The man who would one day be accused of “losing America” was born on New Year’s Eve, 1738, the eldest of a titled and highly respectable family. The Cornwallis tribe had established itself in Suffolk, which occupies the easternmost knob of the British Isles. Though not fabulously wealthy, they had the kind of connections, through blood and marriage, that meant everything in British society. Young Charles’s grandfather was awarded a baronetcy for faithful service to King Charles II; his father, also named Charles, was the first Earl Cornwallis; his uncle served as Archbishop of Canterbury; his mother was a daughter of Lord Townshend and a niece of Robert Walpole, one of England’s great Prime Ministers. None of this means much to us today, of course, but the young Cornwallis was born with his world at his feet.
His formal education took place at Eton academy, which marked him for life–not least by the blow from a hockey stick that pitched his left eye at a permanent tilt. Eton was a rough place in those days; underclassmen were routinely beat up by seniors and the law of the jungle ruled. Nevertheless, Cornwallis retained fond memories of his school years all his life and credited Eton with shaping much of his character. Since he was tall and physically strong, we can presume he learned to look after himself.
Most young men in his privileged position went on to Oxford, thence to a life of leisure and general uselessness. But Cornwallis possessed a strong sense of duty from an early age, which probably figured in his choosing the military as a career. After purchasing an ensign’s commission in 1756, he took another unusual step and studied for the job. Since England had no military academies at the time, he attended Turin, a highly respected school in northern Italy. Only a few months after his enrollment, however, the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe and it was time to close the books and take to the field. This particular conflict had begun in the distant wilderness of western Pennsylvania, where French soldiers had set up a fort in defiance of English orders.
A young provincial officer named George Washington had been sent to discourage them; his failure to do so ignited the French and Indian War, which spread to disputed territory in Canada and India and eventually involved much of Europe. The ins and outs of the Seven Years’ War need not concern us; it’s sufficient to understand that Britain came out on top and the young Cornwallis distinguished himself first as a staff officer and then as a Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Foot, gallantly leading his troops into combat.
In 1762 his father died and passed the entire estate on to his oldest son, now the second Earl of Cornwallis. Duty demanded that young Charles return home, set the estate in order and take his father’s seat in the House of Lords. While going about all this necessary business, he also found the time to fall deeply in love. The lady of his choice, the daughter of an army Colonel, could bring neither title nor fortune to the marriage, but Cornwallis had enough for both of them. He loved Jemima Jones, and that was that. After their marriage in 1768 the couple retired to Brome Hall, the ancestral estate in Suffolk, to enjoy the countryside and start a family of their own.
But complete isolation was not possible for a man in Cornwallis’s position, and he was continually shuttling back and forth to London for Parliamentary sessions and audiences with the King. George III developed a fondness for the Earl; they were similar in character and temperament even though their views regarding American policy were opposed. Cornwallis consistently voted against harsh measures toward the colonies, such as the Stamp Act, even when only a handful of his peers joined him.
When the shooting started at Lexington, however, there was no question of where he stood; in 1776, he accepted a General’s commission and volunteered for service in America. His first duty was not a good omen: he participated in the first British attempt to capture Charleston, an operation that was botched from the beginning and ended a miserable failure. But the outlook brightened for His Majesty’s troops when they sailed to New York and took part in the extensive operations there under the command of Sir William Howe. At the Battle of Long Island, General Cornwallis helped outflank the Americans and force them from New York. A few months later he was outfoxed by Washington, who slipped away after Cornwallis thought he was successfully trapped on the Delaware. Washington then circled around and pounced upon the British rear guard at Princeton. But the Earl retrieved his reputation at the battles of Brandywine in the fall of 1777, and Monmouth in the summer of 1778.
Monmouth brought the war to an effective end in the northern colonies, and Cornwallis had proved himself to be an energetic and fearless field commander, with a reputation quick movement very unusual for a British general. No one, least of all Cornwallis, knew what he could do with complete control of an operation. The indications are that he was eager to try. A number of changes in 1778 led to his opportunity. First Sir William Howe resigned his position as Commander-in-Chief; he had never liked the American War and he believed the King was not supporting him. Sir George Clinton was named to take Howe’s place. (Cornwallis had served under Clinton at Charleston and in New York and the two men got along well, a happy situation which was soon to change.)
Cornwallis returned to England on leave, only to find his wife Jemima gravely ill. This distracted him from military affairs for several weeks, but when she died early in 1779 he found that life held little else for him. Across the sea His Majesty’s forces were fighting to retain an empire. “I love that army,” he wrote his brother, “and flatter myself that I am not quite indifferent to them.” Back to America he went, determined to lose himself in the war. Such dedication might have proved fortunate for Britain, except that relations between Cornwallis and Clinton rapidly deteriorated. General Clinton was the better strategist of the two, but he was almost pathologically suspicious of anyone who approached him in rank. Cornwallis was the better field commander, but he had often felt caged and hemmed in by his superior. What might have been a good team was thus hamstrung from the beginning, with disastrous results for His Majesty’s cause.
