is a name that is inextricably linked with the British surrender at Yorktown and the end of the American Revolution in the popular imagination. Few think of him as more than a stand-in stereotypical upper-crust British big-wig who pretentiously overplayed his hand and lost. In the film The Patriot, he is depicted as a rather ineffectual clothing obsessed fop. But beyond the Online Movie Database, he was a much more multi-faceted and unique individual who prided himself on standing out from the crowd, and whose military abilities were far from paltry.
Cornwallis was a child of England’s hereditary nobility, and had the oldest family and bluest blood of any of the major British commanders who served during the American war. He was schooled at Eton a rough-and-tumble, make-a-gentleman-out-of-you-the-hard-way institution for upper-class lads. They worked hard and played hard in an atmosphere of almost electrically charged competition. Whilst involved in a heated game of hockey, the young Cornwallis got whacked in the face with a fellow player’s stick. The bearer of said stick would go on to become the Anglican Bishop of Durham. (I suppose he was preparing to teach people to turn the other cheek!). Poor Cornwallis wound up with a permanently damaged left eye, which tended to wander out of focus, leaving him slightly visually impaired and making some people rather uncomfortable upon first meeting him.
But none of this kept the enthusiastic teenager from pursuing a career in the military. He adored the army, and proved eager to be a part of the action on the continent during the Seven Years War. He even tried to volunteer with the allied Prussian forces in order to get into the thick of the fighting, and action which had been expressly forbidden by King George II. Fortunately, his father managed to extricate him from the situation, but the young man was setting the stage as something of a rebellious individualist. He would tend to follow this trend when he entered politics and took his ancestral seat in Parliament. When the direct taxes on America were first being proposed, Cornwallis was one of only 6 MPs to vote against it. He showed himself to be quite sympathetic to the plight of the colonists in his voting record overall, and would go on to write, “They are Englishmen, such as we, and are simply defending their rights.”
Meanwhile, Cornwallis’ personal life took a turn when his father died, making him, as the eldest son, the next Lord Cornwallis of the ancestral estate at Culford in the English countryside. As the new head of the family, it was his duty to make sure that his younger brothers were established with meaningful careers and his younger sisters married off to men of good blood and bank accounts. All this hustling around made Cornwallis quite tuckered out, but he did manage to set aside a little “me time” and courted Jemima Jones, the daughter of a middle class army officer. As a nobleman, Cornwallis was boldly breaking convention, but he was seriously smitten. Perhaps he was sick of arranging marriages for all his siblings, and became more firmly determined that he would marry for love.
Jemima was everything he wanted in a woman: beautiful, intelligent, independent-minded, with just the right combination of fire and grace to make the relationship inspired. She also dared to break the code of age for women, and openly discussed politics with Cornwallis. He relished in it, and when confronted with the fact that she had neither title nor lands, he replied that he already had those. He was more than happy to share them with a woman such as Jemima.
To be continued…