General Sir Henry Clinton — The Last Commander-in-Chief of British Forces During the American Revolutionary War

April 16, 1730–December 23, 1795

Henry Clinton was a British soldier and General during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). He was placed in command of British forces in 1778. Despite early success, he was unable to defeat American forces, which led to the Surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution

General Sir Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who was General Sir Henry Clinton?

General Henry Clinton was a British soldier and General during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). He arrived in Boston in 1775, after the war started, and was named Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America in 1778, replacing William Howe. He successfully held the North under British control and captured Charleston, South Carolina. However, under his leadership, American forces were able to trap General Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis was forced to surrender, ending the significant fighting during the American Revolutionary War and forcing Great Britain to acknowledge the independent United States of America.

Henry Clinton Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: Henry Clinton was born on April 16, 1730.
  • Parents: His parents were Admiral George Clinton and Anne Carle.
  • Date of Death: Clinton died on December 23, 1795, at the age of 65.
  • Buried: He is buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Henry Clinton’s History and Role in the American Revolution

Early Years

Clinton was born in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1730, but spent much of his youth in New York, where his father, George Clinton, was the Royal Governor. In 1745, when he was just 15, he joined the New York Militia. Afterward, his father sent him to Britain where his political and aristocratic connections helped him secure a commission as a Captain in the Coldstream Guards of the British Army.

Seven Years’ War

Clinton served in Europe during the Seven Years’ War. In 1758, he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 1st Foot Guards and was deployed to Germany under the command of General John Manners, the Marquess of Granby. While he was there, he became an aide-de-camp to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, who is recognized as one of the great European military leaders of the 18th century. Clinton was severely wounded in battle and was forced to return to England. During his time in Europe, he met Charles Lee, William Alexander, Lord Stirling, and Charles Cornwallis.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

1772 — A Turning Point in Clinton’s Life

In 1772, he was promoted to the rank of Major General and was elected to Parliament. Both positions were rare for someone who was born in the colonies, and not England. However, the same year his wife, Harriet, died after giving birth to their fifth child, a daughter.

Clinton Sent to Boston

Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), William Howe, Clinton, and John Burgoyne were sent to America to assist General Thomas Gage.

Battle of Bunker Hill

After American forces fortified positions on Charlestown Neck, on Breed’s Hill, overlooking Boston Harbor. Gage and his officers discussed how to respond. Clinton recommended a frontal assault and a flanking maneuver to get behind the American lines. Clinton believed it would cut off the path for the Americans to retreat and minimize British casualties. 

However, the decision was made to launch a frontal assault on the Americans, without the flanking maneuver. The move led to significant British casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775). Although the Americans were forced to evacuate and retreat, they won a significant moral victory by proving they could fight with the trained soldiers in the British Army.

Soon after, Gage was replaced by William Howe, and Clinton was named Howe’s second-in-command.

Battle of Bunker Hill, Fight in the Redoubt
This illustration depicts the fight in the redoubt at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island

In January 1776, Howe sent Clinton to the Southern Colonies. The purpose was to establish a presence in the South. Once that was done, British reinforcements led by Admiral Peter Parker and General Charles Cornwallis would sail to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina and join Clinton. In addition, the British military commanders hoped to gather Loyalists who were willing to fight to re-establish British authority in the South. 

When the fleet arrived at North Carolina, Clinton and Parker found out British forces had been beaten at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. The victory gave the Americans control of North Carolina, forcing Clinton and Parker to change their plans.

They disagreed on what to do next. Clinton preferred to establish a naval base along the coast of Virginia, and Parker wanted to attack Charleston, South Carolina. Parker wanted to establish a base on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance of the Port of Charleston. Parker had his way, however, the operation was poorly executed.

Battle of Sullivan's Island, Moultrie Flag, Illustration
American forces raise the Moultrie Flag at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On June 28, Clinton landed his men on an island adjacent to Sullivan’s Island, believing they would be able to easily cross Breach Inlet. However, the water was several feet deep, instead of inches, and Clinton’s men were unable to participate in the attack.

Meanwhile, Parker’s ships attacked Fort Sullivan but were unable to destroy it because the walls were made of palmetto logs. Cannonballs simply bounced off of them. The pilots of the British ships refused to move closer to the fort because they were unsure of the depth of the water. However, Parker’s ships suffered heavy damage and he was eventually forced to withdraw. The British were embarrassed by the defeat at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island and forced to return to New York.

