The Troubled Relationship Between Clinton and Cornwallis and their “War” after the War

Postwar Conflict (>1783)

July 15, 2021
by John Ferling Also by this Author


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A search for scapegoats is certain to follow a lost war, and in the wake of the British disaster at Yorktown in October 1781 a long list of potential targets existed. Both Sir Henry Clinton, who had commanded Britain’s army in America during the four years leading to Yorktown, and General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, who commanded—and surrendered—the British army at Yorktown, immediately suspected that they would be in the bullseye of those who searched for answers and culprits.

Clinton and Cornwallis met in the 1760s while serving in the Seven Years’ War and were reunited in America in 1776. Having long enjoyed a cordial relationship, the two worked well together early that year while Cornwallis served as Clinton’s second in command during a fruitless mission in the Carolinas. Their warm friendship was shattered that summer when Clinton learned that Cornwallis had related to Gen. William Howe, commander in chief of the British army, critical remarks about the commander that Clinton had uttered in a private conversation.[1]

The two seldom saw one another during the next three years, though during that period the strains in their relationship gradually mended. Early in 1779 Cornwallis, about to return to America after a leave in England and once again become Clinton’s second in command, wrote his commander pledging to loyally serve him and proclaiming his joy at the opportunity to “share fortunes” with him. Clinton expressed his “great satisfaction” at the prospect of their reunion and at having an officer of such “rank and experience” at his side.[2]

Cornwallis arrived in America in July 1779 and for the next several months, including during the early phase of the next spring’s campaign to retake Charleston, the two were on friendly terms. Throughout the approach to the city, Clinton consulted with Cornwallis on every major move.[3] But the seeds of renewed discord between these two had been planted.

Days after Cornwallis’s return to America the previous summer, Clinton—frustrated by London’s intrusions on his freedom to act—wrote Lord George Germain, secretary of state for America, asking permission to resign as commander in chief of Britain’s army in America.[4] If his request was granted, Cornwallis would succeed him. Cornwallis was aware of his commander’s wishes and both believed that London would honor Clinton’s request.

Seven months elapsed before Clinton and Cornwallis learned of London’s decision, which finally arrived in mid-May 1780 when Britain’s army was on Charleston’s doorstep. Germain and King George III refused to accept Clinton’s resignation.[5] Clinton was disappointed. Cornwallis, his hopes and dreams dashed, was petulant.

Cornwallis made little attempt to hide his dismay. His “carriage toward me immediately changed,” Clinton later remarked. When Cornwallis appeared bent on turning some officers against the commander, and even asked that he no longer be consulted with regard to operations at Charleston, Clinton was outraged. “I do not think his conduct has been military,” Clinton remarked. Thereafter, he suspected—without credible evidence—that Cornwallis schemed to persuade British officials that Clinton was unfit to remain in his post. Convinced of Cornwallis’s inveterate malice, Clinton declared that he “ought to have seen through him” all along, and privately acknowledged that he could “never be cordial with such a man.”[6]

Clinton returned to New York following the capture of Charleston, but not before vesting Cornwallis with responsibility for crushing the rebellion in South Carolina’s backcountry. The “principal and indispensable” object of Cornwallis’s focus—according to Clinton’s detailed orders —was the pacification of South Carolina. He might undertake an offensive “to recover North Carolina,” but only if it was “consistent with the security” of Charleston and South Carolina.[7] Once Clinton sailed away, he and Cornwallis were not in one another’s presence until after Yorktown, nearly eighteen months later.

As Clinton had long chafed at London’s meddlesome interference—“I am on the spot” and require “every latitude” in order to adapt to the “hourly change of circumstances,” he once told Germain—Clinton gave Cornwallis a free hand to act.[8] He praised Cornwallis’s early successes, sanctioned the steps his subordinate was taking, and sent his hearty congratulations when Cornwallis, in August, scored a sensational victory over a rebel army at Camden.[9]

Clinton said nothing when he learned that the British army had suffered catastrophic losses at King’s Mountain in October, a defeat that occurred in the course of Cornwallis’s initial incursion into North Carolina. Clinton also remained mum about his subordinate’s withdrawal into South Carolina following the disaster. Privately, however, Clinton was unhappy with Cornwallis’s conduct. He attributed the King’s Mountain calamity to Cornwallis’s “too little caution” in risking “detachments without proper support.” Clinton also fumed at Cornwallis’s precipitate retreat from North Carolina, fearing it would “make the revolt more general” and cause the loss of Loyalist “confidence of support from the King’s army.”[10]

Several weeks later, as a new American army under Gen. Nathanael Greene took shape in North Carolina, Cornwallis reported to Clinton that he would cross the border to meet the challenge, minimizing the danger posed by Greene, who had only “two trifling corps.” Clinton did not object.[11]

Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, a unit of dragoons and infantry, and after one rebel corps, a force commanded by Gen. Daniel Morgan that had advanced deep into western North Carolina. The venture ended in another British disaster when nearly 80 percent of Tarleton’s force was lost in an engagement at Cowpens. Cornwallis’s report to Clinton on the battle was a tissue of lies. He put Tarleton’s losses at less than half the actual total and claimed that American cavalry had been “cut to pieces,” when in fact Morgan had lost only about 5 percent of his men. Clinton’s response was restrained, as he merely told Cornwallis that he dreaded the consequences of Tarleton’s losses. Privately, however, he grumbled that this was “another fatal instance” of Cornwallis “risking detachments” in the backcountry despite the “too great hazards” of doing so.[12]

Following his account on Cowpens, Cornwallis did not write to Clinton again for eighty-two days. Though annoyed, Clinton later quipped that his ignorance of Cornwallis’s actions “probably saved me from many an uneasy hour.”[13]When Cornwallis at last wrote, he failed to mention that he had futilely pursued Morgan and Greene through the backcountry, or that roughly one hundred of his men had perished during the grueling ordeal and that the survivors were drained.[14] Instead, Cornwallis provided only an embroidered account of his clash with Greene at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, a battle fought hard on the heels of the chase.

Cornwallis claimed to have had one quarter fewer men than he actually possessed, portrayed Greene’s army as nearly twice its actual size, and claimed to have scored a “very complete” and “uniformly successful” triumph over Greene. Clinton saw through Cornwallis’s prevarications, in part because he had received accurate information from another officer. But simple math and logic also led Clinton to understand that much of Cornwallis’s report was untruthful. Not only had Cornwallis’s army been larger than he maintained, but his admission that Greene’s force remained vibrant and in the field led Clinton to doubt the extent of Britain’s alleged victory. Clinton’s skepticism was evident in his response to Cornwallis, though yet again he tempered the tone of his missive.[15]

Clinton’s growing frustration spilled over in private. Having learned from others the details of Cornwallis’s chase after the enemy, Clinton called it a misguided choice that left the soldiery “worn down” by the time they fought at Guilford Courthouse. He concluded not only that “no good whatsoever” had resulted from Cornwallis’s three month campaign in North Carolina, but that Britain’s cause would have been better served had he never left South Carolina, as in his absence the province had been “ravaged by the enemy’s militia and plunders.”[16]

Clinton was even more troubled by two other aspects of Cornwallis’s letter. Learning that Cornwallis had not returned to South Carolina, despite Greene’s advance into the province, Clinton feared that it and Georgia would be “overrun and conquered.” Equally alarming was Cornwallis’s proposal that Virginia “may become the seat of war, even (if necessary) at the expense of abandoning New York. Untill Virginia is in a manner subdued, our hold of the Carolinas must be difficult if not precarious.”[17] Clinton knew that he lacked the resources to conquer a huge colony such as Virginia, and he now feared that Cornwallis would march to Virginia rather than return to South Carolina and meet the danger posed by Greene.

No less troubling was that what Cornwallis had proposed was strikingly similar to what Germain had advocated in his most recent communiques. Stressing that Britain “cannot support a protracted war,” Germain since early in the year had urged Clinton to send forces to join with Cornwallis to “subdue Virginia.” Given the collapse of the American economy and the “weak . . . state of Washington’s army”—not to mention Cornwallis’s “decisive” leadership—Germain insisted that Virginia could be taken. “Indeed, so very contemptible is the rebel force now in all parts and so vast is our superiority everywhere,” said Germain, that the “speedy suppression of the rebellion” would follow the invasion of Virginia.[18] Clinton knew Germain’s views were unrealistic and suspected that Cornwallis had planted the notion of invading Virginia.

Between late January and mid-March, Cornwallis had written three times more often to Germain than to Clinton, but had said nothing about Virginia. He had, however, hammered away at the notion that Carolina’s Loyalists could no longer be depended on. Furthermore, aware that Germain thought Clinton excessively cautious, Cornwallis stressed his dynamic and assertive actions throughout the first weeks of the year. He told Germain of his “rapid marches” through forbidding territory in quest of compelling his adversary “to fight,” his daring crossing of rain-swollen rivers, how he had “effectually dispirited” the enemy militia, and his army’s “persevering intrepidity” when at last he succeeded in bringing the rebel army to battle.[19]

In June Clinton learned that Cornwallis, in violation of orders and “in defiance of every . . . consequence,” had abandoned the Carolinas and marched to Virginia. All that the British had gained in South Carolina during the past year would be lost.[20] Even worse, Cornwallis had made a shambles of Clinton’s strategic plan for 1781.

