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Cornwallis: From Yorktown to India — and Redemption

By Thomas Fleming
4/6/2017 • MHQ Magazine

In America, General Cornwallis lost the Yorktown battle. In India, he won acclaim as a military and political leader.

IN JANUARY 1782, General Charles, 2nd Earl Cornwallis returned to England as a prisoner of war on parole. George Washington and his French allies had trapped him in the Virginia tobacco port of Yorktown forcing him to surrender his 7,700-man field army after a brief siege. The earl was relieved to discover that no one seemed to blame him for the disaster that led to the loss of Britain’s 13 rebellious American colonies. After landing in England, Cornwallis was treated like a conquering hero on his way to London. People cheered and waved, and in one town—Exeter—he was carried on eager shoulders. Everyone, including King George III and his ministers, blamed the lost war on the British commander in chief in America, the pudgy, indecisive General Sir Henry Clinton. The earl’s reception reflected his reputation as a fighting general. With his aggressive tactics he had won several earlier victories and near victories in America. At 43, His Lordship was in his physical and military prime. With his erect bearing, fine fierce nose, imperious lips, and bold, almost arrogant eyes, he typified the British noble warrior. Cornwallises had been sitting in the House of Lords for centuries. Moralistic King George admired him for his spotless private life. The earl’s devotion to his fragile wife was legendary: He had risked crossing the wintry North Atlantic to return home from America to see her before she died in 1779.

Cornwallis was soon hobnobbing with the king and top politicians including William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, author of the forthcoming generous peace treaty with America. Inevitably, there was talk of a new assignment for Cornwallis. The logical choice was India, where the British East India Company had acquired scattered possessions that were badly in need of strong leadership.

But Cornwallis declined to take command of the company’s army unless he was also made governor-general of the colony. He had learned a hard lesson in the American war, with the political leadership in London doing little but confusing and intimidating the soldiers in the field. It took some time to convince Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) to give him the combination of political and military power that he saw as essential. Not until May 1786 did Cornwallis sail for the exotic world where the future of the British Empire now lay.

 

THE BRITISH HAD BEEN in India for more than a century when Cornwallis arrived. The East India Company had begun by setting up trading posts called “factories”—clusters of warehouses at various points along the coasts. Through these posts flowed a hugely profitable trade in spices, sugar, raw silk, and indigo. To protect these products while they awaited export, an army was a necessity, and the company soon developed a good one, staffed at the top by British officers and in the ranks by native troops called sepoys.

The trading posts soon expanded into the surrounding countryside and became colonies that effectively ruled thousands of Indians. Britain’s arrival had coincided with the breakup of the Mughal Empire, led by the descendants of that mighty Muslim conqueror, Tamerlane. As they lost power, India became a crazy quilt of territories ruled by rajahs, nizams, and sultans, many of them little more than warlords who extorted money from the hapless peasantry with brute force. The East India Company’s army accelerated the Mughals’ decline, defeating their poorly led battalions in several battles in the 1750s and becoming rulers of Bengal’s 25 million people.

Officials of the company accumulated huge personal fortunes. Back in England they became nabobs, who built magnificent mansions and bought seats in Parliament. Unfortunately, the nabobs paid only passing attention to their employer’s profits, and the East India Company gradually became dependent on financial support from Parliament. One government attempt to balance the company’s books by effectively giving it a monopoly on selling tea to the American colonies had not a little to do with igniting the war for independence.

The Tea Act was symptomatic of Parliament’s haphazard dealings with the East India Company. Aristocratic stockholders of the company were so influential that it was virtually impossible for the government to discipline them. Accordingly, Cornwallis sailed with orders from Prime Minister Pitt to do everything in his power to bring at least a semblance of order out of the chaotic way the company was doing business.

Accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Ross, his one-time aide in America, Cornwallis sailed to Calcutta, the principal city of Bengal. From the start he made it clear that he expected better behavior from the company’s officials—who passed their days exploiting the natives and their nights feasting in mansions staffed by dozens of servants, including dancing girls by whom they fathered numerous children. The earl’s strong personal morals and his insistence on proper behavior had a surprising impact. As governor-general, he deplored the folly of dispatching officials to India without giving them a decent salary, and the stockholders eventually yielded to his insistence on a policy of larger salaries and an end to money making on the side. Even more important, Cornwallis worked out a “permanent settlement” that set fair tax rates throughout British India.