Long Island and the New York-New Jersey Campaign

At the Battle of Long Island (August 27–29, 1776), Clinton devised a plan that led to a victory and nearly trapped George Washington and the Continental Army. However, Howe did not capitalize on the advantages and the Americans escaped to Manhattan Island. In the months that followed, the British pushed Washington out of New York and then New Jersey, all the way into Pennsylvania

Occupation of Newport, Rhode Island

In November, Howe decided to establish a naval base in Rhode Island and placed Clinton in charge of the operation. Once again, Clinton disagreed with Howe. In Clinton’s opinion, he should have been sent with General Cornwallis to pursue Washington in an effort to put an end to the Continental Army. Despite his objections, he was sent to Rhode Island, where he easily took Newport and established the base. 

10 Crucial Days in New Jersey

Before he left for Rhode Island, Clinton cautioned Howe against the idea of establishing remote outposts throughout New Jersey. Howe ignored the warning. In mid-December, Howe ended the campaign and established outposts throughout New Jersey. The outposts were primarily garrisoned by Hessian troops. 

The move backfired on Howe when Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night and shocked the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. That victory was followed a few days later by the Second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. At Princeton, Washington won another victory. Combined with the victory at Trenton, the morale and support for the American war effort significantly increased. Over the course of 10 days, Washington and his men completely reversed the fortunes of the Patriot Cause.

Return to England and Burgoyne’s Campaign

In January 1777, Clinton returned to England, where planning for the Campaign of 1777 took place. The decision was made to implement the plan proposed by Burgoyne. One army, led by Burgoyne, would move out of Canada, into the Hudson River Valley. A second army, led by Howe, would move north. The two armies would meet at Albany and effectively cut New England off from the rest of the colonies.

John Burgoyne, Portrait, Reynolds
General John Burgoyne. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Sir Henry Clinton

As second-in-command, Clinton lobbied for command of the northern army, but it was given to Burgyone. He intended to resign from his position, but King George III offered him a knighthood in the Order of the Bath in an effort to convince him to remain in the army. He accepted the knighthood and returned to New York City. However, his issues with Howe continued.

The Saratoga Campaign and the Philadelphia Campaign

By the time he returned to New York City in July, Howe was still there. He had not marched north to join Burgoyne, according to plan. Instead, Howe decided to take his army and march to Philadephia. Howe ordered Clinton to remain in New York City and left him with around 7,000 men, mostly Hessians and Loyalists.

Clinton believed that if Howe moved on Philadelphia, Washington might attack New York City and be able to take it back. It would also leave Burgoyne’s supply lines vulnerable to attacks. Clinton argued with Howe over the decision, but Howe insisted on capturing Philadephia and sailed out of New York on July 23.

Meanwhile, the Saratoga Campaign was faltering. Although Burgoyne was making progress toward Albany, he used up valuable supplies and lost men every step of the way. In New York City, Clinton was concerned about his position and decided to strike at American forces in the Hudson Highlands. 

On September 12, he wrote to Burgoyne and suggested he would attack Fort Mongomery and that he expected to receive reinforcements from England. It took almost 10 days for the letter to make its way to Burgoyne. By then it was two days after the First Battle of Saratoga at Freeman’s Farm. Burgoyne decided to wait for Clinton and his army to arrive before he engaged General Horatio Gates and the Americans again.

Clinton’s Expedition to the Highlands

Burgoyne agreed with Clinton about an attack and believed it would force Gates to send some of his troops to help defend both Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton, roughly 60 miles north of New York City. 

At that time, the Hudson Highlands was defended by the two forts and American forces at Peekskill. It was all under the command of General Israel Putnam. Putnam was situated on the east side of the Hudson River and the forts were on the west side. The Americans had also obstructed the river with logs, chains, and wooden spikes, so British ships could not sail past the forts. The passage was also guarded by a handful of American ships, including Congress and Montgomery.

Clinton’s reinforcements arrived around September 24 and he sailed north toward the Highlands on October 3. Two days later, he landed troops at Verplanck’s Point, routed an American outpost, and moved toward the forts. Putnam responded by moving north, further away from the forts, which were under the command of two brothers — New York Governor George Clinton and General James Clinton.

Clinton left 1,000 men at Verplanck’s Point to trick Putnam to think he was headed his way and intended to attack him. The trick worked when Putnam ordered men from the two forts to join him, weakening the defenses at the forts.

Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery

On October 6, 1777, Clinton moved his men around the forts. Governor Clinton sent two contingents out to scout the British movements and engage them, which successfully slowed the British advance. It was not until 4:30 that afternoon that Clinton finally had his men in position. 

The battle started soon after when British regulars, Hessians, and Loyalists attacked Fort Montgomery. The Americans were easily overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties. Fort Clinton also fell to the British.

The next day, Clinton’s men moved further north, broke through the defenses that blocked the river, and captured Fort Constitution. That same day, further north, Burgoyne was defeated by Gates at the Second Battle of Saragota.

After the battle, Clinton was sick and went back to New York City. He sent Brigadier General John Vaughan and roughly 1,700 men north to meet with Burgoyne Vaughan and his men burned the town of Esopus on October 16 and then raided Clermont, the homestead of the Livingstons, who were leaders of the Patriot Cause in New York. Putnam and his men chased after Vaughan, which kept him from sending communications to Burgoyne, even though he was less than 50 miles from Albany.

On October 17, Burgoyne officially surrendered his army to Gates. The next day, most of the American troops marched South toward Albany to deal with Clinton’s forces. 

However, Clinton received instructions from Howe to march to send reinforcements to Philadelphia. Clinton responded by recalling Vaughan and ordering him to return to New York City. Over the next two months, the British withdrew from Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and Lake Champlain was free of British forces. Clinton eventually made his way to Philadelphia and joined Howe.

Hudson River, Near Fort Montgomery, Illustration
The Hudson River near Fort Montgomery. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

France Enters the War

The victory allowed the Americans to regain control of the Hudson River Valley and convinced France to begin negotiations with Benjamin Franklin.

On December 4, Franklin, who was at Versailles, learned the British had taken Philadelphia but also that Burgoyne had surrendered. Two days later, King Louis XVI agreed to negotiations for an alliance with the United States.

The Treaty of Alliance was signed on February 6, 1778, and France declared war on Britain one month later, with hostilities beginning with naval skirmishes off Ushant in June.

Clinton Succeeds Howe as Commander-in-Chief

Howe resigned from his position in February 1778 and was replaced by Clinton on May 7. With France involved, Clinton’s resources were limited, because Britain had to protect its interest in the West Indies from the French. 

As a result, Clinton received orders to pull out of Philadelphia and concentrate his forces in the North. Beyond that, he was to send an expedition to Georgia as the opening move in the Southern Campaign. British Secretary of State for the American Department, Lord George Germain, believed Loyalists in the South would support the British and help them take control of the Southern Colonies. The plan was to take control of Georgia, then South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Once the South was back under British control, Clinton could concentrate on defeating the Americans in the North.

Clinton Faces Washington at the Battle of Monmouth

Due to the threat of the French Navy on the open seas, Howe was forced to march from Philadelphia to New York. This exposed him to attacks from Washington and other American forces in New Jersey, who had spent the winter of 1777–1778 training at Valley Forge.

On June 16, 1778, Clinton started the march to New York. Two days later, his entire army had crossed over the Delaware River into New Jersey. Washington responded by moving his army to intercept Clinton at Coryell’s Ferry, in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

The British Army moved slowly and had to account for the movements of American forces around it. Washington deployed men throughout the region but was not entirely sure of Clinton’s path through New Jersey. If Washington was able to trap Clinton, he had an opportunity to end the war, however, he was also cautious. If he engaged Clinton and lost, it would also be the end of the Patriot Cause.

On June 24, Washington held a Council of War with his officers. Charles Lee, who had been returned to the Continental Army in a prisoner exchange, suggested the Americans were in no position to attack the British. The council decided to send Colonel Charles Scott and a small force of 1,500 men to harass the British on their left flank. Another contingent, led by Daniel Morgan, would harass the right flank.

Soon after, Washington received intelligence that Clinton was marching toward Monmouth Court House. The American plan was altered and Lee was put in command of a larger force.

By June 27, both armies were in the vicinity of Monmouth Court House. The British prepared to move out of Monmouth Court House on the 28th. When they did, Lee was supposed to attack them. Washington had forces deployed throughout the area to engage the British after Lee’s attack.

