Cornwallis, Charles

views updated May 18 2018

Cornwallis, Charles

CORNWALLIS, CHARLES. (1738–1805). First marquess Cornwallis, British general and governor general of India. Charles Cornwallis was born in London on 31 December 1738. He was at Eton in 1753 and matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge, at Easter 1756. However, he chose the army over the university. On 8 December 1756 he obtained an ensign's commission in the First Foot Guards and in 1757 took leave to travel in Europe with a Prussian officer companion and study at the Turin military academy. He broke off his tour to join Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, to whose army his regiment had been assigned. He was aide-de-camp to the marquess of Granby, served at Minden in 1759, and in August became a captain in the Eighty-fifth Foot. In June 1761 he became lieutenant colonel of the Twelfth Foot, and he distinguished himself at Kirch Denkern on 15 July. In 1762 he was at Wilhelmstadt and Lutterberg. By the end of the Seven Years' War he was known as an experienced and able soldier, albeit one who had never held high command.

He had been member of Parliament for the family pocket borough of Eye in Suffolk since 1760 and moved to the House of Lords on the death of his father, the first earl Cornwallis, in 1762. Ever wary of executive power, he allied with the Rockingham Whigs and supported John Wilkes. In 1765 he voted against the Stamp Act and, when Rockingham came to power later that year, he was rewarded by being made aide-de-camp to the king and a lord of the bedchamber. He supported the repeal of the Stamp Act and a bill banning general warrants in 1766 but voted against the Declaratory Act. A close friend and former comrade in arms of Shelburne, in 1766 he obtained from the Chatham ministry the post of chief justice in eyre south of the Trent. In 1769 he exchanged this post for the vice treasurership of Ireland; in 1770 he joined the Privy Council, and in 1771 he became constable of the Tower of London. In short, while he was too principled to be a successful politician, his integrity had the respect of the king and of others who disliked his views on America.

He was also beginning to find domesticity more attractive than active political life or high military command. On 14 July 1768 he married Jemima Tulkiens (1747–1779). They had two children, Mary (1769–1857) and Charles (1774–1823). Thus, when war broke out in America, his sense of duty to the crown had to be weighed against his family life as well as his objections to the way the American question had been handled.


However, his views did not extend to sanctioning rebellion, and in the end, duty came before family. When war broke out in 1775, he at once sought military employment and was promoted to major general. He sailed form Cork in charge of ten regiments on 12 February 1776 under the escort of a squadron commanded by Sir Peter Parker. Their orders were to meet Henry Clinton at the Cape Fear River and from there to take action against the southern colonies, which the ministry wrongly supposed to harbor sufficient Loyalists to make the restoration of royal authority relatively easy. They were then to move north to reinforce Howe in New York. On top of the misconception about the southern Loyalists, the plan assumed that there would be time to reach Howe early in the campaigning season and made no allowance for Cornwallis's and Parker's late arrival. In fact, their last ship did not anchor at Cape Fear until 31 May. By then the southern Loyalists had been defeated and were unable to make contact with the expedition. After a failed attempt on Charleston, the combined force rejoined Howe on Staten Island in August, having succeeded only in delaying the assault on New York until dangerously late in the season.


Before the month was out, Cornwallis was in action. He and Clinton led the troops that landed on Long Island on 22 August, and during the battle of the 27th he commanded the reserve division that swept through Jamaica Pass in the wake of Clinton's men. Later he blocked the retreat of the Americans' right wing and repelled their successive attempts to break through. He led the Kips Bay assault on 15 September, took part in the attack on Fort Washington, and on 18 November narrowly missed capturing the fleeing garrison of Fort Lee. He then led the pursuit of Washington across New Jersey, through pouring rain along roads deep in mud. Forced to rest his exhausted troops at New Brunswick on the Raritan, he reached the Delaware to find Washington safely across, no boats on the British side, and winter closing in. Even Cornwallis, ever a bold and aggressive commander, could not contemplate a winter campaign in such conditions.

