General Cornwallis

Portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1795

General Cornwallis remains one of Britian’s most debated military commanders.

Lord General Charles Cornwallis was born on New Year’s Eve 1738, the eldest son to the first Earl Cornwallis. He went to school at Eton, which in those days was literally a school of hard knocks. He left school with a good education and a permanent tilt to his left eye, a result of a blow from a hockey stick.

In 1756, Charles purchased an Ensign’s commission in the British Army. At the time, Britain possessed no military academies, and the young Cornwallis went to a military school in Northern Italy. His stay there was short, as several months later, the Seven Years War broke out. Cornwallis left Italy and served with distinction in the war, first as a staff officer and later as a Lt. Colonel of the 12th Foot Regiment.

With parts of the war still playing out, Cornwallis was forced to return home due to the death of his father in 1762. Cornwallis inherited everything, including the title as Earl Cornwallis and a seat in the house of Lords. During this time, Cornwallis fell in love and married Jemima Jones. He also became friends with King George III, though the two often disagreed over the situation with the American colonies. Lord Cornwallis was sympathetic to the colonies and was one of the few Lords who often voted against the heavy taxes, including the famous Stamp Act, that were levied on the colonies.

Still, when the first shots were fired in the American War of Independence, Cornwallis accepted a commission as a Major General in the British Army. Most of his early action occurred in the north, helping achieve victories at the battles of Long Island, Brandywine, and Monmouth. He returned to England in 1779, only to find his wife deathly ill. When she passed away a short-time later, Cornwallis decided to return to the war in America.

When Charleston fell to the British in May 1780, General Cornwallis was given command of all British forces in the American south. Soon thereafter, he started on an ambitious campaign to subdue South and North Carolina and eventually attack the Continental forces in Virginia. The campaign began with an overwhelming British victory at the battle of Camden, but soon the situation deteriorated. Cornwallis greatly underestimated the effect of partisan forces and soon found all his movements hampered and harassed by small bands of enemy fighters, such as the one lead by Francis Marian, the Swamp Fox.

Still, Cornwallis marched his army onward, attacking the Colonial forces wherever he could find them. He fought a series of battles against General Nathaniel Greene as he pushed on through North Carolina. Although he emerged victorious, his army was so bloodied by the constant battles and partisan harassment, Cornwallis decided it was too dangerous to return to Charleston and made for the port at Yorktown, Virginia hoping to be re-supplied by sea. Unfortunately, the navy that appeared off the coast belonged to the French, and soon Cornwallis found himself trapped between the French at Sea and the Colonial Army under George Washington on land. On October 17, Cornwallis surrendered and effectively ended the war.

Lord Cornwallis returned to England, and like so many generals before and after, became engaged in a public finger-pointing match over the responsibility for the defeat. Eventually, his reputation recovered and he was appointed the Governor General to India in 1786. There he spent many years successfully reforming the administration and leading the campaigns that gave the British victory in the Third Mysore War. In 1798 he was sent to Ireland where he successfully quelled a rebellion. Soon thereafter, he was sent back to India, but died shortly after his arrival. His gravestone rests in Ghazipore, India, marked October 5, 1805.