Before dawn on the 28th, British forces started leaving Monmouth Court House. However, Lee did not move until around 7:00 a.m. By then, the entire British Army was on the road, with General Cornwallis and his men defending the rear of the column. Lee finally attacked around 10:00, but it was disorganized and ineffective. Clinton gathered men with him and rode back toward Monmouth Court House to engage Lee. When Clinton arrived he attacked, taking Lee by surprise.

Although Lee had 5,000 men under his command and artillery, he ordered them to retreat, which gave Cornwallis time to regroup. Soon after, Washington received reports that Lee’s attack was in disarray and then that he was retreating. Washington was astonished and furious. He rode ahead, met Lee on the road, and removed him from command on the spot.

Clinton’s forces pursued Lee’s until Washington organized his men. He had Nathanael Greene and his division on his right. In the center were Anthony Wayne, his men, and some of Lee’s men. On Washington’s, left was William Alexander, Lord Stirling, and his division. The reserve was placed under command of the Marquis de Lafayette who took the rest of Lee’s men.

The two armies attacked and counterattacked throughout the day. However, the Americans gained a slight advantage due to the placement of artillery on its right flank. From there, the batteries could fire on the British from a safe distance and the British were unable to fire back.

It was a long, hot day, and by 5:00 the men were exhausted. Some had even died from heat exhaustion. Clinton ended the ground attacks but continued to bombard Washington with artillery. Washington tried to launch a ground assault, but the men were unable to respond due to fatigue.

Clinton withdrew and rested his men. That night, he marched away from Monmouth Court House and arrived back in New York City on July 5, 1778.

Battle of Monmouth, Washington Rallying Troops
This painting by Emanuel Leutze depicts Washington rallying his men at the Battle of Monmouth. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Newport, Rhode Island

In late July, a combined force of Americans, led by General John Sullivan, and French, led by Vice Admiral Comte d’Estaing, prepared to attack British forces at Newport. It was the first time the allies worked together during the war.

For two weeks, the British and Allied forces skirmished on land and sea. On August 13, a hurricane blew in and damaged ships from both the British and French fleets. Because of the damage, Comte d’Estaing withdrew and sailed to Boston on August 22.

Meanwhile, Clinton prepared men to send to Newport to reinforce the British forces, which were under the command of General Robert Pigot. In an effort to convince the French to return, Sullivan sent Marquis de Lafayette to Boston to meet with d’Estaing, however, d’Estaing refused to return.

On August 26, 4,000 men under the command of General Charles Gray sailed out of New York Harbor and headed toward Newport. Two days later, Sullivan and his officers decided to end the siege and withdraw. Pigot found out and decided to launch an attack during the retreat.

As the Americans started to move out on the 29th, the British attacked. The American defense was led by Nathaniel Greene, James Varnum, and John Glover, and they were able to hold off the British advance. The British retained control of Newport and Rhode Island.

In the aftermath of the battle, Sullivan and others were critical of d’Estaing and the French, which embarrassed the Vice Admiral.

General Gray and his men arrived after the Americans had left. Clinton ordered him to carry out raids against towns on the Massachusetts coast. He also expressed his frustration with Pigot. If Pigot had waited for Gray to arrive, he might have been able to capture Sullivan’s army.

Opening the Southern Campaign

Clinton sent Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell and 3,100 men from New York to Savannah, for the purpose of capturing the city. A second British force, led by General Augustine Provost, marched out of St. Augustine, in the British Colony of East Florida, toward Savannah. Campbell captured Savannah on December 29, 1778, and was joined by Augustine Prevost

In January 1779, Prevost sent Campbell to capture Augusta, which he accomplished on January 29. American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln responded. 

Meanwhile, Lincoln planned to attack Augusta and moved troops in that direction. Campbell responded by evacuating Augusta and marching back to Savannah. During the march, he sent men to attack an American camp at Briar Creek. Campbell’s men routed the Americans at the Battle of Briar Creek, further strengthening British control of Georgia.

Lt Colonel Archibald Campbell, American Revolution
Archibald Campbell. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Hudson River Campaign

Clinton received orders from Lord Germain to secure the north in the spring and summer of 1779 to cut the Contienental Army off from New England and to try to draw Washington into battle. Washington was stationed at Middle Brook, New Jersey. 

  • Starting in May, the British took control of key ports along the East Coast, including Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Gosport. 
  • Clinton also sent reinforcements to Newport, Rhode Island. 
  • He took control of King’s Ferry on the Hudson River and hoped Washington would come out of West Point and try to retake the ferry.

