Biography of Charles Cornwallis

Charles Cornwallis, Daniel Gardner,  early 1780s,  Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Charles Cornwallis, Daniel Gardner, early 1780s, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Though he probably is known best as the British general who lost the American colonies, Lord Charles Cornwallis was actually quite a remarkable man. An educated aristocrat with military and political experience, Lord Cornwallis served King George III and Britain as one of the leading generals of the Revolutionary War, where he proved himself as a gifted strategist. He was forced to surrender his troops in 1781 to American and French forces at the Siege of Yorktown, which essentially ended the American Revolution. But that did not break his spirit or his reputation. General Cornwallis went on to serve as governor in Ireland and India, where he made significant reforms.

What was Lord Cornwallis’ early life like?

Charles Cornwallis was born at Grosvenor Square, London, on New Year’s Eve in 1738. The eldest son of Charles, 1st Earl Cornwallis, and Elizabeth Townshend, he received his early education at Eton. Eager to begin a military career, Cornwallis purchased a commission as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards on December 8, 1757, and attended the military academy at Turin, Italy. Taking his rightful place among the peerage of the ruling class, he became a Member of Parliament, entering the House of Commons for the village of Eye in Kent in January 1760.

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The House of Commons at Westminster, Engraving published as Plate 21 of Microcosm of London, Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin after John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sutherland, J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers), 1808, public domain

Where did Lord Cornwallis get his military start?

At the beginning of the Seven Years' War - known as the French and Indian War in America - Cornwallis moved quickly to get in on the action. He returned from his studies in Turin and spent much of the war in Germany. At first, he served as a staff officer for Lord Granby, but ascended quickly to become a captain in the 85th Regiment of Foot. Fulfilling his desire to command troops, Cornwallis was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 12th Foot in May 1761. Soon afterward, Cornwallis was cited for bravery as he fought with his men at the Battle of Villinghausen in July 1761. Having proved himself a valiant soldier and commander, Cornwallis returned home in 1762 following his father’s death. Succeeding his father and as the 2nd Earl Cornwallis, he was elevated to the House of Lords.

How did things progress with Lord Cornwallis’ political responsibilities?

After the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1763, Cornwallis threw himself into his political duties. He aligned with Lord Rockingham, who supported constitutional rights for American Colonists. In Parliament, Cornwallis often voted in support of the American colonial position. In 1766, Cornwallis became colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. He was a Constable of the Tower of London in 1771 and was promoted to major general by King George III in 1775 as Britain braced for war with the American colonies.

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Portrait of Jemima, Countess Cornwallis, James Watson (print) after a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1771, public domain

What was Lord Cornwallis’ family life like?

By all accounts, Lord Cornwallis was a devoted family man. Following his father’s death, Cornwallis became the head of the family. The responsibility of care for his brothers and sisters fell to him. This meant that he had to arrange careers for his brothers and suitable marriages for his sisters. Even with the pressures of managing his family, Cornwallis found time to court a bride for himself. He married Jemima Jones, the daughter of an untitled regimental colonel, in 1768. Retiring from active politics at that time, Cornwallis dedicated himself to his wife and their children: a daughter, Mary, and a son, Charles.

What was Lord Cornwallis’ role in the American Revolution?

Compelled by his sense of duty, Cornwallis offered himself for service and was sent to America in early 1776. He was promoted to lieutenant general and began service in the colonies under Major General Henry Clinton’s command during a failed attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina. Afterward, Cornwallis and Clinton sailed north, where they played a key role in General William Howe's capture of New York City. Granted leave in late 1776, Cornwallis prepared to return to England to enjoy the winter months with his family, but was ordered to contend with General Washington’s army following the surprising American victory at Trenton. Cornwallis marched his troops south but was unsuccessful in dislodging Washington. To make matters worse, Washington’s troops outflanked Cornwallis’ during the night and attacked the British troops at Princeton.

Image from Wikimedia Commons; Source:  L. Edward Purcell et Sarah Purcell, Encyclopedia of Battles in North America, Chekmark Books, New York, 2000, ISBN 0-8160-4402-3; Licensing information: This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Death Of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, John Trumbull, 1787-1794, public domain

General Clinton blamed Cornwallis for the defeat at Princeton, and tensions mounted between the two generals. Tension and blame between the two persisted throughout and following the war. Over the next year Cornwallis saw a few victories, defeating Washington’s army at the Battle of Brandywine, Germantown and Fort Mercer. He returned home for a short while but quickly rejoined the British army in America. While he was gone, General Clinton had replaced Howe as commander in chief. To his delight, Cornwallis was now second in command.

