Revolutionary War Historical Article

King George III's Soldiers
Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Magazine

Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis 1st Marquis, Governor-General of India, Viceroy of Ireland, was born on December 31st, 1737, New Year's Eve. He was the first son, with five older sisters, born to Charles, the 5th Baron of Eye and the 1st Earl and Viscount Brome and Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Townsend. He was a member of the English ruling class, with the pedigree to prove it. His title was "Lord Brame". Like so many of the British nobility he attended Eton in the shadow of the Royal Residence at Windsor Castle. Eton, an exclusive private school, was then as it is now, a favorite of the British aristocracy. After concluding his studies at Eton, Cornwallis continued his education at Clare College, Cambridge. Just before he turned eighteen, Cornwallis' father purchased an Ensign's commission in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, now known as the Grenadier Guards. His military education was continued as he spent the next two years studying at the military academy in Turin, Italy.

At age 21, on August 6th, 1758, , he was appointed as the Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant General John Manners, Marquis of Granby, with the rank of Captain. His regiment was deployed to Germany, during the Seven-Year War (what we Americans call the French and Indian war). On August 5th, 1759 he transferred to the 85th Regiment of Foot. He served in Germany for the next three years, when on May 1st, 1761 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Regiment of Foot. He participated in the battle at Minden in 1759 with the 12th. It was during this time that young Cornwallis put to good use his formal education in the military sciences, and his skill was noticed.

In 1762 Cornwallis received word from England that his father had died and as his son and heir, he now became Earl Cornwallis and took his seat in the House of Lords. He joined the Whig Party, which was led by William Pitt and William Petty, Earl of Shelburne. He agreed with the American colonists and apparently foresaw the possibility of major problems if Parliament continued to ignore their concerns. He was one of five members of the House of Lords that argued for the repeal of the Stamp Act, voting for the unconditional repeal of the Act, He went even further, calling for a denouncement of the right to tax America at all. In spite of his pro-colonist positions he was still recognized as a leader. In 1765 he was named as the Aide­de-Camp to King George III. The following year he purchased the Colonelcy in the 33rd Regiment of Foot.

On July 14th 1768 Charles Cornwallis married Jemima Jones. They would have one son (Charles) and one daughter, (Mary). In 1770, King George made him constable of the Tower of London and the Vice-Treasurer of Ireland.

The skirmish at Lexington and Concord and the humiliating retreat to Boston by the British Forces made it 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 was ordered to America. He set sail from Cork, Ireland, in the flagship, H.M.S. Bristol, a Man-O'-War of 50-guns. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Peter Parker. His sailing was delayed as seven Royal Regiments had to gather their supplies and equipment for deployment to America. It was not until May that they arrived off the Coast of the Carolinas. On the June 20th, 1776, Cornwallis was ordered to capture Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, Charleston, South Carolina.The British were unable to break through the defenses and were forced to cancel the operation. Cornwallis then 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 Lieutenant General Sir William Howe. His leadership helped force George Washington's army from New York. Cornwallis took control of Fort Lee, which was abandoned by American Major General Nathaniel Greene and from there organized the pursuit of Washington's army across New Jersey.

Having successfully defeated the American army around New York City, then driving them across New Jersey, Cornwallis was of the opinion that the defeated American army was finished. It was just a matter of waiting for spring to round up the survivors. He was so certain of this that he ordered his personal baggage to be placed aboard a ship bound for England, as he was confident that his services would no longer be required in the New World. Before he could set sail alarming news was received. On Christmas Day General Washington's defeated army had just stormed and taken the entire garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Two regiments of crack Hessian troops had been killed or captured. General Howe ordered Cornwallis to lead the British forces in New Jersey and march on Trenton.

