Monday, June 25, 2012

Monarchist Profile: General Sir Henry Clinton

One of the leading British commanders of the American War for Independence, Sir Henry Clinton was one of the most capable generals of that conflict but also one of the most difficult. He was born on April 16, 1730 to Admiral George Clinton and Anne Carle. There is a little ambiguity about the place of his birth, but according to some at least he was a North American, a Canadian, being born in Newfoundland. His family was a very old one with a long history of royal service behind it when he first entered the armed forces in New York in 1745. His father, at the time, was serving as the Royal Governor of New York. One year later he was a captain serving in the fortress of Louisbourg only recently captured from the French. Later on, this background would serve Clinton well as he had considerable experience with North America when the Revolutionary War broke out. Over the next few years he moved to Great Britain and was commissioned as a captain in the elite Coldstream Guards. He rose fairly rapidly in the British army, serving in some of the most famous formations. By 1758 he was a lieutenant colonel in the First Foot Guards (better known as the Grenadier Guards today). During the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in America) he served under the Duke of Brunswick in Germany. During his war service he met many of the men he would later serve with and against when revolution came to the American colonies.

Clinton gave good service, made profitable friendships, married a member of the landed gentry and even gained as a patron the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the new King George III. After serving in Gibraltar for a time Clinton was promoted to major general in 1772 and was elected to a seat in the House of Commons. He also gained further military experience touring installations of the Imperial Russian Army in the Balkans, witnessed some clashes with the formidable Ottoman Empire (even met some Turkish envoys who he described as “very civil”) and had an audience in Vienna with Emperor Joseph II. It was upon his return to England that he learned about the outbreak of rebellion in America and was ordered by King George III to proceed there along with his fellow major generals William Howe and John Burgoyne to bring a quick end to this challenge to the authority of the Crown. Their immediate goal was to relieve the besieged British forces in Boston under General Thomas Gage. The result was the first major clash of the war, the battle of Bunker Hill.

General Clinton always displayed a more sober and realistic appreciation of the fighting qualities of the Americans and was pessimistic about the situation at Bunker Hill and broke his orders to tend to the wounded after the first two failed assaults on Breed’s Hill. The third assault succeeded, winning the battle for the British but at a heavy loss of life which made Clinton describe the victory as nearly ruinous. Gage was replaced by Howe in the aftermath of the battle and Clinton was promoted to the local rank of lieutenant general and was chief deputy to General Howe. In that role he often provided brilliant plans but his character proved problematic and Clinton was, by most accounts, extremely hard to work with and was invariably critical of his superiors. This mitigated his value at times but, nonetheless, Clinton often made invaluable contributions to the war effort. During the Long Island campaign it was General Clinton who suggested the flanking march that proved a master stroke and went a long way in securing a massive victory for the British forces in which George Washington and his entire Continental Army came close to being totally wiped out.

There was no doubt that Clinton was an extremely capable military commander but his own personality often worked against him. This was especially true following the death of his wife when Clinton became noticeably more difficult. He had also earlier been dispatched by General Howe to lead the campaign in the southern colonies but a delay suffered by the Royal Navy and bad weather helped turn the expedition into a dismal failure, a soft spot for General Clinton who did not respond well to criticism (who does?). He returned to New England where he captured Newport, Rhode Island after which he went back to Great Britain in early 1777. When Burgoyne was chosen by the King and Lord Germain to lead the northern offensive coming down from Canada Clinton tried to resign but was refused. He was knighted and returned to New York to resume his post as Howe’s deputy, though neither man was happy about it.

Not surprisingly, General Clinton was totally opposed to the plan for Howe to advance north while Burgoyne marched south, hopefully cutting off New England and crushing the rebellion between them. Clinton predicted that Burgoyne would be isolated in the wilderness of upper New York and could easily be surrounded and destroyed. Of course, this is exactly what transpired with Burgoyne being forced to surrender after the battle of Saratoga, a victory credited with securing French recognition of the fledgling United States. During the Saratoga campaign Clinton had also managed a successful raid into the Hudson Highlands in a vain effort to rescue Burgoyne and his intrepid army. Early the following year though things changed for Clinton. Despite winning numerous victories, General Howe had failed to suppress the rebellion in the colonies in 1777 and he resigned his position. So, in February of 1778 Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton became commander-in-chief of all Crown forces in North America. His constant advice and criticism of his predecessor meant that much was expected of Clinton but with France joining the war as an ally of the rebels the British government had to redeploy limited forces to defend colonies all over the world. As a result, Clinton would be expected to accomplish what Howe had not but with even fewer troops to work with.

