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American Revolution: Lord Charles Cornwallis

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American Revolution: Lord Charles Cornwallis

Marquis Charles Cornwallis, by J. Ward from painting by Sir W. Beechey: published in 1799.

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Charles Cornwallis - Early Life:

The eldest son of Charles, 1st Earl Cornwallis and his wife Elizabeth Townshend, Charles Cornwallis was born at Grosvenor Square, London on December 31, 1738. After receiving his early education at Eton, Cornwallis graduated from Clare College at Cambridge. Unlike many wealthy youth of the time, Cornwallis elected to enter the military rather than pursue a life of leisure. After purchasing a commission as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards on December 8, 1757, Cornwallis quickly distanced himself from other aristocratic officers by actively studying military science and attending the military academy at Turin, Italy.

Charles Cornwallis - Early Military Career:

Returning from Turin at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, Cornwallis spent much of the conflict in Germany. After initially serving as a staff officer for Lord Granby, he took part in the Battle of Minden (August 1, 1759) and later served a captain in the 85th Regiment of Foot. Two years later, he fought with the 11th Foot at the Battle of Villinghausen (July 15/16, 1761) and was cited for bravery. The next year, Cornwallis, now a lieutenant colonel, returned home following the death of his father. Now Charles, 2nd Earl Cornwallis, he took his seat in the House of Lords that November.

Charles Cornwallis - Parliament and Personal Life:

While in the House of Lords, Cornwallis was sympathetic towards the American colonies and voted against the Stamp and Intolerable Acts. In 1768, Cornwallis fell in love and married Jemima Jones, the daughter of untitled Colonel James Jones. The marriage produced a daughter, Mary, and a son, Charles. Stepping back from the military to raise his family, Cornwallis served on the King's Privy Council (1770) and as a Constable of the Tower of London (1771). With war in America beginning, Cornwallis was promoted to major general by King George III in 1775.

Charles Cornwallis - American Revolution:

Immediately offering himself for service, Cornwallis was dispatched to America in early 1776. After first serving as Major General Henry Clinton's deputy during a failed attempt to take Charleston, SC, Cornwallis played a key role in General William Howe's capture of New York City that summer and fall. In late 1776, Cornwallis was preparing to return to England for the winter, but was forced to stay to deal with General George Washington's army after the American victory at Trenton. Marching south, Cornwallis unsuccessfully attacked Washington and later had his rearguard defeated at Princeton (January 3, 1777).

Though Cornwallis was now serving directly under Howe, Clinton blamed him for the defeat at Princeton, increasing tensions between the two commanders. The next year, Cornwallis led the key flanking maneuver that defeated Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and starred in the victory at Germantown (October 4, 1777). Following his capture of Fort Mercer in November, Cornwallis finally returned to England. His time at home was short however, as he rejoined the army in America, now led by Clinton, in 1779.

That summer, Clinton decided to abandon Philadelphia and return to New York. While the army marched north, it was attacked by Washington at Monmouth Court House. Leading the British counterattack, Cornwallis drove back the Americans until being stopped by the main body of Washington's army. That fall Cornwallis again returned home, this time to care for his ailing wife. Following her death in February 1779, Cornwallis redevoted himself to the military and took command of British forces in the southern American colonies. Aided by Clinton, he captured Charleston in May 1780.

Charles Cornwallis - The Southern Campaign:

With Charleston taken, Cornwallis moved to subjugate the countryside. Marching inland, he routed an American army under Major General Horatio Gates at Camden in August and pushed up into North Carolina. Following the defeat of British Loyalist forces at Kings Mountain on October 7, Cornwallis withdrew back to South Carolina. Throughout the Southern Campaign, Cornwallis and his subordinates, such as Banastre Tarleton, were criticized for their harsh treatment of the civilian population. While Cornwallis was able to defeat conventional American forces in the South, he was plagued by guerrilla raids on his supply lines.

On December 2, 1780, Major General Nathaniel Greene took command of American forces in the South. After splitting his force, one detachment, under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, routed Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781). Stunned Cornwallis began pursuing Greene north. After reuniting his army, Greene was able to escape over the Dan River. The two finally met on March 15, 1781, at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. In heavy fighting, Cornwallis won a costly victory, forcing Greene to retreat. With his army battered, Cornwallis opted to continue the war in Virginia.

Late that summer, Cornwallis received orders to locate and fortify a base for the Royal Navy on the Virginia coast. Selecting Yorktown, his army began building fortifications. Seeing an opportunity, Washington raced south with his army to lay siege to Yorktown. Cornwallis hoped to be relieved by Clinton or removed by the Royal Navy, however after the French naval victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake he was trapped with no choice but to fight. After enduring a three-week siege, he was forced to surrender his 7,500-man army, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Charles Cornwallis - Postwar:

Returning home, he accepted the post of governor-general of India on February 23, 1786. During his tenure he proved an able administrator and a gifted reformer. While in India, his forces put down a revolt by the famed Tipu Sultan. Upon the end of his term, he was made 1st Marquess Cornwallis and was dispatched to Ireland as governor-general. After putting down an Irish rebellion, he aided in passing the Act of Union which united the English and Irish parliaments. Resigning from the army in 1801, he was again sent to India four years later. His second term proved short as he died on October 5, 1805, only two months after arriving.

Sources

  • Patriot Resource: Charles Cornwallis
  • Charles Cornwallis
  • National Park Service: Charles Cornwallis
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