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. And so he did, making her his bride and the lady of his estate. It was rather like something out of an old fairy-tale, with the nobleman exalting a beauty of common background all for the sake of true love.
Jemima, for her part, was devoted to Cornwallis. No one could ever say that he was particularly handsome, with his portly physique and damaged eye, but she was attracted to his honesty, kindness, and willingness to stand up for his own convictions even if it meant standing against the wind. Besides, he actually liked her for who she was, with her witty remarks and political observations, and would never try to suppress her free-spirited nature. For eight years, they enjoyed a happy period of easy-going domesticity, with Cornwallis cutting back on his political and military activities so that they could raise a family together. Jemima would give birth to both a daughter and a son, and they contentedly settled into life as new parents.
Yet in spite of her strong mind and will, Jemima was frail in body and often sickly. Cornwallis started to obsess over her health, and it seems that she became increasingly dependent upon his presence for her own emotional stability. But in spite of all this, Cornwallis began to feel the clarion call to return to active duty in the military. The rebellion in America had now officially broken out, and King George III gave Cornwallis orders to go overseas and assist in putting the Americans in line. Jemima was horrified. First of all, accepting the commission might well separate the couple for years. Second, getting involved would go against the Americans would compromise Cornwallis’s own convictions.
As we have illustrated, Jemima was no shrinking violet, and pulled various strings to try and prevent Cornwallis from having to leave. This included going to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who happened to be her husband’s uncle, and asking him to intercede for them before the king. The Archbishop did so, and the king agreed to merely request that Cornwallis go, as opposed to giving an explicit order. But the sad fact was that, all convictions and obligations aside, Cornwallis was determined to go where the action and glory might be. He was as ambitious as any of his contemporaries, and justified his decision to fight the Americans by saying that he had supported them up to the point when they officially rose up against the king.
This stipulation was not completely weightless, but it wasn’t the most profound in the world either, and many of his former supporters among the Whigs in Parliament scoffed at him as just another opportunist looking for a juicy appointment. Jemima was heart-broken that she could not get him to change his mind. He tried to let her down easy, and assured her that the rebellion would be put down with ease, and he would be able to get back for leave often. But she seems to have had enough female intuition to know better. Nevertheless, she and the children did travel with him to the coast to see him off and wish him well. One wonders if perhaps Jemima might have joined him in America if not for her own health conditions, but given Cornwallis certainly would never have allowed her to take the risk.
In America, Cornwallis showed himself to be a competent commander, serving under Sir William Howe during the New York Campaign, and keeping George Washington on the run through New Jersey. He vanquished Fort Washington and Fort Lee, and forced the rebels to maintain their fighting retreat. At first, it seemed that the rebellion might indeed meet a sorry end. But even though the British could defeat them repeatedly in pitched battles, they were not so easy to crush completely. Washington might get beat and retreat, but he still managed to keep the army together, and keep them inspired by lightening raids such as at Trenton when he surprise attacked the Hessians and defeated them.
Meanwhile, back in England, Jemima started pining over her husband, and begging him to come back. Although he did manage to come home on short leave, he was soon off again, and she was more heart-broken than ever. Her health began to deteriorate, and she continued to plead with Cornwallis to come back home to comfort her. He felt himself being tugged in two different directions, two different duties. He tried multiple times to get away, but the rebellion kept taking new twists and turns that required him to stay at his post. It has often been a source of amusement in American textbooks that Cornwallis had to keep taking his baggage on and off the ship that was supposed to take him home, due to Washington’s going on the offensive to boost morale. But in reality, it had a tragic element, since Cornwallis was desperately trying to visit his ailing wife.
Ultimately, news came that Jemima’s condition had taken a critical turn. Cornwallis decided the time had come to just resign his commission so he could get home as fast as possible. He went to her bedside Culford, and found her extremely weak and depressed. She felt that he had failed her in more ways than one, and blamed her condition on his extended absence. Cornwallis was cut to the quick by this, but did his best to nurse her through her last days. When she was dying, she called over a servant, and said that, when she was buried, she wanted no headstone to be placed over her, but only a thorn tree planted over her heart, to signify that she had died for love.