Clinton’s strategy, conceived in the aftermath of King’s Mountain, was twofold. On the one hand, he would seek to starve the partisans and any rebel army in the Carolinas. Arms and munitions that sustained the southern insurgency traveled downward from the northern states, ultimately reaching the Carolinas after passing through Virginia. Clinton sought to interdict the movement of enemy provisions by committing an army to Virginia to destroy supply depots and choke off the flow of provisions, and to establish a “fortified station” on or near the Chesapeake that would “secure the safety” of Loyalists and British troops. By spring, that army, under Gen. William Phillips, had swelled to some 6,000 men. The second phase of Clinton’s plan envisaged Cornwallis crushing the rebellion in South Carolina, a task that would be easier both because the presence of the army in the Old Dominion would compel Virginia to keep its militiamen at home and as the low country rebels would be denied war materials.[21]

Cornwallis’s disregard for his orders ruined Clinton’s strategy. But convinced that Cornwallis was a favorite of Germain, Clinton shrank from ordering him to return to South Carolina. Sighing that he must “make the best of it,” Clinton left Cornwallis in Virginia in command of the army that Phillips had headed. Nor did he dare act when Cornwallis scuttled another of Clinton’s plans. Clinton wished to attempt a surprise strike against Philadelphia during the summer, thinking the damage done to rebel supply sites in and around the city would demoralize the enemy and “overset” Allied “schemes and preparations” for the looming summer campaign.[22] Clinton’s planning crashed in June when Cornwallis objected, bizarrely claiming that even if successful such an attack “would do more harm than good to the cause of Britain.”[23]

Clinton had learned in the spring that a French naval squadron would sail for America in late summer, leading him to conclude that the Allies would seek a war-ending victory during 1781. He was hardly surprised. He thought the Americans, bedeviled by fatal economic woes and signs of sagging morale—including mutinies in the Continental army in January 1781—could not remain at war much longer. Moreover, British intelligence reported that French patience with the war was on the wane. If the war remained stalemated at year’s end, France might seek a face-saving escape by agreeing to a negotiated settlement.[24]

If Clinton knew that a showdown was coming, he did not know where the enemy would strike. Cornwallis, now in command of 7,500 troops in Virginia, might be their target. But British intelligence pointed largely, though not conclusively, to New York. From spring onward Clinton never wavered in his belief that “the enemy will certainly attack” Manhattan. He advised Cornwallis of his conviction, but repeatedly cautioned that a Chesapeake attack could not be ruled out. On learning of Cornwallis’s arrival in Virginia, Clinton—pointing to orders he had given General Phillips in March—advised that from the first his intention (and that of the admirals in New York) had been for the army commander in Virginia to choose and fortify a site where the army and the navy’s warships would be safe.[25]

From the first, too, Clinton had planned to have most troops in Virginia “return[ed] to me” during the summer. Senior officers, he said, had reported that 2,000 men would be sufficient for holding a post against rebel militia and the small Continental force in Virginia, and in June he ordered nearly half the army in Virginia be sent to New York. The step was foiled when Germain expressed “great mortification” that any troops were to be removed. Although Cornwallis’s entire army remained in Virginia, Clinton was relatively sanguine about its safety. Phillips had advised that if the proper site was chosen for a “station” on the Chesapeake, Britain’s army—in a worst case scenario—would “have a chance of escaping” or even of maintaining the installation for a protracted period should “a superior force arrive in the bay.”[26]

Although Cornwallis entered Virginia on May 15, his army did not arrive at Yorktown, the site he selected for his station, until August 1. On the last day of that month he became aware that a French naval squadron was in the Chesapeake and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the target the Allies had chosen. He knew, too, that Yorktown was not properly fortified. Only a week earlier, he had written Clinton that six additional weeks of work were required to put Yorktown “in a tolerable state of defense.”[27]

Within thirty-six hours of spotting a smattering of enemy ships, Cornwallis was informed that French troops had landed and joined with an American army under Marquis de Lafayette, who had been ordered by George Washington to “detain” the enemy at Yorktown. If Cornwallis was to escape, he would first have to fight his way through a formidable Allied force and then march his army to safety through hundreds of miles of enemy territory. The odds against success were incredibly long. Cornwallis, at this juncture, appears to have presumed that the enemy’s control of the Chesapeake would be fleeting. Weeks earlier, Germain had assured Clinton that he did not fear the Royal Navy’s loss of maritime supremacy, as Britain’s Caribbean fleet would join with the North American fleet to prevent the enemy from gaining the upper hand. Clinton, though not quite so confident, had transmitted that intelligence to Cornwallis in June.[28]