General Clinton also faced a Continental Army that had become much more disciplined and well trained than the one he and Howe had chased from pillar to post in New York. Clinton was thus forced to adopt a generally defensive strategy with British forces concentrating on holding key strategic ports, with supply and mobility dependent on the Royal Navy, rather than undertaking any grand offensives to wipe out the Continental Army. Clinton, who had seemed so daring as a subordinate, found himself to be a very cautious commander, which even he realized, referring to himself on one occasion as “a shy bitch”. Still, he executed a brilliant march to New York during which time Washington tried to win a decisive victory over him at the bloody battle of Monmouth. Usually dismissed as a stalemate, it is hard to see how this should not be considered a victory for Clinton even if a less than decisive one. Even though Washington caught the rear of the British army, Clinton fended off his attacks, losing less men than Washington while still managing to complete his movement to New York as planned while the rebel goal of destroying his army had failed. It would be the last major battle in the northern theatre as attention turned toward the southern colonies where Lord Cornwallis was dispatched to restore Crown authority and rather the many loyalists of the region.

Unfortunately, just as Clinton had clashed with Howe, he was often upset with his subordinate Cornwallis. Part of this was due to rank as Cornwallis had been given a “dormant commission” which Clinton took as an affront but which was actually done simply to ensure that if anything happened to him the senior commander in America would be Cornwallis rather than a Hessian mercenary. However, aside from the usual problems of ego, this added another difficulty as it made Clinton hesitant about issuing direct orders to Cornwallis and he instead preferred to make suggestions and as a result his instructions were often vague and easily misunderstood. Clinton, upset with what he saw as being placed in a ‘no-win’ situation tried to resign again but was again refused. He spent most of 1779 holding his ground and sending raiding parties against the rebel forces as well as issuing a proclamation promising emancipation to any slaves who could escape their bondage and enlist in the Crown forces.

In 1780, after British forces captured Savannah, Georgia General Clinton led another attack on Charleston, South Carolina. He more than made up for his earlier defeat there and after a successful siege operation forced the surrender of the city and the entire 5,000-man garrison. It was a stupendous victory for the British and the costliest defeat the American rebels would suffer in the entire war. With such a great success under his belt, Clinton left Cornwallis to command the southern campaign while he returned to New York to direct overall operations on the continent. Lord Cornwallis won a string of victories but tensions between him and Clinton only increased. Cornwallis blamed Clinton for indecisiveness while Clinton accused Cornwallis of insubordination and trying to run his own war. When a French naval victory ultimately bottled up Cornwallis at Yorktown the end was at hand. Clinton organized a rescue operation but was too late to save his subordinate who surrendered in 1782, effectively ending the war. Clinton offered his resignation again and it was finally accepted, turning command over to General Sir Guy Carleton. Unfortunately, despite being blamed for the defeat at Yorktown, Clinton was not allowed a court martial to clear his name.

Upon returning to Britain, General Clinton again served in Parliament, was promoted to full general in 1793 and ended his life as Governor of Gibraltar. As a commander, General Clinton still receives less respect than he is due. True, he was difficult, could be overcautious, tended to blame others and inflate his own successes but though he would win no personality contests, he was an extremely skillful commander. Among the top British generals of the American war he was probably the best strategist and the most effective planner of all of them. He understood that a formal conquest of the continent would be impossible, that permanent garrisons were needed to win and keep the support of the loyalists who were the key to ultimate victory. He also understood the need for close cooperation with the navy, unfortunately he was robbed of the benefit of one of the best British naval commanders of the day, Admiral Richard Howe, by the intervention of France. He was not as colorful as Burgoyne, as likeable as Howe or as daring as Cornwallis but, perhaps because of his North American background, possessed an overall understanding of the strategic situation in the colonies that few others had.

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