Revolutionary War Historical Article
King George III's Soldiers
Brigadier General Charles O'Hara
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the Nov/Dec 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
General Charles O'Hara is best remembered in American History as the British Officer who substituted for Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis at the surrender of the British Army at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.
His family background is most interesting, but we must give it an "R" rating. His grandfather, Sir Charles O'Hara, came from obscure origins and served with William III in Flanders and then with the Duke of Ormonde at Vigo, and several III campaigns in the late 1600's. He earned the rank of General and was honored with a Baronage, "Tyrawley" on January 10th, 1706. He became the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Ireland. He died on June 9th, 1724.
His son, James, Charles's father, also made the military a career. He served with his father in Spain, and with the Duke of Marlborough in the Low Countries. He became a Colonel in the Royal Fusiliers and the Coldstream Guards. He married Mary Stewart, the daughter of Viscount Mountjoy, but had no children. His extra-marital affairs did produce offspring. According to Horace Walpole who wrote about him: "Upon Tyrawley's return from his thirteen-year stint as envoy extraordinary to Portugal, My Lord Tyrawley is come from Portugal and has brought three wives and fourteen children, one of the former is a Portuguese with long black hair plaited down to the bottom of her back". This women was probably Dona Anna, presumed to be the mother of Charles. When James died in 1774, his title went extinct not having a legitimate heir.
His son, Charles, was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1740. He was sent to the Westminster School in London. On December 23rd 1752, at age twelve, his father bought him a commission as an Ensign in the 8th Regiment of Foot, then a Cornet's Commission in the 3rd Dragoons. In January of 1756, at age 16, he was appointed Lieutenant and Captain of his father's regiment, the 2nd Coldstream Foot Guards. After the battle of Minden, he joined the staff of the Marquess of Grandy, in Germany, There he befriended two other young officers, Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis.
After the end of the Seven Years War, he was assigned to various regiments, including one in Africa. He came' back to England in 1776, as the American Revolution had started in earnest.
He was sent to New York and served on Lord William Howe's staff. His primary assignment was the exchange of prisoners of war. He sailed with General Howe and participated in the capture of Philadelphia and the occupation of that city. He was one of the four officers assigned to manage the now famous going away party of General Howe "The Mischianza". He was well known for his hospitality. When Sir Henry Clinton replaced placed General Howe as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army on North America he immediately promoted his friend Charles O’Hara to the rank of Brigadier General. He was still assigned to administrative duty, but apparently tired of them and went back to England in February of 1779.
In October 1780 he was back in America serving with General Alexander Leslie, bringing reinforcements to Lord Cornwallis. They arrived at Cornwallis' encampment at Winnsboro, South Carolina on January 18th, 1781, just as news of the disastrous defeat at Cowpens reached Lord Cornwallis.
The next day, Cornwallis, now deprived of his fast strike force commanded by Colonel Bannister Tarleton, most of whom were killed, wounded or prisoners after Cowpens, decided that his entire army would pursue General Nathanael Greene. To accomplish this he had all of the baggage burned. O'Hara was assigned to command the vanguard and set out in hot pursuit. He held that position until the battle of Guilford Courthouse. On April 20th, 1781, He wrote a letter to the Duke of Grafton "without baggage, necessaries or provisions of any sort for officer or soldier, in the most barren, inhospitable unhealthy part of North America, opposed to the most savage inveterate, perfidious, cruel enemy, with zeal and bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene's army to the end of the world".
O'Hara's command, leading the pursuit was in constant skirmishes with Greene's troops. At Cowan's Ford, O'Hara personally led a charge through waist high water in the face of stiff American musket and rifle fire. His horse was shot out from under him and he tumbled some 40 yards downstream before he was rescued.
Cornwallis finally caught up with Greene at Guilford Courthouse, and surely wishes he hadn't. At the very beginning of this vicious battle, O'Hara was wounded in the chest. He relinquished his command to Colonel Stuart, who was killed shortly thereafter. O'Hara, nursing a severe wound, resumed command. He was again wounded, in the thigh. Lord Cornwallis mentioned him in his dispatches: “the zeal and spirit of Brigadier General O'Hara merit my highest commendation for after receiving two dangerous wounds he continued in the field whilst the action lasted; by his earnest attention on all other occasions, seconded by the officers and soldiers of his brigade. His Majesty's Guards are no less distinguished by their order and discipline than by their spirit and valour.” Although suffering from his wounds, and the loss of his half brother, killed in action at Guilford, he managed to write another letter to the Duke of Groton. "I never did, and hope I never shall, experience two such days and nights as those immediately after the battle [Guilford], we remained in the very ground on which it had been fought cover'd with dead, with dying, and with hundreds of wounded, rebels as well as our own--- a violent and constant rain that lasted above forty hours made it equally impracticable to remove or administer the smallest comfort to many of the wounded. . . ." He went on to write: "I wish [the Battle of Guilford Courthouse] had produced one substantial benefit to Great Britain, on the contrary, we feel at this moment, the sad and fatal effects of our loss on that day. nearly one half of our best officers and soldiers were either killed or wounded, and that remains [those remaining?] are so completely worn out, that the spirit of our little army has evaporated a good deal."
