General James Clinton

James Clinton served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and rose to the rank of Major General.

James Clinton, Illustration

James Clinton successfully escaped from the British at the Battle of Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Biography of James Clinton

James Clinton was from New York and served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. His military career started during the French and Indian War when he enrolled in the militia. In 1775, he served as a delegate to the First New York Provincial Congress and was appointed Colonel of New York’s 3rd Regiment. He took part in the failed Canada Campaign. After he returned to New York, he helped fortify the Hudson Highlands against the British during Burgoyne’s Campaign. He was wounded in the Battle of Fort Montgomery but fought until the end, and was one of the last Americans to evacuate. In 1779, he joined General John Sullivan in an expedition against the Iroquois Confederacy which pushed many of the Iroquois from their homes and forced them to escape to Fort Niagara. Afterward, Clinton commanded the Nothern Department and his headquarters were at Albany, New York. In 1781 he marched to Yorktown and was present when the British surrendered at the end of the Battle of Yorktown. After the war, he participated in New York politics but voted against the United States Constitution.

James Clinton Facts

Important Facts About James Clinton

  • He was born on August 9, 1736, in Little Britain, Ulster County, New York.
  • His parents were Colonel Charles Clinton, an Irish immigrant, and Elizabeth Denniston.
  • He received his education under the supervision of his father.
  • He rose to the rank of Major General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
  • His younger brother, George Clinton, was a Founding Father and served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
  • His son, De Witt Clinton, served as Governor of New York.
  • He died on September 22, 1812, at his home in Orange County, New York.

Early Life, Education, and Family

James Clinton was educated for a career in the military, and his studies helped him prepare for the role, where he earned a reputation courageous officer who maintained his composure in battle and in times of crisis.

French and Indian War

In 1757, Clinton joined the New York provincial militia as an ensign. He joined the militia as an ensign. In 1758, he served under Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet during the Battle of Fort Frontenac in Canada. His father, Colonel James Clinton, and brother, Lieutenant George Clinton, were also there and helped force the French to surrender the fort on August 28, 1758. In 1759, he was promoted to Captain.

Later, he played a role in the capture of a French warship on Lake Ontario.

Clinton was placed in command of four companies, which had been raised to help defend the western frontier of Orange County and Ulster County. He and his men were responsible for protecting English settlements within a 50-mile radius.

He served in the militia until the end of the war.

Marriage to Mary de Witt

Near the end of the French and Indian War, he married Mary de Witt, who came from an old Dutch family. Their son, De Witt Clinton, would go on to be Governor of New York.

American Revolutionary War

In May 1775, he was elected by Ulster County as a delegate to the First New York Provincial Congress. On June 30,  was appointed Colonel of New York’s 3rd Regiment. That fall, the Regiment accompanied General Richard Montgomery during the failed Invasion of Canada.

On October 25, 1775, he was appointed Colonel of the Regiment of Foot in Ulster County by the New York Provincial Congress.

On March 8, 1776, he was appointed Colonial of the 2nd battalion of New York troops by the Continental Congress.

On August 9, 1776, he was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He was in command of New York troops and helped fortify the Hudson Highlands, along with his younger brother, George Clinton.

Despite his commission, James was considered by some members of the military to be indecisive and lacking control over his men. In a letter to General George Washington, General Philip Schuyler said he respected Clinton and thought he was brave, but also that he was “amazingly slow and…no Disciplinarian.”

Battle of Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery

In 1777, George was elected Governor of New York and James was assigned to help defend the Hudson Highlands.

Hudson Highlands, Near Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery

Illustration of the Hudson Highlands, near Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Images.

The British launched a campaign that was intended to take control of the Hudson River Valley and cut off New England from the south. It is called Burgyone’s Campaign and is named for General John Burgoyne.

As part of the larger campaign, General Sir Henry Clinton led a campaign against Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery, known as Clinton’s Expedition to the Hudson Highlands. Both forts were located on the west bank of the Hudson River, south of West Point.

Although George was Governor, he went to the Highlands to help lead the American forces in the defense against the British attack. George took command of Fort Montgomery and James commanded  Fort Clinton.

In October 1777, the British attacked the two forts. The battle is sometimes referred to as “The Battle of the Three Clintons.”

The British advanced on the forts with a force of about 400 men, while the forts were defended by around 500 men who were mostly untrained militia, many of whom had no firearms. The British overwhelmed the forts and Clinton, who was at Fort Montgomery, was wounded in the fighting by a bayonet. Despite the injury, he was one of the last Americans left in the forts. However, he found himself in serious danger. His attendant was killed and the British were closing in on him.

