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Saving the Battlefields Where America Was Forged

A Project of the Civil War Trust |  civilwar.org

Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) King's Colors Flag

General, Politician, Nobility

Charles Cornwallis

(Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Cornwallis was born on New Years’ Eve to an English ruling class family. His father Charles, the 5th Baron of Eye, sent Cornwallis to Eton, an exclusive private school, then to a military academy in Turin, Italy. Charles the 5th eventually bought his son an Ensign’s commission in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, activating Cornwallis’s military career.  

Cornwallis began his military career in earnest during the Seven Years’ War, transferring to the 85th Regiment of Foot and serving in Germany for three years. After his father passed away in 1762, he replaced him as the Earl of Eye and took his seat in the House of Lords. During the first few years of his earldom, tensions between American colonists and the British crown rose to a boiling point. Cornwallis sympathized with the colonists and voted to repeal the Stamp Act; he was one of only five members to vote for this motion.

Colonial sympathies did not prevent him from serving the crown in the Revolution. In December 1775, following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Cornwallis received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant general and departed for America. He arrived in the Carolinas in May 1776, but after failing to take Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, Charleston, South Carolina, he moved north to New York. British troops achieved victory at the Battle of New York, resulting in an American retreat across New Jersey. However, George Washington struck back at Trenton, New Jersey—much to the shock and chagrin of Cornwallis—with a surprise attack on the Hessian troops on Christmas Day.

In 1780, after a stalemate in the north, Cornwallis moved south and once again attempted to take Charleston with the help of fellow general Sir Henry Clinton. The southern city succumbed to British rule after a siege of three-months. Cornwallis pressed on to defeat General Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780.

Almost immediately after American General Nathanael Greene took command of the southern armies, British fortunes in the South began to shift. American forces emerged victorious at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October and forces under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter continued to plague Cornwallis’s men throughout the winter. American troops followed their success at King’s Mountain with a victory at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. The battle, which devastated Banastre Tarleton’s dragoons, was a major turning point in the war in the South. American forces continued to inflict heavy losses on Cornwallis and his men, most significantly at the Battle of Guilford Court House.

Cornwallis and his men continued falling back to the coast until they faced ultimate defeat and surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781. At the ceremonial surrender, Cornwallis claimed to be so ill he could not meet George Washington to surrender his sword; instead, he sent General Charles O’Hara, his second in command. Prisoner Cornwallis was later exchanged for Patriot Henry Laurens, former President of the Continental Congress. Defeat failed to stymie the Earl’s career and he went on to serve as Governor General of India and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He died in India in 1805.

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