General Lord Charles Cornwallis

December 31, 1738–October 5, 1805

Charles Cornwallis was a British soldier and General during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Despite many successes during the war, he was unable to defeat American forces and their French allies, which led to his surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait

Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Who was General Lord Charles Cornwallis?

Lord Charles Cornwallis was a General in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). He held various commands during the war and participated in key battles, including the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and the Battle of Camden. However, he is most well-known for his surrender that ended the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, leading to peace negotiations between the United States and Great Britain. Despite this defeat at Yorktown, Cornwallis continued to serve the British Empire, overseeing its expansion into India as Governor-General.

Charles Cornwallis Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: Charles Edward Cornwallis V was born on December 31, 1738.
  • Parents: His parents were Charles Cornwallis and Elizabeth Townshend.
  • Date of Death: Cornwallis died on October 5, 1805, at the age of 66.
  • Buried: He is buried in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Charles Cornwallis — His Family, Early Life, and Career

Charles Cornwallis was born in London in 1738, to an aristocratic family. His father was Charles Cornwallis, the 5th Baron Cornwallis, and the 1st Earl Cornwallis. His mother was Elizabeth Townshend, the daughter of Charles Townshend and niece of Robert Walpole.

Cornwallis inherited his title in his early twenties and became a member of the House of Lords. His family also had a long military tradition. His uncle, Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis, and his brother, Admiral William Cornwallis, were both distinguished officers.

He received a formal education at prestigious institutions such as Eton College and, briefly, Clare College at Cambridge University. However, he decided to pursue a career in the army and obtained an ensign’s commission in the First Foot Guards in 1756. He served in the Seven Years’ War in Europe and became an experienced and able soldier known for his skills as an aide-de-camp to the Marquess of Granby and as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Twelfth Foot. He commanded troops in German at the battles of Vellinghausen, Wilhelmsthal, and Lutterberg.

His military background and experience made him a skilled and formidable opponent for George Washington, Horatio Gates, Nathanael Greene, and the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.

Cornwallis in Parliament

Charles Cornwallis started his political career in the House of Commons in 1760. Two years later, his father died and he was elevated to the House of Lords. He was a member of the Rockingham Whigs and supported John Wilkes. Despite his opposition to the policies of the Ministry, he was respected for his integrity by King George III and others.

As a member of Parliament, Cornwallis opposed the taxes imposed on the American Colonies and was known for supporting the rights of the colonies. He was one of five members in the House of Lords who voted against the Stamp Act of 1765 — he also supported the repeal of the Stamp Act. He opposed the Declaratory Act, which affirmed Parliament’s power to pass legislation to govern the colonies.

Marriage to Jemima Tulkiens

In 1768, Cornwallis married Jemima Tulkiens, and they had two children, Mary and Charles. When the American Revolutionary War broke out, Cornwallis had to balance his sense of duty to the crown with his family life and objections to the way the American was handled by the King, Ministry, and Parliament.

Charles Cornwallis Joins the American Revolutionary War

Cornwallis, like Richard Howe and William Howe, disliked the war in America but volunteered in 1775 to serve out of a sense of duty to his country. Before he sailed to America, he was promoted to the rank of Major General. In February 1776, he was put in charge of ten regiments and sailed from Cork, Ireland to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina on a fleet of ships under the command of Admiral Peter Parker.

Cornwallis and Parker had orders to take action against the Southern Colonies and then move north to reinforce General William Howe in New York. By the time the fleet arrived at North Carolina, Cornwallis and Parker found out British forces had been beaten at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. The victory gave the Americans control of North Carolina, forcing Clinton and Parker to change their plans and sail to South Carolina.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island

Parker’s fleet sailed to Charleston to support General Henry Clinton as he attempted to capture the city. Cornwallis commanded the 33rd Regiment during the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. However, the South Carolina forces were able to repel the British attack. Following the defeat, Parker’s fleet, along with Cornwallis and Clinton, went to New York to assist General William Howe in his effort to capture New York City.

Battle of Sullivan's Island, Moultrie Flag, Illustration
American forces raise the Moultrie Flag at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New York and New Jersey Campaign

In New York, Cornwallis participated in various operations against George Washington and the Continental Army throughout the fall of 1776. He played an important role in several important British victories, which forced Washington out of Long Island, off of Manhattan Island, and into New Jersey.

