American Revolution: General Sir Henry Clinton

Henry Clinton

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Henry Clinton (April 16, 1730–Dec. 23, 1795) was the Commander of the British North American forces during the American War for Independence.

Fast Facts: Henry Clinton

  • Known For: Commander of the British North American forces during the American War for Independence
  • Born: About 1730 in Newfoundland, Canada or Stourton Parva, England.
  • Parents: Admiral George Clinton (1686–1761) and Ann Carle (1696–1767).
  • Died: December 23, 1795 in Gibraltar
  • Education: In New York colony and possibly studied under Samuel Seabury
  • Published Works: The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782
  • Spouse: Harriet Carter (m. 1767–1772)
  • Children: Frederick (1767–1774), Augusta Clinton Dawkins (1768–1852), William Henry (1769–1846), Henry (1771–1829), and Harriet (1772)

Early Life

Henry Clinton was likely born in 1730 to Admiral George Clinton (1686–1761), at the time the Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his wife Ann Carle (1696–1767). References are that available post his birth date as 1730 or 1738; English peerage records state the date as April 16, 1730, but list his birth location as Newfoundland and George Clinton did not arrive until 1731. Henry Clinton had at least two sisters who survived to adulthood, Lucy Mary Clinton Roddam, 1729–1750, and Mary Clinton Willes (1742–1813), and Lucy Mary was born in Stourton Parva, Lincolnshire, England. 

Little more than that is known about his childhood: what there is comes primarily from 19th-century brief biographical records and the letters and documents left by Clinton himself. When George Clinton was appointed governor of New York in 1743, the family moved there and it is assumed that Henry was educated in the colony and may have studied under Samuel Seabury (1729–1796), the first American Episcopal bishop.

Early Military Career

Beginning his military career with the local militia in 1745, Clinton obtained a captain's commission the following year and served in the garrison at the recently captured fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Three years later, he traveled back to England with hopes to secure another commission in the British Army. Purchasing a commission as a captain in the Coldstream Guards in 1751, Clinton proved to be a gifted officer. Swiftly moving through the ranks by buying higher commissions, Clinton also benefited from family connections to the Dukes of Newcastle. In 1756, this ambition, along with assistance from his father, saw him gain an appointment to serve as aide-de-camp to Sir John Ligonier.

Seven Years' War

By 1758, Clinton had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 1st Foot Guards (Grenadier Guards). Ordered to Germany during the Seven Years' War, he saw action at the Battles of Villinghausen (1761) and Wilhelmsthal (1762). Distinguishing himself, Clinton was promoted to colonel effective June 24, 1762, and appointed an aide-de-camp to the army's commander, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. While serving in Ferdinand's camp, he developed a number of acquaintances including future adversaries Charles Lee and William Alexander (Lord Stirling). Later that summer both Ferdinand and Clinton were wounded during the defeat at Nauheim. Recovering, he returned to Britain following the capture of Cassel that November. 

With the end of the war in 1763, Clinton found himself head of his family as his father had died two years earlier. Remaining in the army, he endeavored to resolve his father's affairs—which included collecting an unpaid salary, selling land in the colonies, and clearing a large number of debts. In 1766, Clinton received command of the 12th Regiment of Foot. 

In 1767 he married Harriet Carter, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Settling in Surrey, the couple would have five children (Frederick (1767–1774), Augusta Clinton Dawkins (1768–1852), William Henry (1769–1846), Henry (1771–1829), and Harriet (1772). On May 25, 1772, Clinton was promoted to major general, and two months later he used family influence to gain a seat in Parliament. These advancements were tempered in August when Harriet died a week after giving birth to their fifth child. After she died, Henry's in-laws moved into his house to raise the children. He apparently acquired a mistress at a later point in his life and had a family with her, but their existence is merely mentioned in Clinton's surviving correspondence.

The American Revolution Begins

Crushed by the loss of wife, Clinton failed to take his seat in Parliament and instead traveled to the Balkans to study the Russian army in 1774. While there, he also viewed several of the battlefields from the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774). Returning from the trip, he took his seat in September 1774. With the American Revolution looming in 1775, Clinton was dispatched to Boston aboard HMS Cerberus with Major Generals William Howe and John Burgoyne to provide assistance to Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. Arriving in May, he learned that fighting had begun and that Boston had fallen under siege. Assessing the situation, Clinton brusquely suggested manning Dorchester Heights but was refused by Gage. Though this request was denied, Gage did make plans for occupying other high ground outside of the city, including Bunker Hill.