One day after Cornwallis learned that French ships were in the Chesapeake, Clinton received incontrovertible evidence that the Allied armies under Washington and Comte de Rochambeau, which had rendezvoused above Manhattan in July, were marching for the Chesapeake. He immediately notified Cornwallis and promised to send reinforcements. Adding that Britain’s Caribbean squadron had arrived and the combined Royal Navy fleets had sailed south to contest the French, Clinton advised that the army at Yorktown had “little to apprehend from” the enemy’s naval task force. He, too, expected Britain to maintain naval supremacy. Four days later, he wrote Cornwallis that additional warships dispatched from England were expected at any moment and a relief force of 4,000 men had boarded transports in New York Harbor. They would sail, he said, the instant the navy told him that “we may venture.”[29]

Cornwallis did not receive Clinton’s messages until September 16, but had already decided against trying to escape. He had ample provisions to see him through to the end of October.  Furthermore, as early as September 8 Cornwallis knew that a large Allied army under Washington was “expected soon.”  Its presence would make a dash for safety even less likely to succeed. At some point between August 31 and September 8—more than a week before he learned that Clinton was sending a relief expedition—Cornwallis opted against an escape attempt. He would wait to be rescued.[30]

Clinton later notified Cornwallis that the relief force would sail around October 5, a communique that gave Cornwallis “the greatest satisfaction.” But by October 15, Cornwallis, despairing at seeing no sign of reinforcements, told Clinton that he was “in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers.”[31] It was his last message before he surrendered.

Clinton was jolted by Cornwallis’s next letter, less because of word of the surrender than by his subordinate’s transparent attempt to shift responsibility for the disaster onto his commander.  Written on October 20, the very day that the promised relief expedition at long last sailed, Cornwallis contended that he had never thought Yorktown was a desirable defensive site, but he had followed Clinton’s orders in posting his army there. Cornwallis additionally insisted had it not been for Clinton’s promise that the trapped army would be rescued by mid-October, he would have attempted to escape, even if it meant fighting the Allied armies in the “open field.” Given Clinton’s assurances of relief, however, he did not “think myself at liberty” to attempt to fight his way to safety.[32]

Clinton was astounded. When Cornwallis, who had been paroled, arrived in New York in November, Clinton met with him and challenged the defense that his subordinate had laid out in the October 20 letter. Cornwallis apologized, claiming his communique “was written under great agitation of mind and in great hurry.” Clinton was mollified, thinking the Earl’s confession was “so sensible” and that the two generals had agreed that neither bore responsibility for the calamity at Yorktown. Though unstated, the two appear to have concurred that the Royal Navy, having lost its maritime supremacy, was to blame.[33]

Had Clinton left well enough alone, it is conceivable that the subsequent rancor in England would have been directed elsewhere. But Clinton’s long, twisted relationship with Cornwallis led him to brood obsessively over his subordinate’s likely future conduct. Clinton feared that while he was pinioned in New York awaiting permission to return home, Cornwallis, who was about to sail for London, would once again betray him when he arrived in England. Clinton convinced himself that Cornwallis would take “infinite pains” to “fix the public prejudice so strongly against me” that his own vindication—once he got home and could tell his side of the story—would be impossible. Furthermore, Clinton knew full well that Cornwallis had powerful friends in England and was politically adept. Clinton reasoned that unless he acted quickly, history would see him as the man who lost America.[34]

In this frame of mind, Clinton defended himself in another letter to Cornwallis and published extracts of their correspondence since July. These steps might have proven harmless. But Clinton blundered badly when, in his report to Germain on Yorktown, he attached Cornwallis’s censorious letter of October 20. Predictably, the missive quickly found its way into print in London, making public the discord between the two generals and publicizing Cornwallis’s side of the story long before Clinton’s version of events was known.[35]

While Clinton waited impatiently to return home, critics in England pounced on him, claiming the war had been lost due to his indecisiveness and excessive caution, charging that he had been without a strategic plan in 1781, assailing him for failing to attack the Allied armies when they marched for Virginia, and blasting him for not rescuing Cornwallis. Meanwhile, Cornwallis had arrived to a hero’s welcome in England in January. He landed in Torbay and was feted in town after town throughout his journey to London. He was even carried on the shoulders of adoring residents through Exeter. Once in London, some of Cornwallis’s former officers publicly defended him and, more importantly, the king assured him that he did not think him responsible for the catastrophe at Yorktown. Furthermore, Cornwallis, who had long evinced a knack for winning friends in high places, established a close relationship with the Earl of Shelburne, who formed a ministry when Frederick Lord North’s government collapsed in March. Clinton’s greatest worry was of a parliamentary inquiry into the loss of the war. Cornwallis would be present to testify, while Clinton, tethered to New York, would not be heard. Clinton’s fears were misplaced. The probe never materialized.[36]

