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 of New 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 on Charles Cornwallis

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 Biography Sources

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