After Clinton captured King’s Ferry, Washington moved into the Hudson Highlands, around West Point, but refused to move his army into a position to engage Clinton.

The Treason of Benedict Arnold Begins

Sometime in May 1779, Benedict Arnold contacted Joseph Stanbury, a Philadelphia Loyalist, and told him he was interested in joining the British and working for them as a spy. Stansbury relayed the information to Major John André who was Clinton’s chief intelligence officer in America. Clinton was notified of the possibility of Arnold’s help. However, Clinton was wary of Arnold’s reputation and decided it was best to simply correspond with him, rather than meet with him personally, or offer him a position in the British Army. André served as the messenger between Arnold and Clinton, and Arnold provided information to Clinton.

Battle of Stono Ferry, South Carolina

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, General Benjamin Lincoln was still determined to force the British out of Georgia. On June 20, 1779, he engaged British forces at Stono Ferry and suffered a significant loss.

Phillipsburg Proclamation

Since Washington would not move out of West Point, Clinton turned to economic warfare. He offered an incentive for enslaved workers to abandon their American owners and join the British war effort.

On June 30, 1779, he issued the “Philipsburg Proclamation,” which was similar in nature to the 1776 Dunmore Proclamation. Clinton offered freedom to enslaved people throughout the colonies who were willing to take up arms for the Crown. After the proclamation was published in the Loyalist newspaper, New York Gazette, on July 21, 1779, the news spread quickly. Thousands of slaves joined the British army over the course of the next two years as a result of Clinton’s policy.

Still, Washington did not move to attack.

Connecticut Coastal Raids

Clinton sent raiding parties to attack towns along the Connecticut coast that supported the Patriot Cause. In order to carry out the raids, he reduced the number of troops defending Verplanck’s Point and Stony Point at King’s Ferry.

Washington did respond to this move. He sent contingents of troops out into the Highlands to distract Clinton and trick him into recalling the forces he had sent to Connecticut.

The troop movements contributed to the Battle of Pound Ridge on July 2, 1779, where British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacked an American contingent. It was Tarleton’s first independent field command, and although he was outnumbered by about 100 men, he forced the Americans to retreat. He pursued them briefly and returned to the town of Pound Ridge, where he set fire to some buildings.

The raids in Connecticut started on July 5 and were carried out against New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk. 

Still, Washington did not move his entire army and accurately assessed Clinton’s actions as nothing more than a ruse to draw him into battle.

Battle of Stony Point

After taking control of Stony Point, Clinton had men start building fortifications. In July, Washington and General Anthony Wayne devised a plan to attack Stony Point and take it back. On July 16, 1779, Wayne led the attack. The British were overwhelmed and forced to surrender the fort. Three days later, a large contingent of British troops sailed upriver toward the fort and the Americans abandoned it, however, the Americans took all the supplies and weapons with them. The British occupied the fort and rebuilt the defenses under the guidance of Captain Patrick Ferguson.

Battle of Paulus Hook

Nearly a month after Stony Point, Washington sent Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee with his dragoons and a large contingent of infantry to attack the British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Lee and his men attacked the fort around 3:30 a.m. on August 19, 1779. They quickly took control of the out fort, but the British forces took defensive positions in a redoubt. Lee considered burning the barracks but decided against it when he learned there were sick men inside, along with women and children. Lee decided to pull out and took around 150 prisoners with him. The British forces pursued the Americans as they returned to New Bridge. However, Lee received reinforcements during the retreat, which allowed him to safely return to his camp.

Siege of Savannah, Georgia

By September 1779, Vice Admiral d’Estaing was prepared to atone for the disaster at Rhode Island. He sailed to South Carolina and informed General Lincoln he was prepared to help him attack Savannah and break the British hold on Georgia. On September 16, the Allied forces laid siege to the city. After two weeks, the British were still entrenched. D’Estaing was concerned about the possibility of another hurricane and the potential arrival of British ships, so he suggested an assault on Savannah. On October 9, the Allies attacked but failed to break through. A few days later, d’Estaing sailed away from Savannah toward the West Indies and Lincoln had no choice but to return to Charleston. The retreat left Georgia in British control and allowed Clinton to begin planning to retake South Carolina.

Hard Winter at Morristown

The winter of 1779–1780 is recognized as one of the worse in American history. Washington and his men spent the season encamped around Morristown, New Jersey, which suffered through more than 20 snowstorms and low temperatures. Morale in the Continental Army was low, as the war in the North was at a stalemate and the British had control of the South.

