Men of the Revolution: 10. Cornwallis


In war the final defeat is the one that counts. Yet there are wars and wars, and only rarely do historians conclude that a particular surrender was not only a cessation of fighting but a watershed marking the end of one epoch and the start of another. Otherwise there would be no memorable pairings of the vanquished with the scene of ultimate disaster—Harold and Hastings, Napoleon and Waterloo, Lee and Appomattox.

The curious thing about the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown is that the Americans in their moment of triumph saw it only as a great victory—not as the great victory. Even so, the final act was a superb piece of drama, for European armies of the day had a way of playing these scenes right, giving even defeat a touch of grandeur and pomp. Not surprisingly, Cornwallis refused to participate in the last rites; he claimed to be indisposed and remained at headquarters, sending a deputy to handle the unpleasant business. Then his British and German troops—many of them in new uniforms but with their flags cased—marched out between two half-mile-long lines of French and American soldiers and their ranks of waving banners, keeping step to the melancholy air of “The World Turn’d Upside Down” played by British bands and pipers. In their hour of humiliation some of the redcoats may have recalled the words to the old song:

If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse … If summer were spring and the other way round, Then all the world would be upside down.

After watching Cornwallis’ veterans file off to the surrender ground to lay down their arms, George Washington wrote a letter to Congress, describing the momentous occurrence only as an “Important Event” and voicing his concern that this success might produce “a relaxation in the prosecution of the war.”

Not so in England, where six years of fighting had attuned men’s ears to the relative significance of the outcome of battles. When news of Yorktown reached Lord North, George III’s prime minister, he cried out, “Oh God! It is all over!” As indeed it was. Only the stubborn monarch desired to prolong the agony and revealed his intentions by drafting a notice of abdication rather than yield to the inevitable. Then he, too, perceived at last that the thing was done and turned despondently to leaders of the opposition to form a government, welcoming his new premier with the words “At last, the fatal day is come. ”

The wonder was that the man responsible for the defeat of British arms, the general remembered by generations of American schoolchildren only because he surrendered, got no blame for it from his countrymen. On the contrary, according to that august authority the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.), Cornwallis “not only escaped censure … but in 1786 received a vacant Garter, and was appointed governor-general of India and commander-in-chief in Bengal.”

Charles, first Marquis and second Earl Cornwallis, was bred for better things than defeat at the hands of rebellious provincials. He not only possessed the requisites for success in the British army of the eighteenth century—position, money, and influence—he was also a man of uncommon intelligence and ability. The sixth child and eldest son of the first earl, he was born in 1738 and raised at Brome Hall near Eye, in Suffolk, which had been the family seat since the fourteenth century. He was educated at Eton, where he injured one eye in a hockey game, giving it a permanent cast (his biographers note that the accidental blow was struck by the Honorable Shute Barrington, later bishop of Durham). I n 1756 he was commissioned an ensign in the Grenadier Guards, and from his eighteenth birthday on he took his career very seriously. He travelled on the Continent in the company of a tutor, who was a Prussian officer; studied at the military academy in Turin; campaigned during the Seven Years War in the army of Prince Ferdinand of Prussia; came home to England to be elected M.P. for the family borough; and when hostilities erupted in America, volunteered for service.

This was a surprise to George in, since Cornwallis had sided with the Whigs in opposition to his colonial policy; but the king genuinely liked and admired him. One of his strongest traits was loyalty—the sense of duty that prompted him to offer his services even though he knew he would not have the top command in America. Besides, he was a dignified, devoted family man, which counted for much with George, and in addition he was a considerable cut above the average military officer. He worked hard at being a successful commander, studied tactics, strategy, and administration, and paid more attention to his troops and their needs than most of his fellow officers ever thought of doing. Intelligent and compassionate, he did not hold with the cruel punishments that were commonplace in the army of his day; his men knew he was fair, they loved him for it, and would follow him unquestioningly. Sergeant Roger Lamb wrote of Cornwallis’ own regiment, the 33rd, that he never saw any “that excelled it in discipline and military experience.”