As the light began to fade on 2 January 1777, a group of red-coated figures gathered in discussion on a small hill overlooking the village of Trenton, New Jersey. The urgency of their deliberations was emphasised by the rumbling sound of nearby musketry and cannon fire. Closer inspection revealed their uniforms to be those of senior British offices, richly enhanced with gold facings and epaulettes. At their centre was the thirty-eight-year-old Charles, Earl Cornwallis, a major-general in the army that King George III had sent to quell Britain’s rebellious thirteen colonies.
Only ten days before, the rebellion had seemingly collapsed, allowing Cornwallis to board ship for an eagerly anticipated reunion with his beloved wife and children in England. Then, news arrived that the rebel commander, George Washington, had for a second time crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, threatening the recent resurgence of Loyalist support. The response of Sir William Howe, the British commander-in-chief, was immediate. Cornwallis was to gather the cream of his army and administer a final crushing blow.
After marching from Princeton, the British commander arrived at Trenton to find the rebel army cowering behind Assunpink Creek and seemingly trapped. Three initial attempts to force the rebel position were quickly repulsed. The question, accordingly, now posed by Cornwallis to his subordinates was whether to press home the attack or leave it until the morning. All but one advised caution, preferring to wait for daylight, when the task facing them was clearer. To Cornwallis such advice seemed eminently sensible. Night attacks were always problematic. Why rush ahead when a few hours would bring success? Looking at his aristocratic companions, he summed up the position with a metaphor that he knew they would appreciate. ‘We’ve got the Old Fox safe now. Let’s go over and bag him in the morning.’
Within hours Cornwallis knew that he had made a serious mistake: delaying his assault had allowed the rebel army to escape. But he could never have imagined that four and a half years later the roles would be reversed, with Washington the hunter and he, Cornwallis, the fox, cornered this time without escape. The surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 inevitably spelt disaster for the British proponents of directing the war, whether generals, admirals, ministers or even George III, who momentarily considered abdication. Remarkably, Cornwallis was not among them. Instead, he emerged to play a leading role in British public life, first as a reforming governor-general of Bengal; then as minister of war production during the French revolutionary wars; next as lord lieutenant of Ireland entrusted with ending the 1798 rebellion and passing the Act of Union; and lastly as minister plenipotentiary for concluding peace with Napoleonic France.
Despite these important roles there has been only one biography of Cornwallis. The diversity of his life may one reason for the relative lack of biographical attention. Another is that he has become inevitably associated with the unacceptable face of Britain’s colonial past.
Nevertheless, even dead white males have a claim to be understood, because the heroes and noble causes of today will surely become the misguided zealots or discredited ideologies of tomorrow. Cornwallis’s career, in any case, was not one of unalloyed imperialism. Although he began life as the dutiful soldier, he developed into a leader who was habitually progressive in his views, displaying a deep sense of humanity for those less favoured than himself, no matter what their race, religion or circumstance.
These qualities were most conspicuously demonstrated in India, where he sought to protect the lives and well-being of the Bengali people with a constitution of written laws; and in Ireland, where he insisted that no plan of Union could succeed unless the Catholic majority were emancipated and treated as equal subjects. The final chapter in his career saw his return to India to make peace with the Maratha states and reverse the policy of imperial expansion that his predecessor, Marquis Wellesley, had instigated.
Richard Middleton is the author of Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World, published by Yale University Press.