The Decision that Lost Britain the War: An Enigma Now Resolved

Conflict & War

January 8, 2019
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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In this article I address the absurdity of Cornwallis’s decision to march from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Virginia and the light thrown on it by The Cornwallis Papers.[1] The central enigma of the Southern Campaigns, it had until their publication never been able to be satisfactorily resolved.

Lt. Gen. Charles Earl Cornwallis, the British General Officer commanding in the South, arrived in the vicinity of Wilmington on April 7, 1781 after the disastrous winter campaign and his pyrrhic victory at Guilford. His troops were badly in need of refitment. In the meantime Major Gen. Nathanael Greene, the opposing commander, had begun his march for South Carolina, leaving Ramsey’s Mill on Deep River on the 6th.

A picture postcard of the Burgwin-Wright House, Cornwallis’s headquarters in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Boston Public Library/Digital Commons)

As early as April 5 and 6 Cornwallis advised Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour, the Commandant of Charlestown, that he would not remain at Wilmington but run all hazards if Greene attempted any serious move towards South Carolina.[2] As interpreted by Balfour, the letters indicated Cornwallis’s intention of coming after Greene in case of his movement that way.[3] Indeed, they are capable of no other interpretation. And as late as the 22nd Cornwallis reaffirmed to Balfour his intention to return, stating that he could not positively ascertain whether he would keep as low as Georgetown or pass by the head of the Waccamaw River.[4] He went on to direct that supplies coming from Charlestown had better be detained, so that sufficient appear to have been available at Wilmington for his march, a fact borne out by the ample provisions he took with him to Virginia and by the assessment of Major James Henry Craig, who commanded the post at Wilmington, that on May 5 the following were in store there for 1,500 men: “flour 150 days, rum the same, salt meat 60 days.”[5] So much, then, for Cornwallis’s protestations elsewhere that he found it impracticable to return overland to South Carolina, for clearly by these letters he is damned with his own pen. Therefore we must look to other reasons for his failure to keep his word.

Cornwallis was, in fact, in two minds as to what he should do. Not revealed to Balfour during this period but disclosed on the 10th to Major Gen. William Phillips, who was commanding a British diversionary force in the Chesapeake, was Cornwallis’s preference to forsake South Carolina and Georgia in favour of desultory operations in Virginia.[6] Matters came to a head on the 23rd, perhaps at a council of war, at which Cornwallis’s views would have been decisive. On that day he wrote to Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State, and to Sir Henry Clinton, the Commander-in-Chief in North America, advising them of his decision to march northward. Why?

If we are to take Cornwallis’s words at face value,[7] he did not expect any considerable corps left by him in South Carolina to be lost by Greene’s movement, so high was his opinion of Col. Francis Lord Rawdon, commanding at Camden, and the precautions taken by Rawdon and Balfour. Yet, contradictorily, he went on to fear the worst and cite it as a reason for his not marching southward. Yes, he could have provided no immediate assistance, but fulfilling his expectations, Rawdon maintained his post at Camden, defeating Greene in the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, and would have remained there if Cornwallis had marched promptly to relieve him, sending messengers ahead. As to Cornwallis’s protestation that he would have had to return by sea, it is controverted by his letters to Balfour. All in all, Cornwallis’s words are not those of an officer desiring in a perfectly feasible way to retrieve the situation in South Carolina, but rather those of one who was seeking any excuse to shore up his preference to swan around the highways and byways of Virginia, a preference which, as he readily admitted to Phillips, was very unlikely “to overturn the rebel government [there] and to establish a militia and some kind of mixed authority of our own.”[8] At the end of the day it does not take an accomplished strategist to see that desultory operations which did not involve the possession of Virginia would in no way compensate for the loss of South Carolina and incidentally Georgia. Nor, contrary to Cornwallis’s protestations, is it unreasonable to assume that, in line with Clinton’s instructions,[9] they could have continued to be held defensively, albeit tenuously. So, if Cornwallis’s stated reasons for his decision do not make sense, were there others propelling him on? Almost certainly, yes.

