Sir Henry Clinton remained as commander of military forces in North America over the winter of 1779-80. He had remained in the city since retreating from Philadelphia in 1778, deploying only relatively minor raids since then. He did not have enough forces to launch any major offensive operations because London had directed the redeployment of much of his army and naval support to the southern colonies and the Caribbean.
North America was no longer the biggest priority for London, as the Ministry now faced off against French and Spanish threats all over the world.
Cornwallis Returns to America
Clinton had received assistance in the return of General Cornwallis in the summer of 1779. Cornwallis had returned to London in late 1778, tendering his resignation, which the King accepted, and returning home to tend to his sick wife, Jemima. When Jemima died in February, Cornwallis was distraught and refused to speak with anyone for months.
|Gen. Henry Clinton|
Cornwallis arrived back in New York in July. Despite this, Clinton remained frustrated that he lacked the manpower to engage in any important campaigns, while London still urged him to embark on extensive campaigns. Around this time, a frustrated Clinton vented to one of his young colonels that he would gladly change positions with a grenadier in the infantry, and advised the young officer never to seek command of an army.
Clinton had written to London again, requesting to resign his command and return home. He gave Cornwallis detailed access to all of his plans, expecting that Cornwallis would be his successor. Although Cornwallis had said repeatedly that he had no desire to take the North American command, he did his duty. About a month after Cornwallis’ arrival, Clinton wrote to Germain once again asking to resign.
To say the truth, my Lord, my spirits are worn out by struggling against the consequences of so many adverse incidents. . .. Had even the feeble reinforcements which I am still expecting arrived as early as I had thought myself secure . . . I should have found myself enabled to attempt measures perhaps of serious consequences. Under my present circumstances, if I have not fulfilled the expectation which may have been indulged for the army, I trust I shall always find the failure attributed to its just cause, the inadequacy of my strength to its object. . . . Thus circumstanced, and convinced that the force under my command at present, or that will be during the campaign, is not equal to the services expected of it . . . permit me to resign the command of the army to Lord Cornwallis.
Back in London, Lord Germain refused to accept Clinton’s resignation. There had been a movement in London to give the command to General Guy Carleton, but Germain absolutely hated Carleton. Therefore, Germain wanted to keep Clinton in place rather than allow Carlteon to take the command. Clinton continued to groom Cornwallis, hoping that London might allow Cornwallis to take over and allow Clinton to return home.
In September of 1779, Clinton received desperate pleas from Jamaica, which feared an imminent invasion by the French fleet. The French had just captured St. Vincent and Grenada and Jamaica feared it might be next.
Clinton responded by giving Cornwallis an independent command with 4000 of his soldiers to deploy to Jamaica. The army boarded ships and left New York. They were at sea for only a few before receiving word that the French fleet had left the Caribbean and had attacked Savannah. Rather than changing course for Savannah, the fleet returned to New York. Soon thereafter, they received word that the siege had failed and that the French fleet had left. So, Cornwallis and the 4000 soldiers remained in New York.
Collier Returns to Britain
Although a new General would not replace Clinton, North America did get a new naval commander. Since the recall of Admiral Richard Howe back in 1778, the navy had not seemed to have made North America a priority. Howe was supposed to hand off command to Admiral John Byron, but Byron simply sailed off for the West Indies, where he was focused on contending with the French Navy. Admiral James Gambier assumed command in North America, but was generally considered incompetent and corrupt.
When London recalled Gambier, Commodore George Collier assumed command of the North American fleet. Collier had done a pretty impressive job, conducting the Chesapeake raids, supporting the army on the Stony Point actions and the raids along the Connecticut coast. Collier also led the relief fleet to Penobscot, which we covered a few weeks ago. When Collier returned to New York after his success at Penobscot, he found that Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot had arrived with orders to assume command.
Collier had performed impressively, but was rather young, only 41, and not yet an admiral. London believed a more experienced leader was needed in North America. So, Collier returned to Britain for reassignment to another theater and Admiral Arbuthnot assumed command.
The 69 year old Arbuthnot had a long and slow moving naval career. He had joined the navy as a teenager, taking about a decade to make lieutenant. He distinguished himself in the War of Austrian succession, and captained his first ship, a captured prize ship, after nearly twenty years of service.
During the Seven Years War, he commanded a ship at the battle of Quiberon Bay, and also captured a number of prize ships in the West Indies. He also participated in the capture of Havana.
In 1775, Arbuthnot became the naval commander at Halifax, and was also appointed a Lieutenant Governor. London credited him with keeping Nova Scotia loyal as the colonies to the south broke into rebellion. In 1778, he received promotion to rear admiral and was recalled to London. While in London he sat on the court martial of Admiral Keppel, following the battle of Ushant. Shortly after that, he received another promotion to vice admiral and received orders to take command of the North American Station.