During the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, Cornwallis commanded the reserve wing and led the advance forces on General Henry Clinton’s flanking maneuver through Jamaica Pass. As American forces retreated, Cornwallis moved in and engaged the command of General William Alexander, Lord Stirling. Alexander, leading the 1st Maryland Regiment, led a historic stand against Cornwallis, allowing many Americans to escape to the safety of Brooklyn Heights.

Following Long Island, Cornwallis led troops at the Landing at Kip’s Bay on September 15. British forces routed the Americans and continued their advance against Washington and his army.

On November 19, General Howe sent Cornwallis, with 4,000, men to capture Fort Lee. The Americans were warned and Washington ordered his men to abandon the fort. Cornwallis attacked the fort on November 20, but most of the Americans were already gone by the time he arrived. He captured the fort and supplies that were left behind.

Cornwallis Pursues Washington Across New Jersey

After the capture of Fort Lee, Howe ordered Cornwallis to pursue Washington into New Jersey. On December 1st, he was close to catching up to Washington but received orders from General Howe to hold his position on the banks of the Raritan River. The pause allowed Washington to start crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Howe arrived at Brunswick and joined Cornwallis on December 6. By the 8th, Washington’s entire army was in Pennsylvania and the British arrived in Trenton. They looked for boats to use to cross the Delaware River, but the Americans had either moved them across the river or destroyed them.

On December 14, Howe decided to end the campaign and go into winter quarters. Cornwallis supported the decision and also recommended setting up outposts throughout New Jersey. Initially, Howe wanted to place outposts along the Raritan River, instead of the Delaware River. However, Cornwallis was convinced Washington was too weak to attack, so he suggested placing the outposts along the Delaware River — including Trenton — which Howe agreed to.

The outposts along the river were garrisoned by the Hessian mercenaries, who were feared by most Americans — Patriots and Loyalists — due to their reputation for brutality. In fact, as the British army chased Washington across New Jersey, the Hessians committed atrocities that upset and embarrassed their British commanders. 

Like many British officials, Cornwallis believed the presence of British troops in New Jersey would:

  1. Encourage Loyalists to support the British Army and join the fight. 
  2. Discourage Patriots to take up arms against the British.

After setting up the outposts in New Jersey, Howe and Cornwallis returned to New York City. Cornwallis planned to board a ship and sail to London to visit his family.

Washington Attacks Trenton and Cornwallis Resumes Pursuit

Against the odds, Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night and attacked the British outpost at Trenton. The Americans routed the garrison and then fell back across the river. When Howe found out about the attack, he recalled Cornwallis, ordered him to rejoin his army, and, march back to Trenton to engage Washington. Cornwallis went to Brunswick and joined with General James Grant and gathered roughly 8,000 troops. By January 1, Cornwallis was at Princeton, roughly 20 miles northeast of Trenton. 

Meanwhile, Washington had decided to cross back over into New Jersey and planned to attack  Princeton. On January 2, Cornwallis moved out of Princeton to march to Trenton. He left around 1,400 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood in Princeton to serve as his rear guard.

American forces engaged the British advance parties that afternoon at Trenton. The Americans were pushed to the banks of the Assunpink Creek, where they were essentially trapped between the creek and the Delaware River. Around 5:00 p.m. Cornwallis ordered several attacks that were all beaten back due to heavy fire from the American forces. The British and Hessians suffered heavy casualties each time. As night fell, Cornwallis decided to withdraw and engage Washington the next morning.

That night, Washington executed another bold move. In the dead of night, he marched his army out and around the right flank of the British, completely undetected. The Americans marched 18 miles east and then went north along backroads without being heard or seen — right past Cornwallis and his men as they slept — and made their way to Princeton.

Battle of Trenton, Painting, McBarron
This painting by Hugh Charles McBarron depicts American forces storming Trenton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Battle of Princeton

The next morning, Washington attacked Princeton. In Trenton, Cornwallis and his men heard the souths of the battle. Cornwallis, surprised to find Washington gone, mobilized his men and marched to Princeton. They arrived right around the time the Americans were destroying Stony Creek Bridge, which forced the British to wade across the creek. The Americans held their ground and forced a fight, which delayed Cornwallis and gave Washington and the main army more time to move away from Princeton.

