The Most Honourable
General the Marquess Cornwallis
December 31, 1738(1738-12-31) – October 5, 1805 (aged 66)
Lord Cornwallis as painted by the English artist Gainsborough
Place of birth Grosvenor Square, London, England
Place of death Ghazipur, British India
Allegiance Flag of the United Kingdom Kingdom of Great Britain
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1757–1805
Rank Major General
Battles/wars Seven Years' War
American War of Independence
Third Mysore War
Irish Rebellion of 1798
Other work Governor-General of India
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, KG (31 December 1738 – 5 October 1805) was a British army officer and colonial administrator. In the United States and Britain, he is best remembered as one of the leading generals in the American War of Independence. His 1781 surrender to a combined American-French force at the Siege of Yorktown is often incorrectly considered the end of the war; in fact, it continued for a further two years.[1] Despite this defeat, he retained the confidence of successive British governments and continued to enjoy an active career. In India, where he served two terms as governor general, he is remembered for promulgating the Permanent Settlement. As Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he argued for Catholic emancipation and oversaw the response to the 1798 Irish Rebellion and a French invasion of Ireland..

Early lifeEdit

Cornwallis was the eldest son of Charles Cornwallis, 5th [Baron Cornwallis] (later 1st Earl Cornwallis) (29 March, 1700 –23 June, 1762, in the Howells, near Bristol) and was born at Grosvenor Square in London, England, even though his family's estates were in Kent.

The Cornwallis family was established at Brome Hall, near Eye, in Suffolk, in the course of the 14th century, and members of it occasionally represented the county in the House of Commons during the next three hundred years. Frederick Cornwallis, created a Baronet in 1627, fought for King Charles I, and followed King Charles II into exile. He was made Baron Cornwallis, of Eye in the County of Suffolk, in 1661, and his descendants by fortunate marriages increased the importance of the family.

He was extremely well-connected. His mother, Elizabeth Townshend (died 1 December, 1785), was the daughter of the 2nd Viscount Townshend and a niece of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. His father was created Earl Cornwallis, Viscount Cornwallis and Viscount Brome in 1753, at which point he was styled Viscount Brome. His brother was Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. An uncle, Frederick, was Archbishop of Canterbury and another uncle, Edward, was a leading colonist in Canada.

Early military careerEdit

Cornwallis was educated at Eton College — where he received an injury to his eye by an accidental blow, while playing hockey, from Shute Barrington, later Bishop of Durham — and Clare College, Cambridge.[2] He obtained his first commission as Ensign in the 1st Foot Guards, on December 8, 1757. His military education then commenced, and after travelling on the continent with a Prussian officer, Captain de Roguin, he studied at the military academy of Turin. He also became a Member of Parliament in January 1760, entering the House of Commons for the village of Wye in Kent. He succeeded his father as 2nd Earl Cornwallis in 1762, which saw him elevated to the House of Lords.

Seven Years WarEdit

Template:Further Throughout the Seven Years' War, Lord Cornwallis served four terms in different posts in Germany, interspersed with trips home. In 1758, he served as a staff officer to Lord Granby. A year later, he participated at the Battle of Minden, one of the major battles of the war. After the battle, he purchased a captaincy in the 85th Regiment of Foot. In 1761, he served with the 11th Foot and was promoted to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel. He led his regiment in the Battle of Villinghausen on July 15-July 16 1761, and was noted for his gallantry. Following the Peace of Paris he returned to Britain, where he became a political protege of the leading Whig magnate, and future Prime Minister, Lord Rockingham.[3]

He became colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot in 1766. The same year he voted along with five other peers against the Stamp Act, out of sympathy with the American colonists.[4] He maintained a strong degree of support for the colonists during the crisis in the lead up to the American War of Independence.

American RevolutionEdit

After the opening skirmishes of the war took place around Boston, Cornwallis put his previous misgivings aside and sought active service. His participation in the American War of Independence began with his service as second in command to Henry Clinton. Cornwallis, along with several other senior officers, was promoted shortly before leaving for the conflict.[5] Clinton's forces arrived in North America in May 1776 at Cape Fear, North Carolina. These forces then shifted south and participated in the first siege of Charleston in June 1776. They were unable to make a breakthrough and eventually withdrew.

New York campaignEdit

After the failure of this siege, Clinton and Cornwallis transported his troops north to serve under William Howe in the campaign for New York City. During this campaign, Cornwallis, who continued to serve under Clinton, fought with distinction in the Battle of Long Island, participated in the Battle of White Plains, and played a supporting role in capture of Fort Washington. At the end of the campaign, Cornwallis was then given an independent command in which he captured Fort Lee and pursued George Washington's forces as far as New Brunswick in New Jersey.

