Generals are typically remembered for their victories, but Lord Cornwallis is recognized first for his defeat at Yorktown in 1781. Unlike John Burgoyne, who surrendered at Saratoga exactly four years before, Cornwallis survived the kind of episode that usually ends careers to become a respected soldier-statesman. The story of his life, as Richard Middleton tells it in Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World, sheds light on Georgian Britain while capturing the man behind Cornwallis’s impressive accomplishments.

Far from the types of study, now popular, criticizing Britain for an unacceptable colonial past, Cornwallis makes an effective case for its subject as a reformer. A sense of purpose runs through Cornwallis’s life. The heir to an earldom, he nonetheless rose in public life mostly by merit and earned respect from leading men along with the officers and troops he led. Middleton notes how a critical, even accusatory, view has replaced the triumphal history of empire. He deftly navigates those tricky currents. His biography, only the second full study of Cornwallis, and the first in more than forty years, neglects few details of the subject’s life in a fresh view of an important figure at the heart of key events.

Born at his family’s townhouse in London on the last day of 1738, Cornwallis enjoyed privilege and connections from the start, though these were no guarantee of a successful career. His maternal grandfather, Lord Townshend, was a secretary of state, and two great-uncles, Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle, served as prime minister for George II. Cornwallis had an idyllic childhood, likely studying under a tutor before entering Eton College, where he thrived. Eton’s rough student culture taught self-reliance, while its curriculum grounded in the classics gave an intellectual foundation for entry into polite culture. Family and school fostered a sociability that smoothed Cornwallis’s path. The term “clubbable” Samuel Johnson coined for being good company fit him well, covering not only a person’s convivial qualities but also his ability to be esteemed among a select group.

Cornwallis said later that an irresistible impulse drew him to soldiering

Cornwallis said later that an irresistible impulse drew him to soldiering. Officers typically learned their profession by apprenticeship, but he studied at a military academy in Turin after taking a commission in the prestigious Foot Guards regiment. Eager to see action in the Seven Years’ War, Cornwallis left without orders to join the British army in Germany under Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick. The Marquess of Granby, a cavalry general with a reputation for leading from the front, took him on as an aide-de-camp. Cornwallis learned generalship from Granby and fought in the thick of successive battles. Granby sent him back to London with dispatches as a special mark of trust. By the time of his father’s death in 1762, Cornwallis had an established reputation.

Peacetime soldiering offered little chance for advancement, but Cornwallis had political influence as a peer in the House of Lords. Never active in debate—like Granby, he was bashful when called up to speak in public—Cornwallis parlayed influence into offices, including as a military aide to George III. The king approved of his moderate habits, very different from the gambling, womanizing, and hard drinking typical for aristocrats of the time. Cornwallis’s diligence in training his men and his introduction of new tactics learned from the previous war also drew notice. Steady promotions positioned him for future command when the American colonies rebelled in 1775.

The American major general Nathanael Greene called him the modern Hannibal for his audacity, but the risky strategy left the lower South unprotected.

Cornwallis led an expedition from Ireland to reinforce troops at Cape Fear in North Carolina. He served effectively under William Howe and received his first independent command in New Jersey but missed a chance to trap George Washington at Trenton in 1777. Disillusioned about the war after inconclusive campaigns and wanting to care for his dying wife, Cornwallis returned to England in 1778. To escape grief after his wife died, he came back to America as Sir Henry Clinton’s second-in-command. When victory at Charleston in 1780 turned the war in Britain’s favor, he led the effort to recover the southern colonies with Loyalist support. A Patriot insurgency combined with persistent resistance by the Continental Army frustrated those hopes despite early conquests. Rather than fight defensively to minimize risk, Cornwallis invaded first North Carolina and then Virginia to break opposition. The American major general Nathanael Greene called him the modern Hannibal for his audacity, but the risky strategy left the lower South unprotected. It also led to Cornwallis being trapped at Yorktown when the French gained temporary control over the sea.