In December, Clinton prepared to carry out his orders to take control of the South. It would be the first offensive action as Commander-in-Chief and he led it himself. Clinton’s armada sailed for Charleston. Washington was informed, however, there was nothing he could do. The weather was too harsh for him to march South. On January 10, 1780, British ships were seen along the coast of South Carolina.

Siege of Charleston

Clinton’s armada includes 100 ships and nearly 9,000 troops — roughly one-third of the British army. Clinton started landing his men on February 11 and started the march to Charleston.  Lincoln and his men respond by building defensive works intended to slow down the advance of the British.

On April 1, 1780, the Siege of Charleston started. Clinton wanted to capture the city without destroying it, so he has his men dig siege trenches. They were joined by enslaved people who wanted to take advantage of the freedom he offered in the Phillipsburg Proclamation.

As the siege carried on, the British moved in closer to Charleston and dug more siege trenches. On April 8, American reinforcements arrived in Charleston. They were Virginia Continentals, under the command of General William Woodford, however, there were only 750 men. It was not nearly enough for Lincoln.

On April 10, Clinton sent a message to Lincoln and requested his surrender. However, Lincoln replied that he intended to defend the city “to the last extremity.” The two armies continued to trade artillery and musket fire for the remainder of the siege. The British continued to close in on Charleston and dug more siege trenches.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
General Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Clinton decided to cut off Lincoln’s supply lines and further reinforcements. On April 14, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton captured the American outpost at Monck’s Corner. 

Through the first three weeks of the siege, the Americans did not send raiding parties out to attack the Britsh while they dug the siege trenches. That changed on April 24 when Lieutenant Colonel William Henderson led 200 Continentals on an attack. They were pushed back by heavy fire and suffered the loss of Captain Thomas Moultrie, who was killed. That same day, General Louis Duportail suggested the Americans should evacuate the city, however, the escape routes were cut off when the British took control of Monck’s Corner and Lempriere’s Point.

By May 1, the British had moved in close enough they breached the outer defenses. The Americans had built a canal and filled it with water. The British dug a ditch to let the water out and moved closer to Charleston.

Skirmishes and artillery fire continued. Meanwhile, the soldiers and people in Charleston started to run out of food. 

On May 6, Tarleton and his men smashed the American cavalry at the Battle of Lenud’s Ferry. The next day, the Royal Navy captured Fort Moultrie. Then, on May 8, Clinton sent another message to Lincoln and asked for his surrender. Lincoln asked for a  truce, which Clinton granted. Then the two of them negotiated the terms through a series of letters. 

Clinton refused many of Lincoln’s requests and the American batteries opened fire around 9:00 p.m. on May 9. The British responded by bombarding the American defensive works for the next 24 hours.

Soon after, Lincoln was informed that some of the militia forces in Charleston were willing to accept Clinton’s terms of surrender. On May 11, Lincoln received a message from Lieutenant Governor Christopher Gadsden, which suggested he surrender. Lincoln called a Council of War and it was decided to surrender and accept Clinton’s terms.

On May 12, Lincoln surrendered the city and 3,300-5,000 men to Clinton. It was Clinton’s brightest moment of the war and a significant defeat for the Americans.

Banastrae Tarleton, Portrait, Reynolds
Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Cornwallis Takes Command in the South

After the British took control of Charleston, Clinton placed General Charles Cornwallis in charge of the Southern Army and returned to New York City. Clinton left Cornwallis with orders to bring the southern states under British control. Preparing to bring the South Carolina backcountry under control and establish outposts, Cornwallis marched out of Charleston on May 18 and marched in the direction of Camden. 

11 days later, Banastre Tarleton and his men massacred the last American organized forces that were left in South Carolina at the Battle of Waxhaws. The only resistance at that point was led by Francis Marion, who carried out attacks on the British supply lines.

Arnold is Named Commander of West Point

On August 3, 1780, Arnold was placed in charge of the fort at West Point. At that time, Clinton believed Washington and the French were planning an attack on New York City. Clinton also believed West Point was where the Americans stored most of their supplies. 

The threat made West Point even more valuable to Clinton. If he could capture it, he would take the supplies and also have control of the Hudson River. Clinton and Arnold negotiated and came to an agreement for Arnold to turn over the fort. Clinton responded by making the necessary military preparations. 