Trenton and PrincetonEdit

After the New York City campaign and the subsequent occupation of New Jersey by the British army, Cornwallis prepared to leave for England as the army moved into winter quarters. However, as Cornwallis was preparing to embark in December 1776, Washington launched his surprise attack on Trenton. In response, Cornwallis's leave was canceled and he was ordered to take command of the forces stationed in the Trenton area. Since Clinton was in England at this time, Cornwallis served directly under Howe.

In response to Washington's initiative, Cornwallis gathered together garrisons scattered across New Jersey and moved them to Trenton. On 2 January, 1777, he confronted Washington's army, which was positioned near Assunpink Creek. In the resulting Second Battle of Trenton, Cornwallis unsuccessfully attacked Washington's position late in the afternoon. Cornwallis prepared his troops to continue the assault of Washington's position the next day. During the night, however, Washington's forces escaped to attack the British outpost at Princeton. While the credit for the success of the Continental army's disengagement from Cornwallis is due to Washington's use of deception, including maintaining blazing campfires and keeping up sounds of camp activity, Cornwallis contributed by failing to send out patrols to monitor the Continental Army's activities.

After the battle of Princeton, Washington's forces moved north toward Morristown and the British Forces took up winter quarters in garrisons centered on New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. During the winter, Cornwallis participated in raids during the forage war in an attempt to deny the Continental forces access to supplies. In early Spring, Cornwallis led a successful attack on Benjamin Lincoln's garrison at Bound Brook on 12 April, 1777. However, these engagements had no long-term impact as Howe had decided to withdraw his forces back towards New York City.

Philadelphia campaignEdit

While serving directly under Howe, Cornwallis also participated as a field commander in the Philadelphia campaign of 1777. Howe intended to launch an offensive against Philadelphia, hoping to end the war at a stroke. Cornwallis was given command of the army's light infantry. At the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, Cornwallis was responsible for the flanking movement that ultimately forced the American forces from their position. Cornwallis also played an important role in the Battle of Germantown on October 4 and the capture of Fort Mercer in New Jersey on 20 November. With the army in winter quarters in Philadelphia, Cornwallis took his long-delayed leave to England carrying home important information.

Cornwallis returned to Philadelphia to serve as second-in-command to Henry Clinton, who had replaced William Howe. After the surrender of another British army at Saratoga and the entry of France into the war, the British regarded the occupation of the city as a drain of valuable troops and resources needed elsewhere.[6] Cornwallis commanded the rearguard during the overland withdrawal from Philadelphia to New York City and played an important role in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. After a surprise attack on the British rearguard, Cornwallis launched a counter-attack which checked the enemy advance. In November, 1778, Cornwallis once more returned to England to be with his ailing wife, Jemima, who died in February 1779.

Southern theatreEdit

Cornwallis returned to America in July, 1779, where he was to play a central role as British commander in the Southern Campaign. At the end of 1779, Clinton and Cornwallis transported the bulk of their forces south and initiated the second siege of Charleston during the spring of 1780, which resulted in the surrender of the Continental forces under Benjamin Lincoln. After the siege of Charleston and the destruction of Abraham Buford's Virginia regiments at Waxhaw, Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis in command in the south.

Cornwallis was faced with the task of seeking an outright victory over the enemy, something General Howe had failed to do in the north in spite of winning several battles.[7] The forces he was given to accomplish this were limited by the necessity of keeping a large British force in New York under Clinton to shadow Washington. Cornwallis was told by his superiors to utilize the support of American loyalists, who were believed to be numerous in the southern colonies. Personally, Cornwallis favored a bolder and more aggressive approach than either Clinton or Howe had.[8] He also expanded on an existing British policy of recruiting black slaves, who overwhelmingly favored the Loyalist cause, as scouts, laborers and soldiers.

In August 1780 Cornwallis' forces met a larger enemy army under the command of Horatio Gates and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Camden.[9] This served to effectively clear South Carolina of enemy forces, and had a severely demoralizing effect upon them. The victory added to his reputation, though the rout of the American rebels had as much to do with the failings of Gates, as the skill of Cornwallis. As the opposition to him melted away, Cornwallis began to advance north into North Carolina. There he clashed with the rebuilt Continental army under General Greene at Guilford. Cornwallis won a Pyrrhic victory, with a bayonet charge against a numerically superior enemy.

Cornwallis moved his forces to Wilmington on the coast. They could ill afford such losses in battle, particularly with disease also taking a heavy toll on his small army. In spite of this he had been largely successful, driving the regular enemy forces out of the Carolinas, leaving only irregular partisan troops such as Francis Marion's, who conducted a limited but violent guerrilla war. Cornwallis then decided to launch an invasion of Virginia, while Greene's forces moved southwards into the Carolinas.