After the battle, Washington marched to Morristown, New Jersey, and went into winter quarters. The British returned to Brunswick and Cornwallis finally sailed to London.

Brandywine and Monmouth

During the winter of 1776–1777, British officials approved a plan, developed by General John Burgoyne, to cut New England off from the other colonies. According to the plan, Burgoyne would lead an army out of Canada and march to Albany, New York. Howe would march north out of New York City and meet him there, effectively isolating New England.

Cornwallis returned to America where Howe decided to attack Philadephia instead of moving north to meet Burgoyne. Cornwallis supported the move and distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine on September 27, 1777. During the battle, he led 8,000 men in a flanking maneuver that split the Continental Army’s line.

Two weeks later, Cornwallis helped capture Philadephia. The British took the city without firing a single shot. Afterward, Cornwallis occupied Philadelphia and then reinforced Howe at the Battle of Germantown. When the campaign season ended, Cornwallis once again returned to England to see his family.

Saratoga Leads to France Entering the War

The capture of Philadelphia was overshadowed by the defeat and surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. Saratoga was a significant turning point in the war because it allowed the Americans to regain control of the Hudson River Valley. It also convinced France to begin negotiations with Benjamin Franklin for an alliance, which was established by a treaty on February 6, 1778.

Cornwallis Becomes Second-in-Command to Clinton

General Howe resigned from his position in February 1778 and was replaced by General Clinton on May 7. Cornwallis became Second-in-Command to Clinton. 

However, with France involved, Clinton’s resources were limited, because Britain had to protect its interest in the West Indies from the French. As a result, Clinton received orders to pull out of Philadelphia and concentrate his forces in the North. Beyond that, he was to send an expedition to Georgia to attack Savannah. 

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution
General Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Monmouth

Clinton started the march to New York, which exposed him to attacks from Washington and other American forces in New Jersey, who had spent the winter of 1777–1778 training at Valley Forge. By June 27, both armies were in the vicinity of Monmouth Court House and Washington intended to attack Clinton on the 28th.

Before dawn on the 28th, British forces started leaving Monmouth Court House. The initial American attack, led by General Charles Lee, was delayed. Cornwallis and his men defended the rear of the column when Lee finally attacked around 10:00 a.m. However, his attack was disorganized and ineffective. The two armies battled throughout the day. The Americans gained a slight advantage due to the placement of artillery on its right flank. From there, the batteries could fire on the British from a safe distance and the British were unable to fire back.

It was a long, hot day, and by 5:00 the men were exhausted — some even died from heat exhaustion. Clinton ended the ground attacks but continued to bombard Washington with artillery. Washington tried to launch a ground assault, but the men were unable to respond due to fatigue. Clinton withdrew and rested his men. That night, he marched away from Monmouth Court House and arrived back in New York City on July 5, 1778.

Death of Countess Cornwallis

Cornwallis received news that his wife was ill, and he sailed for London in December 1778. He arrived in February 1779. Unfortunately, he was devastated when she passed away less than a month later.

The British Southern Strategy and Campaign

Despite his grief, Cornwallis decided to return to America and rejoin Clinton. With the war at a stalemate in the North, British officials decided to implement a “Southern Strategy.” 

The Southern Strategy was simple — as far as the British were concerned. They would eliminate Patriot resistance in Georgia first, and then systematically move north, to South Carolina, North Carolina, and then Virginia. They believed if they could retake the South, the Middle Colonies would follow, and then New England would be isolated. However, the Southern Strategy was based on the false assumption that Southern Loyalists would turn out to fight for the Crown.

Clinton started the Southern Campaign in December 1778. British forces, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, captured Savannah, Georgia. Despite minor setbacks at the Battle of Beaufort and the Battle of Kettle Creek, American forces, which were under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, retreated to Charleston, South Carolina after a failed attempt to recapture Savannah in October 1779.

Siege of Charleston

When Lincoln returned to Charleston, he fortified the city. Meanwhile, General Clinton made plans to attack the city and take control of South Carolina. Cornwallis joined Clinton for the Siege of Charleston in late March 1780. Although they initially worked well together, their relationship became strained, which affected their future communications. However, they were able to capture Charleston on May 12, 1780 — the single greatest British victory in the war.

Soon after, Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis in charge of securing the Southern Colonies. Cornwallis had roughly 8,300 men under his command, but he needed more. His success would lie in the ability of his men to raise Loyalist volunteers.