Although many thought he would succumb to his wounds, he made a remarkable recovery and was back on duty that summer.
With the losses suffered at the defeat of Patrick Ferguson's force at King's Mountain, Banastre Tarleton’s force at Cowpens, and the negative impact of his victory at Guilford Courthouse, he [Cornwallis] was all but beaten. He led his army to Yorktown, hotly pursued by Nathanael Greene's army which was steadily being reinforced.
Finally after weeks of siege and the defeat of his relief force by the French Fleet under Admiral De Grasse, Lord Cornwallis was forced to accept the inevitable, and surrendered to General George Washington. For reasons never completely explained, Lord Cornwallis feigned illness at the surrender ceremony and had General O'Hara represent him. When Washington saw that it was Cornwallis' second in command making the formal surrender, he designated American Major General Benjamin Lincoln to represent him. Lincoln was forced to suffer the embarrassment of the surrender the America Southern Army at Charlestown the year before.
General O'Hara attempted to surrender to the commander of the French army, the Comte de Rochambeau, but the Comte directed him to General Washington, with a harsh: "There is the Commander of this army". He turned away from the line of French officers and faced the American. General Washington merely pointed to Major General Benjamin Lincoln.
After the surrender, O'Hara was put on parole and allowed to go back to the British held city of New York. The following month, November, he was promoted to Major General - obviously, like Lord Cornwallis, the Crown did not blame him for the defeat at Yorktown. On February 9th, 1782, he was exchanged for American Brigadier General Lachlan McIntoch (1725-1806) who was captured at Charleston with General Lincoln. After being exchanged, he resumed active duty and led an expeditionary force consisting of the 19th and 30th Regiment of Foot to the West Indies to reinforce the Islands against the French and Spanish. After several months of inactivity he returned to England and assumed command of a new Regiment, the 22nd Regiment of Foot.
Like many 18th century gentlemen, who often outspent their income by gambling and high living, Charles O'Hara was no exception. To avoid his creditors he 'went-on-tour' of the continent. While in Italy he met and courted popular writer Mary Berry. After several proposals of marriage, she continually turned him down, but still admired him. She wrote in her journal: " . . . the most perfect specimen of a soldier and a courtier of the past age. "
With the help of Lord Cornwallis, O'Hara straightened out his finances, and came back to England in 1785. Cornwallis, who had accepted the Governorship of India offered him a position there, but it appears that O'Hara was tired of assignments in far off places. Instead he accepted the post of commandant of the Garrison at Gibraltar. He held that post until 1791, when he was promoted to Lieutenant Governor of Gibraltar. When the war broke out with Revolutionary France, he was promoted to Lieutenant General and made a military governor of Toulon. Shortly after taking the command, the French army besieged the city. Probably remembering the strictly defensive tactics Lord Cornwallis took at Yorktown, he went on the offensive, even though he was outnumbered two-to-one. With 2,300 soldiers he surprised and captured the main French redoubt and artillery. The French rallied and cut off their retreat to the city. During the action, O'Hara was wounded and captured. His captor was a French junior officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. He was exchanged in August 1795, ironically for the son of the Comte de Rochambeau, the French General O'Hara tried to surrender to at Yorktown.
He returned to England, but the wound he had received never healed properly and he suffered for it for the rest of his life. He resumed his courtship of Mary Berry, and actually became engaged, but she refused to go with him when he was again posted to Gibraltar. Sir Henry Clinton was given the post first, but was too ill to accept it and died shortly thereafter - 1795.
O'Hara was a very popular Governor of Gibraltar and was soon nicknamed "Cock-of-the-rock". Many references to his governorship comment about the lavish parties he hosted and the archaic manner of his dress, echoing more the style of the mid-18th century, than the turn of the century.
During his governorship he had an observation tower and artillery position built on top of the famed rock at 1,408 feet. It was named for him, "O'Hara's Battery". Also there is a street named after him.
Overcoming the rejection of Mary Berry, O'Hara took up with two local women. He married neither. He did father a number of children by them. It is also apparent that he learned his lesson about his personal finances, for when he died on February 21st, 1802, he was worth 70,000 pounds sterling. He willed that the money be placed in trust for his four illegitimate children, and gave 7,000 pounds worth of valuable commemorative plate to his black servant.
He was one of two governors of Gibraltar who are buried there. He was interned in the King's Chapel and a memorial plaque is still exhibited. His obituary in The Gentlemen's Magazine read: "The General's death is much felt and lamented in Gibraltar. Few men possessed so happy a combination of rare talents. He was a brave and enterprising soldier, a strict disciplinarian, and a polite accomplished gentleman." We Americans remember him as the general whose surrender guaranteed our independence.