Why Lord Cornwallis – The Man Who Lost America Is Still Celebrated
Lord Cornwallis had come to his offices from birth. The United States War of Independence was defeated due to his less energetic leadership. This did not diminish his reputation.
In the midst of the war against Napoleon, Britain lost three of its greatest heroes. Within a few weeks after Nelson had fallen in Trafalgar, Prime Minister William Pitt was killed by overwork – Charles, 1st Marquess of Cornwallis, had already killed both of them.
Richard Middleton has compiled all three of these into a biography of Cornwallis. Not only continental readers are stunned by this trio. What is Cornwallis doing in this era, whose greatest feat was to defeat the American Revolutionary War with a bang? During his lifetime, however, Cornwallis was highly respected, and even the surrender of his army at Yorktown was considered forgivable. But his merits are not fading in India today, but his series of wrong decisions in the American war.
A soldier more energetic than Cornwallis would have quickly crushed the rebellion. On January 2, 1777, Cornwallis pinned George Washington’s army at Trenton. One of his officers urged an immediate night attack, which would have put an end to the Americans and the revolution. But fighting in the dark seemed too risky for Cornwallis. “Now we have the old fox in the sack. Let’s go over there and pack him up in the morning,” he said and went to bed. Cornwallis never felt that the fox could escape from his hold during the night. The next morning he went to Washington.
The virtues of the aristocrats, but at the same time that Cornwallis was not in a polished verbal duel or on the battlefield, was his area of administrative reform. But a good bureaucrat rarely becomes a national hero. His greatest feat was the reforms in India, with which he was able to free the country from the hold of the private East India Company, thus laying the foundation for the Victorian Empire. Unfortunately for him the credit for the spread of colonialism and imperialism is not popular today.
Cornwallis was in many ways a good-natured man. The religious intolerance of his time was foreign to him. Hate slavery, at least internally, as is war and brutality. At a time when there was no shortage of quirky and quirky characters, Cornwallis is typical for his boredom. There is no eccentricity and no scandal with him. The British of the early 19th century would have appreciated this, as they were accustomed to all manner of corruption among the upper classes since the Regency – but it doesn’t make for an exciting character. Cornwallis is the quintessential product of British rule. Every mistake was rewarded with a promotion as Cornwallis endured his defeat with impeccable conduct. “Unfortunately no officer has ever been as popular as he was,” wrote one contemporary. However, without his high birth, he would hardly have made it past mid-career.
Perhaps it was his misfortune that a peaceful and prosperous man should wage war against the freedom-loving colonists of North America. His simple mind always failed to foresee or predict the moves and losses of others. It was inconceivable to him that during the silence in battle his officers would have fun with abusive women. He did not understand the full nature of the rebellion. For Cornwallis there was no world outside Britain. The rebels in Ireland did not want independence, they were just “dark lows”. Cornwallis could only explain the fact that colonists in America got away from the crown through lies and deceit. He was certain that the American rebels were “kept in complete darkness by the tyranny of their evil leaders” and therefore could not see the light of the monarchy.
He waged war in the United States honestly and without personal mistakes. But unlike administrative reform, the lack of talent, energy and luck was also noticeable here. Cornwallis fought the war like a game of chess over tea. And so it was logical to accept to spend the winter with the soldiers in Yorktown and be surrounded by rebels. Eventually, the Navy assured him that he and his men would always be supplied by sea. When surprised and a squadron of French ships under Admiral de Grasse also cut off the city from the sea, Cornwallis indifferently surrendered and thus abandoned the colonies forever. A more energetic general like Wellington would not have accepted it. But Cornwallis was also awarded the parade after his return. It was true for his soldiers that he was not expected to fight the last man of the time.
Cornwallis: Soldiers and statesmen in a revolutionary world. Richard Middleton