Siege of Charleston, 1780, Painting, Chappel
This painting by Alonzo Chappel depicts the Siege of Charleston. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Cornwallis Defeats Gates at Camden

After the Americans lost Charleston, Congress placed General Horatio Gates in command of the Southern Army. Gates assembled his army and marched into South Carolina. When Cornwallis found out, he left Charleston and went to engage Gates near Camden.

The two armies met north of Camden on the morning of August 16th. When Gates deployed his men for the battle, he made a critical error, and placed inexperienced Virginia militia under the command of Brigadier General Edward Stevens on his left, and experienced units from the Maryland and Delaware Line on his right. When Cornwallis sent his men forward, the Virginia militia immediately turned and ran, causing the rest of the American line to collapse.

The British victory at Camden effectively destroyed American forces in the southern theater and Cornwallis set out to bring the South Carolina Backcountry under control.

Cornwallis Intends to Subdue the Southern Colonies

Cornwallis had been tasked by Clinton with retaining British control of Georgia and South Carolina. Initially, he was able to raise Loyalist Militia, establish supply outposts throughout South Carolina, and crushed Gates at Camden.

However, Cornwallis faced the possibility of a Patriot attack from North Carolina and developed his own scheme for conquering the Southern Colonies. He believed he needed to keep moving and crush Patriot Militia in both North Carolina and Virginia. From there, he would meet Clinton on the Chesapeake and launch a joint attack on the Middle Colonies. In order to strengthen his army, Cornwallis sent Major Patrick Ferguson and Lieutenant Colonel John Moore out into the North Carolina Backcountry to recruit more Loyalists. While both were able to recruit men to join them, they also attracted the attention of American forces operating in the backcountry.

The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill Turns the Tide in North Carolina

Lieutenant Colonel Moore went to the area around Ramsour’s Mill, North Carolina. Cornwallis told Moore to recruit men, but not to mobilize because he wanted the Loyalists to focus on raising and harvesting their crops. In turn, the crops would provide food for the British Army. However, Moore ignored Cornwallis and gathered 1,300 Loyalists volunteers at Ramsour’s Mill and prepared to engage the North Carolina Militia.

General Griffith Rutherford, the commander of the North Carolina Militia, sent Colonel Francis Locke to attack Moore’s camp, which he did on the morning of June 20. The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill was fierce, disorganized, and lasted for around two hours. The Loyalists were eventually overwhelmed and retreated. The American victory left the Patriots in control of the state and reduced the willingness of Loyalists to volunteer to aid Cornwallis.

The Battle of Kings Mountain Turns the Tide in South Carolina

As Cornwallis prepared to move into North Carolina, British forces, primarily Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson, were protecting the left flank of the British Army. Ferguson was also recruiting Loyalists in the backcountry and chasing after Patriot Militia forces.

Ferguson issued a proclamation in September that warned militia forces in the western settlements to lay down their arms, saying “if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”

The settlements responded by mobilizing their militia forces to attack Ferguson and his men. Ferguson was warned about the attack and moved toward Cornwallis and the army for protection. Before he could join Cornwallis, the Patriots attacked him at Kings Mountain, near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina.

The Americans surrounded Ferguson and his men, who were trapped on the top of the small mountain. The intense fight came to an end when Ferguson was fatally wounded, and his men surrendered. At first, the Americans gave “no quarter,” and carried out revenge for their men who had been killed at the Battle of Waxhaws by British forces under the command of Banastre Tarleton.

When Cornwallis learned about the American victory at Kings Mountain, he decided to abandon the invasion of North Carolina and retreat to South Carolina.

The Battle of Kings Mountain.

Francis Marion Wages Guerilla Warfare on British Supply Lines

When Cornwallis moved into North Carolina, he overextended his supply lines, which exposed them to attacks by South Carolina Patriots. General Francis Marion organized a small army and waged guerilla warfare on the British as they moved throughout South Carolina. Cornwallis responded by sending Tarleton after Marion in November 1780. Tarleton chased Marion through the South Carolina swamps for 26 miles before Marion finally eluded him, which earned Marion the nickname “The Swamp Fox.”

