Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess and 2nd Earl Cornwallis (1738-1805), served as a general in the British Army during the American War for Independence. Cornwallis held commands in the colonies throughout the duration of the war and was frequently George Washington’s battlefield counterpart. He is best known for his surrender at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, which effectively ended hostilities and led to peace negotiations between Britain and America.
Cornwallis was born on December 31, 1738, to a wealthy aristocratic family. He was the first son of Charles, 1st Earl Cornwallis, and Elizabeth Townshend. His family’s rank and status played a major role in Cornwallis’s future military and political career. He received a classical education at Eton College and briefly attended Cambridge before turning to martial pursuits. Cornwallis came from a long military tradition, which included his uncle, Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis (1713–1776), and his brother, Admiral William Cornwallis (1744–1819). The young Charles was no different, and at the age of eighteen he devoted his life to a career in the military and joined the British Army.
During the Seven Years’ War, Cornwallis served on the staff of Lord Granby as an aid-de-camp. By the age of twenty-three, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became a regimental commander. In 1760, Cornwallis began serving in Parliament in the House of Commons and by 1762 he succeeded his father and was elevated to the House of Lords. Cornwallis opposed the taxes levied against the American colonies during his time in Parliament. He was one of five members in the House of Lords to vote against the Stamp Act of 1765 and supported its eventual repeal. He also opposed the Declaratory Act, which asserted Parliament’s authority over the colonies. His voting record supported the rights of the colonies, and, similar to the brothers Richard and William Howe, he disliked the war in America and only volunteered out of a sense of duty.
Before Cornwallis departed for the colonies, he received promotion to the rank of major general. In February 1776, Cornwallis sailed to the southern colonies to join General Sir Henry Clinton’s army in the Carolinas. After arriving, the planned British attack in the south was abandoned, and Cornwallis and Clinton sailed for New York to join William Howe. Throughout the fall of 1776, Cornwallis joined the British Army on numerous offensives against Washington and the Continental Army. He frequently led troops directly into battle and played major roles during the Battle of Long Island on August 27 and the subsequent landing at Kips Bay on September 15. In November 1776, he led 4,000 men in the successful capture of Fort Lee. Despite the capture of the fort and many supplies, the victory was marred by the escape of Washington and 2,000 Continentals.
Throughout late November and December of 1776, Cornwallis stubbornly pursued Washington and his army during Howe’s occupation of New Jersey. On December 1st, he had nearly caught up to Washington but stopped on the banks of the Raritan River in obedience to Howe’s orders to hold position. This decision would be regarded as one of the greatest mistakes of the war, as Washington’s army was at its weakest point and still managed to escape Cornwallis’s larger force. The British believed the campaign season was over and Cornwallis prepared to spend the winter in London.
Cornwallis was waiting for his ship in New York when he heard the news that Washington had re-crossed the Delaware and attacked the Hessian guard at Trenton. In a desperate attempt to defeat Washington, Cornwallis rode fifty miles to Princeton, New Jersey, and mobilized 8,000 troops for an attack on January 2, 1777, known as the Battle of Second Trenton. Despite the short distance between Princeton and Trenton, poor conditions and harassment by enemy skirmishers slowed Cornwallis’s march. Cornwallis again erred and rested his troops without placing guards, as he believed Washington’s escape was blocked by the Delaware River. Once again, Washington escaped, this time in the night by leaving burning campfires and muffling the wheels of his gun carriages to mask his army’s movements. Washington marched straight for Princeton and overcame the stiff resistance to capture the town.
After the disastrous engagements at Princeton, Cornwallis spent the winter months in London before returning to America for the spring campaign. He was instrumental in the British victory at Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and the capture of Philadelphia two weeks later. At the Battle of Brandywine, Cornwallis performed the engagement’s decisive maneuver when he led 8,000 troops in a flanking attack that split the Continental Army’s line. A few weeks later, Cornwallis seized on a distraction by General Howe and took the city of Philadelphia without firing a shot. However, these victories were marred by the crushing defeat and surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, NY on October 17, 1777. With another campaign season having ended poorly for the British, Cornwallis decided to take an extended leave in England.
Upon arrival in London, Cornwallis had a private audience with the King George III. Despite his early opposition to the war and his role in several embarrassing defeats, Cornwallis was a favorite of the king and was promoted to lieutenant general and made second in command to General Clinton in America. After this promotion he briefly returned to the colonies and took part in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse on June 28, 1778. However, he received news that his wife, Jemima Tullekin Jones, was ill, and he quickly returned to London. Less than a month after his arrival, Cornwallis lost his wife in February 1779. He was devastated by her death and decided to rejoin Clinton as his second in command because he could not bear to remain at home. He sailed for New York in July 1779.