Friends in England made Clinton aware that Cornwallis was “in great favor” and that the public, fed only one side of the story, “totally misunderstood” the events that resulted in Yorktown. Some encouraged Clinton to reveal what had really happened.[37]

Clinton was relieved of his command in May 1782 and arrived in London a month later. Domestic matters initially consumed much of his time. He tended to his finances and property, was reunited with his five children whom he had not seen for five years, and renewed old acquaintances. Late in the summer he, too, gained an audience with George III, who not only absolved him of responsibility for Yorktown, but appeared to lay some of the blame on Cornwallis. The king remarked that Cornwallis had seemed befuddled throughout his stay in Virginia. Clinton, who had held a seat in the House of Commons since 1774, planned to present his case that “none of the misfortunes” of 1781 “can, with the smallest degree of justice, be imputed to me.” But it was late in the session and House leaders wished to complete their agenda. They advised him “to defer” his case until next year’s session. Instead, Clinton in January 1783 produced a pamphlet designed to correct what he called the misinterpretations and misrepresentations of events that led to Yorktown.[38]

Clinton portrayed himself as a resolute and active commander who had conceived a farsighted strategy “calculated to make a fair and solid effort” to crush the low country insurgency in 1781. Cornwallis laid waste to his plans by abandoning South Carolina and making his “ill-fated march into Virginia,” a step taken “without consulting with his Commander in Chief,” and an act that was “contrary to my wishes and intentions.” Worse still, once he arrived in Virginia, Cornwallis had “no plan of his own” and achieved nothing of substance. Indeed, Cornwallis, through his objections, had even wrecked Clinton’s plan to send Washington and Rochambeau reeling through a mid-summer raid on Philadelphia.

Clinton made known that he had never intended to leave a large army in Virginia after mid-summer 1781. He had always planned that the bulk of the troops be redeployed to New York in preparation for the likely Allied strike late in the summer. From the first, he had meant for the army in Virginia to take up a defensive position during the summer, and had left it to the commanders of that army—first Phillips, then Cornwallis—to select a proper site. Cornwallis had chosen Yorktown. “I am persuaded,” wrote Clinton in closing his narrative, “that had I been left to my own plans . . . the campaign of 1781 would probably not have ended unfortunately.”[39]

Clinton also answered those critics who had insisted that he should have attacked the Allied armies before or during their march from New York to Virginia, and should have done more to rescue Cornwallis’s trapped army. Reminding readers that from the start his army had been one-third smaller than the British army in America in 1777, Clinton maintained that in July and August his army in New York was smaller than the number of regulars in the combined Allied armies above Manhattan, and that Washington could have added still more men by summoning to duty untold thousands of militiamen. To have given battle to such a numerically superior force would have been “madness and folly in the extreme.” As for saving Cornwallis, “no man . . . would have gone to greater lengths to succor him,” but the navy’s inability to rapidly organize a relief expedition ultimately doomed the army trapped at Yorktown.[40]

Within a month Cornwallis issued a rejoinder. It was half the length of Clinton’s pamphlet, but it appeared to be far more comprehensive. By including the full text of letters exchanged between the two generals, Cornwallis’s pamphlet was five times the length of Clinton’s.[41] He responded to some points raised by Clinton and to subjects put forward in their correspondence that had been laid before the House of Lords.

Curiously, Cornwallis defended his early 1781 campaign in North Carolina, about which Clinton had said next to nothing. He had gone into North Carolina as further offensive operations in South Carolina were “utterly impracticable.” The incursion had failed, but Cornwallis insisted that its failure “cannot be imputed to any defect in my conduct.” He blamed the “timidity” of the Loyalists, who had shrunk from joining with him.[42]

Thereafter, Cornwallis offered a disingenuous defense of his decision to abandon South Carolina. Contending that it was “impossible to receive in time any orders” from Clinton—in fact, seaborne letters from New York to North Carolina took as little as ten days—Cornwallis contended that he had no choice but to exercise his own “mature” judgment. The vindication that he thereafter offered was contradictory.  On the one hand, he insisted that the American army under Nathanael Greene—which he knew was headed for South Carolina—lacked the strength to do serious damage to “what was valuable to us” in that colony. On the other hand, he feared that should he pursue Greene, the rebel army would intercept his army as it made its way southward, and “cut off every means” through which his “small corps” could escape. Going to Virginia, Cornwallis implied, was his only viable choice.[43]

