American Revolution: Lord Charles Cornwallis

Charles Cornwallis
Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Photograph Source: Public Domain

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. Well-connected, Cornwallis' mother was a niece of Sir Robert Walpole while his uncle, Frederick Cornwallis, served as Archbishop of Canterbury (1768-1783). Another uncle, Edward Cornwallis established Halifax, Nova Scotia and attained the rank of lieutenant general in the British Army. After receiving his early education at Eton, Cornwallis graduated from Clare College at Cambridge.

Unlike many wealthy young men 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. This saw him spend time learning from Prussian officers and attending the military academy at Turin, Italy.

Early Military Career

In Geneva when the Seven Years' War commenced, Cornwallis attempted to return from the Continent but was unable to rejoin his unit before it departed Britain. Learning of this while in Cologne, he secured a position as a staff officer to Lieutenant General John Manners, Marquess of Granby. Taking part in the Battle of Minden (August 1, 1759), he then purchased a captain's commission 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, saw further action at the Battle of Wilhelmsthal (June 24, 1762).

Parliament and Personal Life

While abroad during the war, Cornwallis was elected to the House of Commons representing the village of Eye in Suffolk. Returning to Britain in 1762 following the death of his father, he assumed the title of Charles, 2nd Earl Cornwallis and in November took his seat in the House of Lords. A Whig, he soon became a protege of future prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. While in the House of Lords, Cornwallis was sympathetic towards the American colonies and was one of a small number of peers who voted against the Stamp and Intolerable Acts. He received command of the 33rd Regiment of Foot in 1766.

In 1768, Cornwallis fell in love and married Jemima Tullekin Jones, the daughter of untitled Colonel James Jones. Settling in Culford, Suffolk, 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 despite his earlier criticism of the government's colonial policies.

American Revolution

Immediately offering himself for service, Cornwallis received orders to leave for America in in late 1775. Given command of a 2,500-man force from Ireland, he encountered a string of logistical difficulties which delayed its departure. Finally putting to sea in February 1776, Cornwallis and his men endured a storm-filled crossing before rendezvousing with Major General Henry Clinton's force which was tasked with taking Charleston, SC. Made Clinton's deputy, he took part in the failed attempt on the city. With the repulse, Clinton and Cornwallis sailed north to join General William Howe's army outside of New York City.

Fighting in the North

Cornwallis played a key role in Howe's capture of New York City that summer and fall and his men were frequently at the head of the British advance. 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 re-devoted himself to the military and took command of British forces in the southern American colonies. Aided by Clinton, he captured Charleston in May 1780.

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.

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 defeated 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.