Charles Cornwallis: The British General Known for Surrendering at Yorktown

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis was an officer in the British Army, leading many generals in the American Revolutionary War. In 1781, he unofficially ended the Revolutionary War when he surrendered at the Battle of yorktown to both the American and French forces. He also spent time in India and Ireland as a civil and military governor and was able to make significant changes in both places.

On December 31, 1738, Charles Edward Cornwallis V was born in Grosvenor Square, London, England, the eldest son of Charles Cornwallis, 5th Baron Cornwallis and Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend. The couple already had a daughter named Mary (1736-1770) and would go on to have five more: Henry (1740-1761), James (1743-1824), William (1744-1819), Elizabeth (died in 1796), and Charlotte (died in 1794). The Cornwallis family estates were located in Kent. Charles Cornwallis received an education at Eton College in Berkshire, England and Clare College in Cambridge. While playing a game of hockey at Eton, Cornwallis’ eye was injured by the future Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington.

His first commission came on December 8, 1757 as Ensign in the 1st Foot Guards. Cornwallis sought to study military abroad, and received permission to do so. After spending time traveling the continent with Captain de Roguin, an officer from Prussia, Cornwallis went on to study in Italy at the military academy of Turin. He completed his studies there in Turin in 1758, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland shortly thereafter. Once there, Cornwallis learned of the British troops sailing to fight in the Seven Years’ War. Though he tried, Cornwallis failed to reach his regiment before it sailed from the Isle of Wight. Instead, he was able to be appointed as a staff officer under Lord Granby.

The following year, Cornwallis fought in the Battle of Minden, which was a major battle that ultimately stopped France from invading Hanover. He bought a captaincy in the 85th Regiment of Foot not long after the battle. Serving with the 12th Foot, Cornwallis was promoted to Brevet lieutenant Colonel in 1761. On July 15 and 16, 1761, he led his regiment in the Battle of Vellinghausen. Many noted him for showing gallantry during the battle. His regiment fought heavily in 1762 at the Battle of Wilhelmsthal on June 24, 1762, later defeating the Saxon troops at the Battle of Lutterberg. To finish off the year, they fought in the Siege of Cassel between October and November of 1762.

Previously, Cornwalli had become a Member of Parliament and entered the House of Commons for Eye, a village in Suffolk, in January of 1760. In 1762, his father passed away and he succeeded him as 2nd earl Cornwallis. This led to him being elevated to the House of Lords, quickly becoming a protege of the influential Whig and future Prime Minister, Lord Rockingham. Out of sympathy for the colonists, Cornwallis was only one of five people who voted against the disastrous 1765 Stamp Act. He continued to support the colonists to a degree during the events leading up to the Revolutionary War.

Jemima Tullekin Jones, the daughter of a regimental colonel, married Charles Cornwallis on July 14, 1768, and the two of them remained happily married. They settled into Culford, Suffolk and had two children, Mary, born on June 28, 1769, and Charles, born on October 19, 1774. On April 14, 1779, Jemima passed away.

After the Seven Years’ War ended, Cornwallis remained active in the military. In 1776, he was appointed colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, later promoted to major general years later on September 29, 1775. He pushed his previous support for the colonists aside when the fight for independence broke in America as he sought for an active position in the military and proposed an expedition to the Southern Colonies.

In 1776, Cornwallis began his service in North America when promoted to lieutenant general under General Sir Henry Clinton. Upon the failure of the Siege of Charleston, the two of them sailed for New York City to participate in the campaign for New York City led by General William Howe. Throughout the campaign, Cornwallis was a prominent leader. At the Battle of long island, his division was at the lead.  He chased after George Washington as the American general retreated across New Jersey when the city fell to the British.

Cornwallis was granted leave in December 1776 by General Howe, but it was quickly canceled when Washington launched a surprise attack on December 26 on Trenton, New Jersey. Howe quickly ordered for Cornwallis to return to New Jersey to deal with the Battle of Trenton and Washington. He advanced towards Trenton on January 2, 1777, his forces engaging in a skirmish that ended up delaying their arrival where Washington was positioned on Assunpink Creek. In the following battle, the Battle of the Assunpink Creek, that same day, he was unable to dislodge Washington. The next day, Cornwallis continued preparing his troops to go up against the Continental Army, but failed to send out the adequate patrols required to keep watch on the Americans. Washington’s forces were able to slip around Cornwallis and attack the British outpost at Princeton, leading to the Battle of Princeton. His success was partially due to deception by having his men keep up fires and sounds of camp activity before they attacked. Cornwallis from there on spent the rest of the winter there in New Jersey and New York as his forces continued skirmishing with the Americans.