A dynamic officer best suited to offensive action, Cornwallis was, as stated in The Cornwallis Papers,[10] temperamentally ill at ease with defensive warfare, a prospect now facing him in his immediate sphere of operations. A humane, cultivated man, he was moreover sickened by the murderous barbarity with which the war was waged by the revolutionary irregulars and state troops of the Carolinas and Georgia. Deterrence was essential, but in keeping with his character he had no stomach for the disagreeable measures involved, a point also made elsewhere in The Cornwallis Papers.[11] In short, as the Wickwires make clear, “Cornwallis had no place in a civil war.”[12] Also contributing to his malaise was the mental and physical fatigue of commanding a whole year’s hard and solid campaigning, fatigue which can be glimpsed during his stay at Wilmington. In his letter to Phillips of the 10th he remarked in a jocular but nevertheless sincere way, “I am quite tired of marching about the country in quest of adventures,” to which there need to be subjoined a few revealing words in the draft of his letter of April 18 to Jeffrey Lord Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army: “I can with great truth assure your Lordship that I have experienced as much care, anxiety and responsibility as ever fell to the share of any commanding officer.”[13] Altogether, it is fairly clear that the weight of his command was bearing down heavily on him. Against this background it is not entirely surprising that Cornwallis should have cast around, perhaps subconsciously, for reasons to release him from the predicament of dealing with a situation which he had come to detest. Always keen to act offensively, he simply opted for the more congenial alternative of doing so in Virginia, well way from the distasteful nature of the war farther south, an alternative, incidentally, which pricked his pride less than the perceived ignominy of conducting a defensive war to the southward after another unsuccessful campaign. These, then, were more likely the real reasons why Cornwallis took the absurd and fateful decision that he did.

Portrait of Cornwallis by Daniel Gardner, painted in 1782, shortly after Cornwallis’s return to England following the loss at Yorktown. (Private Collection)

It ill became Cornwallis to advise Balfour of his determination in an exceedingly offhand way.[14] Not only Balfour but Rawdon, Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger, Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, and countless other officers and men—many at the expense or risk of their lives—had been valiantly involved in maintaining the British position in South Carolina and Georgia at a vast outlay to the exchequer. All was now to come to nought. However much we may sympathise with Cornwallis’s reasons for not wishing to return southward, more weighty considerations were involved. That he chose to discount them or rationalise them away, and incidentally contravene Clinton’s instructions, was at best a serious flaw in his character and at worst a gross dereliction of duty.

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton is not free of blame for placing Cornwallis in the situation in which he found himself. If the light troops had not been lost at the Battle of Cowpens, then there might well have been a favorable outcome to the disastrous winter campaign.[15] In that event Cornwallis would not have felt impelled to march into Virginia and the catastrophe at Yorktown would have been averted.

Intuitively convinced that Clinton would not approve of his decision, Cornwallis quite simply presented him with a fait accompli.  He marched northward on the 25th. All in all, it is no exaggeration to say that his decision was critical in a series of events that cost Britain the southern colonies and lost it the entire war.


[1]Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010) (“CP”).

[2]CP, vol IV, 42-4.

[3]ibid., 171 and 177.

[4]ibid., 122.

[5]ibid., 168.

[6]ibid., 114-5.

[7]ibid., 107-8.

[8]ibid., 115.

[9]CP, vol I, 56-62.

[10]ibid., 5.

[11]ibid., 156.

[12]Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (Houghton Mifflin Co, 1970), 172-3.

[13]CP, vol IV, 117, note 20.

[14]ibid., 122-3.

[15]ibid., ch 39.


  • These are distinctly informative insights about the motivations of Cornwallis before the (British) disaster at Yorktown.
    Of course we should keep in mind that, overall, by 1781 the British government, and its commanders in North America, had already effectively lost the American Revolutionary War.
    I don’t imagine that Cornwallis really thought he was on his way to being part of a great theater-wide victory.

