Manuscripts and Special Collections

The Aftermath

It was by no means clear that Yorktown was to be the decisive battle. Washington believed that he had at least a further year's campaigning against Charlestown and New York before America would be free of the British Army. Equally, British commanders did not believe the situation irretrievable. In a letter to Charles Mellish, John Hayes gives what was probably a fairly typical contemporary reaction. He laid the blame for Yorktown directly at the feet of the British Navy and the attitude of the government at home. He feared not further military defeat, but the collapse of the will to fight in London. In May 1782 Sir Henry Clinton was relieved of his command, but his trials only really began with his departure from New York. He was the required scapegoat. Among his military friends he was well liked, and Dr. John Hayes provided a suitable epitaph:

'… never did a general depart more universially regretted and hundreds will feel the want of him.. .His generous and tender heart felt for the sufferings of the poor & his purse and friendship was always open to them…'

His return to England produced a series of disappointments which resulted in a breach with Newcastle who was unwilling to support a demand for an inquiry into the American affair.

An Assessment

The essence of Sir Henry Clinton's strategy was caution. Contemporary cartoons called him the British Fabius. Uppermost in his mind as commander was the need to preserve his force intact and execute campaigns with as few casualties as possible. The contrast between this approach and that of Lord Cornwallis was very striking. The differences are partly those of personality, but also those of perception of the nature of the war.

Sir Henry Clinton saw no glory in the conquest of America, only a difficult job for which he was given inadequate resources. He was profoundly sceptical of Britain's ability to hold the colonies against their will even if they defeated every army which Congress put into the field. The problem was essentially a political one and one about which public opinion and Parliament in London was profoundly divided. Fortescue, a historian of the British Army, has this to say:

'It seems to me that no general was worse treated. With fewer troops than Howe, and a French fleet constantly on the coast, he was expected to do fully as much as his predecessor. Had he been left to himself he might have won better success...'

William B. Willcox has a harsher judgment to make. He believes that by Yorktown Clinton's generalship was bankrupt, and that he had reached the peak of skill and efficiency in 1776-77. In other words Sir Henry Clinton was a man promoted beyond his capabilities. That may be, but it is doubtful whether any British general could have done much better with the resources available.


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