A huge expeditionary force sailed from New York harbor in December 1779, with Clinton at its head and Cornwallis as second-in-command. Their goal was Charleston, again; only this time, after a nightmare voyage and a three-month siege, they succeeded in taking the city. The fall of Charleston in May of 1780 was a great blow to the Americans–their greatest loss of the entire war in terms of men, equipment, horses, and ammunition.
General Clinton returned to New York in June leaving his subordinate in control of the entire southern operation, with the charge of holding Charleston and doing whatever else might be necessary to subdue the south. It was the opportunity Cornwallis had been waiting for. Neither Cornwallis nor Clinton believed that the southern colonies would put up any serious resistance to British regulars; the job would be a mopping-up operation. Cornwallis moved quickly to set up outposts in Georgetown, Camden, and Ninety-six, forming a rough arch through South Carolina. He determined to march from Charleston in the fall, invade and subdue North Carolina, and eventually meet Clinton’s forces in Virginia where they would finish Washington’s Continental army, conclude the war and sail home as heroes. When South Carolinians began coming forward in droves to take the loyalty oath and be restored to British rule, the impending southern campaign began to look like a picnic.
But no one in the British high command, from the King on down, understood the temper of the south. There, more than anywhere else in the colonies, the Revolution took on the character of a civil war. Not only was the number of loyalists greater in the south, but southern loyalists were more inclined to defend their cause with guns and knives.
The fall of Charleston had ignited both revolutionary and loyalist fervor, even though the patriots seemed subdued for the present. American resistance seemed to have only one focus early that summer–a band of volunteers serving under Thomas Sumter, whom they elected as their General. Cornwallis did not take such partisan bands seriously at first, but he was rather alarmed to hear that two regiments of the Continental army were on their way south to form the core of new “Southern Department.” As summer progressed, this army had swollen to over 3000 regulars and volunteers. In August Cornwallis marched north to meet them.
On the night of August 16, the two armies literally blundered into each other on the road just north of Camden. Once their respective commanders realized what had happened, they pulled back about six hundred yards and waited until dawn. The resulting Battle of Camden was another disaster for the Americans; though outnumbered, Cornwallis commanded his disciplined troops far more capably than his opponent, General Horatio Gates. Once again an American army was rendered useless: captured, wounded, killed or simply scattered through the Carolina pine woods. Out of approximately 3000 Americans engaged, only about 700 escaped.
Immediately afterward Cornwallis sent his favorite cavalry officer, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, to deal with Thomas Sumter’s little army of 1000. Tarleton dealt in spades; he caught Sumter literally napping on Fishing Creek, and destroyed or scattered his entire force. With all effective resistance crushed, Cornwallis began a rather leisurely invasion of North Carolina late in September, establishing a base of operations in Charlotte.
Almost immediately, things began to go wrong. Patriot resistance was proving more stubborn than expected, and Tory cooperation had turned out to be less than hoped. The British high command had never understood how to make use of their American allies, a deficiency never more glaring than in the south. A capable British officer, Major Patrick Ferguson, was appointed to recruit and train the Tory militia and bring them under Cornwallis’s command. But almost soon as he had raised a force of about 1000, Ferguson managed to get them wiped out (and himself with them) at the Battle of King’s Mountain on the border between North and South Carolina.
Ferguson’s defeat so demoralized the local Tories that Cornwallis was convinced he could expect no support from them. Accordingly, after occupying Charlotte for only three weeks, he pulled his troops in mid-October and established winter quarters in Winnsboro, South Carolina. For the next few months his hands were full keeping supply lines open and putting down the guerilla bands that seemed to be popping up everywhere. For this he relied extensively on Col. Tarleton, who was young, brave, swift, and ruthless. But not even Tarleton could subdue such resourceful fighters as Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”) or Thomas Sumter, who had gathered another band of volunteers and was making life miserable for British details and foragers. All these little engagements were endlessly frustrating to Cornwallis, who longed for a decisive battle to bring the conflict to a head.
In December certain developments seemed to offer him the opportunity he had been waiting for, when General Nathanael Greene arrived to take command of the American army in the south. Only about two weeks later Greene divided his troops, which numbered a mere 2000. Roughly half the army marched west under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, a hero of the revolution and a formidable foe. The other half moved east to a camp at Cheraw, South Carolina. Although he hardly knew what to make of Greene’s unorthodox maneuver,
Cornwallis worked out a plan to deal with it: Colonel Tarleton, with his own cavalry plus two regiments of light infantry, would chase Morgan eastward and either destroy the Americans or run them into the main British command under Cornwallis. With Morgan’s army out of the way, they would then be in a position to deal with Greene’s. It sounded wonderful, but in his enthusiasm for the boy colonel, Cornwallis forgot that Tarleton was still very young, reckless, and relatively inexperienced. Daniel Morgan decidedly out-maneuvered him at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, with the result that Tarleton lost almost all of his superior’s light troops.
