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What went wrong?

Author: theowinthrop from United States
1 January 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Charles, Earl Cornwallis, was from a prominent landed aristocratic family - and he intended to serve his monarch as a military man. In fact, in his period of history (he died in 1805) he was probably the most intelligent and clever general in the British Armies. Yet he is remembered for losing the American Revolution, and surrendering at Yorktown - a sort of second act to General Sir John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777 (four years earlier).

Yet, why did such a good strategist and leader like Cornwallis get caught in that peninsula cul-de-sac of Yorktown, Virginia? It is a sad story (except for the help in it bringing an end to the war and American independence). It is sad because Cornwallis had come up with a sensible plan to win the war - a plan which should have worked but for one major problem and a set of minor ones.

The plan was to transport British troops to the Carolinas and Georgia, hitherto ignored for most of the war (except for one attack on Charleston in 1776 that was defeated). Cornwallis figured the lack of response there was due to a large loyal Tory group of landowners in the hinterlands. He argued to get the men down there, help the loyalists gain the upper hand, and then when they were firmly in control, head north into Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York (following the same idea), until all the colonies were in the hands of the loyalists. Then (with all but New England under control), concentrate on the reconquest of the Puritan colonies.

Many have said it was a hair-brained scheme, but actually it worked pretty well at first. Chaleston and Savannah fell quickly to Cornwallis, and he began contacting the loyalists. He started setting them up in both Carolinas and Georgia. By 1780 he was in such control that his men defeated an army under General Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina. Not only was Gates' defeat total, but it disgraced the supposed victor of Saratoga, so he was no longer touted as a rival and potential successor of George Washington.

But the success also slowly showed the flaws, not so much in the plan but in problems Cornwallis did not really control.

1) The Loyalists tried to enforce their will on the former Rebels in the conquered territories. British soldiers like the notorious Green dragoon General Banastre Tarleton were willing to assist - and many atrocities occurred (though nothing on the level of the burning of the church in Mel Gibson's THE PATRIOT). At the Wraxall River, a large number of rebels who surrendered were butchered by the Loyalists and Tarleton.

2) Supply lines could be stretched only so far - and Cornwallis needed more men to make the lines secure (see below).

3) The military leaders among the Americans turned out to be brilliant after Gates was sacked. He was replaced by Nathaniel Greene, an exceptionally clever strategist and tactician in hitting and running methods. Soon after Camden another Northern state general, Daniel Morgan (from Saratoga like Gates) won the most smashing one sided victory of the war against Tarleton's cavalry at Cowpens. And the local talent, led by Col Isaac Shelby won the battle of Kings Mountain (turning it into a massacre of Loyalists to avenge the Wraxall). Finally raiders led by General Thomas Sumter (whom the famous fort is named for) and General Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion began attacking those supply lines.

But the worse problem was a lack of proper support. Cornwallis had to send requests for men and material through his commander at New York City, General Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton, a timid man, disliked the brilliant Cornwallis as a rival. Clinton would not give him the huge numbers of men and material he should have - claiming he needed them against attack from Washington's army. He never considered asking for them from Britain.

Greene slowly began to push Cornwallis through a series of "Victories" that cost his army more men than the Americans lost. Hobson's Hill and Eutaw Springs have entered military history as perfect examples of Greene's genius to inflict Pyrrhic victories on the British. Slowly, reluctantly, Cornwallis left part of his forces in the two ports he captured, and moved the bulk of the army up to Virginia to try to get it transported back to New York City. But Admiral Thomas Graves lost the "Battle of the Capes" off Virginia to Admiral de Grasse's French fleet. Cornwallis found Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette trapping him. On October 19, 1781 he agreed to surrender, but hated it so much he had his second in command, General Charles O'Hara, surrender. He just sat in his tent angry.

He had a right to be. Traded by the Americans for an American general, Cornwallis went back to England. Clinton headed home soon after, replaced by Sir Guy Carleton (another good general, stuck on the sidelines during the war - had he and Cornwallis been the team the story would have been different). Clinton and Cornwallis started a pamphlet war over who was to blame for Yorktown, but the British (and I would imagine the American public) were not fooled. Clinton was properly blamed for it, and never held another major post. Cornwallis would later demonstrate his abilities for the crown in India (as Governor General) and Ireland (where he put down the Wolfe Town revolt of 1798). We know who was not responsible for Yorktown.

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