- Historic Sites
Men of the Revolution: Cornwallis
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Cornwallis was thirty-eight when he arrived in America, a strong, imposing man with a full face, large nose, and heavy-lidded eyes, and during his first eighteen months of duty he proved that he was one of the best field commanders in the army. Serving under William Howe, he distinguished himself at Long Island, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington; led the successful attack on Fort Lee; and harried Washington’s army across New Jersey, restrained only by the dilatoriness of Howe. On January 2, 1777, he had Washington trapped at Trenton, but inexplicably permitted his intelligence to break down, as a result of which the rebels eluded him and attacked Princeton. After that momentary and costly lapse he added to his reputation at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and then sailed for England to be with his ailing wife.
For all his ability, though, there was a flaw in Cornwallis’ make-up somewhere that kept him from the ultimate success he dearly wanted. Maybe he loved his wife too well: Lady Jemima was an elegant, handsome, charming woman who was to die of a broken heart, it was said, caused by his protracted absence in America. He missed her all the while he was away and maintained that her death in 1779 “effectually destroyed all my hopes of happiness in this world.”
That was not the only problem, however. After he came back from England in 1779 to serve under Clinton, who had replaced Howe, bad blood broke out between the two at the siege of Charleston, and the feud continued for the rest of the war—Cornwallis alternately arrogant and sulky, Clinton peevish, petty, and suspicious. With Charleston in British hands Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis in command in the South, and in August of 1780 he overwhelmed Horatio Gates’s army at Camden.
Disgusted with Clinton’s passive strategy, he argued that instead of guarding British holdings in Georgia and South Carolina his southern army should take the offensive, move into North Carolina and Virginia, link up there with the northern army, and end the war. But in this he reckoned without Nathanael Greene, who became his opponent after Gates’s defeat. Almost before Cornwallis realized it, Greene’s hit-and-run tactics had forced him into a game of hare and hounds, stretching his supply lines near the breaking point, wearing out his men, driving him to the point where he complained of being “quite tired of marching about the Country in Quest of Adventure. ” Again and again Cornwallis demonstrated courage, fierce energy, resourcefulness, and initiative that nearly brought the war in the South to a close, but always he missed bringing the thing off, as if he became bored or distracted during periods of inaction and could not summon up the dedication necessary to finish the job.
One idea the earl never lost sight of was his plan to carry the offensive into Virginia, the most important of the states, and on April 10, 1781, he wrote to one of Clinton’s deputies: “If we mean an offensive war in America, we must abandon New York, and bring our whole force into Virginia; we then have a stake to fight for, and a successful battle may give us America. If our plan is defensive, mixed with desultory expeditions, let us quit the Carolinas … and stick to our salt pork at New York, sending now and then a detachment to steal tobacco.”
By June, American strength in the area was growing ominously, and Cornwallis fell back toward the coast; suddenly he decided to return to South Carolina and the scene of his earlier triumphs, only to receive word from Clinton ordering him to remain in Virginia and to hold Point Comfort until Admiral Thomas Graves arrived with the fleet. Instead Cornwallis chose to retire to the little village of Yorktown, where he began constructing fortifications as a protected anchorage for Graves. And there he was in September when the Comte de Grasse intercepted Graves and mauled his ships so badly that they were forced to return to New York for repairs. By then the combined armies of Washington and Rochambeau had ringed Cornwallis in, and the dénouement was at hand. On October 17, 1781, Lord Cornwallis sent a flag across the lines requesting a twentyfour-hour cessation of hostilities, and two days later his six thousand men marched out to lay down their arms.
Released on parole, he went first to New York, where the old quarrel with Clinton broke out again as each sought to absolve himself of the blame for Yorktown, and in January of 1782 Cornwallis sailed for England, where he was greeted more as a hero than a defeated general. Clinton was to be the goat; Cornwallis, it was argued, was merely a victim of circumstance.
Two years later, when Warren Hastings resigned as governor general of India, the young Prime Minister William Pitt decided that Cornwallis was the man to succeed Hastings, restore military and civil services in India, and at the same time repair Britain’s prestige after the defeats in the recent Mysore war. Twice Cornwallis refused but finally accepted “much against his will and with grief of heart. “He was no longer so intent on the will-o’-the-wisp of fame, it appeared. Yorktown had been a chastening experience, and he was even self-conscious about his election as a knight of the Garter. As he wrote his son after leaving for India, “You will very likely laugh at me for wishing to wear a blue riband over my fat belly.… But I can assure you upon my honour that I neither asked for it nor wished for it. ”