Nathanael Greene Moves South

After Gates was defeated at Camden, Washington placed General Nathanael Greene in command of the Southern Army. Once he was in the South, Greene made a bold decision to divide his army. Greene took half the army and went in one direction, and he sent General Daniel Morgan and the other half into the backcountry to harass British forces. Cornwallis went after Greene and sent Tarleton to engage Morgan.

Battle of Cowpens

On January 12, 1781, Tarleton found Morgan, who responded by retreating until he found a good place to stand his ground and engage the British. The place he chose was a “cowpens” — a pasture — near the Broad River.

The British approached the American camp on the morning of January 17. When the British attacked, Morgan used his sharpshooters to pick off Tarleton’s officers. South Carolina Militia, led by Andrew Pickens, attacked the British and fell back. When the British chased after them, American cavalry forces under the command of William Washington rushed in and caught the British in a trap.

After a fierce one-on-one duel with Washington, Tarleton escaped and reported the devastating loss to Cornwallis. Morgan rejoined Greene and they marched toward Virginia for supplies. However, they needed to cross the Dan River in the Blue Ridge Mountains before Cornwallis caught up to them.

The Race to the Dan

Cornwallis gathered his forces and pursued Greene into North Carolina. In order to speed up his army, Cornwallis had his men burn their baggage. American forces covering Greene’s rear slowed the British down as they crossed the Catawba River. 

The two armies engaged in small battles and skirmishes en route to the Dan River. On February 11, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee engaged the British at Summerfield, North Carolina. The engagement slowed Cornwallis down just enough to allow Greene to begin crossing the Dan River on February 13. It took almost 24 hours for the Americans to cross. When they did, they took all boats they could find across with them into Virginia. 

By the time the British arrived at the river on the 15th, they were unable to continue the pursuit, because the water level of the river was too high and there were no boats.

Cornwallis had pursued Greene for roughly three weeks. Not only did he lose the Race to the Dan, but he also destroyed his supplies along the way. Greene caught Cornwallis in a battle of attrition, similar to what happened to Burgoyne during the Saratoga Campaign. With every skirmish, the British lost men and used up supplies — and had no way to replace them.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Guilford Court House — Turning Point in the Southern Theater

After Greene escaped, Cornwallis marched to Wilmington, North Carolina to rest his men and replenish his supplies. 

In March, Greene crossed back into North Carolina and moved to Guilford Court House. As he marched through North Carolina, he received reinforcements and his army grew to more than 4,000 men. Cornwallis planned to strike a decisive blow against Greene, even though he had less than 2,000 men. He marched to Guilford Court House and the Battle of Guilford Court House started early in the morning of March 15. The British were outnumbered, but more experienced than the Americans. After three hours, Cornwallis was able to drive Greene from the field, however, the British suffered heavy casualties. 

The less of men and need for supplies forced Cornwallis to return to Wilmington while Greene continued to roam the countryside, attacking British outposts and Loyalist Militia forces. By July, the territory controlled by Cornwallis and the British was reduced to Georgia, the coast of South Carolina, and the coast of North Carolina.

Cornwallis Invades Virginia

By April, Cornwallis decided to turn his attention to Virginia. He took matters into his own hands and rarely communicated with General Clinton, who did not authorize the move into Virginia. On May 10, Cornwallis entered Virginia and took command of all British forces there.

Soon after, the British captured several key locations, including Richmond and Charlottesville. Cornwallis sent Tarleton to attack Monticello and try to capture Governor Thomas Jefferson on June 4, 1781. Jefferson was warned about the attack on June 3 and escaped to Lynchburg, Virginia.

Clinton Orders Cornwallis to the Chesapeake Bay

Despite the success in Virginia, General Clinton was concerned George Washington was going to attack him in New York City. To strengthen his position, Clinton asked Cornwallis to send men reinforcements. To do that, Cornwallis needed to be on the coast, where the British Navy could reach him. Clinton ordered Cornwallis to set up a naval base in the Chesapeake Bay and he settled into Yorktown on August 1. Cornwallis intended to use Yorktown as a supply base and also make men available for Clinton, while he continued to battle American forces in the South.