Cornwallis had supported Howe's slowness and caution throughout the 1776 campaign and approved of Howe's decision on 13 December to go into winter quarters. But he did not want to draw right back to the Raritan as Howe wanted. Now Cornwallis's bold streak came to the fore as he persuaded his chief to leave outposts along the Delaware with a supporting base twenty-five miles back at New Brunswick. His argument had some merit in it. Politically, the presence of British troops would encourage New Jersey Loyalists to commit themselves openly. Militarily, the risk of a major American counter-offensive was miniscule, and logistically the wider area of occupation could furnish supplies that would otherwise have to come from Britain.

Where Cornwallis and Howe went wrong was in supposing that Washington would not launch winter raids against one or more of the Delaware posts and destroy them in detail—as he soon did at Trenton and Princeton. Cornwallis's embarrassment was compounded by his failure on 22 January 1777 to trap Washington after he had pinned him against the river at Trenton, a rare tactical failure that may have obscured his partial responsibility for the strategic error. The consequences were grave. The rebel army had been encouraged at the very moment it seemed about to disintegrate. The British army retired to the safer line of the Raritan, abandoning the local Loyalists, encouraging the rebels, and losing much of the supply base Howe and Cornwallis had hoped to establish. The royal army at New York was to be dependent on transatlantic convoys for everything from flints to firewood for the remainder of the war.

For the rest of the winter and into the spring, Cornwallis was engaged in minor skirmishes around New Brunswick. After a short period of home leave he returned to take part in the abortive attempt to lure Washington into battle at Short Hills (26 June 1777). Having witnessed the failure to engage the American army in New Jersey, Cornwallis approved of Howe's plan to attack Philadelphia, and on 27 September he distinguished himself in leading the enveloping movement at Brandywine. He occupied Philadelphia, brought three battalions to reinforce Howe at Germantown on 4 October, forced the evacuation of Fort Mercer on 21 November, and had a brush with Washington's van at Matson's Ford on 11 December. With the end of the campaigning season he was allowed to go home on leave.


He returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1778 as a lieutenant general and Clinton's second in command and prospective successor. On 28 June he took a leading role in repelling the American army at Monmouth, personally leading the counterattack on Nathanael Greene's men. In December 1778 he again went on leave, this time to attend his dying wife. He returned at the end of 1779 in time to take part in the planning and execution of the expedition against Charleston. With the surrender of the city on 12 May 1780, he was left behind to secure Georgia and South Carolina. He was not to launch any northward offensive that might imperil this primary task. Cornwallis's subsequent operations, culminating in the overwhelming victory over Gates's superior numbers at Camden on 16 August, wrecked almost all American resistance. Cornwallis raised thousands of Loyalist militia and began to reorganize South Carolina into the American supply base the British army had lacked since 1775.

He had not, however, removed the danger of partisan action, as illustrated by Patrick Ferguson's disaster at King's Mountain on 7 October, nor the possibility of renewed invasion from North Carolina. The Loyalist militia seemed more intent on settling old scores than on providing security, and its soldiers struck Cornwallis as little more than disorderly "banditti." He argued that the answer was to keep up the momentum of success by overrunning both North Carolina and Virginia. He could then link up with Clinton on the Chesapeake and launch a joint attack on the middle colonies. By contrast, sitting still would allow the enemy to recover, expose his South Carolina posts and logistical base to attrition, and hand the initiative to the Americans. Pleading that Clinton was too distant to direct his operations, he obtained permission to correspond directly with London and used that consent to persuade the ministry to back his strategy.


King's Mountain temporarily deflected him from his expedition to secure his rear, and a sober consideration of his resources might have led him to do the same after Cowpens on 17 January 1781. Instead he invaded North Carolina, chased Greene all the way to the Dan without catching him, and scored an indecisive victory at Guilford Courthouse on 15 March. He then retired to Wilmington on the Cape Fear River, where he could be supplied by sea. But instead of staying there, or—better still—retreating to South Carolina, he struck into Virginia. When Clinton found out, he was displeased but accepted the fait accompli; subsequently, however, he demanded three thousand men to help defend New York. Cornwallis, who thought that success in Virginia was worth even the loss of New York, was dismayed. Deciding that he could not sustain himself in the Yorktown Peninsula with a depleted force, Cornwallis retired across the James River, inflicting a defeat on Lafayette at Green Spring on 6 July. At the last moment Clinton, under direct orders from Germain, allowed him to keep all his men and ordered him to set up a base at Old Point Comfort, incorporating Yorktown if it would strengthen the main position. Thus Clinton's weakness and Germain's interference bought Cornwallis back into the Yorktown Peninsula, where he would be trapped.