Shortly after his return to America, Cornwallis traveled to South Carolina in the spring of 1780. By this time, British commanders had shifted their attention to the southern colonies. He joined Clinton for the Second Siege of Charleston in late March 1780 and, despite their initial amicable meeting, the two quickly developed a bitter relationship that would affect future communications. However, in April 1780 the two generals successfully captured the city of Charleston. After this victory, Clinton returned to New York and left Cornwallis with 8,300 men and the task of securing the southern colonies. Cornwallis’s southern campaign started with the spectacular victory over General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden on August 16th. The British Army’s superior training and skill outmatched the army under Gates, which primarily consisted of militia. This victory essentially destroyed American forces in the southern theater for several months and it would take some time for Gates’s replacement, General Nathaniel Green, to rescue the situation. After the victory at Camden, Cornwallis set out to pacify the countryside, a task that proved difficult.
The British southern strategy was built on the idea that there were more loyalists in the southern colonies than in their northern counterparts. In reality, however, the situation was far more complex. Many southerners with loyalist leanings quickly changed sides as Cornwallis and his army resorted to coercion and brutality. Several of Cornwallis’s subordinates, such as Banastre Tarleton and Nisbet Balfour, were known advocates of brutal repression, which further alienated the southern countryside. The British also offered freedom to enslaved people who joined their army, an act that did not encourage loyalist support, especially in South Carolina. As the British forces laid waste to the countryside, a large irregular resistance grew against them, led by Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. In addition, Nathaniel Green reestablished a small Continental Army force to resist Cornwallis.
In an effort to crush the growing resistance, Cornwallis invaded North Carolina in the fall of 1780. This only made the situation worse by overstretching his supply lines and exposing them to many southern partisan groups. Furthermore, Cornwallis’s campaign of coercion and brutal repression carried on, alienating people throughout North Carolina. Defeats at the Battles of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 and Cowpens on January 17, 1781 further hindered Cornwallis’s efforts. With the situation growing dire, Cornwallis sought to strike one last blow to destroy Greene’s growing army. He had his army destroy their baggage and began a wild chase of their foe. Cornwallis eventually caught Greene, and the two armies fought the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. The British won the battle, but at a very heavy cost and the Continentals under Greene managed an orderly escape.
Despite the poor circumstances, Cornwallis decided to push into the poorly defended and heavily populated colony of Virginia, as Greene’s Continental Army had stayed in North Carolina. During this short period Cornwallis thrust the colony into chaos as he captured Richmond, Charlottesville, and Monticello, the personal estate of Governor Thomas Jefferson. The British Army was still in a dire situation after these success, and General Clinton ordered Cornwallis to establish a naval post in the Chesapeake. Clinton had grown nervous with Cornwallis’s expeditions and ordered his troops back to New York.
Around the time Cornwallis was headed to Yorktown, General Greene was moving north into Virginia. The Marquis De Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne were already in the area and a large French fleet under Admiral De Grasse was near the coast. The combined forces of the Continental Army and the French Army under Washington now saw an opportunity and moved to trap the British Army at Yorktown. Cornwallis expected support from Clinton but was unaware of the presence of the superior French fleet, which won the Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781, gaining control of the sea. Unaware of the circumstances, Cornwallis slowly fortified Yorktown throughout August before discovering on September 8th that Washington and the French were marching south.
On September 28, 1781, the Siege of Yorktown began as the French and Washington’s Continentals surrounded the British Army. Cornwallis withdrew his outer defenses to within a two-thousand-yard semicircle as he faced a force of 16,650 men. Washington’s combined forces initiated a steady barrage of cannon fire and slowly encroached upon the British lines, capturing the final major fortification on October 14th. Cornwallis was left with no other option but to surrender. On October 17th, Cornwallis sent a flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of his army of 7,100 men. This was the only time during the war that Washington personally corresponded with Cornwallis. In these letters, Cornwallis sought generous terms. Washington instead demanded total surrender.1 The Articles of Surrender were signed on October 19, 1781. Cornwallis refused to attend the surrender ceremony, citing illness. Cornwallis’s loss at Yorktown led to the cessation of hostilities and peace negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which recognized the independence of the United States.
Cornwallis had a successful career after the war, despite his many failures in America. George III continued to favor Cornwallis, and Clinton received much of the blame for Britain’s defeat. Cornwallis continued his military career and became a successful imperial administrator. He served with distinction in Ireland and India, where he successfully commanded troops during the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1790-1792). Cornwallis died in India on October 5, 1805.
The George Washington University
1“To George Washington from Charles Cornwallis, 17 October 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07184. [This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.]
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Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown. New York: Viking Press, 2018.
Rosenberg, Chaim M. Losing America, Conquering India: Lord Cornwallis and the Remaking of the British Empire. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2017.
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