British General Charles Earl Cornwallis
Revolutionary War: 1776-1778
When war in the colonies began, Charles Earl Cornwallis immediately offered himself for military duty and on January 1, 1776, he was given the commission of Lieutenant General and he set sail for America in February in command of 2,500 British troops. His first duty was serving as Maj. General Henry Clinton's deputy during unsuccessful first attempt by the British to capture Charleston, South Carolina in the Battle of Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776.
Cornwallis then joined the main British force on Staten Island and saw extensive duty in the middle colonies. He served under Maj. General William Howe in the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, commanding the reserve force that followed General Clinton's vanguard. He also held off the American right wing's attempt to fight back to Brooklyn Heights. On September 15, 1776, he commanded at Kip's Bay. On November 16, 1776, he captured Fort Lee, New York nearly trapping American forces there before Maj. General Nathanael Greene evacuated.
Cornwallis was preparing to return to politics in London for the winter when word arrived of General George Washington's victory at Trenton. He nearly succeeded in trapping Washington, but Washington slipped away and defeated Cornwallis' rear guard at Princeton on January 3, 1777. General Clinton felt Cornwallis had been negligent, which resulted in the defeat. This added to the tensions between the two generals. An earlier incident had taken place on October 28, 1776, following the Battle of White Plains, which had planted the seeds of tensions between the two generals who were competing in the chain of command.
General Howe had chastised General Clinton, who was serving as Howe's deputy at the time. Clinton had then expressed his frustration with serving under Howe in front of Cornwallis, who later reported it to Howe. A year later, General Howe would leave Clinton in command in New York as he left to capture Philadelphia. In his final letter, Howe indicated that he knew Clinton would be pleased to remain in New York at a distance from himself. Clinton now knew that Cornwallis had betrayed his confidence. This incident as well as competition over command and rank led to increasingly strained communications between Clinton and Cornwallis.
Cornwallis' delay in returning to England caused him to miss an opportunity to compete for command in what became Maj. General John Burgoyne's offensive plan for cutting off New England from the lower colonies. Cornwallis returned to America in June 5, 1777 and saw action in New Jersey. He was involved with the unsuccessful operation against General Alexander at Short Hills on June 26, 1777. In General Howe's Philadelphia Campaign, Cornwallis commanded one of the two divisions. On September 11, 1777, he led the main force at the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania against General Washington. On September 26, 1777, he occupied Philadelphia. On October 4, he led three battalions of reinforcements to Germantown, Pennsylvania. He skirmished with General Washington's vanguard at Matson's Ford, Pennsylvania on December 11, 1777.
In January 1778, Cornwallis returned to England and was promoted to Lieutenant General. During that time, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America Maj. General Howe had submitted his resignation. At first, it was not accepted. Eventually, it was accepted and other generals were considered to be his replacement, including Cornwallis, but the cabinet finally settled on Lt. General Clinton. On April 21, 1778, he set sail to return to America as Clinton's second-in-command. He also carried a dormant commission to become Commander-in-Chief should anything happen to Clinton.
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