Failure in the South

On June 17, 1775, Clinton took part in the bloody British victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Initially tasked with providing reserves to Howe, he later crossed to Charlestown and worked to rally the dispirited British troops. In October, Howe replaced Gage as commander of British troops in America and Clinton was appointed as his second-in-command with the temporary rank of lieutenant general. The following spring, Howe dispatched Clinton south to assess military opportunities in the Carolinas. While he was away, American troops emplaced guns on Dorchester Heights in Boston, which compelled Howe to evacuate the city. After some delays, Clinton met a fleet under Commodore Sir Peter Parker, and the two resolved to attack Charleston, South Carolina.

Landing Clinton's troops on Long Island, near Charleston, Parker hoped the infantry could aid in defeating the coastal defenses while he attacked from the sea. Moving forward on June 28, 1776, Clinton's men were unable to render assistance as they were halted by swamps and deep channels. Parker's naval attack was repulsed with heavy casualties and both he and Clinton withdrew. Sailing north, they joined Howe's main army for the assault on New York. Crossing to Long Island from the camp on Staten Island, Clinton surveyed the American positions in the area and devised the British plans for the upcoming battle.

Success in New York

Utilizing Clinton's ideas, which called for a strike through the Guan Heights via Jamaica Pass, Howe flanked the Americans and led the army to victory at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. For his contributions, he was formally promoted to lieutenant general and made a Knight of the Order of Bath. As tensions between Howe and Clinton increased due to the latter's constant criticism, the former dispatched his subordinate with 6,000 men to capture Newport, Rhode Island in December 1776. Accomplishing this, Clinton requested leave and returned to England in spring 1777. While in London, he lobbied to command a force that would attack south from Canada that summer but was denied in favor of Burgoyne. Returning to New York in June 1777, Clinton was left in command of the city while Howe sailed south to capture Philadelphia.

Possessing a garrison of only 7,000 men, Clinton feared attack from General George Washington while Howe was away. This situation was made worse by calls for help from Burgoyne's army, which was advancing south from Lake Champlain. Unable to move north in force, Clinton promised to take action to aid Burgoyne. In October he successfully attacked American positions in the Hudson Highlands, capturing Forts Clinton and Montgomery, but was unable to prevent Burgoyne's eventual surrender at Saratoga. The British defeat led to the Treaty of Alliance (1778) which saw France enter the war in support of the Americans. On March 21, 1778, Clinton replaced Howe as commander-in-chief after the latter resigned in protest over British war policy.

In Command

Taking command at Philadelphia, with Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis as his second-in-command, Clinton was immediately weakened by the need to detach 5,000 men for service in the Caribbean against the French. Deciding to abandon Philadelphia to focus on holding New York, Clinton led the army into New Jersey in June. Conducting a strategic retreat, he fought a large battle with Washington at Monmouth on June 28 which resulted in a draw. Safely reaching New York, Clinton began drawing up plans for shifting the focus of the war to the South where he believed Loyalist support would be greater.

Dispatching a force late that year, his men succeeded in capturing Savannah, Georgia. After waiting for much of 1779 for reinforcements, Clinton was finally able to move against Charleston in early 1780. Sailing south with 8,700 men and fleet led by Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, Clinton laid siege to the city on March 29. After a prolonged struggle, the city fell on May 12 and over 5,000 Americans were captured. Though he wished to lead the Southern Campaign in person, Clinton was forced to turn over command to Cornwallis after learning of a French fleet approaching New York.

Returning to the city, Clinton attempted to oversee Cornwallis' campaign from afar. Rivals who did not care for each other, Clinton and Cornwallis' relationship continued to be strained. As time passed, Cornwallis began to operate with increasing independence from his far-away superior. Hemmed in by Washington's army, Clinton limited his activities to defending New York and launching nuisance raids in the region. In 1781, with Cornwallis under siege at Yorktown, Clinton attempted to organize a relief force. Unfortunately, by the time he departed, Cornwallis had already surrendered to Washington. As a result of Cornwallis' defeat, Clinton was replaced by Sir Guy Carleton in March 1782.


Officially turning command over to Carleton in May, Clinton was made the scapegoat for the British defeat in America. Returning to England, he wrote his memoirs in an attempt to cleanse his reputation and resumed his seat in Parliament until 1784. Re-elected to Parliament in 1790, with assistance from Newcastle, Clinton was promoted to general three years later. The following year he was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, but died in Gibraltar on Dec. 23, 1795, before taking over the post.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: General Sir Henry Clinton." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: General Sir Henry Clinton. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: General Sir Henry Clinton." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).