The American War for Independence lasted six years, from April 19, 1775—when “the shot heard round the world” was fired at the battle of Concord—to the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. The two sides could have hardly looked more different. Britain had a highly professional expeditionary force; the revolutionaries had an improvised assortment of Continentals and militiamen. The British, in order to win, had to vanquish Patriot armies and persuade Loyalists that Britain was determined to protect them and hold onto its American outpost. The Americans had the advantage of fighting on their own ground, and they had time on their side. The conflict began in New England, stalled on the Middle Atlantic coast, and ended in the South. There it pitted one of the eighteenth century’s greatest commanders—Lieutenant General Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis—against Americans of varying competence, from Horatio Gates at the low end all the way up to Nathaniel Greene. On paper Cornwallis ought to have won, and in the field he often did. Yet he fell short in the end.
The earl was not the only Englishman responsible for losing America, but to Southerners, Cornwallis remains the archetypal Redcoat. The conflict that consumed America from 1861 to 1865 with its attendant cloud of slavery does not monopolize war memory in the South. Before Sherman burned Columbia, Cornwallis and the British captured Charleston in a classic siege. At Camden, South Carolina, they destroyed American forces in a set-piece engagement of line warfare. At Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, they held the field against America’s best troops and commanders. In dozens of backcountry skirmishes and guerilla actions in the Carolinas—Waxhaws, Blackstock’s Plantation, Fish Dam Ford, Musgrove’s Mill, Eutaw Springs—Crown forces and Patriot bands furiously battled each other in swamps and scrublands that remain hallowed grounds to this day. No single instance of such irregular combat was decisive, but it wearied the British and reminded Patriots that at least they had not yet lost.
With things bogged down in the North, the British had decided to roll up the rebellion from the South: from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, and finally Virginia. It was a plausible plan that nearly worked. Scholars tell us why it didn’t: a weak chain of command from the civil authority in London to theater and field commanders in America; faulty assumptions about the Loyalists’ readiness to join Britain’s fight; a British force that, however seasoned and professional, was still too small to carry out an aggressive clear-and-hold strategy; and failure to retain naval supremacy at a critical moment. It was on this last point that the conflict finally turned. Had the British and not the French won the Battle of the Capes off Cape Henry and Cape Charles in the early autumn of 1781, enabling Cornwallis to resupply or possibly evacuate to a stronger position, the war might not have ended as precipitously as it did at Yorktown. The French had not promised their American allies to stay on forever, and the Redcoats still had plenty of fight left in them, which made surrender, when it came so suddenly, all the more ignominious.
Defeat in America, however, did little damage to Cornwallis’s career. He triumphed in a pamphlet war in England with Sir Henry Clinton, Britain’s North American commander-in-chief, over which man was most to blame for the American debacle. Two years later, with American independence formally recognized in the Treaty of Paris, the military controversy fell from the headlines. From Britain’s perspective, Cornwallis is most remembered as the highly regarded governor-general of India (1786–93), where he brought in major administrative reforms and in battle defeated the Sultan of Mysore, assuring British dominion. He later served as Lord Lieutenant, or Viceroy, of Ireland (1798–1801), where he crushed the Wolfe Tone rising and repelled French invaders. And he was a key figure in the Acts of Union of 1800, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The Indian parallel with America is telling. In India, Cornwallis was not the last Redcoat, but among the first, who still had a long run ahead of them to 1947. It was how that run ended that besmirched much of the good that had gone before. Winston Churchill condemned Britain’s clamorous exit as a shameful scuttle with horrific consequences: largely reputational for the British, but quite real for the Indians. In contrast, when the last Redcoat quit the Virginia field 166 years earlier, it was with honor intact. By eighteenth-century standards, Cornwallis was an exceptionally humane commander, and it is history’s judgment that few could have done better with the resources at hand in a difficult war so far from home. Under his command, the action in the closing southern campaign was well fought, and defeat, when it came, was accepted as such. The surrender scene at Yorktown that October 1781—matched only by the stillness at Appomattox in April 1865 and on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September 1945—is etched deep in the mythology of American nationhood. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by combined Franco-American forces under George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, Cornwallis chose honorable surrender, which was acceptable under the current laws of war. Washington dictated that surrendering combatants be treated as prisoners of war and then paroled. At noon on October 19, the British garrison lined up to ground arms in a field along the Williamsburg Road. As Cornwallis was disabled with malaria and dysentery, the ceremony was carried out between the seconds-in-command. The British General Charles O’Hara surrendered his sword to the American General Benjamin Lincoln, the same officer who had surrendered Charleston to the British in May 1780, at the start of the southern campaign.
Britain’s presence in the thirteen colonies concluded with an orderly withdrawal. Some Loyalists departed with the Redcoats, but most remained behind in their homeland and blended into the new order. For the Americans, on whom fortune happened to shine, the conflict had been all about a cause: independence from Britain and the establishment of a new American nation. For the British, the motive for conflict had been more mundane and defensive: to maintain an imperial presence deemed vital to Britain’s interests and security. Success required a combination of institutional, administrative, and indeed intestinal fortitude—as well as patience—that late-eighteenth-century Britain could not yet muster, though the heirs of those who directed the war against America later learned to do so. Such capability now appears in retreat across the West. Cornwallis at Yorktown merely pointed the way; all the Redcoats are gone now.