Nathanael Greene soon reunited the American army and began a strategic retreat across North Carolina. Almost frantic to get his light troops back, the Earl piled up all superfluous supplies–such as tents, extra blankets, and rum–and burned them so that his own army could travel faster in pursuit. Thus began the “race to the Dan” (i.e., the Dan River, which marked the border between North Carolina and Virginia), an exciting chase undertaken in the near-steady rains of February, through innumerable flooded creeks and rivers under conditions as miserable for the British as they were for the Americans.
Cornwallis has been criticized for burning his supply wagons, because he sacrificed everything that makes a soldier’s life bearable and ultimately gained nothing by it. But he almost caught his prey; at times the American rear guard and the British vanguard were less than a mile apart. If he had succeeded in crushing Greene’s army, the judgment of history would doubtless be much kinder to the Earl. But the desperate gamble failed. Still seeking a decisive battle, Cornwallis retreated to Hillsboro, North Carolina and rested his exhausted troops. A few weeks after making his escape, Nathanael Greene felt his own army sufficiently strong to meet Cornwallis in a pitched battle, so he crossed the border again and established a position at Guilford Court House, about 25 miles west of Hillsboro. Obligingly Cornwallis marched to meet him.
The resulting Battle of Guilford Court House is considered by some to be the hardest-fought of the entire war; “I never saw such fighting,” Cornwallis later declared, “since God made me.” The Earl displayed his courage and tenacity as a combat commander (at one point, he ordered the artillery to shell the lines his own men were fighting in) but also his deficiencies as a strategist. Though he won the battle, the victory gave him no advantage. After lingering in the area for several days, he marched his army to the North Carolina coast and spent the month of April in Wilmington.
General Clinton in New York declined to give his subordinate any clear orders, which Cornwallis failed to solicit anyway; thus developed a fatal lack of communication that would bear bitter fruit in time. At the end of April, Cornwallis determined to take ship for Virginia and continue the war there; precisely where he got this notion and what he expected to accomplish thereby is not clear. But his experience in the Carolinas was so miserable he was ready to give them up as a lost cause. If this war could be won at all, it would have to be won by engaging the Continental army under Washington himself.
Throughout the summer, Cornwallis skirmished through eastern Virginia in engagements with the Marquis de LaFayette. In July he almost captured the Marquis’ army at Green Spring Farm, but nightfall intervened and allowed the Americans to escape. Late in the summer he was ordered by Sir Henry Clinton to select and fortify a post along the coastline that could be used as a supply base for the Royal Navy. His scouts located a promising location: a smallish town at the headwaters of the York River, ten miles east of Williamsburg. It was called Yorktown.
The main American army was still encamped in New Jersey, where Washington was trying to put together a coalition of French and American field troops to recapture New York City. In August, however, Washington learned that the French navy was now available for a bottling-up operation. Once it was discovered that Cornwallis was digging fortifications at Yorktown, opportunity knocked loud and clear. Washington slipped around New York City and was well on the way to Virginia before Clinton realized his objective.
Throughout the month of September, communications between Clinton and Cornwallis were vague and vacillating; the commander-in-chief delayed reinforcements or even the promise of them until late in September. Then, on the basis of a pledge that Clinton himself would be sailing south with the British fleet, Cornwallis decided to stay where he was. It was a fatal decision, for contrary winds and Clinton’s own contrary nature delayed him. By the time Cornwallis understood this, it was too late to do anything about it; he was blocked off by land and soon by sea, once the French fleet had arrived.
The bombardment of Yorktown began on October 9, with terrible destruction to the British lines. A last-ditch attempt to escape over the York River to the British post at Gloucester Point was thwarted by a storm, and by October 17, Cornwallis knew it was all over. His surrender on that day effectively brought an end to the war, though it would be two years before an official agreement was signed.
Cornwallis was so mortified that he claimed to be ill and sent his second-in-command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to hand over his sword to the enemy. Only later did the Earl discover that on that same day, Sir Henry Clinton had finally sailed out of New York harbor with the promised reinforcements.
The first few years after cessation of hostilities were marred by a public squabble with Clinton over who was responsible for the humiliating defeat, but Cornwallis soon began to recover his damaged reputation. In 1786 he accepted the difficult post of Governor General of India, where, he reformed the administrative system and set about untangling the impossible web of Indian politics. He also proved he’d had learned something about tactics in his American adventure, when he effectively put down a rebellion by Sultan Tippoo Sahib against the Rajah of Travancore, an ally of the King.
The grateful British government sent him to Ireland in 1798 to quell yet another rebellion there; he served with admirable restraint and diplomacy. A few years later, dutiful as always, he returned to India at the age of 67, with the unenviable task of putting an end to “this most unprofitable and ruinous warfare” against rival native factions. He had hardly begun the task when he was stricken by fever. On October 5, 1805, Lord Cornwallis died at Ghazipore on the Ganges River. His grave and monument there are maintained by the Indian government to this day.