J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Clinton and Cornwallis Trade Blame

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but nobody wants to recognize a defeat as his own.” Count Galeazzo Ciano wrote that in his diary in 1942, according to The Yale Book of Quotations. When John F. Kennedy repeated the observation after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he rendered the last part as “failure is an orphan.”

There’s no better illustration of that saying than the finger-pointing of British generals after the end of the Revolutionary War. When Gen. Cornwallis (shown at left) surrendered to the forces of Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, he wrote to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, his military superior, in New York. That letter dated 20 Oct 1781 tried to explain how he’d found himself in such a fix:

I never saw this post in a very favourable light,...But being assured by your Excellency’s letters that every possible means would be tried by the navy and army to relieve us, I could not think myself at liberty to venture upon either of those desperate attempts [to withdraw]; . . .

receiving on the second evening your letter of the 24th of September informing that the relief would sail about the 5th of October, I withdrew within the works on the night of the 29th of September, hoping by the labour and firmness of the soldiers to protract the defence until you could arrive. . . .

Only one eight-inch [cannon] and little more than an hundred cohorn shells remained. A diversion by the French ships of war that lay at the mouth of York River was to be expected. Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty.

Under all these circumstances, I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman to the last degree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with so much fidelity and courage, by exposing them to an assault, which from the numbers and precautions of the enemy could not fail to succeed. I therefore proposed to capitulate.
Since British reinforcements hadn’t arrived from Clinton’s post, Cornwallis felt he had no choice but to surrender. The implication of his last dispatch was clear: his commander was at fault for not sending help more quickly. This letter was later read in Parliament as part of the inquiry on why Britain had lost the war in North America.

Last month the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room traced what happened next. In early 1783 Clinton published his Narrative...Relative to his Conduct during Part of his Command of the King’s Troops in North America, complaining particularly of “the publication of Lord C.’s letter of the 20th of October, without being accompanied by my answer to it.” On 2 Dec 1781 he had written back to Yorktown:
As your Lordship is pleased, in your letter of this day [i.e., just received], to revert to the circumstance of your quitting Williamsburg Neck and repassing the James River, so contrary to the intentions I wished to express in my letters of the 11th and 15th of June, and those referred to by them, and which I thought they would have clearly explained. Your Lordship will, I hope, forgive me, if I once more repeat that I am of opinion, if those letters had been properly understood by your Lordship, you would at least have hesitated before you adopted that measure.
In other words, you didn’t follow my advice, so you got yourself into this mess. Of course, by the time Clinton was writing this, he knew that Cornwallis and his men were prisoners of war, so his letter was hardly helpful—except perhaps in offering himself a rear guard.

When Clinton’s book came out in London, Cornwallis published an Answer in pamphlet form. It contained more of the correspondence between the two men, and the earl wrote:
The perusal of this Correspondence will, I think, render not only the military, but every other reader a competent judge of the propriety of my conduct, either when I acted under positive orders, pressing contingencies, or discretionary powers.
In other words, I did the best I could; if you want to look for a reason for failure, look at the commander who didn’t do enough.

Clinton thereupon issued another pamphlet titled Observations on Some Parts of the Answer..., with some more transcriptions of letters and analysis of them. That publication concluded:
I shall now beg leave to conclude with an opinion, which I presume is deducible from the foregoing (I trust candid) review of circumstances. Which is, that Lord Cornwallis’s conduct and opinions, if they were not the immediate causes, may be adjudged to have at least contributed to bring on the fatal catastrophe which terminated the unfortunate campaign of 1781.
Clinton dated the last pamphlet 3 Apr 1783, which meant the whole exchange had taken place in a little over three months. Also notable is that all three publications came from the high-class publisher J. Debrett: he was making money from both generals as they tried to shift more blame to the other.

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