Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World


May 2, 2022
by John R. Maass Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World by Richard Middleton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022).

It says something about an historical figure’s renown when his or her biography uses only their last name as its title. Napoleon, Lincoln, and Churchill are in this historical “club,” and with them, should be included Charles, First Marquis of Cornwallis(1738–1805), at least according to his most recent biographer Richard Middleton, formerly of Queen’s University, Belfast and author of Pontiac’s War: Its Causes, Course and Consequences (2007). Dr. Middleton has written the first biography of Cornwallis since Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s two volume set, published in 1971 and 1979 (although it must be added that Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy devotes considerable attention to Cornwallis in his 2013 book, The Men Who Lost America). Middleton attributes the lack of biographical interest in Cornwallis’s long service to the British crown to the need to “master the details of a career spent in widely differing roles in three separate continents,”[1] i.e., North America, India, and Europe (particularly in Ireland). and the inherent challenge in condensing the material to one volume, especially compared to the Wickwires, whose own efforts required two parts. Unfortunately Middleton’s more abbreviated approach, though generally well-written, leads to a rushed sketch of the Marquis’s life, in which some details, events, and episodes are glossed over, ignored, or inaccurately described.

Cornwallis received a fine education, followed by a commission in the Grenadier Guards in 1756. Because of his youth and the beginning of the Seven Years’ War, he enrolled at an Italian military school in Turin in 1757. The next year he joined the British forces fighting the French, and saw active service through June 1762, at which time he assumed the title of Lord Cornwallis upon the death of his father, and took a seat in the House of Lords soon thereafter. Middleton’s entire account of Cornwallis’s service during the war—including the battles of Minden and Vellinghausen—is a mere three pages long and scant on details. The author also describes Cornwallis and his political career leading up to the Revolution, in which he was largely sympathetic to the American colonies’ grievances as a Whig. Eventually, he abandoned that faction in 1766 and reduced his political activities by the early 1770s due to his military obligations. By the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, “any sympathy he may have had for the American cause had long since disappeared.”[2]

Middleton provides a standard overview of Cornwallis in the Revolutionary War, from his arrival in early 1776 at Cape Fear, North Carolina, the battles of Long Island, Trenton and Princeton, Brandywine and Germantown, and Monmouth Courthouse in June 1778. At Second Trenton, Middleton concludes that the general “had been thoroughly outmaneuvered by the rebel commander,” George Washington, and had “squandered one of the best chances the British were to have of capturing the wily American.”[3]

Cornwallis took leave in late 1777, arriving in England in January of the next year. This period in his life was marred by the illness and eventual death in late 1778 of his wife Jemima, with whom he shared two children. Middleton’s account of their relationship is well-done, a rare inclusion of an eighteenth century officers’ spouse. (Julie Flavell’s new book on the Howe family being a notable exception.)

Once back in America in June 1778, readers learn of Cornwallis’s growing feud with his commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, and the campaigns in the South in 1780-81, including the battles of Camden, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, as well as the culminating 1781 Siege of Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered his command to Washington’s Franco-American army. Middleton writes of Cornwallis’s first independent command beginning in the summer of 1780, in South Carolina, leading to his army’s march into North Carolina, and eventually to Virginia, where his campaign came to ruins. Again, the author’s account of fifteen months of campaigning (August 1780 to October 1781) seems rushed, with key details, including the “Race to the Dan,” omitted or minimized.

Middleton’s analysis of the post-Yorktown recriminations and assignation of blame for the debacle between Cornwallis and Clinton is well presented, and shows that even though Cornwallis was a less than cooperative subordinate and lost his entire army at Yorktown, he was largely held blameless for the campaign. His subsequent assignments to significant military and administrative responsibilities bears this out. “It was Clinton’s promise of relief, and his refusal to give Cornwallis any discretion about committing to Yorktown that made his entrapment certain,”[4]Middleton concludes.

Middleton goes on to provide a lengthy account of Cornwallis’s service in India, where he was governor general and commander in chief of military forces in Bengal from 1786-93. It is a tedious description of administrative and financial history, in which the author quickly bogs down in using Indian terminology that he often neglects to explain. Cornwallis’s notable accomplishment in this role was the reformation of legal codes and military success against the Mysore state in 1792.

In 1798 he became viceroy of Ireland, where he surpassed a rebellion and defeated a French invasion of the island. He was, however, sympathetic to the cause of Irish Catholic emancipation, and when this reform was rejected by King George III, Cornwallis resigned in 1801. Four years later he took up the role of governor-general of India, and died there in 1805.

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[1]Richard Middleton Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), xii

[2]Ibid., 22

[3]Ibid., 29-30

[4]Ibid., 110

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