    1. Thank you, Richard.

      May I respectfully disagree that Britain had lost the war by 1781. Be so kind as to refer to a companion piece of mine, namely a groundbreaking essay “Was the American Revolutionary War in the south winnable by the British?” It appears first in my collection of equally groundbreaking essays entitled “The American Revolutionary War in the south: A Re-evaluation from a British perspective in the light of ‘The Cornwallis Papers'” (Tolworth UK: Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd, 2018). Should you wish to obtain a flavour of the essay, please access the webpage, click on the image, and then on “Look inside”, where you will find a fairly lengthy extract.

      Responding to the question posed in the title of the essay, I conclude — like that eminent British historian Piers Mackesy, but for wider reasons — that the answer was “Yes”. For Mackesy’s conclusions, see his “Could the British have won the War of Independence?” (Worcester MA: Clark University Press, 1976, 19, 23-4, and 28).

  • Ian, would be interested in your thoughts on this analysis.

    You provided an interesting and informed analysis as the editor of the Cornwallis Papers. Perhaps Lord Cornwallis became frustrated with the irregular complexities he faced in the Southern Theater, yet understood the only way to win was to stay on the offense.

    After studying the problem, in an effort to understand the environment, I believe Lord Cornwallis understood there were valid strategic and operational reasons to focus efforts on Virginia.
    1. The Kings forces, involving primarily Loyalist militia, but also including numerous regulars, were suffering more casualties in the irregular fight in Carolinas than the Patriot or Whig forces.
    2. Forty percent of the commerce of the United States passed through the Chesapeake Bay.
    3. Virginia was home to 600,000 people, 20% of the population of the new country.
    4. Virginia produced significant goods and services and supported the logistics flow to the Carolinas.
    If he felt he could not win in the Carolinas, Lord Cornwallis may be able to cut the logistics flow into the Carolinas from Virginia by occupying the state and destroying the military resources and sustainment flowing south from Virginia.

    Factors working against this approach:
    1. Norfolk, the largest port city between New York and Charleston was destroyed by the Whigs in early 1776; this made it difficult to garner Loyalist support and reestablish a permanent presence in the state. The Whigs controlled the state for 3 ½ years before the British focused any attention there.
    2. Virginia’s population and economic capacity were dispersed between the coast and mountains. The two largest cities in Virginia were Alexandria and Fredericksburg, both with populations of only 3,000.
    3. The British needed a large ground force to hold Virginia.
    4. Cornwallis and Clinton did not share the same approach to the problem.

    I believe Lord Cornwallis understood the problems he faced and developed an approach he thought may prove more effective than focusing directly on the Carolinas. Virginia was a more indirect approach to the Carolina problem.
    The conditions he faced in Virginia did not favor success of his approach.
    Also, the enemy gets a vote and reacted.

    1. Delighted as ever, Patrick, to consider your views.

      I would be convinced by much of what you say if it were not for the fact — which Cornwallis readily admitted to Phillips — that his entering Virginia was very unlikely to overturn the rebel government there and establish a mixed authority of his own. Accordingly I remain of opinion that desultory operations which did not conquer Virginia would in no way compensate for the loss of South Carolina and Georgia. It is no use cutting the logistics flow to the south if the provinces there are to be lost in the first place by Cornwallis’s move northward.

      Your analysis, if I may respectfully say so, bears much resemblance to that put forward before the publication of “The Cornwallis Papers”. Prior to then Cornwallis’s decision had puzzled historians for almost 230 years and none had come close to determining his real motives. Almost all, like Alden, Gruber, Lumkin, Mackesy, Peckham and Tonsetic, had simply accepted the decision at face value or as no more than a strategic mistake, while a few, like Pancake and Rankin, had attempted to justify it on spurious grounds such as assuring the safety of the Carolinas by disrupting Greene’s supplies and reinforcements or as making the Chesapeake the main focus of the war. In the light of “The Cornwallis Papers” such analysis is inescapably and irretrievably misplaced.

      Apart from this article, Cornwallis is the subject of trenchant criticism in the essay which I draw to Richard’s notice above. I commend it to you.

