:153-54; Germain to Clinton, September 27, 1779, ibid., 17:225.

[28]Clinton to Germain, August 25, 1780, Davies, Documents. 18: Clinton, American Rebellion, 198-208; Clinton to Marriot Arbuthnot, July 15, 22, 30, 1780, ibid., 443-45, 447; Arbuthnot to Clinton, July 16, 18, 23, 27, 1780, ibid., 444-46; Captain Henry Savage to Clinton, July 30, 1780, ibid., 446-47; Clinton to Eden, August 18, 1780, Stevens, Facsimilies, 7: No. 730; Clinton to Eden, August 14, 1780, Vol. 118, SHCP.

[29]Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Count de Rochambeau, Memoirs of the Marshal Count de Rochambeau (reprint, New York: New York Times, 1971), 9.

[30]Intelligence Reports to Clinton, August 31, August [?], 1780, Vol. 120, SHCP; Clinton to Sir George Brydges (Admiral Rodney), September 18, 1780, in Godfrey B. Mundy, ed., The Life and Correspondence of the Late Admiral Lord Rodney, 2 Vols. (London: J. Murray, 1830), 1:397-400; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 337; William B. Willcox, “Rhode Island in British Strategy, 1780-1781,” Journal of Modern History, no. 4 (December 1945): 17:313-14.

[31]Clinton to Germain, October 11, 1780, Davies, Documents, 18:183-86; Clinton, American Rebellion, 214; Intelligence Report to Clinton, August 19, 1780, Vol. 118, SHCP; Clinton Memo to Arbuthnot, August [?], 1780, Vol. 120, ibid; Stephen Brumwell, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 155-232, 251-61, 302, 322-23); Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), 243-80.

[32]Cornwallis to Clinton, July 15, August 6, 12, December 4, 1780, Saberton, CP, 1:170, 176-77, 180; 3:38.

[33]Clinton, American Rebellion, 274.

[34]Clinton to Germain, June 4, 1780, Davies, Documents, 18:102; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 1, 1780, Saberton, CP, 1:57, 61.

[35]Clinton to Benedict Arnold, December 14, 1780, Saberton, CP, 3:55-56; Clinton to William Phillips, March 10, 24, April 20-30, April 30-May 3, 1781, Clinton, American Rebellion, 495-96, 502-3, 515-16, 518-19; ibid., 273, 276; William H. W. Sabine, ed., William Smith, Historical Memoirs, From 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 (reprint, New York: New York Times, 1971), 405-6.

[36]Germain to Clinton, November 9, 1780, March 7, May 2, 1781, Davies, Documents, 18:224; 20:76, 132; Clinton to Germain, April 5-20, April 23-May1, 1781, ibid., 20:105, 114; Sir Henry Clinton, Instructions to Major General Phillips, March 10, 1781, Clinton, American Rebellion, 495; Clinton to Phillips, March 24, 1781, ibid., 502-3; ibid., 235, 278; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 11, July 8, 1781, Saberton, CP, 5:96, 140.

[37]Clinton to Cornwallis, June 8, 19, July 8, 15, 1781, Saberton,CP, 5:128, 135, 142; 6:21-22; Clinton to Cornwallis, August 2, 1781, Davies, Documents, 20:208-14.

[38]Clinton to Cornwallis, August 2, 1781, Davies, Documents, 20:213.

[39]Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life(New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 413; Roger Kaplan, “The Hidden War: British Intelligence during the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., no. 1 (January 1990): 47:133; Conference at Dobbs Ferry, July 19, 1781, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of Washington, 39 Vols. (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 22:396-97; Donald Jackson, et al., eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 6 Vols. (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 3:406, 407, 409-10; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 8, 11, 1781, Saberton, CP, 5:124, 96; Lee Kennett, The French Forces in America, 1780-1783(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 106-7; Clinton to Gloucester, September 20, 1781, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, SHCP.

[40]Clinton to Germain, August 20, September 4, 1781, Davies, Documents, 20:217, 221-22; Clinton, American Rebellion, 320-28; Kaplan, “The Hidden War,” William and Mary Quarterly, 47:134; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 399.

[41]Clinton, American Rebellion, 326-28; Samuel Hood to Clinton, August 25, 1781, ibid., 562; Clinton to Cornwallis, August 27, 1781, ibid., 562; Freeman, George Washington, 5:314; Kennett, French Forces in America, 132; Kaplan, “The Hidden War,” William and Mary Quarterly, 47:136; Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 161, 305-6.


  • Great piece. The Howes, Burgoynes, and Clintons largely understood how complicated, to put it mildly, subduing the 13 colonies militarily would be. The men looking at maps in Whitehall did not. If you want to place the blame for “losing” America on anyone, it is on the men who ordered a virtually-unwinnable war, not the men tasked with winning it.

  • Many claim that Clinton was not a strategist but I beg to differ. Clinton had a better strategic view of the Southern Colonies and Campaign than did Germain and Cornwallis. Cornwallis had an ally in Germain and Cornwallis was taking orders from Germain rather than Clinton. When Cornwallis move out of South Carolina into North Carolina and northward to Virginia, the Southern Colonies were lost to the British. Clinton was unwilling to cross Germain and Cornwallis was a great tactician but not a strategist.

  • Professor Ferling’s is the best account I have seen of Clinton’s North American career. Bravo! It is somewhat constrained for not being aware of a) Lord North’s secret generous peace offer made to Congress in March 1779, or b) the reason for Arnold’s switching sides being that Congress turned down that peace offer in order to rip off more lands from the Indians. Clinton’s position was to continue the war but also offer peace incentives; abandoning Newport, the finest East Coast harbor, was confidence-building; the fort at Castine, Maine was to nail down the eastern end of the new border with Canada and no other purpose.

  • There are many indicators that the “southern strategy” was flawed in both premise and execution. The intelligence that supported the invasion provided by the southern “experts” was mischaracterized if not outright flawed.

    Clinton committed a major error in the South when his June 3, 1780 revocation of paroles and requirement of oaths of allegiance created a firestorm of militia activity. The proclamation basically made everyone either a friend or foe of the Crown. I am not certain that Clinton left Cornwallis with 8,700 regulars. By my research, Clinton left on June 5, 1780 with 4,500 British and German troops. My understanding is that the difference was left to hold and recapture the three southern states. Clearly not enough troops for that task.

  • Washington’s intelligence was superior too Clinton’s, and in prolonged military conflicts, intelligence wins the war.

  • Clinton failed miserably in not marching to support Burgoyne, other than a half hearted advance up the Hudson despite telling Burgoyne he was coming to assist at just the point Burgoyne was about to retreat.

    He did the same thing to Cornwallis at Yorktown. Just was Cornwallis was poised to breakout of the encirclement he received a note from Clinton announcing reinforcements were loaded onto ships and about to sail…needless to say, the rest is history.

  • Very nice article. I wholeheartedly agree that we were overdue for a reevaluation of Clinton’s generalship. I would argue that Clinton’s actions right up until the 1781 campaign were relatively unimpeachable. And it was the strained relationship between Clinton and Cornwallis resulted in a divided strategy, lack of coordination, and split objectives that determined the fate of the British that year.

    Clinton’s generalship can be faulted mostly for his conflicting orders issued during the Virginia campaign of 1781, and his obsession with the security of New York which blinded him to the possibility that Washington would make a bold move to Virginia. It is interesting that in the two most decisive campaigns of the war, Saratoga and Yorktown, it was the British failure to coordinate strategy between its strong-willed and ego-driven generals that resulted in disaster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *