The Magazine

Dispirit of ’76

The American Revolution as seen from the other side.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Then, too, he showed a pathological disregard for his men, ordering them to divest themselves of their packs, which left them not only without food and tents, but boots! That he meant to transform them into a light force to prevent Nathanael Greene from teaming up with the legendary Daniel Morgan hardly justified this sadism. Henry Clinton rightly complained that his colleague was behaving “like a barbaric Tartar.” In 10 weeks Cornwallis lost 4,000 men. When it came to what the French called la petite guerre, or warfare by small skirmishes where the object was to wear down the enemy, the Americans always proved the superior force.   

In retrospect, Yorktown seems not so much a miscalculation on the part of a hapless commander—surprised by a joint American and French land and naval force that outnumbered him two-to-one—but a kind of providential delivery. In his memoirs, Clinton claimed that Cornwallis did not do enough to save himself at Yorktown, a classic siege that would have delighted Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. Cornwallis countered that he chose not to fight his way out at Yorktown because he was waiting for relief from Clinton—which, of course, never came. (And, after all, it was Clinton who had ordered Cornwallis to capture the tobacco port in the first place.) 

Yet the likelier explanation might be that this bedeviled man had had enough and yearned to be extricated from an impossible war. As the French mortars exploded over his head, he might have said to himself what another British officer had told a newspaper earlier in the war: “Human exertion is a limited thing. Remember .  .  . we do not contend with an army but with a country.” And in Cornwallis’s case, the enemy included the Comte de Rochambeau, who had marched 400 miles down from New York with 7,800 troops, including some of the cleverest artillery officers in Europe.   

After nine days of incessant artillery fire—and 156 dead, 326 wounded—Cornwallis capitulated. Although some in the colonies thought he should be executed for war crimes, Cornwallis was allowed to return to British headquarters in New York. Before departing, however, he was sumptuously fêted by his American conquerors, who vied with one another to host their defeated adversary. Even in the newly independent America they loved a lord. That Cornwallis received a hero’s welcome when he returned to England proved that this was a love shared by his countrymen. He would go on to become both governor-general of India and lord lieutenant of Ireland, and, after his death, the Dictionary of National Biography summed him up as one of the most successful proconsuls of Britain’s second empire: “If not a man of startling genius, he was a clear-sighted statesman and an able general, as well as an upright English gentleman.”

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and His Family