  • While not leading to immediate disaster as you point out, Cornwallis faced two unwinning options. If he moved south, Cornwallis would be reduced to Clinton’s strategy of fortifying coast cities without reestablishing Loyal civilian governments. In this case, the Rebels would control the countryside and the British would sit in the cities behind fortifications and not successfully end the war. In this option, the war would devolve into a war of attrition.
    We know what happened when he moved north.
    The real problem is that the British government and Lord Cornwallis had no plans and strategies to reestablish royal governments and win political solutions; they just focused on winning military battles.

    1. Most grateful, Gene, for the opportunity to consider your views.

      If Cornwallis had marched south from Wilmington, I do not share your opinion that the British would have been confined to coastal cities. After his defeat at Camden Gates had wisely kept out of harm’s way in NC and so had Greene (apart from Morgan’s foray) when he succeeded to the command. There is no reason to suppose that he would have behaved differently if Cornwallis had returned to SC with the 1,780 troops that he took to Virginia. The posts at Camden, 96 and Augusta would have been maintained as well as minor works such as Fort Granby and Fort Motte, and there would have been sufficient troops to forage and police the countryside. Admittedly the revolutionary irregulars would have remained a problem, but not an insuperable one.

      I commend to you the essay that I mention above to Robert.

  • Highly interesting. Have you had any advance opportunity to assess Carpenter’s forthcoming book Southern Gambit, which is (supposedly) due next month from OU Press?

  • Given the sense of weariness and distaste for protracted irregular warfare that your excerpts from his letters reveal, is it possible that Cornwallis chose to lose his army in the void of Virginia in order to avoid another bloody but ultimately indecisive confrontation? The conflict was entering its seventh year, “armies” on both sides had been bled down by fighting, disease and desertion to such small numbers that even a battlefield victory had little prospect of turning the tide one way or the other. Perhaps threatening central Virginia was the best opportunity he saw to divert Greene from the Carolinas and at the same time avoid another unproductive “victory.” It would prolong the war at a lower cost. It reminds one of a boxing match where one fighter keeps out of harm’s way by dancing from one corner to the next. Eventually the bell rings and they call it a draw.

  • Thank you, Mark, for your comments.

    You put forward a novel and interesting explanation for Cornwallis’s decision to march north. Sadly, “The Cornwallis Papers” do not support your interpretation.

  • Enjoyed reading this. To me, it’s difficult to imagine Cornwallis *not* abandoning the Carolinas for Virginia, it was just a matter of when. If Gen Howe is to be believed, Cornwallis never believed in Britain’s Southern Strategy – namely building and leveraging loyalist support – and was an odd choice to be given command of implementing that strategy. The southern governors had been advocating for most of the war for some version or another of what became the southern strategy. Howe resisted the idea, and for a time his views held sway with Germain. In January 1778, Howe explained to Germain his disagreement with the assessment that the southern Loyalists held “power or influence,” and argued that “Experience has proved” that the British would have “nothing better to expect than an equivocal neutrality” from the Loyalists. He also assured Germain that Cornwallis, who at the time was in England on leave, shared his opinion and would “urge such forcible reasons against the plan” as well. It was therefore an inauspicious start, putting Cornwallis in charge of implementing the strategy.

    As it turns out, Cornwallis never really understood the strategy. He believed his army would be able to move rapidly from Georgia through SC, NC and into VA. As it did this, loyalists would come from far and wide to support the army as it moved from one province to the next. Unfortunately, this view of the operating environment ignored that the rebels had spent the previous 5 years developing an intricate, interconnected system of control over the southern provinces all in an effort to prevent the British from leveraging loyalist support. The British, including Cornwallis, never really gave the rebel strategy much consideration. He set up outposts in South Carolina, but he was almost immediately impatient when his officers took longer than he’d like moving through the backcountry. He ignored those officers who warned that organizing the loyalists to counter the rebels would take time. He was eager to move as quickly as possible into NC.