Cornwallis, deciding that Old Point Comfort would be hard to defend, confined himself to Yorktown and Gloucester, just across the York River. By 22 August he was in position and looking for reinforcement by sea. Thanks to De Grasse's occupation of Chesapeake Bay, it never came. When Graves approached the Bay in September, he found the French fleet and decided to fight De Grasse on the open sea. When Barras arrived, De Grasse became so strong that Graves could not hope to dislodge him. Washington and Lafayette joined hands on 14 October and proceeded to batter their way into Cornwallis's defenses. On 19 October 1781, seeing his position no longer defensible and with no hope of rescue by sea, Cornwallis surrendered.


Yorktown did not end Britain's capacity to carry on the war. Only around five thousand men were lost there, and the main British army in America was still intact at New York. The French navy's local superiority was only temporary. The real blow was struck at London's willingness to carry on. The North ministry was forced out of office in 1782 and the new Rockingham administration began peace talks in Paris. Not all the responsibility belonged to Cornwallis: Yorktown followed from the ministry's dispersal of force in the face of a potentially more numerous enemy and its faulty assumption about the strength of Loyalist support in the South. However, the Americans were at the end of their tether in 1781 and a more cautious commander might not only have saved his army but witnessed a British triumph. Cornwallis took great care of his men and was popular amongst them; on the battlefield he was formidable. Unfortunately, he combined these qualities with a bold, imaginative, and fatally flawed strategic sense.


Yet Cornwallis, unlike Burgoyne after Saratoga, was hardly blamed at all. Allowed home on parole, he was offered (and refused) the governor generalship of India in May 1782. Shortly afterwards he was formally exchanged for Henry Laurens. He resigned as constable of the Tower after his friend Shelburne lost office in December 1783 but soon resumed the post's purely military duties. He rejected Pitt's and Dundas's renewed offer of India in 1784, but they approached him yet again when a vacancy occurred in 1785. Cornwallis was attracted, but mindful of the problems brought by divided command in America and probably aware of where weak central control had left Warren Hastings, he insisted on being empowered to override his council and being commander in chief. These requests being granted, Cornwallis accepted in February 1786.

In his seven years' tenure, Cornwallis attacked widespread corruption (though at the cost of weakening Indian participation in administration), separated the administrative and commercial wings of the company's service, and began to Anglicize the Bengal law courts and legal system. In 1791–1792 he demonstrated his logistical and tactical skills in the war against Tipu Sultan of Mysore but wisely avoided totally destroying his principality.


After his Indian term expired in 1793, Cornwallis became master of the ordnance with a seat in the cabinet (1795) and lord lieutenant of Ireland (1797). Arriving in the wake of the great rebellion, he was determined to create peace within Ireland and encourage Irish acceptance of British rule. The key, as he saw it, was Catholic emancipation, and the great obstacle was the implacable opposition of the Protestant establishment to Catholic domination of the Irish Parliament. He therefore wanted to abolish the Irish Parliament and replace it with representation at Westminster—a solution acceptable to Catholics only if it came with emancipation. Consequently, he was very unhappy with Pitt's refusal explicitly to include emancipation in the Act of Union (1800) and also with the corrupt practices needed to persuade the Irish assembly to vote itself out of existence. In 1805 he returned to India as governor general and died there on 5 October 1805.

SEE ALSO Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Camden Campaign; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Chesapeake Capes; Clinton, Henry; Cowpens, South Carolina; Ferguson, Patrick; Fort Lee, New Jersey; Fort Washington, New York; Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Green Spring (Jamestown Ford, Virginia); Greene, Nathanael; Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Kings Mountain, South Carolina; Kip's Bay, New York; Long Island, New York, Battle of; Matson's Ford, Pennsylvania; Parker, Sir Peter; Princeton, New Jersey; Short Hills (Metuchen), New Jersey; Trenton, New Jersey; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.


Bowler, R. A. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in North America, 1775–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.

Wickwire, F. B., and M. B. Wickwire. Cornwallis and the War of Independence. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

                              revised by John Oliphant

Charles Cornwallis

views updated May 21 2018

Charles Cornwallis

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), was a British soldier and statesman. Although remembered best because of his defeat at Yorktown in the American Revolution, Cornwallis was more often successful in his military activities in India and Ireland.

