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Henry Clinton

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Biography written by Kyle Yang

Sir Henry Clinton was a British general who commanded British forces in North America from 1778 to 1781 during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).1 Clinton maintained a vast personal collection of documents, including maps, relating to the British army’s headquarters in New York City and British wartime strategy.2 These papers, including the maps, were eventually purchased by William L. Clements. They are now located in the library which still bears Clements’ name, the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and are also available on ARGO as part of the Clements Library collection.

Clinton was born in 1738 to an aristocratic father, Admiral George Clinton, who was the younger brother of the Earl of Lincoln.3 During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Clinton served as an aide-de-camp to the Prince of Brunswick and distinguished himself for gallantry, facilitating his promotion to the rank of colonel. Between the end of the Seven Years’ War and the Revolutionary War, Clinton’s military career was relatively uneventful.4 In the interim between these two North American wars, Clinton married Harriett Carter in February 1767.5 They had five children, and Harriet tragically died during the birth of their fifth. Her death was, in the words of Clinton’s biographer William B. Wilcox, “a catastrophe for Clinton.”6

In October 1774, Clinton was ordered to service in the rebellious thirteen North American colonies. He departed in April 1775, the same month the Battles of Lexington and Concord occurred in Massachusetts, beginning the Revolutionary War. General William Howe and General John Burgoyne accompanied Clinton with orders to goad General Thomas Gage into action, as provincial forces had pushed British troops back to Boston.7 Differing in strategy, Clinton advocated an attack on the Americans’ rear, while Howe proposed a frontal attack.8 Howe’s plan was chosen, and the British launched a frontal assault on the American militia, leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill. One map in Clinton’s collection created by John Montresor, A Survey of the Peninsula of Charles Town, illustrates British fortifications after the battle. The battle proved a pyrrhic victory for the British, prompting Clinton to remark years later that “a few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British Dominion in America.”9

Detail from a manuscript map of Charlestown, Massachusetts focusing on the cartouche, which lists the title and shows a dedication to Henry Clinton by the mapmaker, John Montresor
Detail of John Montresor's A Survey of the Peninsula of Charles Town with a note from Montresor indicating that this copy was for Henry Clinton

With Gage’s removal following Bunker Hill and Howe’s appointment as commanding officer, Clinton spent the next month garrisoned in Boston, where he demonstrated his competence as a planner. He was geographically savvy and proved able to study a map and visualize positions of future operations. His understanding of the importance of geography to his command is why his collection of maps is so vast.10

The British government decided to send a small detachment from Howe’s army in Boston to the South to meet reinforcements from Britain. Clinton was selected to lead the expedition. At Sullivan’s Island, located near Charleston, South Carolina, Clinton bumbled his way through battle and lost decisively, forcing a humiliating retreat.11 A map in the Clinton collection based on one by William Faden, shows Clinton’s plan of attack and the location of rebel forces.

Clinton returned to the Northeast disgraced. Despite a resounding success in taking back New York in 1776, Clinton returned to England determined to forfeit his command. When back in Britain, King George III offered Clinton knighthood if he remained at his post. Clinton agreed and returned to New York in 1777.12

In May 1778, Clinton was appointed Commander in Chief of British forces in North America. At the outset of his command, the British government ordered Clinton to release thousands of troops stationed in North America for duty elsewhere, notably in the Caribbean, where officials requested 5,000 men.13 France had entered the war on the American side, prompting the British to direct their concern towards retaining their Caribbean holdings due to their financial value to Britain.

To compensate for the loss of men in North America, the government devised the Southern strategy. Believing the South to be a Loyalist stronghold, the British bet on the Loyalists’ attachment to the Empire and expected that would translate into a will to serve in auxiliary forces.14 In compliance with the order, Clinton sent 1,000 troops to Georgia in December 1778. Clinton disagreed with this strategy, arguing that it was a distraction from defeating Washington’s army in the north.15 Nevertheless, he saw potential in a strike on Charleston, South Carolina—one of the largest port cities in the newly-independent United States due to its connections to the lucrative slave trade—to allow him to secure Georgia. In late December 1779, Clinton personally led 8,700 troops in a siege of Charleston, resulting in the town’s capitulation in May 1780.16 The defeat at Charleston was one of the most devastating for the Continental Army.

In an effort to quell resistance against occupying British forces, Clinton enacted a policy: swear loyalty to Britain and take up arms in defense of the Crown, or risk severe punishment.17 The policy proved unpopular and provoked armed insurrections across South Carolina. In June, Clinton left South Carolina in disarray and returned to British headquarters in New York, leaving General Charles Cornwallis in command of the Southern army.18 Counter to Clinton’s orders to secure Georgia and South Carolina, Cornwallis pursued a strategy of defeating the Americans in North Carolina and Virginia and cutting off supply lines, as he believed that was the best way to retain Georgia and South Carolina.19

Detail from a black and white manuscript map showing a scrawling paragraph of notes in a different pen from the rest of the map to the left of the image, and details of roads and streams to the right
Detail from a map of southern New York and northern New Jersey from the Clinton collection, highlighting Clinton's notes on why he chose not to move against Washington at Morristown in 1780

Due to the sheer number of troops that Clinton had to send to other theaters of the war, he was fearful of an attack on his weakened position in New York.20 As a result, he was reluctant to dispatch additional troops to Cornwallis, who needed reinforcements as his army marched north to Virginia. Clinton and Cornwallis’s relationship began to break down as Clinton sent conflicting orders, first for Cornwallis to immediately return to New York, then to instead find a port in the Chesapeake to fortify and defend.21 The abidance of the latter order led to the catastrophe at Yorktown in 1781 where Cornwallis was forced to capitulate to Washington’s army, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.

Clinton was relieved of his post as Commander in Chief of British forces in North America in 1782. He returned to England and spent the remainder of his life defending his actions during the American Revolution, blaming Cornwallis for the defeat and painting himself as a scapegoat. He died in 1795, aged sixty-five.22

Banner image: John Smart, General Sir Henry Clinton in General Officers’ undress uniform, 1777, courtesy National Army Museum (UK)


Bacas, Andrew R. “Sir Henry Clinton.” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington. George Washington Mount Vernon. Accessed October 19, 2023.

Clinton, Henry. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775–1782. Edited by William B. Wilcox. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

The Henry Clinton Papers. William L. Clements Library. University of Michigan.

Wilcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence. New York: Random House, 1962.


  1. Andrew R. Bacas, “Sir Henry Clinton,” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, George Washington’s Mount Vernon,

  2. The Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan,

  3. Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, ed. William B. Wilcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), xiii.

  4. Clinton, The American Rebellion, xiv.

  5. Bacas, “Sir Henry Clinton.”

  6. William B. Wilcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (New York: Random House, 1962), 29.

  7. Wilcox, Portrait of a General, 43.

  8. Wilcox, Portrait of a General, 51.

  9. Clinton, The American Rebellion, 19.

  10. Wilcox, Portrait of a General, 64.

  11. Wilcox, Portrait of a General, 89.

  12. Bacas, “Sir Henry Clinton.”

  13. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 222.

  14. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 223.

  15. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 224.

  16. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 230.

  17. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 231.

  18. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 232.

  19. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 240.

  20. Bacas, “Sir Henry Clinton.”

  21. O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 241.

  22. Bacas, “Sir Henry Clinton.”