Arbuthnot was delayed in coming to America because of the threats of the French fleet on Britain. After leaving for America in May 1779, Arbuthnot received word at sea that the French were attempting an assault on the Island of Jersey. The Admiral took his fleet to Jersey to protect the island. After ensuring the threat had gone, only then did he continue to New York. The result was that Collier had remained in command all summer and that Artbuthnot did not arrive in until the fall.
Fighting a Word War
The British relief fleet brought reinforcements. Clinton received about 3800 soldiers to add to his garrison. However, they did little to improve the British position in New York. Clinton had to send 2000 soldiers to Quebec in order to secure that region. The fear of France’s entry into the war was that the Quebecois might not remain loyal to the British government absent a show of military might.
The end result was that the reinforcements that Arbuthnot brought with him barely covered the losses Clinton had in New York from his deployment to Quebec. On top of that, the long time at sea due to the detour to Jersey had given time for more sickness to spread through the fleet. More than one hundred soldiers died at sea before the fleet arrived in New York. In the weeks that followed, nearly one thousand soldiers were in hospital as a result of the illness that the fleet brought to New York.
Clinton had been promised at least 6000 reinforcements this year, so even a substantial 3800, which was more than he ever received at any other time, was a disappointment. Officials back in Britain, however, were still fearful of an invasion by France and Spain against the home island. Sending too many soldiers to far-off America only weakened defenses at home.
British officials also had to contend with the growing unpopularity in Britain of the war in America. Many of those who enlisted in light of the possible French-Spanish invasion, did so with the understanding that their service would remain in Britain. When the 71 Highlanders received orders to ship to America as part of Clinton’s reinforcements, sixty of them mutinied and refused to march to their transports. Officers called in another regiment to force the mutineers aboard their ships, resulting in a fight that left several men on both sides dead.
In addition to defending the home island, Britain now faced a siege of its forces at Gibraltar, had already lost Minorca, and had lost several islands in the West Indies. British troops were needed in West Florida to combat the Spanish at New Orleans. Britain was also looking to hit the enemy where they might be weaker.
San Juan Expedition
In October, Britain deployed 1200 soldiers to Central America to attack San Fernando de Omoa, a fortress which guarded the Captaincy of Guatemala, in what is today part of Honduras. Britain already had a small island colony called St. George's Caye which is just off the coast of what is today Belize.
Spain had attacked and destroyed St. George’s Caye shortly after Spain declared war against Britain. Aftward, Spanish forces hunkered down at their fortress at Omoa, awaiting the British reaction. Britain had initially deployed only a few hundred regulars to force the Spanish out of St. George’s. But after finding the forces entrenched at Omoa, had to send a larger force of 1200 men aboard twelve ships to attack the enemy. General William Dalrymple commanded the British assault.
The British landed several artillery batteries on shore, backed up by ship’s cannons. Then on October 20, sent an assault team to sneak into the fort, open the main gates and allow the British forces to assault the surprised enemy. With that, Britain took the fort at Omoa.
Of course, that did not end things, Mattias de Galvez, who was Captain General of Guatemala, organized a counter-attack. Galvez was the father of Bernardo de Galvez, who was in command of New Orleans at this time. The elder Galvez organized local Spanish troops to retake Ochoa,
The British were able to fend off the attack. However, the British garrison was also being decimated by tropical diseases. After fending off the attack the British made the decision to withdraw and retreated to their ships.
In the end, the battle was of little consequence, other than the fact that the British captured two Spanish treasure ships carrying about $3 million worth of silver. But the incident highlights that Britain had to worry about outposts all over the empire and also hitting Spain and France wherever it could, in order to keep the enemy deploying its forces in far off colonies as well.
For men like Washington and Clinton, New York was the center of their universe and the focus of their attention. For officials in London, New York was just another British outpost. It needed attention just like all the other outposts, but could not be the sole focus, or take a disproportionate amount of resources.
Clinton would always be disappointed in the numbers of reinforcements he received, and believed them to be inadequate for his mission. The attitude in London, however, was that yeah everyone would like more soldiers everywhere, but that just isn’t possible. You need to make do with what you have and hopefully impress us with what you can do with them.
Withdrawal from Rhode Island
By late 1779 General Clinton had accepted that he would not receive sufficient reinforcements from London. Germain had promised him at least 6000 new soldiers in 1779. Instead, he received only 3800. Those who did arrive spread sickness through the ranks, meaning the reinforcements led to a reduction in the total number of men fit for duty.
Clinton decided that if he was going to get anything done, he needed to consolidate his forces. With the British success at Savannah, Clinton saw his best option in the south. He could not abandon New York. The occupation there kept the main Continental Army pinned down. It also prevented New England from considering another offensive into Canada. So, the British would stay in New York. The occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, however, would come to an end.