When the French allied with the Americans in early 1778, King George III had to spread out his forces for a more global war and move to defend the homeland. With an increasing shortage of troops in North America, Clinton abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York. The British army was attacked by Washington at Monmouth Court House as they marched north. Cornwallis led the counterattack and temporarily drove back the Americans. However, the battle ended in a draw with the British troops leaving the field.

Cornwallis rushed home that fall to care for his very sick wife who died in February 1779. Though devastated by Jemima’s death, Cornwallis returned to America and took command of British forces in the south. Cornwallis and General Clinton captured Charleston during a second siege in May 1780.

Following the victory in Charleston, General Clinton returned to New York. Cornwallis assumed leadership of the British campaign in the south. He was left with a limited number of troops and direction from his superior to find recruits among the Loyalist citizens living in the south. When garnering the support of southern Loyalists failed to supply adequate troops, Cornwallis encouraged enslaved African Americans to leave their masters and help the British cause.
In August 1780, Cornwallis was victorious at the Battle of Camden, where the British army caused heavy casualties to rebel forces under the command of Horatio Gates. With South Carolina now fairly clear of Continental forces, Cornwallis moved into North Carolina.

A detachment of Loyalist militia was defeated at King’s Mountain, North Carolina in October of 1780. A group of Cornwallis’ army also was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. These defeats brought staggering difficulties in raising additional Loyalist troops.

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The Battle of Cowpens, William Ranney, 1845, public domain

Then the tide began to turn for Cornwallis. The new commander of the Continental forces in the south, General Nathanael Greene, was defeated by Cornwallis’ troops at Guilford Courthouse in March of 1781. But this victory came at great cost to Cornwallis’ army. With his troops exhausted and depleted of men and supplies, Cornwallis decided to move to Virginia to regroup and await reinforcements promised by Clinton.

Why did General Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown?

In Virginia, the Marquis de Lafayette, in command of a small detachment of American troops, shadowed Cornwallis’ army and gathered reinforcements in early summer 1781. Clinton sent orders to Cornwallis to secure an ice-free base for naval operations in Virginia where the British fleet would have year-round access. Cornwallis, unhappy with the width of the waterways in Portsmouth, decided to fortify in Yorktown and thus placed his troops in a position of entrapment.

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Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781, by which over 7,000 British and Hessians became prisoners, copy of lithograph by James Baillie, circa 1845, 1931 - 1932, public domain

Following an inconclusive engagement between a British fleet from New York and a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse, the British withdrew to New York leaving the French naval force with control of the Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis now found his army cut off from supplies and surrounded by American and French armies who had marched down from New York. Following a three-week siege and a failed attempt to flee across the York River to Gloucester, Cornwallis was forced to surrender on October 19, 1781. The Battle of Yorktown was the last significant battle of the Revolutionary War, and Cornwallis became known as the general who lost the American colonies.

Surrender at Yorktown, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Surrender at Yorktown, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation


William Pitt, British Prime Minister 1766 to 1768, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

William Pitt, British Prime Minister 1766 to 1768, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

What happened to General Cornwallis after the American Revolution?

General Cornwallis sacrificed neither his career nor reputation after his defeat at Yorktown. Upon return to England, General Cornwallis retained King George III’s support and admiration and found favor from the new Prime Minister, William Pitt. He was made a Knight Companion of The Most Noble Order of the Garter in 1786. In February, he accepted the appointment of Governor-General and commander in chief in India. While there, Cornwallis enacted several reforms and his army quelled a revolt by Tipu Sultan.

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British General Charles Cornwallis receiving as hostages two sons of Tipu Sultan at the end of the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1792, Mather Brown, 1792, public domain

Back in England following this appointment, Cornwallis was granted the title First Marquess Corwallis by King George III . He was then sent to Ireland as Governor-General, where he stopped the 1798 Irish rebellion and helped pass legislation that united the English and Irish Parliaments.

In 1802, Cornwallis was involved in negotiations that led to the Treaty of Amiens. King George III reappointed him as Governor-General of India, but not long after his arrival there Cornwallis died on October 5, 1805, at 67 years of age. He is buried in India at a site overlooking the Ganges River.