Clinton continued his correspondence with Arnold, but with increased security, due to Arnold’s reputation. Eventually, the two of them planned to meet in person.

Battle of Camden

Congress replaced Benjamin Lincoln with General Horatio Gates — the Hero of Saratoga. Gates arrived in South Carolina in July, and Cornwallis marched out of Charleston to engage him near Camden. It is a poorly coordinated effort by Gates and ends in disaster when the two armies meet on August 16. The Americans were easily defeated and scattered, leaving South Carolina under British control and opening the path for Cornwallis to march into North Carolina and continue to carry out the Southern Campaign. Cornwallis sent contingents out into the countryside to restore order and eliminate resistance.

Arnold’s Treachery Discovered

On September 21, 1780, André met with Arnold, and Arnold gave him confidential documents, including a map of West Point. André intended to return to General Clinton and give him the documents. 

Two days later, André, in disguise, tried to return to the British lines. He was near Tarrytown, New York when he was stopped by three men from the New York militia. They searched him, found the documents Arnold had given him, and arrested him. 

With the plot uncovered, Arnold had no choice and fled to New York City on board the British ship Vulture.

General George Washington was notified, and André was put on trial for spying and hanged on October 2 at Tappan, New York. Writing to Lord Germain, Clinton said of the incident:

“Thus ended this proposed plan of a project, from which I had conceived such great hopes, and from whence I imagined would be derived such great consequences.”

Although Clinton was not able to capture West Point, he rewarded Arnold by appointing him as a Brigadier General in the Provincial Forces.

Arnold's Treason, Arnold Giving Letters to Andre
This painting by Charles F. Blauvelt depicts Arnold persuading André to conceal the papers in his boot. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Tide Turns in the South

While the affair with Arnold was unfolding, Cornwallis prepared to march into North Carolina. In order to protect the main army, he sent Major Patrick Ferguson west to recruit Loyalists. Ferguson issued a proclamation, ordering Patriot militias to lay down their arms and told them, “if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” 

Militia leaders living in the west gathered their forces — known as the Overmountain Men — and met at Sycamore Shoals in the Tennesee Country on September 25. From there, the Overmountain Men went in pursuit of Ferguson. When Ferguson found out they were moving in his direction, he started to retreat back toward the main army. On October 7, 1780, American forces attacked Ferguson at Kings Mountain. Ferguson was killed in the battle and his entire force was either killed or captured. It was a significant defeat for the British and forced Cornwallis to abandon his plan to move to North Carolina. He responded by marching back to South Carolina.

Later, Clinton called the defeat at Kings Mountain the “ first link in a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”

Battle of Cowpens

After Gates was defeated, George Washington put Nathanael Greene in command of the Southern Department. Greene made a bold move and divided the army.  Cornwallis responded by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and a portion of his forces after General Daniel Morgan. They met near Chesnee, South Carolina at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Morgan led his forces to a significant victory, which cost Cornwallis more men, including most of Tarleton’s British Legion, which had done significant damage to American forces in the South.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
General Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Cornwallis Chases Greene and Settles in Yorktown

Cornwallis turned his attention to Greene and chased after him. They met near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina at the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781. Although the British won the battle, they suffered heavy casualties. Cornwallis could not continue to pursue Greene and marched back to Wilmington, North Carolina, where the British supply base was, so his men could rest. 

By April, Cornwallis decided to turn his attention to Virginia. He took matters into his own hands and rarely communicated with Clinton, who did not authorize the subsequent invasion of Virginia. On May 10, Cornwallis entered Virginia and took command of all British forces there.

The lack of communication frustrated Clinton, who was worried Washington and the French were planning to attack New York City. Further, Clinton’s concern with New York City led him to issue orders for Cornwallis to find a place in the Chesapeake Bay where the Royal Navy could reach him. Clinton wanted him to send any troops he could spare back to New York City. 

Throughout the summer, Cornwallis continued to conduct raids throughout Virginia. Because of Clinton’s request, he chose to move his army to Yorktown, where he settled in on August 1. Cornwallis planned to make men available for Clinton and also to use Yorktown as a supply base for his army as he continued his campaign in Virginia.

Washington Goes South

When Washington found out Cornwallis was at Yorktown, he ordered American forces in the South to block land routes out of the area. On August 14, Washinton learned there was a fleet of French ships under the command of Admiral de Grasse sailing to the Chesapeake Bay from the Caribbean. The French would be able to block the British escape to the sea. 