It was at this time that Cornwallis realized that this war was far from over and that the American generals were not bumbling amateurs. Having assumed that he had out maneuvered Washington and had him trapped against the Delaware River, he was utterly surprised that the Americans had not only slipped away, but attacked the garrison at Princeton, all but destroying three more British Regiments. Not only had the Americans not retreated but they were still on the offensive! He had been 'out-foxed' by Washington. Knowing that the American army was in need of everything, his biggest concern was the major supply depot at Brunswick, New Jersey. In addition to every kind of supplies, there was also a 'war chest' of some 70,000 pounds sterling there - - all unprotected. Rather than pursue Washington, Cornwallis retreated to Brunswick to protect the stores there - - had they fallen into Washington's hands, it could have prolonged the war for a year! All that had been accomplished in the campaign of 1776 had been unraveled.

The Spring of 1777 opened with General Howe ordering an attack aimed at Philadelphia. On September 11th, the British and American Armies came face-to-face at Brandywine Creek. The British out flanked the American Army, winning the battle and forcing Washington to retreat. By September 26th, General Cornwallis led his victorious vanguard into Philadelphia. Several additional battles were fought around Philadelphia, but the Americans were unable to dislodge the larger and better supplied British, and finally retired to Valley Forge await Spring.

On December 13th, 1778, Cornwallis sailed for England having obtained leave from General Howe. He arrived in mid-January. After attending to personal business and spending time with his wife, Jemima, by May he was back in America. With the defeat of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga and the declaration of War by France, it was decided that the British Expeditionary Force was not strong enough to defend both Philadelphia and New York City. It was decided, in London, to abandon Philadelphia. It was also decided to relieve General Howe and replace him with General Sir Henry Clinton.

There was not enough shipping available to evacuate both the troops and Loyalist civilians from Philadelphia entirely by sea. General Clinton ordered that the army to march across New Jersey to New York City. Cornwallis rightfully predicted that the evacuating British column would be too enticing a target for General Washington to ignore. He planned on a major battle somewhere in New Jersey. He was right, Washington fell on the rear guard of the British army at Monmouth Court House. Cornwallis was convinced that in open country, the British arms would be invincible, and that a major action would destroy the American Army. But, that was not the case - - the American Army fought the British to a standstill- - and ended the battle in control of the field - an American victory. The balance of the year was relatively quiet - - the war in the north was all but a stalemate.

In December Cornwallis received word that his wife of ten years was deathly ill. He secured permission to return to England. His wife, Jenny, died in February. Her death so affected him that he wrote his brother: "[this] effectually destroyed all my hopes of happiness in this world". He left England and came back to America, devoting himself totally to the war.

The British decided to adopt a new tactic --leave the north as a stalemate and invade the South.

Clinton and Cornwallis would lead an invasion force and take Charleston, South Carolina. They were successful, but it was not an easy task. The city withstood a three month siege and finally fell in May 1780. General Clinton decided to return to New York City, and appointed Cornwallis Military Commander of the Southern forces, with instructions to neutralize any remaining American forces. Both generals agreed that with the surrender of Charleston, there were few American troops to oppose the conquest of the South. Congress sent Major General Horatio Gates south with a moderate size detachment of Continental troops to oppose Cornwallis. They met at Camden on August 16th. Cornwallis completely defeated Gates. Gates himself left the battlefield and rode 60 miles in one day to escape.

Having defeated the second American Army, Cornwallis turned North and invaded North Carolina. The amount of resistance he encountered is the 'stuff legends are made of ! Yet, he continued with his attempt to subdue the South. He realized he had bitten off more then he could chew when he received word that Lt. Colonel Patrick Ferguson's force of 1,000 men had been defeated at King's Mountain.

He and his army went into winter encampment at Winnsboro, South Carolina. The entire winter saw the British harassed at every turn. Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter took it upon themselves to make life as miserable as possible for Cornwallis.

1781 started out well for Cornwallis. He received word from a Loyalist that Major General Nathaniel Greene, who Washington sent to oppose him, had made a tactical error. Greene divided his small army into two parts. He retained command of the main body, while the other half was commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan. Cornwallis selected a spirited cavalryman, Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, from his command to lead his dragoons and two regiments of foot against Morgan. Tarleton met Morgan at Cowpens on January 17th, and was soundly beaten.