Upon her death, Cornwallis was devastated, and deeply wounded by her insistence upon following the old English tradition of the thorn tree. It in effect marked him out as a false lover, as one who broken her heart and caused her death. “It has effectually destroyed all my hopes of happiness in this world,” he wrote to his brother, while struggling to manage his grief. “I will not dwell on this wretched subject, the thoughts of which harrow up my soul. This country now has no charms for me, and I am perfectly indifferent as to what part of the world I may go.”
It seems that Cornwallis went into something of a military tunnel to take his mind off of his personal tragedies. He had always felt at home when at arms, but now it became the sole focus of his mind. “I love that army,” he wrote his brother, “and flatter myself that I am not quite indifferent to them.” He applied to go back to America, and so he returned to bury himself in his work, as a military machine, leaving his two small children in the care of relations. Among his soldiers, he was well-liked and well-respected. He flogged his men less than most commanders, and seemed concerned about their personal well-fare.
Cornwallis was known for surprising minor officers with invitations to dine with him, and keep him company when he was plagued with loneliness. In these encounters, he acted the part of the perfect host and gentleman. Unlike his depiction in The Patriot, he was not a self-obsessed fop, but rather shared the majority of the hardships along with him men. When the regular baggage and much of the supplies had to be burned in order to speed up the march, Cornwallis would sacrifice his own baggage and tent to the flames as well. In pelting rain or blazing sun, he roughed it up, and often slept among his men under the stars.
This return to the American campaign would launch him into the Southern theatre of the war, under Sir Henry Clinton. Although initially amicable with each other, the two highly competitive men would soon find themselves at odds over how best to subdue the rebellion. In the South, Cornwallis hoped to be met by a wave of Loyalist support. Instead, he found most of the king’s friends to be cautious about bringing down the wrath of their Patriot neighbors. Cornwallis related that after the British had won a battle over the rebels, a bunch of loyalists came out just to shake his hand and congratulate him, but then promptly left the scene! Those Loyalists that did join often generated bitter blood-feuds among the inhabitants, causing more chaos and boosting the atrocity rate. Meanwhile, both British and Americans began to become more desperate in their tactics, and turn the war into a vicious end-game.
Cornwallis himself was partly responsible for this. He was personally a humane man who still believed the Americans were his “brethren”, and had once complained of General Howe not prosecuting atrocities against the inhabitants strongly enough. But now he relied heavily on the skills his younger more fiery subordinates such as Banastre Tarleton (responsible for what was later known as “Buford’s Massacre”, and admittedly confusing affair which resulted in the slaughter of Patriots troops trying to surrender after the Battle of Waxhaws) and Lord Rawdon. These men had few qualms about trying to bring hell to the colonial populace, and sometimes openly sanctioning murder and rape. Tarleton himself boasted that he had slain more men and lain with more women than any other British officer. Rawdon was perverse enough to make light of gang-rape and other unspeakable atrocities against the “fair nymphs” of the colonies that he seemed to view as sub-human spoils of war.
Although he did try to put an end to excesses and lectured his officers against such tactics when he learned of them, Cornwallis knew that he needed men such as Tarleton and Rawdon to get the often dirty job of suppressing a rebellion done, and often turned his blind eye, giving them considerable freedom of movement during their individual raids. They were undoubtedly skilled and actually managed to rally the loyalists in make-shift regiments and raiding parties to aid the cause. These loyalists, already set on revenge, were devoted to them. For many, Tarleton was the 18th century equivalent of Prince Rupert of the English Civil War: young, dashing, skilled, ruthless, and awe-inspiring.
But in spite of the British victories and suppression of the countryside, the rebels seemed incapable of being completely beaten. Just as Cornwallis had discovered in the New Jersey Campaign, his enemy would melt into their own territory after suffering a defeat, and regroup to fight another day. Further set-backs ensued at the Battle of King’s Mountain, when Major Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalist Volunteers were massacred by the Patriot Over-the-Mountain-Men, and at the Battle of Cowpens in which Tarleton finally got his comeuppance at the hands the redoubtable Daniel Morgan. Cornwallis was so frustrated by these defeats that he snapped his sword in two and announced that the news could “break my heart”. The war was not going to be easily won.
