Charles Cornwallis was a British army officer who served as a general during the Revolutionary War (also known as the American Revolution). He led British forces to success in New York and Philadelphia before moving to the war’s southern theater in 1780. Despite suffering a crushing defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, Cornwallis had a celebrated post-war career, serving as governor general of India and lord lieutenant of Ireland.
Early Life and Military Career
Cornwallis was born on December 31, 1738, in London, England, into an aristocratic family with a distinguished military pedigree. His own military career began in earnest during the Seven Years’ War when he traveled to Germany and initially served as an aide-de-camp on the staff of the Marquess of Granby. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a regimental commander in 1761 and earning a citation for bravery for his performance in the Battle of Vellinghausen.
With his father’s death in 1762, Cornwallis was elevated to become the 2nd Earl of Cornwallis and took his father’s seat in the House of Lords in Parliament. Amid rising tensions between Britain and its North American colonies, Cornwallis voted against the Stamp Act and other British policies that antagonized the colonists. Despite this, he volunteered to command British troops once the Revolutionary War began in April 1775.
Early Battles of the Revolutionary War
Promoted to the rank of major general, Cornwallis left for North America in early 1776 and arrived in the Carolinas that May to reinforce the British southern expedition led by General Henry Clinton. After British forces failed to take Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston, South Carolina, Cornwallis and Clinton headed north to join the forces of General William Howe in New York.
With Howe leading and Cornwallis in command of reserve troops, the British defeated American forces led by General George Washington in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. Cornwallis, who often risked his own life by visibly leading his men on the battlefield, helped rout Patriot defenders at Kips Bay in mid-September when the British landed on the island of Manhattan. In November, he led a British detachment over the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey, taking the fort, cannons, ammunition and supplies after a hasty American evacuation.
After pursuing the Continental forces across New Jersey throughout November and December, Cornwallis and the British were caught off guard by Washington’s surprise attack on Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Eve and another American victory at Princeton in early January 1777. Cornwallis spent the winter in England but returned for the spring campaign, later aiding in the British victory in the Battle of Brandywine (September 1777) and the capture of Philadelphia two weeks later.
British Campaign in the South
In 1780, with the war in the north having reached a virtual stalemate, the British refocused on their southern campaign, counting on a larger number of Loyalists among the southern colonists. Promoted to lieutenant general, Cornwallis became Clinton’s second-in-command, but their relationship soon deteriorated. After a three-month-long siege, Charleston fell on May 12, 1780, in the most significant British victory of the war.
Clinton soon left for New York, leaving Cornwallis to secure South Carolina for the British. That August, Cornwallis’ forces defeated American troops led by General Horatio Gates at Camden.
But the surrounding region proved more difficult to pacify than Cornwallis expected, as many colonists resisted the order to pledge loyalty to the Crown.
The tide of war began to turn against the British soon after General Nathanael Greene succeeded Gates in charge of American forces in the south. Forces led by Cornwallis’ subordinates met defeat in the Battle of King’s Mountain (October 1780) and the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).
Defeat in the Battle of Yorktown
Cornwallis pursued Greene’s army, clashing in the indecisive Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March and suffering heavy losses. From there, he took his army into Virginia, capturing Richmond and Charlottesville, before heading toward the coast to establish a naval base on the Chesapeake Bay. Continental forces led by the Marquis de Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne pursued the British to their eventual destination, Yorktown, while a large French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte de Grasse approached the coast.
Surrounded and under siege, with his planned escape route blocked by French ships, Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army of 8,000 British troops on October 17. Claiming illness prevented him from meeting Washington to surrender his sword, Cornwallis sent his second-in-command, Charles O’Hara, in his place. The British defeat at Yorktown effectively ended hostilities in the Revolutionary War, resulting in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which recognized the independence of the United States.
Post-War Career in India and Ireland
Back in England, Cornwallis was greeted as a hero, though he weathered criticisms from Clinton and others for his defeat at Yorktown. His post-war career showcased how the British Empire bounced back from the loss of its North American colonies. Cornwallis served as governor-general of India from 1786-93 and led a military campaign that helped consolidate British control of the southern region of India.
Appointed lord lieutenant and commander of chief of Ireland in 1798, he commanded British troops to victory against an invading French force and survived an assassination attempt in Dublin in 1799. Cornwallis returned to India for a second term as governor-general in 1805, but died shortly after his arrival and was buried in Calcutta.
Charles Cornwallis. American Battlefield Trust.
Charles Cornwallis. National Park Service.
Gordon Wood. The American Revolution: A History (Random House, 2002)