He was largely inactive in Virginia, said Cornwallis, because following his arrival there he learned that Clinton opposed his “plan of reducing” the province, a disclosure that left him with “no explicit alternative.” He took his army to Yorktown because Clinton had ordered that he settle on a site “with a harbour for . . . battleships” and Yorktown alone met the criteria. When the enemy appeared, he made no attempt to escape—Clinton had not criticized his failure to attempt to bolt for safety—arguing fatuously that by pledging repeatedly to send a relief force, Clinton had deprived him of even “the smallest particle of discretionary power.”[44]

Clinton rapidly published a second pamphlet.  He declared that Cornwallis had taken command in South Carolina with a sufficient army, but suffered heavy attrition as a result of his unwise tactical practices. Nearly a third of that army was lost in the ruinous defeats at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, setbacks that resulted after Cornwallis unwisely divided his force in the inhospitable backcountry. Those catastrophes, Clinton went on, forfeited whatever chance Cornwallis ever had of recruiting Loyalists. Turning to Yorktown, Clinton argued that if its defenses were inadequate when the Allied siege commenced, it was because Cornwallis had wasted his initial three months in Virginia before taking his army to the site.  Had he followed orders, Clinton wrote, Cornwallis would have had ample time to construct defenses strong enough to have held out for a protracted period. In sum, Cornwallis’s “conduct and opinions” were crucial to the “fatal catastrophe” at Yorktown.[45]

Cornwallis did not respond, at least in part because Clinton had raised issues that Cornwallis did not wish to see opened to deep public examination. Not only had he violated his superior’s orders in abandoning South Carolina, but the reasons he furnished for his departure strained credulity. Cornwallis likely also wished to avoid answering Clinton’s charges regarding tactical errors that led to King’s Mountain and Cowpens or to explaining why his army—four times the size of Lafayette’s force in Virginia—achieved little there. Finally, Cornwallis may have understood that it was prudent to avoid rehashing why he had made no attempt to escape the looming trap at Yorktown, especially as his correspondence with Clinton demonstrated that he made the decision not to make a run for safety days before he learned that his commander planned to dispatch a relief expedition.

Other factors likely also led Cornwallis to terminate the pamphlet war. Although Clinton presented a strong and compelling case, it gained little traction with a public eager to move on.  After all, Yorktown had occurred nearly two years earlier, Lord Germain no longer held a public office, Lord North’s war ministry was long gone, and the navy’s prestige had soared in the wake of its sensational victory over the French in the Battle of the Saintes in the Caribbean in April 1782.  Cornwallis must also have sensed that he had little to gain and much to lose by continuing the pamphlet war. Moreover, when the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War took effect—a virtual certainty sometime in 1783—Cornwallis’s period of parole would end, enabling him to once again resume his career. Silence was the best course and it was a wise choice. When peace finally came, Cornwallis was first appointed minister to Prussia and later governor-general and commander in chief in India.

Though hurt and angry, Clinton saw the futility of continuing to pamphleteer. During the ensuing dozen years, he traveled widely, hunted, fished, rode, and sailed regularly, and relished long visits with his children. In time, he enjoyed a measure of redemption. In 1793, after Britain went to war with revolutionary France, he was offered—but declined—a position in the army that was to be sent to the Low Countries. A year later he was appointed governor of Gibraltar. However, Clinton remained obsessed with correcting what he saw as the public’s flawed understanding of the reasons for British defeat in the Revolutionary War. He set out to write an exhaustive history of his role in the war in America. He worked on the endeavor for years, but died at age fifty-five in 1795 before the treatise was completed. The manuscript remained under lock and key for more than a century and was not published until 1954.[46]

Cornwallis died in India, in 1805, after which Parliament erected a statue of him at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Clinton received no such posthumous tribute. By the time of his rival’s death, Clinton was nearly forgotten by an English public that preferred to leave behind the memory of the war it had lost in America.


[1]William B. Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), 22, 29, 86; Franklin Wickwire and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis and the War of Independence (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 17-46, 51, 81-82, 87; 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), 65n.

[2]Earl Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton, January 22, April 4, 9, 1779, in Clinton, The American Rebellion, 139n; ibid., 138.

[3]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 160.

[4]Clinton to Lord George Germain, August 20, 1779, K. G. Davies, ed. , Documents of the American Revolution, 21 Vols. (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1972-1981), 17:188-89 (DAR).

[5]Germain to Clinton, November 4, 1779, DAR, 17:250-51.

[6]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 184, 185, 163n; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 314-16; William B. Willcox, “The British Road to Yorktown: A Study in Divided Command,” American Historical Review, no. 1 (January 1946) 52:5.

