Charles Cornwallis, Lord Cornwallis, is remembered as one of the salient military leaders of the American Revolution, blamed for the British defeat at Yorktown that marked the beginning of the end of the Revolution. Yet as Richard Middleton´s masterful new biography illustrates, Cornwallis´ North American service from 1776 to 1781 was just a chapter in a life characterised by public service grounded in deep-seated belief in the British system of government based on ´a judicious Aristotelian blend of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy´. He subsequently ably served as Governor-General of Bengal and Commander-in-Chief in the successful campaign against Tipu Sultan, which despite early setbacks restored his tarnished reputation for the Yorktown catastrophe.
If it had been left to Cornwallis, his small army of 3,200 men fit for duty would never have been trapped at Yorktown. While factors such as logistical difficulties supporting armies in a vast theatre of war thousands of miles from Britain probably made the outcome inevitable, personal blame for the ignominious surrender at Yorktown must be laid at the well-polished boots of Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief in North America and Cornwallis´s superior. Cornwallis opposed Clinton´s orders to occupy and fortify Yorktown and Gloucester which was ´the antithesis of the war that Cornwallis wanted to wage´. Correspondence between the two generals grew increasingly acrimonious; Cornwallis was ´dispirited by Clinton´s constant carping´ and ´constant change of direction´, and Cornwallis believed that Clinton was ´determined to throw all the blame´ on him for any setbacks. Cornwallis, an obedient soldier despite misgivings, predicted defeat if Clinton could not relieve him, writing that ´very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst´.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cornwallis could not accept that the American colonists could turn against their king. He believed that the colonists ´had fallen victim to the wiles of a malevolent minority´ and would return to the British fold once ´the tyranny of their wicked leaders´ was defeated. If Washington and his generals had been decisively beaten in the early years of the Revolution this may have proven correct, but American victories led to growing popular support for the rebels. Allegiances shifted; an estimated one-third of the colonists were active supporters of the rebellion, another third were loyalists, and the remainder were ´fence sitters´. My own ancestors provide a good example; my fifth great-grandfather, an officer in the colonial Virginia militia, asserted that he could not take up arms because of the oath he had sworn to King George. His teenage son, my fourth great-grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, fighting at Germantown and Brandywine until wounded at the siege of Fort Mifflin.
My only criticism of the book is that Middleton seems to have succumbed to judging the past through modern lenses, as warned by the jacket blurb that Cornwallis was linked ´inextricably with the unacceptable face of Britain´s colonial past´. Cornwallis was a man of his time – a decent person loyally serving King and Country.
Timothy Ashby is a historian and author of Elizabethan Secret Agent: The Untold Story of William Ashby (1536-1593).