All images copyright © by Artist Werner Willis. All rights reserved
A brave and aggressive commander, Cornwallis was outwitted
by the American leaders during the Revolutionary War costing the British
their effort to win the war through a southern campaign. After the Revolution,
he won the reputation as one of the greatest generals of British history.
Born in London on December 31, 1738, he was educated at
Eton and commissioned as ensign in the 1st Foot Guards. He served with
distinction in the British army in Germany. Elected to Parliament, he
took his place in the House of Lords following his father's death, where
he supported the cause of the American colonists. He continued to advance
his military career by serving as aide-de-camp to King George ill, colonel
of the 33rd Foot, and constable of the Tower of London.
Promoted to major general, Cornwallis did not allow his
pro-American sentiments nor his wife's appeal to the King to deter him
from his duty. He arrived in America with Sir Henry Clinton's expedition
in time to distinguish himself at Long Island, modern day Isle of Palms,
near Charleston, South Carolina, in August, 1776. He followed Clinton
north serving at Princeton and Brandywine, New Jersey, was promoted to
lieutenant general and became second in command to Clinton.
Cornwallis returned to Britain to be with his dying wife.
He returned to America in time to playa major role as British strategy
shifted to focus on the Southern colonies. Cornwallis was left in command
of British forces in the South when Clinton returned to New York.
Cornwallis dealt a major blow to patriot hopes by defeating General Horatio Gates' army at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780. British efforts to break further rebel resistance were frustrated as the British army was drawn further into the interior away from Charleston and naval supply lines.
Cornwallis' army was scattered at isolated outposts across
South Carolina where they were constantly ambushed and harassed by partisan
forces led by outstanding guerilla leaders with colorful nicknames like
"Swamp Fox" Francis Marion, "Gamecock" Thomas Sumter,
and "Wizard Owl" Andrew Pickens.
Cornwallis was forced to withdraw to Winnsboro, South Carolina,
after the American victory at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, which
destroyed the western flank of his army and resulted in the death or capture
of his entire valuable light infantry corps led by Major Patrick Ferguson.
The defeat of Banastre Tarleton's legion by Daniel Morgan at Cowpens on
January 27, 1781, led Cornwallis to stage a second invasion of North Carolina
as he set off in hot pursuit of Morgan in hopes of catching up with and
destroying the American army in the South.
Cornwallis took the drastic action of burning his wagons,
stores and baggage to enable his army to move even faster. Morgan was
able to link up with Nathanael Greene near Charlotte, North Carolina.
Gathering all the boats along the way and transporting them in wagons,
the outnumbered American army stayed just a step away from Cornwallis
and disaster as they made a superb withdrawal across the flood-swollen
Catawba, Yadkin, Deep and Dan Rivers before retreating to safety in Virginia.
The American army reentered North Carolina and Cornwallis
engaged them in battle at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. Cornwallis
defeated the Americans at a cost of almost one third of his army killed
or wounded. The British army could ill afford another such victory.
In violation of Clinton's orders, Cornwallis now chose to
invade Virginia where he was eventually bottled up at Yorktown and forced
to surrender on October 19, 1781. Cornwallis received little blame for
the defeat from either the British press or public.
Cornwallis' career following the American Revolution revealed
his real talent for civil administration and conciliation. After initially
declining, he accepted the governor-generalship of India acquiring a reputation
as a fair and just administrator. The old campaigner returned to the field
to invade Mysore and storm Bangalore.
On his return to Britain, Cornwallis was appointed commander
in chief and governor- general of Ireland where he suppressed an Irish
rebellion and repulsed a French invasion. Acquiring a reputation for treating
the Irish with leniency, he resigned when King George ill refused to grant
Catholic emancipation. He returned to India as governor-general and died
at Ghazipur on October 5., 1805.
Research and text by W. Hugh Harkey, author and historian