The Cornwallis family traced its roots to the 14th century in England and its titles back to Stuart times. Charles Cornwallis was educated at Eton, received his ensign's commission in the Grenadier Guards in 1756, then briefly attended a military academy at Turin. During the Seven Years War he participated in many engagements on the Continent. His rise to positions of military and political influence was rapid: he went to the House of Commons from the family borough in 1760, became a lieutenant colonel of the 12th Regiment the following year, and upon the death of his father the next year joined the Lords as the 2d Earl Cornwallis.

In the years of peace Cornwallis was a friend and supporter of Lord Shelburne. Critical of ministerial harshness toward the Colonies, he associated with the Whig peers. Nevertheless, he enjoyed favor at the court: the earl was made constable of the Tower of London in 1770 and promoted to major general 5 years later.

American Revolution

Even though he had opposed Lord North's American policy, Cornwallis was trusted with the command of reinforcements sent to Gen. William Howe in 1776. He participated in the New York campaign and in the occupation ofNew Jersey. His failure to catch George Washington at this time and later before the Battle of Princeton led to some criticism by Sir Henry Clinton and a feeling that Cornwallis was too cocksure. In 1777 Cornwallis commanded one of Howe's divisions in the Battle of Brandywine. When Clinton took command in the American theater, Cornwallis rapidly became disgruntled over his limited policy. Relations between the two generals were complicated by the fact that Cornwallis held a dormant commission as Clinton's successor; Clinton regarded this as a threat to his position. Thus the two generals were hardly happy companions in arms, and Cornwallis in pique submitted his resignation just as Clinton tried to do. In 1778 Cornwallis commanded one of the forces in the Battle of Monmouth during Clinton's retreat from Philadelphia. For much of the succeeding year he was in England attending to his dying wife.

In mid-1780 after the siege of Charleston, S.C., Cornwallis received a semi-independent command in the southern states. Nominally still subordinate to Clinton, he was at such a distance from his commander and enjoyed such political favor with George Sackville Germaine (the English secretary of state for the Colonies) in London that he could conduct operations without worrying about restrictions from above. The consequence was Cornwallis's march through the Carolinas—with some real victories, as at Camden, and some Pyrrhic ones—that ultimately led him to Yorktown. His notion was that the best defense of British reconquests in the south was an offensive against Virginia. Lacking sufficient troops, subject to conflicting whims, failing to rally the great loyalist support he had hoped for, and using every loophole in his orders from Clinton and Germaine, he was responsible for the loss of about one-quarter of the British forces in America when he surrendered his command to Washington in October 1781. Cornwallis surrendered in bad grace: he was "sick" and absent from the public ceremonies. While he has had later defenders of his American conduct, Cornwallis undertook far too ambitious a campaign for the means at his disposal and left the British cause in the south in disastrous condition.

In India

Yet Cornwallis's political connections and personal standing were high enough so that he was quickly given new and greater responsibilities. After repeated refusals, he was persuaded to accept the post of governor general of Bengal in early 1786. And in India he was successful enough both as a reform administrator and military leader to acquire a reputation as one of the foremost builders of British rule in Asia. He tried to reduce the corruption endemic in the services of the India Company and to improve the quality of the company's European levies or to reduce English dependence upon them. He was reasonably successful in improving the civil administration, less successful in devising a permanent system for collecting land revenues, and not at all successful in improving the quality of the company's troops. Nonetheless, compelled by threats from Tippoo, Sultan of Mysore, to turn away from his avowed policy of nonintervention in the relations of the native states, Cornwallis led a triumphant army in the Third Mysore War (1790-1792). While he stopped short of total victory, Cornwallis compelled the cession of much of Tippoo's territory and payment of a large indemnity and effectively eliminated this threat to the company's power.

