Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Charles Cornwallis

CHARLES CORNWALLIS, SECOND EARL CORNWALLIS (1738–1805)

Detail from Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown, oil on canvas, 1840. Library of Virginia Fine Arts Collection: acquired 1878.

Charles Cornwallis was the commanding general of the British forces during the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War and was forced to surrender to American troops at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. This was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War and effectively ended the war although fighting continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. Despite the surrender, Cornwallis remained popular with the British ministry and was not held at fault for the ultimate ending of the war.

Prior to the war Cornwallis had spent much of his youth in England. He was born in London and was the son of Charles, fifth baron and first earl of Cornwallis, and Elizabeth Townsend Cornwallis. He began his military career in 1756 and served during the Seven Years' War. On the death of his father in 1762 Cornwallis became a member of the House of Lords as the second earl Cornwallis. In 1768 he married Jemina Tullikens Jones and they had two children. When it became evident that there would be a war between the colonies and the British mainland, Cornwallis offered his services to the Crown and arrived in America in 1776.

During the Revolutionary War Cornwallis was able to subdue American forces during the Battle of Long Island and open Philadelphia to British occupation at Brandywine Creek in 1777. After a brief visit to England, Cornwallis returned to America as a lieutenant general, second in command to Sir Henry Clinton. After another trip to England to visit his ailing wife, he sailed with Clinton from New York at the end of December 1779, arriving in South Carolina in February 1780 to lay siege to Charles Town (present-day Charleston). When the city fell in May, Clinton left for New York and Cornwallis became commander of the British forces in the South. Later he marched toward the coast of Virginia at Yorktown, but being surrounded by American and French forces, Cornwallis was forced to surrender on October 19, 1781.

After the war Cornwallis was offered the governor generalship of India in 1786, where he was able to reform the civil service and the judicial system. From 1790 to 1792 he led campaigns that won the British victory in the Third Mysore War and was rewarded with the title of marquess. After agreeing to serve as both lord lieutenant and commander in chief of Ireland in 1798, Cornwallis put down both a rebellion and a French invasion. In 1805 he returned to India as governor-general; he died less than three months after his arrival, however.

Suggested Reading:

"Cornwallis, Charles, First Marquess Cornwallis." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 2004, 13:474–482.