[7]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 186; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 1, 1780, 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), 1:57, 61 (CP).

[8]Clinton to Germain, May 22, 1779, Davies, DAR, 17:129-30; Clinton to William Eden, May 20, 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), 9: No. 997.

[9]Cornwallis to Clinton, June 30, 1780, CP, 1:160-62; Clinton to Cornwallis, July 15, September 20, 1780, ibid., 1:174; 2:174.

[10]Clinton to Cornwallis, December 13, 1780, ibid., 3:31; Clinton, The American Rebellion, 225, 227-28, 269.

[11]Cornwallis to Clinton, December 3, 1780, CP, 3:27; Clinton, The American Rebellion, 245.

[12]Cornwallis to Clinton, January 18, 1781, CP, 3:35-36; Clinton to Cornwallis, March 5, 1781, ibid., 5:86; Clinton, The American Rebellion, 247. On Cowpens, see Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill, 1998).

[13]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 273.

[14]John Ferling, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2021), 338-49.

[15]Cornwallis to Clinton, April 10, 1781,CP, 4:109-10; Return of Casualties in the Battle of Guilford, March 15, 1781, ibid., 4:64-65; William Phillips to Clinton, April 3, 16, 19, 1781, ibid., 5:25, 43, 49; Clinton to Cornwallis, April 30, 1781, DAR20:128-29.

[16]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 261, 262, 267, 270.

[17]Ibid., 271; Cornwallis to Clinton, April 10, 1781, CP, 4:109-10.

[18]Germain to Clinton, January 3, February 7, March 7, 1781, DAR, 20:29-30, 56, 76.

[19]Cornwallis to Germain, January 18, March 17, 1781, CP, 3:47; 4:11-20. Cornwallis penned two lengthy letters to the American secretary on March 17. Germain derived many of his flawed notions concerning the woeful state of the Allies from intelligence passed along by Loyalists desperate to keep Britain at war. See John Ferling, The Loyalist Mind: Joseph Galloway and the American Revolution (State College, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 47-54, and Alan Valentine, Lord George Germain (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1962), 366-67.

[20]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 294, 297.

[21]Clinton to Benedict Arnold, December 14, 1780, CP, 3:55-56; Clinton to Phillips, March 10, 1781, DAR, 20:84; Clinton to Phillips, April 20-30, April 30-May 3, 1781, Clinton, TheAmerican Rebellion, 502-3, 515-16, 518-19; Ferling, Winning Independence, 547-49.

[22]Clinton to Eden, May 11-June 10, 1781, Stevens, Facsimiles, 7: No. 748; Clinton, The American Rebellion, 293, 306-7, 320; Clinton to Phillips, April 26-30, 1781, ibid., 515; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 11, 1781, CP, 5:95-97; Clinton to Germain, July 13, 1781, DAR20:186-87;  Clinton to the Duke of Gloucester, July 24, 1781, Series III: Letterbooks, Vol. 254, in Sir Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; George W. Kyte, “A Projected British Attack upon Philadelphia in 1781,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, No. 4 (1952), 76:379-93.

[23]Cornwallis to Clinton, May 26, June 30, July 26, 1781, CP, 5:89, 105; 6:13-14.

[24]Germain to Clinton, April 4, 1781, DAR, 20:99; Roger Kaplan, “The Hidden War: British Intelligence during the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, No. 1 (1990): 47:129; John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), 472-75. On the Continental army mutinies see Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January(New York, 1947).

[25]Germain to Clinton, April 4, July 7, August 2, 1781, DAR, 20:99; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 8, 11, July 11, 1781, CP, 5:95-96, 124, 139; Clinton, Instructions to Phillips, March 10, 1781, Clinton, The American Rebellion, 496.

[26]Clinton to Phillips, March 10, 24, 1781, Clinton, The American Rebellion, 496, 503; Phillips to Clinton, April 11, 1781, ibid., 504; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 11, July 8, 11, 1781, CP, 5:96, 140, 142; Germain to Clinton, May 2, 1781, DAR, 20:132.

[27]Cornwallis to Clinton, August 22, 1781, CP, 6:28.

[28]George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, August 15, 1781, Stanley Idzerda, et al., eds., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, 5 vols. (Ithaca, N. Y., Cornell University Press, 1976-1983), 4:330; Germain to Clinton, April 4, July 7, 1781, DAR, 20:99, 175; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 19, 1781, CP, 5:135.

[29]Clinton to Cornwallis, September 2 and 4, 6, 1781; CP, 6:32, 33, 34.

[30]Cornwallis to Clinton, September 8, 16, 1781, ibid., 6:31, 34-35.