A week later, Washington marched south along with French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau. However, they left enough men behind to make Clinton think they were planning to attack New York City.

Battle of the Capes

Clinton found out the Allied forces were marching south. He responded by sending Admiral Thomas Graves and a fleet to sail there to reinforce Cornwallis and also sent messages to warn Cornwallis a land attack was possible. 

The French fleet arrived before the British Navy. On September 5, the French defeated the British at the Battle of the Capes. The British were forced to sail back to New York and the French blockaded the Chesapeake Bay.

Clinton was unaware that Graves was sailing back to New York, and he sent a message to Cornwallis promising he would send reinforcements. Based on Clinton’s message, Cornwallis decided to hold out in Yorktown until help arrived.

Two weeks later, American and French forces assembled at Williamsburg, Virginia, and the reinforcements Clinton promised never arrived.

The Siege of Yorktown

On September 28, American and French forces arrived at Yorktown and started to bombard the city — the Siege of Yorktown was underway. Over the next three weeks, the Allied forces slowly chipped away at British defenses. On October 14, American and French forces attacked strategic British positions outside of Yorktown. Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken led 400 men and took Redoubt Number Nine. Colonel Alexander Hamilton led another 400 troops and took Redoubt Number Ten.

The British tried to sneak out of Yorktown on October 16 by crossing the York River. However, a storm blew in and the plan was ruined. They were forced to halt the operation. Cornwallis met with his officers, and they agree they have no option but to surrender.

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

The next day, Cornwallis sent a drummer out to the American lines. He was followed by an officer carrying a white flag. The officer carried a note from Cornwallis to Washington that said:

“Sir, I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore’s house, to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.”

Over the course of the next 24 hours, Cornwallis and Washington traded notes that established the terms of the British surrender. On the 18th, representatives — one American officer — John Laurens — one French officer — Second Colonel Viscount de Noailles — and two British officers — Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross — met at Moore House outside of Yorktown to settle the final terms.

On October 19, 1781, the Articles of Capitulation were signed. Cornwallis surrendered more than 7,000 officers and men. Cornwallis refused to attend the formal ceremony and sent General Charles O’Hara in his place. O’Hara offered the sword of surrender to Rochambeau, who refused and directed O’Hara to give it to Washington. Washington also refused and instructed O’Hara to give it to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln. At that point, the British soldiers laid down their arms between the American and French armies.

Legend has it the British band played, “The World Turned Upside Down” during the surrender.

Lord Cornwallis Surrender at Yorktown, Painting, Trumbull
The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Clinton’s Fate

With both Cornwallis and Clinton humiliated by the surrender at Yorktown, General Guy Carleton replaced Clinton as Commander-in-Chief on May 5, 1782.

He sailed to England, where he was criticized for his role in the loss of the war. In an effort to clear his name and reputation, he asked for an inquiry from Parliament but was denied. In 1783, he published “Narrative of the Campaign of 1781” in North America and blamed Cornwallis for the defeat at Yorktown. This led to a public dispute between Clinton and Cornwallis.

In 1794, he was named Governor of Gibraltar, however, he died in London on December 23, 1795.

Henry Clinton’s Legacy

Clinton had personal flaws that impacted the course of the American Revolutionary War. He had trouble getting along with others and was generally disliked by his officers and the men under his command. William Howe did not care for him, and he had a poor relationship with Charles Cornwallis. Clinton also showed a tendency to react slowly to the situation in Yorktown. He could have ordered Cornwallis to evacuate before the French fleet arrived, but he hesitated — and that hesitation is why the blame for the loss of the war was placed on his shoulders.

Significance of Henry Clinton

Henry Clinton is important to United States history for his role in the American Revolutionary War. He served as Commander-in-Chief of British land forces during the war longer than any other officer. Under his watch, Cornwallis became trapped at Yorktown and was forced to surrender, which eventually led Great Britain to acknowledge the United States as an independent nation.

General Sir Henry Clinton — The General Who Lost America

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses the career of Henry Clinton and his role in the American Revolutionary War.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title General Sir Henry Clinton — The Last Commander-in-Chief of British Forces During the American Revolutionary War
  • Date April 16, 1730–December 23, 1795
  • Author
  • Keywords Henry Clinton, American Revolutionary War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 28, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 20, 2024

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