Charles Cornwallis was a British Army officer who served as a general during the War of Independence (also known as the American Revolution). He led the British forces to success in New York and Philadelphia before moving to the theater of war to the south in 1780. Despite a crushing defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, Cornwallis enjoyed a famous post-war career , as Governor General of India and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Youth and military career
Cornwallis was born on December 31, 1738 in London, England, to an aristocratic family with a distinguished military pedigree. His own military career began in earnest during the Seven Years’ War, when he traveled to Germany and first served as an aide-de-camp on the Marquis de Granby’s staff. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a regimental commander in 1761 and receiving a citation for bravery for his performance at the Battle of Vellinghausen.
On his father’s death in 1762 Cornwallis was elevated to the rank of 2nd Earl of Cornwallis and took his father’s seat in the House of Lords in Parliament. Amid mounting tensions between Britain and its North American colonies, Cornwallis voted against the Stamp Act and other British policies that upset the settlers. Despite this, he volunteered to command British troops after the War of Independence began in April 1775.
The first battles of the war of independence
Promoted to the rank of major general, Cornwallis left for North America in early 1776 and arrived in the Carolinas in May to reinforce the southern British expedition led by General Henry Clinton. After British forces failed to capture Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island in Charleston, South Carolina, Cornwallis and Clinton headed north to join General William Howe’s forces in New York.
With Howe at the head and Cornwallis at the head of the reserve troops, the British defeated the American forces led by General George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. Cornwallis, who often risked his own life leading visibly his men on the battlefield, helped rout Patriot Defenders at Kips Bay in mid-September, when the British landed on Manhattan Island. In November, he led a British detachment on the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey, taking the fort, guns, ammunition and supplies after a hasty American evacuation.
After pursuing Continental forces through New Jersey in November and December, Cornwallis and the British were caught off guard by Washington’s surprise attack on Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Eve and another American victory at Princeton in early January 1777. Cornwallis wintered in England. but returned for the spring campaign, later aiding in the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine (September 1777) and the capture of Philadelphia two weeks later.
British countryside in the south
In 1780, with the war in the north virtually deadlocked, the British refocused on their campaign in the south, relying on more loyalists among the settlers to the south. Promoted to lieutenant-general, Cornwallis became Clinton’s second in command, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. After a three-month siege, Charleston fell on May 12, 1780, in the most important British victory of the war.
Clinton soon left for New York, leaving Cornwallis to secure South Carolina for the British. In August, Cornwallis’ forces defeated American troops led by General Horatio Gates in Camden.
But the surrounding area proved more difficult to pacify than Cornwallis expected, as many settlers resisted orders to take an oath of loyalty to the Crown.
The tide of war began to turn against the British shortly after General Nathanael Greene succeeded Gates as head of American forces in the south. The forces led by Cornwallis’ subordinates suffered defeat at the Battle of King’s Mountain (October 1780) and the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).
Defeat at the Battle of Yorktown
Cornwallis pursues Greene’s army, clashing in the indecisive Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March and suffers heavy casualties. From there he took his army to Virginia, capturing Richmond and Charlottesville, before heading for the coast to establish a naval base in Chesapeake Bay. Continental forces led by the Marquis de Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne pursued the British to their final destination, Yorktown, while a large French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte de Grasse approached the coast.
Surrounded and besieged, with its intended escape route blocked by French ships, Cornwallis was forced to surrender its army of 8,000 British troops on October 17. Claiming that illness had prevented him from meeting Washington to return his sword, Cornwallis sent his second in command, Charles O’Hara, in his place. The British defeat at Yorktown effectively ended the hostilities of the War of Independence, which culminated in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which recognized independence from the United States.
Postwar career in India and Ireland
Returning to England, Cornwallis was greeted as a hero, although he withstood criticism from Clinton and others for his defeat at Yorktown. His post-war career showed how the British Empire recovered from the loss of its North American colonies. Cornwallis was Governor General of India from 1786 to 1793 and led a military campaign that helped consolidate British control of the southern region of India.
Appointed Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland in 1798, he commanded the British troops to victory against an invading French force and survived an assassination attempt in Dublin in 1799. Cornwallis returned to India for a second term in as governor general in 1805, but died soon after his arrival and was buried in Calcutta.
Charles Cornwallis. American Battlefield Trust.
Charles Cornwallis. National Park Service.
Gordon Wood. The American Revolution: A History (Random House, 2002)