[31]Clinton to Cornwallis, September 24, 25, 1781, ibid., 6:35-36, 37; Cornwallis to Clinton, September 16, 29, 1781, ibid., 6:34, 36.

[32]Cornwallis to Clinton, October 20, 1781, ibid., 6:125-29.

[33]Clinton, The American Rebellion, 349-50.

[34]Ibid., 350.

[35]Clinton to Cornwallis, December 2 and 10, 1781, CP, 6:158-60; Clinton to Germain, December 3, 1781, DAR, 20:270-71; Willcox, Portrait of a General, 451-52, 473.

[36]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; Willcox, Portrait of aGeneral, 448-59; Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The Imperial Years (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 5-8.

[37]Willcox, Portrait of aGeneral, 458.

[38]Ibid., 462-74; Sir Henry Clinton, Narrative of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton Relative to His Conduct During Part of His Command of the King’s Troops In North America, in Benjamin Franklin Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia 1781: An Exact Reprint of Six Rare Pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy (London: 4 Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, 1888), 5-6.

[39]For these two paragraphs, see Clinton,Narrative of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia 1781, 11, 13, 18, 23-24, 29, 33, 43.

[40]Ibid., 8, 15-17, 39.

[41]Richard Middleton, “The Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy and Responsibility for the British Surrender at Yorktown,” History, no. 3 (July 2013): 98:374.

[42]Earl Cornwallis, An Answer to that Part of the Narrative of Sir Henry Clinton, Which Relates to the Conduct of Lieutenant-General Earl Cornwallis, in Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia 1781, 63-66, 80.

[43]Ibid., 68-70. On the time lag for correspondence between New York and Wilmington, North Carolina, where Cornwallis had retreated after Guilford Courthouse, see Clinton to Cornwallis, April 30, 1781, CP, 5:92.

[44]Cornwallis, An Answer to . . . the Narrative of Sir Henry Clinton, Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia 1781, 71-76.

[45]Sir Henry Clinton, Observations on Some Parts of Earl Cornwallis’s Answer to Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative, in ibid., 99-125. The quote can be found on page 125.

[46]Willcox, Portrait of a General, 473-89.


  • Clinton made two critical errors in a very short time in South Carolina during the first part of June 1780. He revoked the paroles of captured militiamen and required oaths of allegiance. Not long after, he left Charleston with 4,500 men. When substantial Loyalist military support failed to materialize it meant that Cornwallis was left with a nearly impossible task. It seems possible that Clinton’s errors facilitated Cornwallis’s risky invasions of North Carolina and his almost inexplicable move into Virginia.

  • Germain and Cornwallis were in contact with each other. They were of the same mindset and Clinton was the odd man out. Cornwallis ignored Clinton and follow instructions from Germain.

  • Thanks! Great research. Of explanatory note: the reason why Cornwallis took over General William Phillips’ command in Virginia was that Phillips (allegedly the officer whose cannon had killed Lafayette’s father in the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War and upon whom Lafayette was seeking revenge) died on 13 May 1781, of a contagious fever (either typhus or malaria).

  • This morning I am typing the bibliography of a book I have written on the French and Indian War, and I just typed a citation to an piece by the author of this article, John Ferling, which was published the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1986. Coincidence?

  • Thanks for a thoroughly researched and illuminating article, John. Do I recall correctly that Sir Henry once said of the Earl’s performance during the (Second) Trenton/Princeton campaign that he had exhibited “the most consummate ignorance ever heard of in anyone of above the rank of corporal” or words to that effect? And if so, at what point in their relationship did Sir Henry say that?

  • This is an excellent essay. From a British point of view, it is perhaps the biggest tragedy of the war that its two best Generals could not work together. If they had demonstrated a similar synergy to Lee and Jackson or Grant and Sherman, the war could have taken a different turn.

    From 1770 onwards, personal failures hampered British strategy. It has become a cliché to assert Clinton was a reticent commander and Cornwallis a gun-ho maverick. But it is surely true that Clinton was more concerned with not losing the war than he was winning it. While Cornwallis, though an imaginative and skilful tactician, simply ran out of ideas. Wars are not always a question of logistics and firepower. Something as prosaic as a commander’s temperament can determine them. I noted of Clinton “Nobody was ever likely to hold a Mischianza for Sir Henry Clinton…Tactless, and stubborn to the point of obstinacy. He lacked almost every social and diplomatic skill required to lead an organisation as political as the British army.” Let us not overlook he had been a critical subordinate of Howe. For his part, Cornwallis thought he should have been commander-in-chief. There are obvious parallels with the rivalry between Charles Lee and George Washington. Unfortunately for the British, Clinton lacked the personal intelligence Washington possessed. In the end, this was a war decided by personality as much as strategy.

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