The American Army, now reunited under General 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 of his reach. His exhausted troops made camp in Hillsboro, North Carolina, while awaiting General Greene's next move.

Major General Nathaniel Greene took up a defensive position at Guilford Court House and dared Lord Cornwallis to attack him. Cornwallis knew that defeating Greene in detail could lead to the end of the war in the South. He attacked.

The Battle of Guilford Court House proved to be one of the bloodiest fought during the war. At one point it appeared that Greene's Continentals were driving back the center of Cornwallis' line. It his line broke, it would be disastrous. Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire grape shot into the center - - killing both British and American soldiers. It had to have been one of the most difficult orders he ever gave. In the end the American's retreated, but General Cornwallis lost, wounded or killed one third of his force. Cornwallis made every attempt to catch the retreating Americans. But each day his supplies ran shorter, and contrary to Loyalist intelligence, Loyalist recruits were not joining his Army, whereas every day saw Greene's Army gaining strength.

While he was struggling in the Carolinas, General Clinton had sent the turncoat Benedict Arnold with a force of 1,600 men to Virginia. Their raid was having some success, and more importantly was preventing supplies and recruits from reaching General Greene. Clinton decided to reinforce Arnold and dispatched Major General William Phillips with a force of 2,000 to join Arnold and assume overall command.

Cornwallis decided to head North into Virginia and link up with Phillips. It didn't work. Washington had sent the Marquis de Lafayette and the Light Infantry south to support the Virginia Militia, then the Baron von Steuben was sent to reinforce the

The Earl had to abandon the offensive and march to the coast where the Royal Navy could either reinforce or evacuate him. He finally selected the small coastal deep water port of Yorktown to be his base of operations.

In the meantime, General Sir Henry Clinton was very much afraid that the sizable French Army under the Command of the Comte de Rochambeau and General Washington's Army were about to attack New York City. He was so convinced of this that he requested Cornwallis to send 2,000 of his men back to New York.

At Yorktown, Cornwallis found himself completely surrounded, with no retreat route. He simply had to wait on the fleet to arrive. It was not to be. The French Admiral Count de Grasse intervened, and defeated the Royal Navy. General Cornwallis was trapped. In short order Washington and Rochambeau arrived and besieged Yorktown, which surrendered on October 17th, 1781.

Rather than endure the humiliation of surrendering his sword to General Washington, he sent a message with his second in command, General Charles O'Hara explaining he was ill.

Two months later Lord Cornwallis was on board a ship bound for England after being exchanged for Henry Laurens, former President of the Continental Congress. who had been captured at sea while enroute to Holland to negotiate a treaty.

In the years that followed, the public debate raged between Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton. Each blamed the other for the loss of the American colonies, but in the end Cornwallis was apparently judged innocent by the Government. In 1785, he was appointed to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia as an envoy. And the following year, 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.

As Governor General of India, he set about a series of much needed reforms that would bear his name, the 'Cornwallis Reforms'. In 1793, Cornwallis once again set sail for England, arriving in 1794. King George III rewarded him for his successes in India by being given the title of Marquis. In 1795 he entered back into a more mainstream political life style. 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. He subdued the rebellion led by Wolfe Tone, and on the on the political side he developed the parliamentary union with Ireland and Britain.

Cornwallis' health was failing, so he chose to retire to his country estate after years of dedicated service to King and Country. But in 1805, problems in India required him once more to be named as Governor General. A few months after arriving in India, he succumbed to a fever, dying on October 5th, 1805 at Ghazipur. To honor his achievements in India a large monument was erected at Ghazipur, overlooking the Ganges River.


Honoring the memory of Charles, Earl of Cornwallis, a massive monument was erected in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, directly opposite the like monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson. It is depicted above. You will not find monuments to the other British Lieutenant Generals that served in the American Revolution. General John Burgoyne is buried at Westminster Abbey, but his monument is merely a flat stone in the floor of the North Cloister stating: "John Burgoyne 1722-1792". Generals Sir Thomas Gage, Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton have no monuments commemorating their service.

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