When Howe began campaigning for the control of philadelphia, the capital of the rebels and the location of the Continental Congress, in 1777-78, Cornwallis served under him. He led the flanking manoeuvre on September 11, 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine and played key roles at the Battles of Germantown (Oct. 4) and Fort Mercer (November 18). While the army was stationed in Philadelphia in quarters for the winter, Cornwallis took a leave of absence and returned home. When he arrived back in North America in 1778, Clinton had replaced Howe as commander in chief, making Cornwallis second in command. The British leaders were prompted to deploy their armed forces for a more global war when France officially entered the war to aide the Americans. They abandoned Philadelphia and Cornwallis began commanding rearguard as the army began withdrawing to New York City. On June 28, 1778, he played a key role during the Battle of Monmouth. When a surprise attack was launched on their rearguard, Cornwallis came back and launched a counterattack, checking the enemy advance. Despite the fact that he was commended for his performance a Monmouth by Clinton, eventually he was blamed for their failure. To be with his dying wife, Cornwallis took a trip home back to England in November of 1778. Jemima then died the following February.

In July of 1779, over a year later, Cornwallis returned to America. There, he was going to play a central role during the “Southern Strategy”, the British’s plan to invade the south under the assumption that the more Loyalist than Patriot population would rise up to to aide them in stopping the rebellion. Along with Clinton, Cornwallis transported a large force to the south, where they initiated the second siege of Charleston that spring from March 29-May 12, 1780. This ended with Benjamin Lincoln’’s forces surrendering to the British. Cornwallis was left to command the south when Clinton returned to New York after. Their relationship had become noticeably worse throughout the Charleston campaign, so by the time Clinton left, they could barely even speak to each other.

Clinton left Cornwallis with the task of preserving the gains they had previously made when they took Charleston before engaging in any offenses. He was also to pacify South and North Carolina before moving into Virginia. But he was also expected to recruit more loyalists to join the army because he had been left with a small force of only 3,000 men, and it was believed that there were more Loyalists in the south than north.

He was able to establish many outposts throughout South Carolina, but struggled to keep up communication and supply lines. Supplies such as uniforms, camp gear, and arms and ammunition were delivered infrequently and were unavailable in the colonies. Supply ships were often targets of privateers and bad weather stopped the supplies from coming in regularly. Cornwallis made sure to establish two commissioners so he could continue to provide his troops with fresh food. His first commissioner was given the responsibility of confiscating goods from the Patriots and administering them to the British. The second was responsible for administering confiscated land. It was difficult to purchase supplies due to a shortage of hard currency, whether it be Patriots or Loyalists. Cornwallis attempted reestablishing civil authority under oversight of the British or Loyalists, but did not succeed.

An untried army under command of Horatio Gates went up against Cornwallis’s forces on August 16, 1780 at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, ending with a British victory. The victory helped boost Cornwallis’s reputation even more so, despite his skills not really contributing to their victory and instead Gates. Back in London, they saw him as a hero and the right man to lead them to victory.

Optimistically, he began advancing towards North Carolina while his South Carolinian troops were continuously being harassed by militiamen. Cornwallis attempted to rally up support from Loyalists, but was met with significant blows when defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. The battle was fought between the Patriot militia and loyalist militia with a decisive British victory. At that point, Cornwallis and his men were only a day’s march away from where the battle had taken place. During the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, more of his men were defeated. Cornwallis clashed with General Nathanael Greene’s army at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina on March 15, 1781.

Following the battle, Cornwallis and his troops headed to resupply in the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. At this point, though he was constantly successful during battle, his army was shrinking due to constant marching. Greene’s army continued to follow Cornwallis to Wilmington, but then crossed back into South Carolina. While in Wilmington, Cornwallis received dispatches notifying him that Generals William Phillips and Benedict Arnold had troops coming into Virginia. Under the beliefs that the only way North Carolina could be subdued was if it’s Virginian supply lines were cut, Cornwallis joined his troop with Phillips and his.

Cornwallis took command over Philipps’ army when they arrived in Virginia. A week before reaching his position at Petersburg, Virginia, Phillips died. So, Cornwallis took to fulfilling Clinton’s order to Phillips, reading the Virginian countryside and destroying both military and economic targets for the Americans.

Washington had sent the Marquis de Lafayette to defend Virginia in response to the threat posed by Arnold and Phillips in March of 1781. Though Lafayette had 3,200 men under his command, Cornwallis had 4,000 more at 7,200. The two of them skirmished, but avoided a decisive battle as they gathered reinforcements. Cornwallis and Clinton began corresponding during this period. Clinton issued him many orders that were confusing, contradictory, and not all that forceful either. Eventually, Clinton sent him firm orders to find a position on the Virginia Peninsula to construct a naval post so they could shelter ships of the line. Cornwallis put himself in a position to be trapped when he obeyed the general’s orders.