Defeat, however, mattered less for Britain than many feared. Cornwallis avoided blame as America faded from public attention. The consensus was that he had done his best at an impossible job. William Pitt the Younger sent Cornwallis to India as the governor-general of Bengal in 1786, with a mandate to reform the East India Company’s administration and tighten the British government’s control over it. His modest, informal style resulted in some cost-cutting, while spending more on salaries and other items reduced corruption and lowered expense over the long run. Curtailing private trading by officials aligned their interests with the company and public. Effective tax-collection stabilized finances while ending the abuse of peasant farmers and encouraging their productivity. Currency reform in Bengal served the same goal. Subordinates provided expertise that Cornwallis readily acknowledged, and he pulled their ideas together into an effective program.

Middleton shows him as sympathetic to Indian concerns, though more distant from their society than earlier British officials. Cornwallis neither anglicized India nor brought Indians into governance. Historians recently have criticized his exclusion of them along with the impact of specific reforms, but Middleton notes the value of introducing a “salaried civil service, partially impartial judiciary, and government based on known laws.” Cornwallis’s “vision of a humane, well-regulated society” may sit awkwardly today, but it improved on what he found and made government at least attentive to the interests of the governed with lasting effect.

He returned to England in 1794 to a very different European world, one reshaped by the French Revolution. Cornwallis served as Pitt’s “troubleshooter,” bringing military experience and prestige to bear on the war with France. He advised ministers and the king’s younger son, the Duke of York, then commanding an expeditionary force in Flanders. Cornwallis’s regiment served there under Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, who commanded it on subsequent duty in India.

While Cornwallis restored order, he also thought “some mode must be adopted to soften the hatred of Catholics to our government” and that Britain should forge a “union with the Irish nation” rather than continue its opposition.

Threats to Ireland brought him there in 1798 as the commander-in-chief of British troops. Split between a small Protestant elite and a discontented Catholic majority, Ireland stood outside the United Kingdom and was vulnerable to subversion. Brutal measures to suppress an insurgency that had drawn French aid heightened tensions. While Cornwallis restored order, he also thought “some mode must be adopted to soften the hatred of Catholics to our government” and that Britain should forge a “union with the Irish nation” rather than continue its opposition. Pitt intended to grant Catholics civic equality while absorbing Ireland into the United Kingdom, but George III rejected Catholic Emancipation, thereby blunting conciliation. Forcing the Act of Union through Ireland’s parliament as viceroy put Cornwallis in the unwelcome role of deploying patronage for votes with the young Viscount Castlereagh. While “the fee simple of corruption” secured union, the measure left much incomplete, to Cornwallis’s frustration.

Another mission followed when Pitt’s successor as prime minister, Henry Addington, sought peace with France under Napoleon Bonaparte. Cornwallis saw no prospect of defeating the French in a stalemated and increasingly unpopular war. Once Lord Hawkesbury, the foreign secretary, negotiated terms in London, ministers sent him to make the final treaty over months of dogged effort and brinkmanship. Cornwallis described France as a military despotism “wisely, but not mildly administered,” where everyone saw quiet as the highest good after a decade’s upheaval. The Peace of Amiens soon broke down, but it had bought time and tested Napoleon’s willingness to compromise. Again, Cornwallis had done his best.

Renewed war brought him back into military affairs with command of the army in case Napoleon invaded. Crisis in India then prompted his return, and he died there in 1805. The news reached a Britain still mourning the loss of Pitt—worn out by exhaustion and ill-health—and Admiral Lord Nelson, killed in triumph at Trafalgar. Castlereagh appropriately eulogized Cornwallis as a man combining a soldier’s professional knowledge with political judgment and whose character “disarmed all party feeling.”

Middleton rightly praises accomplishments and qualities that shine through Cornwallis’s story but notes how posterity has largely neglected him, even before today’s pejorative view of imperial history cast its shadow over his legacy. He met the higher standards of military professionalism that the Hanoverian kings had introduced from mid-century, with his diligence matching his bravery. Moderate habits shared with George III and an unpretentious manner marked a shift in eighteenth-century sensibilities. Affability won allies while enhancing the effectiveness of his leadership. Duty and patriotism rather than personal gain drove his ambitions. Indeed, Cornwallis epitomized the English gentleman amid the nation’s rise. How he did so and why it mattered are important lessons from his life as a Georgian soldier-statesman.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 67
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