Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

"To Gain the Hearts and Subdue the Minds of America": General Sir Henry Clinton and the Conduct of the British War for America 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

"To Gain the Hearts and Subdue the Minds of America": General Sir Henry Clinton and the Conduct of the British War for America 1

Article excerpt

We know much about the Confederacy during the Civil War, but relatively few studies of the British during the Revolutionary War exist. It was a war that Britain seemingly should have won. Its failure to do so is popularly blamed on poor leadership. The generals, admirals, and politicians are portrayed as incompetent blunderers. This fact is as true in Britain as in America. It is most apparent in the media and films, which, regrettably, have the most influence on public perception of the past. It is also pronounced in popular histories, such as Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), in which one third of the book is devoted to the failures of British leadership in the Revolutionary War. It even permeates academic literature, in which scholars often use terms such as "hidebound" and "mediocre." It is a curious thesis because it diminishes the achievements of American generals, such as George Washington and Nathanael Greene. It is also a caricature of eighteenth-century Britain, which only three decades later defeated Napoleon.

General Sir Henry Clinton is one of ten biographical subjects, the leading decision-makers in the British war for America, in my book The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), which challenges the traditional stereotypes and offers an alternative explanation of the British loss of America. He was the British commander-in-chief in America during the second half of the war, between 1778 and 1782. Only one biography of him, which was written by William B. Willcox in 1962, exists. It happens to be one of the best of any commanders on either side of the war; it won the Bancroft Prize awarded by the American Historical Association. However, it was written at the height of the popularity of psychohistory. Willcox even collaborated with a colleague in the psychology department at the University of Michigan to write an article on Clinton for the leading journal in early American history, the William and Mary Quarterly. Willcox argued that the general had an obsessive-compulsive personality, which the biography treated as the chief source of his difficulties rather than focusing on his circumstances.2

Clinton certainly had neurotic characteristics. In August 1779, Charles Stuart, a young colonel in the 26th Regiment, wrote to his father describing a meeting with Clinton, who had "tears in his eyes" and said that he felt "incapable of his station." "Believe me," he continued, "I envy that Grenadier who is passing the door, and would exchange with joy [our] situations . . . . [L]et me advise you never to take command of an army." Clinton told him that he knew he was "hated, nay, detested in the Army." He claimed that he was determined to go home and that he had been so ill-used "that I can no longer bear with this life." Clinton had indeed tried to resign while still second in command to Sir William Howe, and he tried again after his appointment to senior command at the age of 48 in 1778. He offered to serve anywhere else-even "God Forbid! Florida." His outburst in front of a junior officer was one of many manifestations of his neurotic personality, which led him to be hypersensitive, capricious, irritable, and unable to accept criticism. He felt it necessary to justify himself publicly for every reversal and blame everyone but himself. He was a loner who failed to consult sufficiently with his senior officers and was not popular with his men. Nevertheless, he was one of the most cerebral officers in the army, with the largest personal library of military manuals, which he annotated and read in detail. His anxiety reflected the reality of his overwhelming situation, which virtually precluded the possibility of Britain winning the American War of Independence.3

Before becoming commander-in-chief, Clinton had been a gifted and successful soldier who anticipated the retrospective judgment of every modern armchair general in his brilliant critique of his commander, Sir William Howe. …

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