A french fleet soon arrived under command of the Comte de Grasse and combined with Washington to make a French-American army. Cornwallis was cut off upon their arrival. Admiral Thomas Graves’ Royal Navy fleet was defeated by the French on September 5, 1781 at the Battle of the Chesapeake. Cornwallis was no longer able to maintain his position when a French siege train arrived from Newport, Rhode Island.



The Siege of Yorktown began on September 29, 1781, lasting three weeks until Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, handing the victory over to the Americans. Because he apparently did not want to have to face Washington, Cornwallis claimed to be ill on the day of his surrender. Instead, he sent Brigadier General Charles O’Hara in his place to formally surrender his sword. Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s second in command, accepted the sword.

With Benedict Arnold, Cornwallis returned home to england on January 21, 1782, where they were met with cheering crowds. The surrender unofficially marked the end of the war, but it would not officially end until 1783. Cornwallis, having been released on parole, refused to serve until the war came to an end. A failed attempt was arranged for Cornwallis to be exchanged with American diplomat Henry Laurens, who was being held in the Tower of London.

Many of his political enemies in London often criticised Cornwallis on his tactics in America. General Clinton came to blame him for the southern campaign failing, leading to the two men exchanging pamphlets of which Cornwallis had a much better and stronger argument. He was then sent to Prussia as an ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great in August of 1785. While attending maneuvers with the Duke of York, Cornwallis once again encountered Lafayette.

Cornwallis was made a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter in 1786, also accepting an appointment as Governor-General and commander in chief in India. He had previously refused the post in 1782 because he wanted to receive a military command alongside the governorship.

During his time in India, Cornwallis engaged in many reforms of all types. Said reforms affected civil, military, and corporate administration areas. He enacted many significant reforms with the British East India Company and was able to keep the company out of military conflicts, with the exception of the Kingdom of Mysore.

Before he had accepted the governorship, employees of the British East India Company were able to trade on their own accounts while using company ships to transport goods back to Europe. If the company was tolerable, this practice was tolerated, but finances were in terrible shape by the 1780s. So, Cornwallis put an end to this practice and increased employee salaries instead. He worked to reduce political favouritism and nepotism as he instituted the practice of merit-based advancement.

But the criminal and civil justice systems of the company were confusing. Cornwallis had the company take over the Nawab of Bengal’s remaining judicial powers and give judicial power to employees of the company instead. he introduced circuit courts in 1790 with company employees serving as judges and a court of appeals in Calcutta. The legal frameworks of Muslim and Hindu law were translated into English. In 1793, what was known as the Cornwallis Code, was introduced. it was a body of legislation the East India Company had enacted to improve the governing of their Indian territories. The code instituted a form of racism though, and placed the British on top of the status hierarchy of caste and religion in India. Cornwallis himself had racist views, viewing mixed European-Indians as inferior to Europeans. Though he did have a much more benevolent attitude when it came to the lower classes, possessing a desire to improving their conditions. He introduced new legislation that protected native weavers who had sometimes been forced to work at starvation wages. He also outlawed child slavery and estales a Sanskrit college for Hindus in 1791, now known as the Government Sanskrit College in Benares. In addition to benefiting the poor, the mint he established in Calcutta acted as a forerunner to current currency used in India.

The Permanent Settlement was an important land taxation reform included in the Cornwallis code. It permanently altered the way that the British East India Company collected taxes in its territories by taxing zamindars (landowners) based on the value of the land instead of the value of its produce. Cornwallis thought this to also protect ryots, or land tenants, from the zamindars’ abusive practices. He believed that class of landed gentry would concern them with improving their land, and therefore improving the condition of the tenants. In the end, the Permanent Settlement left the peasants at the landowner’s mercy. The zamindars were left to extract as much as they wanted from the peasants while the company fixed the land revenue to be paid by landowners.

Avoiding conflict with the company’s neighbors was one of the instructions Cornwallis had been given when he was sent to India. He made sure to abrogate agreements with both the Maratha Empire and the Nizam of Hyderabad that were seen as violating the Treaty of Mangalore that had been the end to the Second Anglo-Mysore War. by doing this, it was ensured the company would not be involved with the Maratha-Mysore War that lasted from 1785 to 1787. Cornwallis was then maneuvered into establishing a new company that would be based in Penang, which is now Malaysia. Fort Cornwallis located in Penang was named for him.

In 1792, the King of Nepal appealed to him for military assistance. Cornwallis declined the request and sent Colonel William Kirkpatrick to be in charge of mediating the dispute. Kirkpatrick was the first Englishman to ever see Nepal, and by the time he reached Kathmandu in 1793, the dispute between the parties had already been resolved.