    He was shocked and angered when loyalists did not immediately show themselves and expose themselves and their families to the rebels. He called them cowardly, pusillanimous, timid, supine, etc. When the loyalists, in his mind, failed to show despite conventional British victories, the only explanation he could conceive was that the continued threat of the rebel army was bolstered solely by aid coming in from the north of whatever province he happened to be in at the moment. To be fair, he was not the only one to sufffer this failure of imagination, as it wasn’t his decision to leave Georgia unpacified to take SC. He did step it up a notch though by leaving SC unpacified to take NC, and why it was only a matter of time that he’d go into VA once he convinced himself that his lack of success in the Carolinas could only be explained by supply lines from VA.

    It’s not as if it was inconceivable that he’d have a fuller appreciation of the rebel strategy and what was needed to leverage support. Others understood the situation better than he did. Clinton had many faults, including his obsession with ending the war in a single battle against Washington’s army, leading him to rush back to New York from Charleston. He nevertheless had a better appreciation than Cornwallis of what it would take to successfully execute the southern strategy. The most prescient British officials however, were some of the southern governors, especially James Wright of Georgia. Despite being the governor, he repeatedly tried to get the British to prioritize breaking rebel control of the province over political concessions that only strengthened the hand of those who already held control – the rebels. He was livid when Cornwallis continually abandoned one province for the next, leaving more and more territory behind him in control of the rebels.

    In charge of a strategy he didn’t understand and unable to see reality as it was when it didn’t meet his expectations, Cornwallis – as the author mentions here – repeatedly convinced himself that the key to the collapse of the rebels in the south was always just one more state away to the north.

    1. Dan

      An interesting and thought-provoking evaluation in which there is a measure of agreement between us, though much else on which we sadly disagree. May I suggest that we probably agree that Clinton’s instructions to Cornwallis on the primacy of holding SC were clear. You may also agree with my conclusion that Cornwallis’s contravention of those instructions by forsaking SC and GA and swanning off to VA “was at best a serious flaw in his character and at worst a gross dereliction of duty.” It is when we come to his reasons for doing so that we tend to disagree. You attribute the cause to his failure to understand Britain’s southern strategy in the light of the fraught situation in the south — that in the light of such a situation his entry into VA was the mistaken rolling forward of conquest northwards from one province to the next (notwithstanding that NC was never conquered), with the aim in VA being to cut the supply lines to Greene and those pesky revolutionaries in SC and GA that were causing so much trouble. I myself, on the contrary, do not ascribe Cornwallis’s actions to a misunderstanding of this kind. That is too simple an explanation. Relying on “The Cornwallis Papers”, the relevant documents of which I cite in this article, we need, I think, to delve much more deeply into Cornwallis’s psyche. When we do so, we inescapably come up with the various answers that I have set out.

      I commend to you the essay that I mention above to Richard.

  • Was Lord Cornwallis’ belief in the merits of ‘desultory action,’ along with his preference ‘to swan around the highways and byways of Virginia,’ recorded as such in the Cornwallis papers?

    1. Thank you, Arthur.

      See, for example, Cornwallis to Phillips, April 10, 1781 (CP 4: 114-5), but to understand my conclusions fully, you need to refer to all the documents cited in my article. At the end of the day it is a question of interpreting them in the light of all the surrounding circumstances.

  • Thank you. Without ready acccess to Cornwallis to Phillips, April 10, 1781 (CP 4: 114-5), would I be right in concluding that ‘desultory’ and ‘swan around’ were not Charles Cornwallis’ choice of words?

    1. Yes, Arthur, you are right. To quote verbatim Cornwallis’s words to Phillips: “… whether after we have joined we shall have sufficient for a war of conquest I should think very doubtfull. By a war of conquest I mean to possess the country sufficiently to overturn the rebel government and to establish a militia and some kind of mixed authority of our own.”

      By the bye, if you are proposing to involve yourself deeply in the southern campaigns, I suggest you consider purchasing my edition of “The Cornwallis Papers”, which is a must buy. The list price for the 6 volumes is usually £168 sterling, but they are currently on offer at £134.40 from the publisher. Enter “the cornwallis papers” in Google to access the publisher’s website.

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