American and French Forces Converge on Cornwallis at Yorktown

General Greene was moving north into Virginia around the same time that Cornwallis was headed to Yorktown. Marquis De Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne were already in the area, and a large French fleet under the command of Admiral De Grasse was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay from the Caribbean,

When Washington found out Cornwallis was at Yorktown, he ordered American forces in the South to block land routes out of the area. On August 14, Washinton learned the French fleet was sailing to Virginia, which would block the British escape by the sea. A week later, Washington marched south along with French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau. However, they left enough men behind to make Clinton think they were planning to attack New York City.

Battle of the Capes

Clinton found out the Allied forces were marching south. He responded by sending Admiral Thomas Graves and a fleet to sail there to reinforce Cornwallis and also sent messages to warn Cornwallis a land attack was possible. The French fleet arrived before the British Navy. On September 5, the French defeated the British at the Battle of the Capes. The British were forced to sail back to New York and the French blockaded the Chesapeake Bay.

Clinton was unaware that Graves was sailing back to New York, and he sent a message to Cornwallis promising he would send reinforcements. Based on Clinton’s message, Cornwallis decided to hold out in Yorktown until help arrived. Two weeks later, American and French forces assembled at Williamsburg, Virginia, and the reinforcements Clinton promised never arrived.

The Siege of Yorktown

On September 28, American and French forces arrived at Yorktown and started to bombard the city. Over the next three weeks, the Allied forces slowly chipped away at British defenses. On October 14, American and French forces attacked strategic British positions outside of Yorktown. Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken led 400 men and took Redoubt Number Nine. Colonel Alexander Hamilton led another 400 troops and took Redoubt Number Ten.

The British tried to sneak out of Yorktown on October 16 by crossing the York River. However, a storm blew in and they were forced to stop the operation. Cornwallis met with his officers, and they agree they had no option but to surrender.

Siege of Yorktown, Overview of the Allied Blockade
This illustration depicts the British forces surrounded by American and French forces at Yorktown. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Cornwallis Surrenders

The next day, Cornwallis sent a drummer out to the American lines. He was followed by an officer carrying a white flag. The officer carried a note from Cornwallis to Washington that said:

“Sir, I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore’s house, to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.”

Over the course of the next 24 hours, Cornwallis and Washington traded notes that established the terms of the British surrender. On the 18th, representatives — one American officer (John Laurens), one French officer (Second Colonel Viscount de Noailles), and two British officers (Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross) — met at Moore House outside of Yorktown to settle the final terms. On October 19, 1781, the Articles of Capitulation were signed. Cornwallis surrendered more than 7,000 officers and men. 

Cornwallis refused to attend the formal ceremony and sent General Charles O’Hara in his place. O’Hara offered the sword of surrender to Rochambeau, who refused and directed O’Hara to give it to Washington. Washington also refused and instructed O’Hara to give it to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln. At that point, the British soldiers laid down their arms between the American and French armies. Legend has it the British band played, “The World Turned Upside Down” during the surrender.

Lord Cornwallis Surrender at Yorktown, Painting, Trumbull
The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Charles Cornwallis After the American Revolutionary War

After Yorktown, Cornwallis returned to England, accompanied by Benedict Arnold. They arrived there on January 21, 1782. 

Despite his defeat at Yorktown, he still had a successful career. He remained in the favor of King George III, while General Clinton was blamed for the British defeat. Clinton published a pamphlet about the defeat at Yorktown that criticized Cornwallis. He was attacked by Tarleton, who wrote a memoir in 1787 that criticized his decisions during the war. Tarleton turned against Cornwallis after some of his men were captured and killed at the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation.

Cornwallis continued to serve in the military and also became a successful administrator in the British Empire. He served with distinction in Ireland and India, where he commanded troops during the Third Anglo-Mysore War from 1790 to 1792. Cornwallis died in India on October 5, 1805.

Significance of Charles Cornwallis

Charles Cornwallis is important to United States history for his role in the American Revolutionary War. He served as Second-in-Command of British land forces during the war under General Henry Clinton. Cornwallis fought in some of the most important battles in New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina. However, he became trapped at Yorktown and was forced to surrender, which eventually led Great Britain to acknowledge the United States as an independent nation.

Charles Cornwallis — He Won Battles But Lost the War

This video from the American Battlefield Trust provides an overview of General Charles Cornwallis during the American Revolutionary War.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title General Lord Charles Cornwallis
  • Date December 31, 1738–October 5, 1805
  • Author
  • Keywords Charles Cornwallis, American Revolutionary War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 26, 2024