Returning to England, Cornwallis was rewarded with the title of marquess. He subsequently was widely used as a diplomatic and military troubleshooter. He served in Flanders trying to coordinate efforts against the French and next in the Cabinet, preparing England against an expected French invasion, and then was ready to set off for India against as governor general. Compromise in India and new threats from Ireland changed his direction. As the Irish troubles deepened, Cornwallis was called to act as viceroy and commander in chief of British forces there. In mid-1798 he disrupted the plans of Irish rebels, compelled the surrender of a small French invading force, and pacified the countryside with—for the time and place—a moderate policy of punishing only the rebel ringleaders. He then sought reforms for Ireland which would prevent future outbreaks. He proposed Catholic emancipation and the abolition of the unrepresentative Irish Parliament in favor of an Act of Union with Great Britain itself. While Cornwallis—with the free use of bribery—was able to push the Act of Union through the Irish Parliament, he was unable to gain royal acquiescence to Catholic emancipation in Ireland and resigned in protest.

Still Cornwallis continued his services to the government. He was British plenipotentiary during the negotiations at Amiens that led to the brief peace of 1802-1803 with France. Then, in 1805, he was sent off again to Bengal; he died shortly after his arrival. A gentleman born to wealth and influence, he had possessed a sense of duty that led him to serve his country well for many years.

Further Reading

The standard source on Cornwallis's life is Charles Ross, ed., Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis (3 vols., 1859). Evaluations of Cornwallis's American activities are found in books dealing with military aspects of the American Revolution. Especially recommended are Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964), and William B. Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (1964). For another aspect of Cornwallis's career see W.S. Seton-Karr, The Marquess Cornwallis and the Consolidation of British Rule (1890), vol. 9 of Rulers of India.

Additional Sources

Wickwire, Franklin B., Cornwallis, the imperial years, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. □

Cornwallis, Charles

views updated May 23 2018

Cornwallis, Charles (1738–1805), British soldier.Favored with distinguished ancestry and a good education, Cornwallis rose rapidly in the British army. By age twenty‐nine, he was colonel of the 33rd Regiment, having performed with éclat in Europe during the Seven Years' War. In the Revolutionary War, with Henry Clinton at Charleston in June 1776, he joined Sir William Howe in New York for the Battle of Long Island, 7 August, and a series of campaigns in New Jersey in the winter of 1776–77. In 1777, he campaigned in Pennsylvania, and performed well at Monmouth, 28 June 1778. He served under Clinton at the capture of Charleston on 12 May 1780. Although he and Clinton despised each other, Clinton nonetheless placed him in command in the South before returning to New York. Routing Horatio Gates at Camden on 16 August 1780, Cornwallis pursued Nathanael Greene into North Carolina the following year, winning, but failing to destroy Greene's army. Ordered by Clinton to Virginia, and then entrapped at the battle of Yorktown because of his own lackluster performance, he surrendered on 19 October 1781. Back in England, Cornwallis blamed Clinton for the disaster. Later, he redeemed his reputation by serving with distinction in India.


William B. Wilcox , Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, 1964.
Franklin and and Mary Wickwire , Cornwallis: The American Adventure, 1970.

Paul David Nelson

Cornwallis, Charles, 1st Marquis Cornwallis

views updated May 29 2018

Cornwallis, Charles, 1st Marquis Cornwallis (1738–1805). Soldier and administrator. Cornwallis served during the American War of Independence and from 1780 commanded the British forces in South Carolina. Though an able general, he was cut off at Yorktown by American forces and the French fleet. He was forced to surrender on 19 October 1781 thus ending the war. In 1786–93 Cornwallis acted as governor-general and commander of the army in Bengal. He introduced the permanent settlement, concerning landownership, and judicial and revenue reforms. He also gained victory over Tipu Sahib of Mysore at the battle of Arikera (13 May 1791) and concluded settlements with other native powers. In 1798 Cornwallis left for Ireland as lord-lieutenant and succeeded in subduing the Irish rebellion. He presided over the Act of Union (1800) but resigned a year later after the government's refusal to grant catholic emancipation. Cornwallis died on 5 October 1805 at Ghazipur shortly after resuming his former post in India.

Richard A. Smith

Cornwallis, Charles, 1st Marquess

views updated Jun 11 2018

Cornwallis, Charles, 1st Marquess (1738–1805) British general and statesman. In 1778 he became second in command of British forces in the American Revolution. His surrender at the Siege of Yorktown (1781) signalled the end of the war. As governor general of India (1786–93, 1805), he reformed the civil service and defeated Tipu Sahib of Mysore. Cornwallis resigned as viceroy of Ireland (1798–1801) after George III refused to accept the Act of Catholic Emancipation.

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