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Lord Charles Cornwallis: Facts, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Lord Charles Cornwallis was a distinguished British general. He served in the Seven Years War, was second-in-command in the American Revolution, and served in Ireland and India.

The Makings of a General

Charles Cornwallis was born in 1738 in Grosvenor Square in London. He was the eldest son of a very distinguished aristocratic family. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge College. In 1757, he was commissioned an ensign in the army. He toured Europe with Prussian officer Captain de Roguin and studied at a military academy in Turin, Italy to further his career. In 1760, he became a member of the House of Commons as befitting his heritage. During the Seven Years War (aka the French Indian War as it is referred to in America), Cornwallis fought in several campaigns, such as the famed Battle of Minden. He served mostly in Germany and as an aide-de-camp to the distinguished Marquis de Lord Granby. In July 1768, Cornwallis married the prominent Jemima Jones with whom he had two children. An interesting fact is that while Cornwallis was in the House of Commons, he opposed the taxation policy of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act is what triggered colonial resistance to British rule.

Lord Charles Cornwallis
Charles Cornwallis

Cornwallis vs. Washington

Cornwallis may have opposed British taxation policies, but he did not support an open rebellion. In 1775, he was sent to America to squash the American Revolution. He first sailed to South Carolina in May 1776, where he took part in the failed campaign to take Fort Moultrie in Charleston. He then joined General William Howe in New York. His New York campaigns were highly successful. He captured both Fort Lee and Long Island and drove George Washington entirely out of New York. Washington rebounded though and got the better of Cornwallis in his surprise attacks in New Jersey in the battles of Trenton and Princeton in December 1776 and January 1777. His duel with Washington shifted to Pennsylvania, and Cornwallis won at both the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown in 1777. In only a two-year period, Cornwallis had managed to capture both New York and Philadelphia. In 1778, Cornwallis was promoted to second-in-command of the entire British army under Henry Clinton. In June 1778, he continued his drive against Washington and fought him to a draw at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey.

Jemima Cornwallis
Jemima Cornwallis

Cornwallis in the South

In early 1779, Cornwallis got word that his wife was ill. He returned home, but his wife died in February 1779. He sadly said of her death, that it 'effectually destroyed all my hopes for happiness in this life.' After mending his domestic affairs, he returned to America in July 1779. Upon his return, he took command of the so-called 'Southern Strategy'. The idea was to shift the war to the south and especially concentrate on South Carolina. Cornwallis returned to the site of his first defeat in America, successfully capturing Charleston in May 1780 from Benjamin Clinton. In August 1780, he beat Horatio Gates in the Battle of Camden and in March 1781, he defeated Nathanial Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. Despite winning repeated battles, Cornwallis could not win the war as this letter written to one of his generals illustrates: 'I have sent out everybody that I could engage to go, but the friends here are so timid & stupid that I can get no intelligence.' The point of this exchange is that he felt he could not trust the locals to provide accurate intelligence.

Cornwallis at Yorktown

Despite his penchant for victory, his success did not translate into total victory, and Cornwallis shifted his forces to the Virginia peninsula. This turned out to be a disaster. He was boxed in by land by his old nemesis George Washington and French General Comte de Rochambeau and by French naval forces under French Admiral Comte de Grasse offshore. The Battle of Yorktown was a disaster for the British. Cornwallis surrendered over 7,000 troops. Humiliated, Cornwallis did not appear at the surrender ceremony on October 19, 1781. He rather had General Charles O'Hara give his ceremonial sword to Washington and so in return, Washington refused to take the sword but had his second-in-command General Benjamin Lincoln take it on his behalf. After this, Cornwallis returned to England where a war of words between generals took place over who was to blame for the loss of the American colonies. Cornwallis, however, did not suffer from this.

Surrender Ceremony at Yorktown
Surrender at Yorktown

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