At the bloody Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis was almost captured by the Patriots, but was rescued last minute by Sergeant Roger Lamb. He reached a new level of desperation when he had his artillery blast into the fighting ranks, securing the hard-fought battle for the British, but at the same time sacrificing many of his own men who were hopelessly enmeshed amongst the enemy. Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, an old friend of Cornwallis and his second-in-command, seems to have taken up a position as his conscience and had begged him not to use the artillery as he did.
O’Hara was thoroughly sick of the brutality and futility of the war, and now had to endure losing his son as a casualty of the battle. He himself was also wounded twice, once seriously in the chest, and fell from his horse in a river which carried him downstream. He would have been drowned if not for some of his soldiers who followed the current and managed to drag him out. He was put on a stretcher and taken off the field. But then news came that his own second-in-command was badly hurt as well, and O’Hara did not hesitate to remount a horse and continue in his duty throughout the remainder of the battle.
Cornwallis was not unaffected by the casualty toll and sufferings of his men. “I never saw such fighting since God made me,” he wrote of the battle. “The Americans fought like demons.” Cornwallis also lost a personal friend, Colonel James Webster, a prestigious Scot who was mortally wounded in the battle. He wrote an emotionally poignant letter to his parents, in which he outlined some of his own feelings about the loss of loved ones:
“It gives me great concern to undertake a task which is not only a bitter renewal of my own grief, but must be a violent shock to an affectionate parent. You have for your support the assistance of religion, good sense, and an experience of the uncertainty of all human enjoyment. You have for your satisfaction that your son fell nobly in the cause of his country, honoured and lamented by his fellow-soldiers; that he led a life of honour and virtue, which must secure to him everlasting happiness. When the keen sensibility of the passions begins a little to subside, these considerations will afford you real comfort. That the Almighty may give you fortitude to bear this severest of trials, is the earnest wish of your companion in affliction, and most faithful servant, Cornwallis.”
Stymied in the Carolinas, Cornwallis sarcastically wrote to Clinton that he was tiring of “marching about the country in quest of adventure.” He wanted to have a clarification of orders, and to do something that actually might have some lasting effect. Hence, he decided to march into Virginia, which he believed to be a major seat of the rebellion, and was even more vital than New York. He succeeded in creating a panic among the Patriot ascendency of the state, and his troops even made “visits” to both Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. They almost burned both, but circumstances prevented it.
At the former, George Washington’s cousin convinced the British that it would be easier for all involved if he simply helped them loot the house and barns without doing any unnecessary damage to the structures, and they found it reasonable to comply. At the latter, Banastre Tarleton went in search of Jefferson to arrest him, but could not bring himself to harm the beautiful Monticello, which Jefferson had given tours of to a number of high-ranking British officers captured in the aftermath of the Saratoga Campaign. He did have his men pilfer the wine cellar and burn his outer barns and buildings, however, just to make a point.
But in the end, Cornwallis’s trek through Virginia ended in naught but disaster for his cause, and he found himself bottled up a siege at Yorktown on the coast of the Chesapeake, battered by American and French artillery. The Royal Navy under the timid and ever-hard-to-deal-with Admiral Graves and fled after one fight with the French Navy, and left the army to their fate. Cornwallis still held out hope that Clinton would send promised reinforcements, but just as with Burgoyne had hoped for help from Howe during the Saratoga Campaign, the waiting proved in vain.
Disease spread through the British works, and Cornwallis again breached ethics when he turned away many of the free slaves who had recruited to help the British, dooming them to recapture by the Patriots or being blown apart by flying shells. Again, he justified it out of necessity…but this in no way made it right. In the end, nothing could save the British from ignoble defeat, and Cornwallis realized that if he brought on any more suffering on his men when there was nothing left to be gained, it would be a further crime against humanity. Hence, the surrender of Yorktown took place on October 17, 1781, four years to the day that Burgoyne surrendered his forces to the Americans at Saratoga.
