Richard Middleton on Cornwallis

Richard Middleton

The author of a new biography dispels myths about Charles Cornwallis, the commander who surrendered to George Washington.
Richard Middleton
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Richard Middleton, Charles, 1st Marquis Cornwallis is probably most well-known for his disastrous military leadership during the American War of Independence. Was he really a terrible commander? 

Cornwallis’s career as a field commander certainly began badly when he allowed Washington to escape from Trenton in early January 1777. However, he proved an energetic commander in the Carolinas, beloved by his troops for sharing their hardships, and feared by the Americans for his speed and courage in attack, as demonstrated by his stunning victory at Camden in August 1780. His subsequent entrapment at Yorktown was largely the fault of his superior, Sir Henry Clinton, who ordered Cornwallis to abandon his plans for a war of manoeuvre in favour of constructing a naval base in Chesapeake Bay, despite warnings about the dangers of such an enterprise should the British lose command of the sea.

Prior to the War of Independence he had voted against the 1765 Stamp Act, which was an early indicator of his sympathy for Britain’s colonists. What was it that led him to take these progressive views that were out of step of many of his peers.

The Cornwallis family had been part of the Whig establishment since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Cornwallis naturally supported the Whigs and their American policies when the party returned to office in 1765.  But any sympathy for the Patriot cause ended with the dismissal of the Whig ministry a few months later, since Cornwallis transferred his political allegiance to the ministries of Chatham, Grafton and North. Thereafter he invariably supported the government’s attempts to suppress colonial disaffection and eagerly volunteered to serve in America on the outbreak of hostilities.

Initially he served under General William Howe, who also had sympathy for the colonists. What was their relationship like?  

Cornwallis enjoyed a good working relationship with Howe and readily supported Howe’s desire to avoid unnecessary bloodshed in hopes of reconciling the colonies to British rule. Cornwallis’s affability and good judgement subsequently prompted Howe to make him his second in command during the 1777 campaign to capture Philadelphia, much to the annoyance of Clinton, who was the more senior officer.  It was to be the start of a simmering relationship between the two men that lasted long after Howe had returned to England.

Cornwallis’ wife, Jemima, died during the War of Independence in 1779. How much was he affected by her death?  

Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown

Cornwallis was deeply affected by the death of his wife. The relationship had been entirely romantic on Cornwallis’s part, since Jemima was not from a socially prominent family and brought little in the way of a dowry. Until her death, Cornwallis appeared to be someone entirely at ease with himself and his emotions. Suddenly the public saw this same self-possessed individual reduced to the ‘greatest distress,’ unable to transact business or talk with his closest companions. Eight months later Cornwallis told his brother William that the slightest memory of Jemima was still enough ‘harrow up his soul.’ It was to escape his grief that he decided to return to America, even though it promised ‘little glory or fame’.

Did Cornwallis refuse to meet George Washington at the surrender in in October 1781 (which appears quite petulant) – was this out of character?

The charge of refusing to meet Washington was certainly out of character and also untrue.  Cornwallis was suffering from a recurrent attack of malaria at the time of the surrender and necessarily had to stay in his quarters. Three days later he had sufficiently recovered to attend a dinner given by Washington, where he complimented his host by suggesting that Washington would be remembered less for Yorktown and more for his escape from Trenton, when he had kept the American cause alive during its darkest hour.

How crucial was his role in making much of the Indian sub-continent part of the British Empire?

Cornwallis’s mission in India was to restore the finances of the East India Company and eliminate the abuses that had sullied its reputation. The acquisition of overseas territory was not on the agenda following the loss of the American colonies. Despite this, Cornwallis was eventually forced into a war with Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, because of the latter’s attack on an ally of the Company. The conflict was certainly un-welcome to Cornwallis, as it threatened to undo his attempts to reform the Company. Nevertheless, the outcome was the acquisition of additional territory in southern India, though Cornwallis was careful to ensure that the Company’s allies, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Peshwa of Pune, received an equal share of the spoils.

Irish catholic emancipation was something that Cornwallis believed vital to the success of the union. He was probably right when one considers subsequent events in Ireland, but isn’t his failure to persuade George III on this issue more down to the fact that the numbers in the HoC just weren’t available, so the king was unable to overrule parliament, particularly in a matter so sensitive?

George III opposed emancipation because he believed compliance would mean breaking his coronation oath to protect the established church. He may also have been strengthened in his resolve by the knowledge that Parliament would probably reject the measure, even with the support of Pitt, Henry Dundas and Lord Grenville. Cornwallis, of course, was in Ireland and unable to exert any direct influence, either on George III or Parliament, though like everyone else, he should have anticipated the King’s likely reaction. Cornwallis deeply regretted the exclusion of the Catholics and accurately predicted the eventual demise of the Union in consequence.

He died soon after he returned to India in 1805 – was it the journey or the Indian climate that contributed to his illness?   

Cornwallis returned to Bengal to restore the East India Company once more to financial stability. Most importantly, he was to reverse the expansionist and costly policies of Marquis Wellesley, who, without authorization, had coerced various Indian rulers into becoming dependents of the Company. Cornwallis was now sixty-six years old, a considerable age for so onerous an undertaking. After passing the equator he began to lose weight and shocked observers on arrival in Calcutta by his emaciated appearance. The likely cause of his illness was stomach cancer, since he increasingly complained of abdominal pain.  His physical decline continued as he journeyed up the Ganges to make peace with the Maratha princes. The end came at Ghazipur where he lapsed into unconsciousness and died four days later surrounded by his aides.

What is Cornwallis’ legacy today?

Superficially Cornwallis appears to have been consistently on the wrong side of history. The American colonies were lost, India eventually slipped from Britain’s grasp, and the Union with Ireland ultimately failed. But such is the fate of most public figures with the passage of time, though Cornwallis’s administrative reforms still find acknowledgment among Indian historians. What deserves to be remembered is his outstanding career as a public servant, during which he demonstrated an innate sense of fairness, honesty and decency, as exemplified by his dislike of slavery, his condemnation of gratuitous cruelty, his dislike of religious bigotry, his humanitarian response to the needy, his determination to root out profiteering, and his belief that ability not privilege should be the guide in making appointments.

Richard Middleton is the author of Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World, published by Yale University Press.