Charles Cornwallis

British Commander During the 1781 Invasion


Painting of Charles Cornwallis
(Credit: Benjamin Smith / Public domain)

Lord Charles Cornwallis, son of the English Baron of Eye, attended the famous Eton preparatory school and then a military academy in Italy. King Charles V bought his commission as an officer—that’s how it was done in those days, though not usually paid for by the king! He fought in Germany during the Seven Years’ War, known here as the French & Indian War. After his father died, Charles replaced him in the House of Lords. Cornwallis voted against the laws that angered the colonists. Nonetheless, when war broke out, he took command of a British army here. He led victories in various battles in the north, though defeated by George Washington after the famous crossing of the Delaware River. In 1778 he was promoted to lieutenant general and made second-in-command of British armies in America. He was put in charge of the southern army after Sir Henry Clinton was promoted out of that role to commander-in-chief in America. Cornwallis subdued South Carolina, and chased the Continental Army to an eventual victory at Guilford Court House (in today’s Greensboro) in 1781. Badly damaged there, however, the army withdrew to Wilmington to recover before moving on to Virginia. There Cornwallis was forced to surrender at Yorktown by combined Continental and French forces. Despite that loss, after the war he served as commander-in-chief and governor in Ireland and India, where he died in 1805 at age 66.

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Mug saying "More than a minute-man," with a drawing of a Continental officer
Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"