General Lord Charles Cornwallis
Created | Updated Jun 27, 2007
The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis
General Lord Charles Cornwallis 1st Marquess, Governor-General of India, Viceroy of Ireland, was born on New Year's Eve 1737, the sixth child and first son to Charles, the fifth Baron of Eye and the first Earl and Viscount Brome and Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Townsend. He was indeed born with connections and a privileged life of his time.
His Early Career
His education was in line with his up bringing, Lord Brome, as he was titled, first went to Eton. Eton was then, as now, an exclusive private school. From there, he went on to Clare College, Cambridge. Shortly before his 18th birthday, Charles purchased an ensign's commission in the First Regiment of Foot Guard, now known as the Grenadier Guards. He then spent the next two years of his life at the military academy in Turin, Italy.
In 1758, at the age of 21, he was appointed as the aide-de-camp to Lord Granby, and promoted to the rank of captain. It was then that his regiment was sent to serve in Germany, during the Seven-Year War. During this period, he developed his military skills. In 1759, was present at the Battle of Minden. By 1761 he had obtained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Regiment of Foot. He was noticed as an officer with a skill in handling his troops and for his personal valour. His time as a soldier was about to end temporarily.
His Entry into Politics
Due to the death of his father, he now became Earl Cornwallis and took his seat by birthright, in the House of Lords. He aligned himself to the Whig Party, which was headed by Pitt and Shelburne. Within his party he was known as a liberal. He sided firmly with the colonists on the American question. In 1765, he argued for the repeal of the Stamp Act. He was cited as one of only five peers who voted for the unconditional repeal of the Act, with a denouncement of the right to tax America at all. In 1766 he voted against the Declaratory Act.
Yet such was the man, that he still received accolades and promotions. In 1765 he was named as the aide-de-camp to King George III and a year later purchased the rank of Colonel in the 33rd Foot Regiment.
On 14 July, 1768 Charles Cornwallis married Miss Jemima Jones, and together they would have one son and one daughter. In 1770, his star still in the ascendancy, he was made constable of the Tower of London and the vice-treasurer of Ireland.
The American Revolution
By 1775, it was clear that his military and diplomatic talents would be needed in the American colonies. In December, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and received his orders to sail to America. He set sail from Cork, Ireland, in the flagship, Bristol, a 50-gun ship, in a fleet that was commanded by Sir Peter Parker. They did not reach the American shores of the Carolinas until May, partly due to wait for reinforcement of seven regiments at Cork and partly due to the roughness of the voyage.
On the 20 June, Cornwallis was ordered to prepare to advance on Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, this tactic soon changed on realisation of the forts defences. In the end, Cornwallis sailed northwards to New York to take part in the campaign unfolding there.
In New York, Cornwallis took part in the Battle of New York and the fall of Fort Washington, under the command of General Howe. He helped force the Americans from New York. He took control of Fort Lee, which was abandoned by Greene and organised the pursuit of Washington's army.
He had so little regard for the American troops in December 1776 that he sent his luggage on board ship, thinking that his was job done. It was at this point he was brought news of the reversal of fortunes at the Battle of Trenton. Washington and his army were on the move again. He was then forced to march on Trenton where he was faced by the American army. It was here that Washington outfoxed Cornwallis, withdrawing his troops under cover of the night. He pounced on his rear guard at Princeton, forcing him to retreat to New Brunswick.
The campaigning was short during 1777, and Cornwallis had to abandon New Jersey. The setbacks in his campaign were put to a halt on 11 September, at the Battle of Brandywine, where he managed to inflict another defeat upon the now resurgent American Army. By 26 September, he had managed to occupy Philadelphia with the vanguard of the British troops. On 4 October, with General Howe, he moved on Germantown.
During January 1778, Cornwallis set sail back to England, but by May he was once again on American soil and in the thick of the action. 28 June saw the Battle of Monmouth, which effectively saw the northern colonies out of the war. Sir William Howe, the previous commander of the whole operation had resigned, stating a lack of support in the war from King George. Sir George Clinton took command.
In December, he once again returned to England, only to find his wife on her deathbed; she died February 1779.
He then sailed back to America to join up with Clinton and his expedition in South Carolina. The target was Charleston, but it was not going to be easy. After a three month siege, the city fall, in May 1780, with a great loss to the Americans of men and equipment.
The following month Cornwallis was made chief commander of the south, on Clinton's return to New York. Cornwallis was give to task of mopping up the Southern States; serious resistance was not expected. His first battle of this campaign went exactly to plan, as he easily defeated Gates at the Battle of Camden on the 16 August. With this victory behind him, Cornwallis started his invasion of North Carolina. He only reached as far as Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, due to the extremely hostile reaction to his army. Further bad news soon followed with the defeat at King's Mountain, on the border of North and South Carolina. He then decided to pull out of Charlotte, after only three weeks, and set up his winter camp in Winnsboro, South Carolina. The winter there was not easy. Francis Marion or Thomas Sumter continually harried his troops, thus denying him the chance of a major conflict that could have decided the war.
1781 turned out to be the decisive year in the whole campaign, and things started well for Cornwallis. Intelligence came to him that the American army in the South had split into two. He soon put into plan an operation to end the war once and for all, he sent his Calvary and two regiments of foot to deal a blow to the half commanded by Daniel Morgan, while the other half of the American army was still on camp. Unfortunately the commander he chose for the task, Colonel Tarleton, was still too inexperienced, and in the end was comprehensively beaten by General Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January.
The American Army now reunited under Nathaniel Greene made its way to the river Dan and the North Carolina and Virginia border. This started the 'Race to the Dan'. As Cornwallis pursued the Army, discarding his supply wagons and anything else that was slowing his troops down, they got within a mile of Greene and his men, but destiny was against him. The American army slipped out his reach. His exhausted troops made camp in Hillsboro, North Carolina, while awaiting Greene's next move.
