A British Military Family

By Stern, Marvin | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview

A British Military Family


Stern, Marvin, Contemporary Review


EACH age owes a responsibility to understand the past. Strangely, with all the efforts to make the past of defeated nations from recent wars palatable, even truthful, the same concern and commitment has not been given to the British officers facing the American side in the War for Independence. The recent film, The Patriot, shows in a most dismal way the continuation of a two-hundred year one-dimensional portrayal. If indeed the British command and the British officers' corps were the determined cold-hearted killers as they are made to appear, then the power of the strongest economic and military power of the age might have crushed with ease the rag-tag army of resistance.

Enjoyment from pillage and conquest is not to be found in the words and emotions of three generations of Generals and Colonels, each carrying the name Clinton. Instead, even when opportunities of enormous wealth and power were in their hands, what these officers craved, most of all, was a return to their families. At times these desires reached irrational dimensions. None could be considered a predator. Admiral George Clinton, was colonial Governor of New York during the 1740s -- and father of General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander in Chief of the British Army in North America during the later years of the War for Independence. His career as Admiral and Governor was consumed with never-ending anxiety to secure a comfortable living. It was an age when men of command were born to that role, whether or not they were eager or capable. A successful career meant opportuning with patrons at the top echelons of the aristocracy, or as close to the monarch as possible.

George Clinton's fear of direct communication, of asserting himself, added to his financial burden. While the Admiral/Governor was driven to penury from efforts to support his family, his son, General Sir Henry Clinton, found an illusory refuge from his father's troubles: he established several families. The impassioned desire to run away from, and yet replicate his past, reached extraordinary lengths. Henry sired at least one child from a relationship in the 1750s in Germany. Then he started a family with a fifteen-year-old girl, a meticulous housekeeper named Harriot Carter, in 1764 or earlier. Three years before they were married, Harriot wrote in her spiritual diary about her 'secret guilt'. And she signed her diary 'Harriot Clinton' in the same year, 1764. (The spiritual diary was found at Yale in 1974.)

Passions that swirled in this marriage continued into the next years. From 1767 to 1772, four legitimate children were born. Two sons, William Henry and Henry Jr., grew up to be Generals in the Napoleonic Wars. One daughter was later disowned by Henry -- she married without his permission. But the other daughter lived a life of special pain, hardly noticed it seems by her father. What weighed on Henry was the avalanche of depression that swept across his life when Harriot Carter Clinton died in 1772. Her death came eight days after the birth of the unhappy daughter who would carry her name: Harriot. In her younger years, the little girl had an intense loyalty to her father. At the age of seven, she was writing letters to him, in command in America, assuring him of how much she hoped 'we shall beat them'.

What the young daughter did not know was that General Clinton, while in America, was establishing yet another family, this time with a woman stolen away from a non-commissioned officer. Together with this woman [another efficient housekeeper, Mary Baddeley] General Clinton had a child with the husband's permission. Then the General promoted the husband to officer rank, and sent him off to South Carolina where he died of fever. Until 1974, it had not been known that General Clinton established a family with Mary Baddeley, striving to have their children's births on the same day as his Carter/Clinton family, and with the same names. Remarkably, General Clinton gave these children the same names -- but in reverse order. …

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