Cornwallis was feeling pretty sick in more ways than one (!), and somehow managed to convince the loyal and long-suffering Charles O’Hara to surrender his sword in his place. Judging from the fact that Cornwallis paid off many of his partying debts after the war, this may well have been an incentive to take up the humiliating task. The Americans and their French allies rightly perceived this as a cop-out on the part of Cornwallis, and viewed the proceedings with eye-brows raised, especially when O’Hara tried to surrender specifically to the French commander to avoid the shame of surrendering to a colonial. The French commander, to his credit, directed him to Washington, to in turn directed him to his own second-in-command, Benjamin Lincoln, who had been forced to surrender to the British in Charlestown without honorable terms.
However, events took an interesting turn at the series of victory parties thrown by the French and Americans. When invited as “an honored guest” by his adversaries, Cornwallis suddenly managed to perk up and put on the charm, turning the tables and winning the French over to his side in a cookie-clutch table-based clique. They got along swimmingly, as Cornwallis spoke fluent French and shared an upper-class background with them. Good conversation was an art among them, which frustrated Washington and the Americans to no end. They rightly felt “sold out”, and Cornwallis seems to have relished it, since he perceived the Americans to have “sold out” the Mother Country by colluding with the French to begin with.
Not only did Cornwallis return to the British trenches with his pride restored, but also with a bunch of money loaned to him by the French for himself and his fellow officers in their hour of need. Judging from his diary, Cornwallis seems to have been genuinely touched by their generous gesture, even though it was likely his plan from point one. Next, it was Cornwallis’s turn to throw the party and invite his enemies over for tea. He courteously showed George Washington around his trench network, and then invited everybody inside the fortifications to dine. There he made a rather cheeky toast to Washington: “When your fame is illuminated on the pages of history…your brightest laurels will come rather from the Delaware and the Chesapeake.” The implication was clear to all: the river missing in the equation was the Hudson, where Cornwallis had put Washington to flight.
In the aftermath of the war and his release on parole, Cornwallis did his best to come off of the defeat with reputation mostly intact. Clinton always blamed Cornwallis for the surrender, and Tarleton also heavily criticized him in his memoirs. However, most people, including the king, were willing to let things lie and exonerated Cornwallis as having done all that he could have been expected to do under the circumstances. Returning home, he also forced himself to face his old ghosts and reconnect with his son and daughter. For several years, Culford became home again, and Cornwallis spent his brief retirement trying to stabilize. He read a lot, mostly about the military, and went on long rides across his lands, especially relishing the hunt.
But his wander-lust was never cured, and he could not shake the ghosts of his past for long. He wanted to get back into the action, and away from home. He did amazingly well for himself as an Imperial trouble-shooter and rebellion-suppressor. As Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he was instrumental in putting down the 1798 Rising, executing the ring-leaders, and earning the hatred of many Irishmen to this day. However, this is a largely unfair depiction, since, contrary to being a brutal mass-murderer, Cornwallis actually insisted on giving the rank-and-file of the rebellion a general pardon
Cornwallis actually stood out from the crowd again and openly sympathized with the plight of Irish Catholics and championed the Catholic Emancipation Movement, in blatant opposition to the king. His outspokenness on the issue angered the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendency, who viewed him as an absolute liberal out to crush their power-play. This time, when push came to shove, he would not waffle on his convictions, and when Parliament refused to give the Catholics their rights, he resigned his post in Ireland as a conscientious objector.
In the end, Cornwallis was appointed governor-general of British India. He helped set in the place a sound system of laws called “The Cornwallis Code” to govern the country, and improved judicial administration and carried out commerce reforms among other things. Unfortunately, he clearly had a low estimation of the native population, and prevented them from holding any offices in the government. However, this can be partially understood in light of the corruption of the Indian cast system which he wanted to purge. Overall, he was well respected by the British colonists in India as a man of integrity and honor. He successfully suppressed Tipu Sultan and the Third Mysore War challenging British authority.
In 1805, he contracted a serious fever, and died in Ghazipur on the 5th of October. He was buried along the Ganges River, and the Indian government continues to upkeep his grave. He had come a long way from his battles in the south and humiliating defeat at Yorktown which birthed a new nation. It was also a far distance from the remains of his true love, and the tangled thorn that grew above her broken heart. It is devoutly to be hoped that they were able to meet again somewhere more fitting, where all injuries are forgotten and love truly does conquer all.
|Lord Charles Cornwallis|