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Men of the Revolution: Cornwallis

May 2024
8min read

Courageous and resourceful, the Marquis was bred for better things than defeat at the hands of rebellious provincials.

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 III, 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.”

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. ”

Out in India he set to work with characteristic vigor, instituting drastic civil and military reforms in Bengal; and when Tippoo Sahib of Mysore attacked a British ally in 1790, Cornwallis personally took command of the army, conducted a careful, well-conceived campaign, and two years later defeated Tippoo, finally breaking the power and prestige of the Mysore dynasty for good. (In addition to ceding half of his territories, Tippoo was forced to pay indemnities amounting to £3,600,000, and a grateful government awarded over £47,000 of it to Cornwallis, who promptly donated the entire amount to his troops.)

His job done, he returned to England in 1794 to be made master general of ordnance with a seat in Pitt’s cabinet, and he was entrusted with the defenses of the country against an anticipated invasion by Bonaparte that failed to materialize. In 1798 Pitt turned to him again to perform a thankless task: the government badly needed a soldier-statesman to restore peace in Ireland, and Cornwallis was made viceroy and commander in chief of the British forces there. His immediate task was to suppress the rebellion, which he executed with dispatch; next he put the Act of Union into effect and in the meantime, having perceived that the Irish parliament did not represent the people of the country, urged its abolition and championed the right of Irish Catholics to sit in Parliament. But George III refused to hear of this, and in 1801 Cornwallis resigned. Back in England he learned that he had been appointed British plenipotentiary to negotiate a peace with Napoleon. Unhappily Cornwallis was neither a diplomatist nor a match for the combined wits of Joseph Bonaparte and Talleyrand, and the Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, proved to be a truce, not a peace.

For three years Cornwallis was permitted to rest; then came another urgent summons from the government, requesting him to return once again to India as governor general and commander in chief. Now sixty-six, he regarded the undertaking-as foolhardy for a man his age; but the old sense of duty won out, and off he sailed in March of 1805, arriving to find a “most unprofitable and ruinous warfare” in India, which he moved at once to stop. Heading up the Ganges toward the scene of the fighting, he lost consciousness, and on October 5, 1805, he died.

Whether he had ever felt obliged to compensate for what occurred at Yorktown more than two decades earlier no one can say, but by his own lights a career was not measured in victories or defeats. “The reasonable object of ambition to man,” he once wrote his son, “is to have his name transmitted to posterity for eminent services rendered to his country and mankind.”

Richard M. Ketchum

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