Virginia campaignEdit

On arrival in Virginia, Cornwallis took command of the existing British forces in the region, which had been commanded by Major General William Phillips. Phillips, a personal friend of Cornwallis, died one week before Cornwallis reached his position at Petersburg.[10] Having marched without informing Clinton of his movements, (communications between the two British commanders was by sea and extremely slow, sometimes up to three weeks)[11] he sent word of his northward march and engaged in destroying American supplies in the Chesapeake region.

In March 1781, in response to the threat of Cornwallis, General Washington had dispatched Marquis de Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman had 3,200 men at his command, but British troops in the state now totaled 7,200.[12] Lafayette skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. It was during this period that Cornwallis received orders from Clinton to choose a position on the Virginia Peninsula - referred to in contemporary letters as the "Williamsburg Neck" - and construct a fortified naval post to shelter ships of the line.[13] In complying with this order, Cornwallis put himself in a position where it would be easy to become trapped. With the arrival of the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse and General George Washington's combined French-American army, Cornwallis found himself cut off. After the Royal Navy fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves was defeated by the French at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and the French siege train arrived from Newport, Rhode Island, his position became untenable. He surrendered to General Washington and the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, on October 19, 1781.

Return to BritainEdit

In 1782 Cornwallis was exchanged for Henry Laurens, who had been held in London and was considered a prisoner of equal rank.[14] He returned to Britain with Benedict Arnold, and they were cheered when they landed in England on 21 January 1782.[15] His tactics in America, especially during his Southern Command (1780–81), were excessively criticised by his political enemies in London. However Cornwallis retained the confidence of King George III and the British Government, enabling him to continue his career.

His surrender had not marked the end of the war, though it had been the last major fighting in the American theater. In spite of the ongoing conflict, Cornwallis was not immediately considered for another command, and the war was brought to an end in 1783 by the Treaty of Paris.

Governor-general of IndiaEdit

In 1786 Cornwallis was appointed Governor-General and commander in chief in India. He instituted land reforms and reorganized the British army and administration. He was increasingly aligned with the government of William Pitt, writing home about his relief at King George III's recovery from illness, which had prevented the radical opposition led by Charles James Fox from taking power.[16]

Third Mysore WarEdit

Main article: Third Anglo-Mysore War

In 1792 he defeated Tippu Sultan, the powerful sultan of Mysore by capturing his capital Srirangapatnam, which concluded the Third Anglo-Mysore War and paved the way towards British dominance in Southern India.

Cornwallis was created Marquess Cornwallis in 1792. He returned to England the following year, and was suceeded by Sir John Shore. His time in India did much to restore his reputation which had been tarnished at Yorktown.

Lord Lieutenant of IrelandEdit

Cornwallis was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in June 1798, after the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 between republican United Irishmen and the British Government. His appointment was greeted unfavourably by the Irish elite, who preferred his predecessor Lord Camden, and suspected he had liberal sympathies with the predominantly Catholic rebels. However, he struck up a good working relationship with Lord Castelreagh, the Chief Secretary for Ireland.

In his combined role as both Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief Cornwallis oversaw the defeat of both the Irish rebels and a French invasion force led by General Humbert that landed in Connaught in August 1798. Panicked by the landing, and the British defeat at the Battle of Castlebar, thousands of reinforcements were despatched to Ireland swelling his forces to 60,000.[17] The French invaders were defeated and forced to surrender at the Battle of Ballinamuck. During the Autumn Cornwallis secured government control over the island, and organised the supression of the remaining supporters of the United Irish movement.

He was also responsible for ordering the Military Road in Wicklow built, to root out rebels to the south of Dublin. It was part of a lengthy operation in mopping up the last areas of resistance, which lasted until Cornwallis' departure in 1801.

Treaty of AmiensEdit


On 25 March 1802, he signed the Treaty of Amiens with Napoleon. He and General Charles O'Hara (his second in command from Charleston to Yorktown) have the rare distinction of dealing with both Washington and Napoleon. The end of the War of the Second Coalition, financial pressure, and the resignation of William Pitt on 16 February 1801, made the temporary peace possible. Henry Addington succeeded him, and appointed Cornwallis Minister Plenipotentiary. The British negotiators in Paris, were led by Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool. Despite their efforts, the peace soon broke down, and war recommenced.


