In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Cornwallis

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Journals
  • US Government Open-Source Documents
  • Correspondence and Narratives
  • Memoirs and Participant Narratives
  • The War for American Independence
  • The Military Instrument
  • Contemporaries
  • The Southern Strategies
  • Loyalists and Allies
  • Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy

Military History Charles Cornwallis
Stanley Carpenter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0029


Charles Cornwallis, second earl and first marquess Cornwallis, was born on 31 December 1738 and died on 5 October 1805. He was from a prominent Suffolk family and was educated at Eton and at Clare College, Cambridge. His early military career included service as ensign, 1st Foot Guards; captain, 85th Regiment of Foot; brevet lieutenant-colonel, 12th Regiment of Foot; and colonel, 33rd Regiment of Foot. In Parliament, Cornwallis voted against the Stamp Act and advocated addressing colonial grievances. Arriving in the American colonies in 1776, he participated in the failed Charleston offensive and the New York campaign; the battles of Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Fort Mercer in 1777; and Monmouth Court House in 1778. He was appointed Crown commander charged with executing the British Southern Strategy in 1780, intended to destroy enemy regular forces, suppress irregulars, and retake colonies from Georgia northward to reestablish royal authority. Despite a resounding victory at Camden in August 1780, Cornwallis’s force was unable to completely destroy the enemy regulars and to suppress the irregular partisan bands. Defeats of subordinates (Cowpens, January 1781; Kings Mountain, October 1780) stripped away his mounted infantry and dragoons and inhibited Loyalist support. Nevertheless, Cornwallis pressed on and chased the Continental Army under Nathanael Greene across North Carolina in a winter campaign. Cornwallis finally engaged Greene at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, winning the field but suffering irreplaceable casualties. Cornwallis advanced into Virginia, hoping to isolate Greene and conduct Chesapeake Bay operations. Owing to a breakdown in command strategic coherence between General Henry Clinton in New York, Lord George Germain in London, and Cornwallis, the Virginia campaign evolved into a defensive effort at Yorktown. Seeing the opportunity to trap Cornwallis on the narrow York Peninsula, George Washington and the French allies marched to Virginia and besieged Yorktown. The Royal Navy’s failed efforts to rescue the garrison forced Cornwallis to surrender in October 1781. In Britain, Cornwallis and Clinton engaged in a media battle over the Yorktown debacle. Cornwallis emerged the winner; Clinton received official and public blame. Elevated to Knight Companion of the Garter in 1786, Cornwallis became governor general and commander in chief in India (1786–1793), where he instituted civil and military administrative reforms and defeated Tipu Sultan of Mysore, thus assuring British domination. Elevated to marquess, Cornwallis was appointed lord lieutenant and commander in chief in Ireland (1798–1801), where he defeated the Wolfe Tone Irish rebellion and French invaders at Ballinamuck in 1798. Cornwallis was instrumental in the Act of Union of 1800, leading to the creation of the United Kingdom. He led the British delegation at the Peace of Amiens negotiations with Napoleonic France in 1802. In his final service, Cornwallis again took up the governor generalship of India in 1805, but he died of a fever soon after arrival.


Although only one biography of Cornwallis as the central subject has been published since the late 20th century, he is one of the primary subjects of several works that address a collection of British military and political notables. Therefore, a good deal of secondary biographical material is available. George Billias provides a series of biographies (Billias 1994, Billias 1969) of several key officers of both sides. Gleig 1831–1832 is an early Cornwallis biography, written shortly after his death in India. Magill 1987, an edited series, provides a brief biography of Cornwallis. Patterson 2004 compares the generalships of Washington and Cornwallis. Seton-Karr 1890 addresses his early career, North America, and activities after the War for American Independence. The Wickwires published the definitive biography of Cornwallis in two volumes (Wickwire and Wickwire 1970, Wickwire and Wickwire 1980) that cover his early life and military career through the War for American Independence and then his postwar political and military activities.

  • Billias, George A. George Washington’s Generals and Opponents. New York: Da Capo, 1994.

    Billias provides a series of biographies of the most-critical Continental Army and British commanders, written by prominent historians. Includes chapters on Cornwallis, Greene, and Lafayette.

  • Billias, George A., ed. George Washington’s Opponents: British Generals and Admirals in the American Revolution. New York: William Morrow, 1969.

    Billias focused on the British side in this edited volume of short biographies. The value to the Cornwallis researcher is the addition of the Royal Navy commanders, whose failure to break the French hold on the Chesapeake doomed the army besieged at Yorktown.

  • Gleig, G. R. Lives of the Most Eminent British Military Commanders. London: Longman, 1831–1832.

    Gleig provides a dated but still-useful biography of Cornwallis, written three decades after the death of the marquess in India.

  • Magill, Frank N., ed. Great Lives from History: British and Commonwealth Series. Vol. 2, Cax–Gag. Pasadena, CA: Salem, 1987.

    Magill’s edited series provides a brief biography of Cornwallis (see pp. 690–694), useful as a starting point for building Cornwallis research.

  • Patterson, Benton Rain. Washington and Cornwallis: The Battle for America, 1775–1783. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2004.

    Patterson analyzes both Washington and Cornwallis in a compare-and-contrast methodology. Even though the two rarely confronted each other directly, the analysis of the British strategic planning and operational execution in the South is useful to researchers.

  • Seton-Karr, W. S. Rulers of India: The Marquess Cornwallis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1890.

    Seton-Karr produced one of the few works on Cornwallis that addresses his early career, activities in North America, and his post–War for American Independence career, as governor general and commander in chief of India and lord lieutenant of Ireland.

  • Wickwire, Franklin, and Mary Wickwire. Cornwallis: The American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

    The definitive biography of Cornwallis addresses his early life and military career through the War for American Independence from 1776 to Yorktown. Two features are especially helpful to researchers: a general narrative of events, particularly for the Southern Campaign, and references to the letters and correspondence, especially among Cornwallis, Sir Henry Clinton, and Lord George Germain.

  • Wickwire, Franklin, and Mary Wickwire. Cornwallis: The Imperial Years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

    The second Wickwire biography continues the career of Cornwallis in the post–War for American Independence period, addressing his appointment as governor general of India (two terms), lord lieutenant of Ireland, master of the ordnance, and chief British negotiator at the Peace of Amiens (1802).

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