Friction Within the British Ranks
Many historical accounts of the American Revolution, at least through the lens of United States history, tend to focus on domestic achievements in their battle for independence. Nevertheless, detrimental factors on the other side of the war additionally contributed to victory in the colonies. Chaotic British partisanship and political turmoil at home, for instance, led to military friction and discontent abroad. One of the most talked about topics among many historians is the rivalry between General Sir Henry Clinton, then Commander-In-Chief of the British Army in North America, and his subordinate, the aforementioned General Charles Cornwallis.
In 1881, the American journalist Sydney Howard Gay penned an article, titled “Why Cornwallis Was at Yorktown,” which chronicled some of the drama that unfolded at the highest levels of British political-military relations during the American Revolution. Gay’s investigation picks up at the height of the Southern Campaign, when Prime Minister Lord Frederick North and the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord George Germain, ordained it necessary to march south on the Carolinas. Cornwallis, who was generally regarded as a masterful tactician, had the Prime Minister’s ear and was placed in charge of the campaign, while his immediate superior, General Clinton, remained behind in New York.
Disaster loomed on the horizon. North and Germain overestimated loyalist support in the South, while Cornwallis and Clinton butted heads over strategic goals. Earl Cornwallis once wrote to the Prime Minister that Clinton was, in the words of Gay, “anxious to cover up his own stupidity.” Most historians assert that Clinton hesitated in reinforcing Yorktown because of Washington’s brilliant feint near New York while marching south to Virginia.
Others, however, feel that Clinton delayed aid to Cornwallis out of pure spite. Unbeknownst to Clinton, however, a nearby French fleet blockaded the Chesapeake during this critical delay, which resulted in defeat at Yorktown and the consequent collapse of the Southern Campaign.