He was reappointed governor-general of India in 1805, but on October 5, shortly after arriving, died of a fever at Gauspur in Ghazipur, that time under Varanasi kingdom. There Cornwallis is buried overlooking the Ganges River, where his memorial continues to be maintained by the Government of India, in city of Ghazipur.


Today Cornwallis is remembered primarily as the British commander who surrendered at Yorktown. Because of the enormous impact the siege—and its result—had on American history he is still fairly well-known in the United States - and is often referenced in popular culture. In the 2000 film The Patriot about the events leading up to Yorktown, Cornwallis was portrayed by English actor Tom Wilkinson.[18]

In Ireland due to the execution of rebel prisoners in Ballinalee after the Battle of Ballinamuck, he achieved local notoriety that lasts to this day. In the village, in the north Leinster county of Longford, the site of the executions is known as Bully's Acre. In India he is known for his victory against Tipu Sultan in Mysore war and promulgation of revenue and judicial acts. He is also known in India for his brutality and cunning.[citation needed]

Fort Cornwallis, founded in 1786 in George Town, Prince of Wales Island (now the island part of the Malaysian state of Penang), is named after General Cornwallis.

He also has a building named after him at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

A large statue of Cornwallis can be seen in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.



  1. Harvey p.526
  2. Template:Venn
  3. Bicheno p.168
  4. Weintraub p.34
  5. Weintraub p.62
  6. Harvey p.377
  7. Harvey p.467
  8. Harvey p.467
  9. Harvey p.424-427
  10. Wickwire, Cornwallis, The American Adventure, 1970
  11. Cornwallis Papers, Public Record Office the dates of receipt throughout this period of the war are usually two to three weeks after the date of dispatch
  12. Cornwallis, C, An Answer to the Narrative of Sir Henry Clinton, appended table.
  13. Clinton to Cornwallis, June 15th, 1781, Cornwallis Papers, Public Record Office
  14. Bicheno p.265
  15. Weintraub p.315
  16. Hibbert p.302
  17. Harvey. War of Wars. p.224-5


Primary documents/sourcesEdit

  • Public Record Office, United Kingdom: Cornwallis Papers, Ref: 30/11/1-66
  • The Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. 1, 1859, ed. Ross.

Secondary sourcesEdit

  • Adams, R: "A View of Cornwallis's Surrender at Yorktown", American Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Oct., 1931), pp. 25-49,
  • Bicheno, H: Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War, London, 2003
  • Buchanan, J: The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution and the Carolinas, New York, 1997
  • Clement, R: "The World Turned Upside down At the Surrender of Yorktown", Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 363 (Jan. - Mar., 1979), pp. 66-67
  • Ferling, J: The World Turned Upside Down: The American Victory in the War of Independence, London, 1988
  • Harvey, R: A Few Bloody Noses: The American War of Independence, London, 2001
  • Harvey, R: War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France 1789-1815, London, 2007
  • Hibbert, C: Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolution Through British Eyes, London, 2001
  • Hibbert, C: King George III: A Personal History,
  • Mackesy, P: The War for America, London, 1964
  • Pakenham, H: The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798, London 1969
  • Peckham, H:The War for Independence, A Military History, Chicago, 1967
  • Weintraub, S: Iron Tears, Rebellion in America 1775-1783, London, 2005
  • Wickwire, F: Cornwallis, The American Adventure, Boston, 1970

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
The Viscount Bolingbroke
Lord of the Bedchamber
Succeeded by
Not replaced
Preceded by
John MacPherson
Governor-General of India
Succeeded by
John Shore, 1st Baron Teignmouth
Preceded by
Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond
Master-General of the Ordnance
Succeeded by
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham
Preceded by
John Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
1798– 1801
Succeeded by
Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke
Preceded by
Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley
Governor-General of India
Succeeded by
George Hilario Barlow
Preceded by
John Monson, 2nd Baron Monson
Justice in Eyre
South of the Trent

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Fletcher Norton, 1st Baron Grantley
Title last held by
George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland
British Plenipotentiary to France
Succeeded by
Charles Whitworth, 1st Earl Whitworth
Military offices
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Sir Robert Sloper
Commander-in-Chief, India
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Robert Abercromby of Airthrey
Preceded by
Ralph Abercromby
Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
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William Medows
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Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake
Commander-in-Chief, India
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Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake
Honorary titles
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John Berkeley, 5th Baron Berkeley of Stratton
Constable of the Tower
Lord Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets

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Lord George Lennox
Preceded by
Lord George Lennox
Constable of the Tower
Lord Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets

Succeeded by
Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Marquess Cornwallis
Succeeded by
Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Marquess Cornwallis
Preceded by
Charles Cornwallis, 1st Earl Cornwallis
Earl Cornwallis

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