This account of Clinton’s escape from Fort Clinton was written by Amos Blanchard in 1830 and comes from “American Military Biography.”

“…it occurred to him that he must either perish on the mountains or be captured unless he could supply himself with another horse; an animal which sometimes roamed at large in that wild region In this emergency he took the bridle from his horse, and slid down a precipice of one hundred feet to the ravine of the creek which separated the forts, and feeling cautiously his way along its precipitous banks, he reached the mountain at a distance from the enemy, after having fallen into the stream, the cold water of which arrested a copious effusion of blood. The return of light furnished him with the sight of a horse, which conveyed him to his house, about sixteen miles from the fort, where he arrived about noon, covered with blood and laboring under a severe fever.”

The British continued and marched up the Hudson, where they destroyed the town of Kingston and other villages before they met up with Burgoyne’s larger force.

Fort Montgomery, British Attack, Illustration

This Illustration depicts the British attack on Fort Montgomery. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Sullivan-Clinton Expedition Against the Iroquois Confederation

On the frontier, the Native American Indian tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederation, or Six Nations were allied with the British. The Iroquois primarily lived in western New York, and Pennsylvania. At one time, as a result of the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois had controlled much of the fur trade from the Hudson Valley to the Ohio Country.

The Iroquois, led by Joseph Brant, and Loyalists were attacking colonial settlements and they destroyed homes, crops, and killed colonists. In response, an expedition was planned, and General John Sullivan was in command. Sullivan moved into Iroquois territory with the main army. Clinton was second in command of the expedition and led another force of roughly 1,600 men to join with Sullivan.

Clinton and his men traveled up the Mohawk River on batteaux. They started out from Schenectady and made their way to the head of Lake Otsego. When they arrived, the water in the river was too low, so Clinton had his men build a dam. Clinton’s engineering feat raised the level of the water, which helped him float on to meet with Sullivan.

The Iroquois gathered at Newtown and prepared for the American attack by fortifying their positions. On August 29, 1779, Sullivan attacked. The Americans overwhelmed the fort and drove the Iroquois out.

From there, Sullivan matched west and destroyed around 40 Iroquois settlements and villages, almost unopposed. The Americans were surprised to find the Iroquois had established significant villages and agricultural advances that were much more like their own, and not the “savage” life that many colonists associated with the Indians.

They were in large dwellings and had a large number of horses, cows, and pigs. The fields were full of corn, some ears as big as 22 inches in length. There were orchards of fruit trees, including apples and peaches, and gardens full of vegetables. They were also manufacturing their own salt and sugar.

The destruction carried out by Sullivan and his men forced the Iroquois to take refuge at Fort Niagara. However, there was not enough food for them. Many of them died due to illness and disease that swept through their camp.

Command of the Northern Department

After the expedition against the Iroquois, Clinton was stationed at Albany, New York, and in command of the Northern Department. It was his responsibility to protect the frontier from various threats, including attacks from the Iroquois and Loyalists, and British military forces from Canada.

He took his responsibilities seriously and may have even wanted to prove he was a disciplinarian, as was shown in how he handled an incident with a regiment that refused to obey orders. The regiment had been ordered to march but refused. When Clinton was informed, he went to the regiment and ordered the commander to march. The commander did not comply, so Clinton drew his pistol and pointed it at the chest of a Sergeant, who was one of the leaders of the mutiny. Clinton commanded him to march and threatened to shoot if he failed to do so. The Sergeant complied and order was restored in the regiment.

End of the War

In 1781, Clinton marched his brigade to Yorktown and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, which led to the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis. Clinton’s last service as a soldier came during the evacuation of New York City by the British. When the British were gone, he retired to his estate. By that time, he had risen to the rank of Major General.

Later Years

Clinton was frequently called out of retirement to perform civic duties. He was appointed a commissioner to adjust the boundary line between Pennsylvania and New York. He was also selected by the legislature to help settle a controversy about lands in the west.

New York Assembly and Constitutional Convention

He represented his county in the New York Assembly and in the convention that adopted the United States Constitution. However, he voted against the Constitution because it did not contain a Bill of Rights.


Clinton died on December 22, 1812. He was interred in the family burial place in Orange County.


James Clinton is important in United States history, because of his service in the American Revolutionary War. However, he is probably most well-known for participating in the expedition that forced the Iroquois to take refuge at Fort Niagara.