Charles Cornwallis led several successful early campaigns during the American Revolution, securing British victories at New York, Brandywine and Camden. In 1781, as second in command to Gen. Henry Clinton, he moved his forces to Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Yorktown. This American victory and Cornwallis’ surrender of his troops to George Washington was the final major conflict of the American Revolution.
The eldest son of the first earl Cornwallis, Charles Cornwallis saw military service in Germany during the Seven Years’ War, fighting at Minden (1759). He became major general in 1775, served under Sir Henry Clinton during the American Revolution in the successful campaign to capture New York (1776), and led the pursuit across New Jersey.
Although surprised by George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and outmaneuvered at the Battle of Princeton (January 3, 1777), he outflanked Washington’s defensive position at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777). Promoted to lieutenant general and second in command of the army in America in 1778, Cornwallis played a major role in command of the British rear guard in the inconclusive Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (June 28, 1778). Second in command when Clinton captured Charleston in May 1780, Cornwallis was left in command in the South when Clinton departed for New York on June 8. He defeated Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden (August 16): American militia had proven unable to confront British regulars, and North Carolina was left exposed to the British. Cornwallis felt that he should conquer North Carolina, but he was delayed by sick troops, the enervating summer heat, and partisan attacks on his supply lines. His invasion of North Carolina in September 1780 was cut short by the defeat of subordinate Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain (October 7).
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In early 1781, unable to control South Carolina in the face of a vicious local war waged by American partisans, Cornwallis again thought of moving north to cut American supplies and drive back their regular forces, leading to the settlement of the South. On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis defeated Nathanael Greene at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina with about two thousand men, but this was no rout, and over one-quarter of the earl’s force were casualties.
On May 13, 1781, the British crossed the Roanoke. Cornwallis marched to the Chesapeake to seek a decisive battle in Virginia and to cover the Carolinas. However, lack of Loyalist support made the conquest of Virginia impossible, and Cornwallis instead established his army in an unfortified, low-lying, poor defensive position at Yorktown. He was surprised by the buildup of American and French military and, crucially, naval strength. Besieged by land, he could not be relieved by sea because of the strength of the French navy, and on October 18, 1781, the British army at Yorktown surrendered.
Cornwallis’s reputation did not suffer as it should have from this defeat. He was sent on a special mission to Frederick the Great in 1785 and appointed governor-general and commander in chief in India in 1786, a post he held until 1794. He reformed the organization of the East India Company, emphasizing the need for officers to understand native languages and customs. After the unsatisfactory 1790 campaign against Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Cornwallis took personal charge of the war. He sought a methodical invasion of Mysore and in 1791 stormed Bangalore. It was too near the rainy season to attempt a siege of Tipu’s capital, Seringapatam, but in 1792 Cornwallis did so, forcing Tipu to surrender and cede much of his territory. As commander in chief and governor-general of Ireland (1797-1801), Cornwallis defeated the Irish rebellion and the limited French invasion of 1798.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.