Though it had been unavoidable, the company was drawn into war with Mysore in 1790.The ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, had expressed his contempt earlier for the British after the signing of 1784 treaty of Mangalore. He also expressed his desire to renew conflict. In 1789, he invaded the Kingdom of Travancore, which was an ally of the company according to the treaty. They had attacked due to territorial disputes and Travancore harboring Mysorean refugees. In response, Cornwallis ordered for the company and Crown troops to mobilize. General William Meadows conducted a 1790 campaign against Tipu, but was met with limited success. He successfully occupied the Coimbatore district with a counterattack from Tipu, reducing the British position to only a small number of outposts. Then, Tipu invaded the Carnatic and unsuccessfully attempted to draw the French into conflict as well. Meadows’ campaigning was weak, so Cornwallis personally took command in 1791 over the British forces.

As soon as the war broke out, Cornwallis began negotiating alliance with the Marathas and Hyderabad. To reach the Deccan Plateau in February 1791, he ascended the Eastern Ghats. He successfully besieged Bangalore then joined forces with the Hyderabadi. The combined forces marched toward Seringapatam, where the Mysorean capital was. They compelled Tipu to retreat back into the city on May 15 at the Battle of Arakere. Cornwallis was forced to abandon the idea of besieging Seringapatam due to dwindling provisions and Tipu’s slash-and-burn tactics, so he instead retreated to Bangalore.

The army set out for Seringapatam the following January. They arrived at the city on February 5. Quickly, Cornwallis was able to eliminate Tipu’s defensive positions located just outside of the city before beginning siege operations. On February 23, Tipu requested they negotiate. They agreed to peace on March 18 with the Treaty of Seringapatam. Cornwallis demanded they give up half of the Mysorean territory, much of it then going to the allies. Two of Tipu’s sons were given to Cornwallis as hostages. Along with other British commanders, he donated prize money to be distributed among the rank and file.

Cornwallis was created Marquess Cornwallis in 1792 upon his success in the war. He did not learn of this until a year later when he returned to England and Sir John Shore succeeded him in India.



When Cornwallis returned home in 1794, he found that the British army was engaged with the french military in the French Revolutionary Wars. He was sent on a fruitless diplomatic mission to attempt to put an end to the fighting and was appointed master of the ordnance, which he held until 1798. Cornwallis was responsible for much of the infrastructure of the British Army’s military with his new position as he oversaw the storage depots and supply infrastructure. He also commanded the artillery and engineering forces and watched over improvements to coastal defenses while expanding the artillery training program at Woolwich Academy., a military academy in London.

In June of 1798, Cornwallis was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ireland and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The Irish elite greeted his appointment unfavourably, preferring Lord Camden, his predecessor. They also suspected Cornwallis sympathized with livers and the mainly Catholic rebels. Cornwallis was able to start a good relationship with Lord Castlereagh, who was also appointed as his Chief Secretary.

Cornwallis watched over the defeat of the Irish rebels and a French Invasion landing in Connacht in August of 1798 under General Jean Humbert. The Prime Minister dispatched thousands of reinforcements to Ireland when he became panicked by the landing and French victory at the Battle of Castlebar. At the Battle of Ballinamuck, the French were forced to surrender when defeated by the British forces of 60,000 men. Afterwards, Cornwallis ordered a number of Irish rebels be executed. He secured government control over most of the island while organizing suppression of the remaining United Irish movement supporters.

The Act of Union by the Parliament of Ireland in 1800 was a necessary step that led to the creation of the United kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Cornwallis played an instrumental role. The process required Parliamentary votes being bought through patronage and the granting of peerages, which he disagreed with. Both Cornwallis and Prime minister William Pitt resigned when King George refused to make a move on the subject of Catholic emancipation. In May of 1801, Cornwallis returned to his home in London.

While he had been expecting to relax when he arrived home, Cornwallis was met with orders to lead the eastern British defenses against a threatened French invasion when he took command of the Eastern District. He was sent to finalize peace terms with Bonaparte afterwards. The new prime Minister, Henry Addington, appointed Cornwallis as plenipotentiary minister to France. The negotiations ended with the Treaty of Amiens, and Cornwallis signed it on behalf of the United kingdom on March 25, 1802. The War of the Second Coalition ended, though the peace did not last long. In may 1803, once again was was declared. Cornwallis is seen as being responsible in part for being too conceding in the negotiations.

Once again, Pitt was prime minister and Cornwallis was appointed Governor-General of India in 1805. In July of 1805, he arrived in India. On October 5, 1805, sixty-six year old Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis died of fever at Gauspur, Ghazipur, Varanasi. He was buried there, overlooking the Ganges River. The Archaeological Survey of India maintained a memorial where he was.