He was not obliged to wait long, Greene marched his troops into a position so that Cornwallis was forced to act. He marched his men to Guilford House Hall, 25 miles to the west of his camped position. The Battle of Guildford Court House proved to be extremely bloody. Although Cornwallis won, he lost, wounded or killed one third of his force, and found it necessary to retreat to Wilmington, leaving behind his wounded.
The British Army was so crippled that he allowed Greene to retake South Carolina. It was at this stage that Cornwallis would commit himself to a series of events that would indeed end the war. Without discussing his tactics with Sir Clinton in New York, Cornwallis set off, on 25 April to Virginia, hoping to meet up with General Phillips, who himself commanded a sizeable force of British troops.
While in Virginia, he was denied the encounter he desired, to deal a crushing blow to the Americans, by the Marquis Lafayette's skirmishing. Although, he almost engaged the army at Green Spring Farm, nightfall came to the Marquis' rescue. Chasing the Marquis from Richmond to Rapidan, Cornwallis attempted to raid Charlottesville and Albemarle Court House before once again returning to Richmond. It was here that Cornwallis received orders to fortify a position along the coastline that could be used by the Navy as a supply line. Pursued by LaFayette, who had now a larger force, being joined by Baron Friedrich von Steuben and General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne, he selected a small town on the York River, Yorktown.
While, Cornwallis was effectively trapped on land by a superior force. He hoped to receive reinforcements from the sea. The French, commanded by Count de Grasse intervened, and British lost control of the sea. With a fleet just off the coast and Washington's army on land Cornwallis was surrounded. Yorktown was bombarded on 9 October and Cornwallis failed to cross the York River to make it to a British point. Cornwallis knew that he only had one option. On 17 October, Cornwallis* sent his second in command General Charles O'Hara to surrender the British army. That effectively brought an end to the war. Ironically, the same day he discovered that Sir Clinton had set sail from New York with reinforcements. Two months later Cornwallis was on board a ship bound for England after be exchanged for Henry Laurens.
His Return to Politics
In the years that followed, the public argument raged between Cornwallis and Sir Clinton. Each blamed the other for the loss of the American colonies, but in the end Cornwallis seemed to come out on top. In 1785, after serving his time in the wilderness, he was appointed to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, as an envoy. In 1786, he was promoted to the rank of Field Marshall and given the post of governor general of India and the commander in chief of all its forces.
While in India, he set about a series of reforms that would bear his name. The 'Cornwallis Reforms' were an attempt to eradicate the widespread corruption within the administration of the country. His reforms included the Europeanisation of the civil services; any post with a salary over £500 per annum was reserved for Europeans only. He also introduced a tax system that encouraged village landlords to collect the British taxes for fee of 10%. He created of 23 separate administrative districts. Cornwallis also had to use his military skills. In 1789 Tipu Sahib, the Indian ruler of Mysore, now the Indian state of Karnataka, invaded Travancore, a state that was under British protection. Tipu allied himself with the French hoping for some military help from them. In 1792 with a combined force of troops from Britain, Maratha and Hyderabad, Cornwallis swiftly defeated Tipu and forced him to cede nearly half of his territory. The following year, 1793, Cornwallis once again set sail for home.
Arriving back in England in 1794, he was rewarded with his successes in India by being given the title of Marquis. In 1795 he entered back into a more mainstream political lifestyle. He was appointed as the Master of the Ordnance, which gave a seat in the cabinet of the government of Britain. The rebellion in Ireland saw that Cornwallis was not to have a quiet life. In 1798, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, with command of its troops. Here he acted with his usual mixture of military and diplomatic skills. On one hand he subdued the rebellion led by Wolfe Tone, and on the other he developed the parliamentary union with Ireland and Britain. The King refused to support William Pitt the Younger for Prime Minister, together with his proposal for Catholic emancipation, so Cornwallis resigned, hoping for retirement. This was not to happen. In November 1801, he was selected as a commissioner to negotiate with Napoleon and his delegation for peace.
The Elder Statesman
At 62 years old and only recently having described himself as being 'out of sorts, low-spirited and tired of everything', Cornwallis never the less accepted this role with his typical sense of duty. Napoleon invited him to Paris for the Festival of Peace on the 9 November. In his honour, his carriage was the only vehicle allowed on the streets of Paris that night. The negotiations, which began in Paris with Napoleon, did not go well, and they were moved to Amiens with Napoleon's brother, Joseph, taking over as the French negotiator. During these talks, Cornwallis drew complaints from the French as being too slow and lacking any alertness. He still maintained the willingness to make a deal. Napoleon demands made Cornwallis suspect that he was not sincere, but Britain was committed to finding peace. Cornwallis would write, 'Would to God that we had peace almost on any terms, for it is evident that we cannot make war.' The discussions went on until March 1802, by then Cornwallis was instructed to get the acceptance or rejection of the treaty as it stood, within the next eight days, or leave for England. In the end Cornwallis held on for eleven days, and at 3am 25 March, Cornwallis and Joseph Bonaparte signed the Treaty.
Cornwallis, his health now failing, chose to retire to his country estate in Brome, Suffolk, England, after a lifelong dedication to his country. But his country would not let him rest. In 1805, the troubles in India required him once more to be named as governor general, replacing Lord Wellesley. He set sail for their shores. Unfortunately, his exhausting life finally caught up with him. A few months of arriving in India, he succumbed to a fever, dying on 5 October 1805 at Ghazipur. As a mark of honour, his grave, which overlooks the Ganges, is even today kept clean by the Indian authorities.