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[Cornwallis] never quite understood that to quell revolutionaries...he had to be as ruthless as they; that he had to use terror, oppression, confiscation, and brutality on a grand scale; that to eliminate the revolution he had to eliminate revolutionaries, not just beat their armies in the field. Even if he had understood it, he could not have won, for he would have resigned his commission rather than use such methods. Had he been brutal or terrifying, which might possibly have held South Carolina for Britain, he would not have been Charles, Earl Cornwallis.1
Cornwallis by Gainsborough
Lord Cornwallis arrived in America in 1776 to serve under Sir William Howe. When Howe resigned, he became second-in-command to Sir Henry Clinton, a post he retained until he surrendered his command after the siege at Yorktown. His working relationship with Clinton was rendered difficult by the fact that the two men detested each other. Clinton was convinced Cornwallis wanted his job. Cornwallis would have loved to see Clinton take a long walk off the mythological short pier, since Sir Henry was prone to plaguing him with a constant barrage of contradictory (and frequently impossible) orders. This on-going feud had less-than-subtle effects on the conduct of the war itself.
Ban Tarleton was one of the few officers who managed to get along professionally with both Clinton and Cornwallis, and at different times he served successfully under each of them. He arrived in America with the same fleet that brought Cornwallis, and was a junior officer within the Earl's command until he volunteered for duty with the 16th Light Dragoons. That took him into the command structure of Sir William Howe, who was later succeeded by Clinton.
Ban was still within Clinton's command structure when the army moved south in 1780 to open the Carolinas campaign. Following the surrender of Charleston, Clinton returned to New York leaving Cornwallis in independent command of the southern theater. Clinton assigned several young officers to assist him, including Banastre Tarleton. Possibly Ban had made a good impression on Cornwallis back in New York -- he was so junior at the time that there is no record of it -- or perhaps he was simply able to charm his way into Cornwallis's good graces. Either way, he developed a close working relationship with his new boss, and commented in letters home to his family that the Earl treated him nearly like a son.
Cornwallis was a well-trained European general, which rendered him ill-equipped to manage the fluid, partisan war which took place in the south. In a period of nearly a year, he only managed to once lure the rebels into formal battle, at Camden, where he resoundingly beat Horatio Gates and destroyed most of the rebel standing army. Outside of that, he served mostly as an administrator, dealing with local Loyalists and managing the provisional civil government from Charleston or Camden. The backwoods skirmishing he left to his subordinates, including Tarleton, Patrick Ferguson and Lord Rawdon.
As the rebel forces began to regroup under Nathanael Greene, Cornwallis finally began a long march inland with the bulk of his army. Tarleton's Legion ranged ahead, bringing the Earl a string of successes which ended in one crushing defeat, at the Cowpens where Ban lost a good portion of the effective army in a single battle.
After Cowpens, the friendship between the two men cooled to a more formal distance. Cornwallis absolved Tarleton of blame and refused his request for a courtmartial to clear his name -- saying such a thing was entirely unnecessary -- but he never again trusted Tarleton with a fully independent command.
Though he managed to catch Greene in one more head-on confrontation, Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis's pursuit of the rebel army mostly consisted of a months' long hiking trip that eventually carried him to Yorktown. During the siege that followed, Tarleton commanded a small detachment across the river on Gloucester Point, and the two men again butted heads over tactics which might have allowed them to escape the trap they'd fallen into.
Howard Burnham as Lord Cornwallis
(Cowpens reenactment 2009).
[Photo by William MacLeod]
They retained their acquaintance when they returned to London after the war. Cornwallis even provided Tarleton with monetary assistance during his early financial troubles. When he received an assignment to India, it seemed for a time that Ban would go with him, again in command of his cavalry, but Tarleton's radical Whig politics got in the way. Then came the publication of Campaigns, wherein Tarleton laid considerable blame on the Earl for mishandling the Southern Campaign. Cornwallis never forgave him.
Lord Cornwallis's career as a soldier and officer of the Crown was long and distinguished. Here is an overview presented by the 19th century editor of his correspondence (who was also the son of his long-time friend and aid-de-camp, Alexander Ross)2:
|Ensign in the First Guards||Dec. 8, 1756|
|A.D.C. to Lord Granby||August 1758|
|Captain, 85th Foot||Aug. 5, 1759|
|Lieut.-Colonel, 12th Foot||May 1, 1761|
|A.D.C. to the King||Aug. 2, 1765|
|Colonel, 33d Regiment||Mar 21, 1766|
|Constable of the Tower||Dec. 8, 1770 - Feb. 10, 1784|
|Major-General||Sept. 29, 1775|
|Lieut.-General in America||Jan. 1, 1776|
|Lieut.-General||Aug. 29, 1777|
|Re-appointed Constable of the Tower||Nov. 16, 1784|
|Commander-in-Chief in India||Sept. 12, 1786 - Oct. 28, 1793|
|General||Oct. 12, 1793|
|Master-General of the Ordnance||Feb. 13, 1795 - Jun. 16, 1801|
|Commander-in-Chief in Ireland||Jun. 13, 1798 - Mar. 17, 1801|
|Commander-in-Chief in India||Mar. 20 - Oct. 5, 1805|
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1 Franklin and Mary Wickwire; Cornwallis; The American Adventure (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970), p172. [ back ]
2 Charles, Marquis Cornwallis, The Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, 2d edition, ed. Charles Derek Ross, 3 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1859), 3: 3. [ back ]
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