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Battle of Generals

A late 18th-century portrait of Cornwallis by Daniel Gardner, in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, is exhibited at the Yorktown Victory Center.

A late-18th-century portrait of Cornwallis by Daniel Gardner, in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, is exhibited at the Yorktown Victory Center.

Battle of Generals

What would it feel like to be the one responsible for losing the American colonies?  Would you fight tooth and nail to prove that it wasn’t you to blame; that it was someone else instead?  That’s exactly what happened between Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis of the British Army after the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolution.

In 1780, General Clinton began to execute his strategy against the southern colonies with a siege against Charleston, South Carolina.  With the expedition under his personal command, Clinton defeated the Patriots and took the city.  With victory at Charleston, however, Clinton also suffered a deteriorating relationship with General Cornwallis, his second in command.  The two men were at odds with one another when Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis to command in the South.  From his position in the North, Clinton directed actions in the South, actively at first and less so as time went on.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis was left with a limited number of troops and direction from his superior to find recruits among the Loyalist citizens living in the South.  When garnering the support of southern Loyalists failed to supply adequate troops, Cornwallis encouraged  enslaved African-Americans to leave their masters and help the British cause.  Cornwallis’ troops went on to several victories, such as Camden and Guilford Courthouse, but lost many men and resources in the process – while American troops remained substantially intact.  Cornwallis soon made his way to Virginia to regroup and await reinforcements promised by Clinton.

While Lafayette, a commander of American troops, shadowed Cornwallis’ troops and gathered reinforcements in early spring 1781, Clinton sent orders to Cornwallis to secure an ice-free position along the coast of Virginia where the British fleet would have access.  Cornwallis, unhappy with the width of the waterways in Portsmouth, decided to fortify in Yorktown and thus placed his troops in a position of entrapment.  He was soon cut off by American and French armies and forced to surrender.

Cornwallis and Clinton returned to England in 1782 where they entered a battlefield of a different kind.  Eager to re-establish his reputation, Clinton published his Narrative of the Campaign of 1781 in North America, essentially blaming the failed Yorktown campaign on Cornwallis.  Not to be outdone, Cornwallis shot out a public response that criticized Clinton.  The two were soon engaged in an all-out battle of the blame.

Who won this final war of the generals?  Was it Clinton, who resumed his seat in Parliament until 1784, was re-elected in 1790, promoted to full general in 1793 and appointed governor of Gibraltar in 1794 (though he died before taking the post)?  Or was it Cornwallis, who, following his role during the American Revolution, maintained King George III’s support and admiration, found favor in the new prime minister, William Pitt, was elected a Knight of the Garter, got appointed Governor-General and Commander in Chief in India, was granted the title “Marquis,” and was entrusted with the post of Governor-General of Ireland?


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