Recall that Clinton had been ordered to take Newport back in 1776, when the commander, General Howe, wanted to get Clinton out of the way while Howe was pushing the Americans across New Jersey. Newport was a British toe hold into New England, and provided a salt water port in the event that New York Harbor froze over. Clinton had taken the island, then promptly sailed off for London to make his first attempt at resigning.
By late 1779, there was no plan to attack New England, and most of the British Navy had moved to the West Indies. Newport, primarily garrisoned by Hessians, had become increasingly unpleasant. The island required that food and fuel be shipped in from elsewhere. As a result, the garrison frequently went on reduced rations, and often went cold for lack of firewood. Further, the possibility of the French Navy’s return made Newport a sitting duck without sufficient British ships to support it. Given that the New York Garrison had so many sick, the Newport Garrison would provide a valuable supplement of troops in case the Americans and French decided to launch a joint attack.
By October, General Clinton ordered the evacuation of the 3500 man garrison at /Newport. Then, he received word that the French fleet had attacked Halifax. With that, Clinton believed that perhaps Newport would be more important and debated with Admiral Abruthnot whether they should try to hold it after all. Arbuthnot disagreed and the two officers squabbled. In the end, it turned out that Halifax was not under threat, and that the British garrison at Newport had already destroyed so much of its defenses that if the French did attack there they would be in a terrible position. Clinton, therefore, went ahead with the evacuation.
Because the British did not want Newport to be of use to the enemy, they did their best to destroy the town on their way out. They burned hundreds of houses, filled in wells, destroyed the docks, disassembled all fortifications, and toppled the lighthouse. Nearly every tree and fence had already disappeared during the occupation’s desperate search for firewood. Any area farms that still had any crops or cattle on them had those confiscated by the departing army.
General Richard Prescott, who had resumed command of Newport after being kidnapped and exchanged, ordered his patrols to shoot at any civilians who appeared on the street or at their windows as the soldiers marched to their ships in preparation for evacuation to New York. Many residents who had abandoned Newport during the occupation never returned, and the city suffered damage from which it never really recovered.
Eyes on Charleston
Part of Clinton’s reasons for abandoning Newport and consolidating his forces at New York was in hopes of launching a large expedition against Charleston, South Carolina. This was one of the offensives that Lord Germain had been pushing him to undertake.
The success of the British forces in breaking the siege of Savannah against a combined French and American force, and the near capture of Charleston months earlier with a small force that had initially launched as a foraging expedition, gave hope to Clinton that perhaps Charleston could fall.
Having received the 3500 soldiers from Newport, about 3800 reinforcements from Britain, and another 2000 from St. Lucia, Clinton thought that he finally had enough soldiers to defend New York and send a large expedition to secure the south.
Clinton could have deployed General Cornwallis with a sizable expedition to South Carolina. But Clinton wanted to take Charleston personally. This was an opportunity to redeem his failure in 1776 to capture Charleston. In that attempt, Clinton’s attack force could not take down Fort Moultrie, then called Fort Sullivan. For years afterward, Clinton was deeply embarrassed by his failure to defeat a bunch of inexperienced militia, and would tell pretty much anyone who would listen how the failure was really someone else’s fault.
This new expedition against Charleston would redeem that scar on his reputation. So, on December 26, 1779, General Clinton, along with General Cornwallis and about 7600 soldiers aboard ninety transports, left New York City, bound for Charleston. Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen assumed command of the garrison at New York.
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Next Episode 241 Drafting an Army & Freeing Slaves (Available March 13, 2022)
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McLarty, Robert Neil. “Jamaica Prepares for Invasion, 1779.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 1, University of the West Indies, 1955, pp. 62–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40652617
Goerge Collier: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/collier_george_4E.html
Marriot Arbuthnot: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/arbuthnot_mariot_4E.html
Marriot Arbuthnot: https://morethannelson.com/officer/marriot-arbuthnot
Neimeyer, Charles P. “The British Occupation of Newport Rhode Island 1776–1779.” Army History, no. 74, U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2010, pp. 30–45, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26296027
Garrison Town, the British Occupation of New York City 1776-1783: https://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/documents/401021/1055071/GarrisonTown.pdf/f33b8f85-7231-43bf-b6fc-5512e48d6005
(from archive.org unless noted)
Beatson, Robert Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, Volume 6, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1804.
Fortescue, J.W. A History Of The British Army, Vol. 3 1763-1793, London: Macmillian and Co. 1911.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cook, Don The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785, Atlantic Monthly, 1995.
Hibbert, Christopher Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes, W.W. Norton & Co. 1990.
O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Yale Univ. Press, 2013
Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964. (Archive.org - borrow only)
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.