The earl was convinced that the benefits would extend both to the company and its peasant farmers. It was a chance to “confer happiness upon millions.”

These vital reforms did not by any means end the challenges confronting the governor-general. One of the most menacing had a name: Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, a state in southwestern India. It was one of three large Indian powers that were potentially capable of challenging Britain in India. The other two were Maratha, which occupied a huge central chunk of the subcontinent, and Hyderabad, between Maratha and Mysore. Hyderabad was not then a real worry, since its ruler, Nizam Ali, was addicted to “intrigue and dissipation, principally the latter,” one British diplomat said in 1787. Maratha contained so many semi-independent warlords within its borders that its rulers were reluctant to send an army anywhere.

Tipu Sultan, on the other hand, was considered a “permanent” foe. His father, Hyder Ali, was a Muslim adventurer with considerable military talent who had stormed Mysore’s capital, Seringapatam, and made himself ruler of the mostly Hindu natives. He hated the English and had fought two wars against them. In 1780 Hyder and Tipu had annihilated an East India Company field army of 700 Europeans and 3,521 sepoys. Only Hyder’s death in 1782 had stopped them from capturing Madras and wiping out British influence in southern India.

Unlike his father, Tipu was a devout Muslim who added to his antipathy toward the British a readiness to hate them as infidels. In his palace he had an outsize mechanical toy—an authentic-looking tiger springing on a prone British officer, who emitted screams of pain.

Almost from the day Cornwallis landed in India, he began preparing for war with Tipu. The earl deployed native intelligence agents throughout Mysore, hoping to anticipate the sultan’s next move. Cornwallis made it clear that if war began, he was going to invade Mysore with every soldier he could muster. He had tried this aggressive strategy as a commander in the American South in 1780 but had lacked the troops to sustain it. In India, his troop numbers would be more than equal to the task: He had 50,000 soldiers in Bengal, slightly fewer than 50,000 in Madras, and another 15,000 in Bombay.

War broke out over Tipu’s attempt to seize Travancore, a state southwest of Mysore at the tip of the Indian subcontinent and headquarters of the profitable pepper trade. Governor-General Cornwallis came to the eastern coastal city of Madras and moved west to invade Mysore, marching straight for Seringapatam, Tipu’s walled capital. Anticipating a siege, he brought with him all the heavy artillery he could find. To transport his massive amount of gear, Cornwallis procured elephants from Bengal and other parts of India.

As the army slogged through mountain passes from Madras to Mysore’s tableland, it presented an awesome sight: In the lead were six red-coated regiments of British regulars and one of cavalry. Behind them marched many regiments of sepoys from Bengal and Madras, as well as native cavalry and battalions of artillery, plus a battering ram—a total of 15,000 fighting men. And no fewer than 60,000 camp followers. A field officer had 40 servants, a captain had 20, and subalterns had 10. Every cavalryman had two servants. Thousands more were needed to care for the 27,000 cattle in the line of march, along with tens of thousands of camels. Sepoys frequently brought their entire families. A separate cadre of servants transported the sick in palanquins or doolies. Then there were the swarms of thieves that such a procession attracted, as well as merchants eager to sell liquor and other wares. Rare was the day when this gigantic caravansary advanced more than 12 miles.

Once in Mysore, Cornwallis had to contend with hill forts and walled cities along the route to Seringapatam, as well as Tipu Sultan’s cavalry, a unit that far surpassed the British in numbers. The earl took two weeks to reduce the city of Bangalore. Resuming his march, Cornwallis found himself confronting a new enemy: monsoon rains. Arriving unexpectedly early in the year, the ferocious downpours tore clothing and tents to shreds. Officers were soon forced to abandon their servants and equipment and consume the same rations as the enlisted men.

Finally, the column reached an anticipated obstacle: the Cauvery River, which barred access to Tipu’s island capital. The rains had made it impassable. A scouting search turned up a ford about 10 miles downstream near a village named Arrakerry. Tipu’s scouts had been watching the British, and the sultan decided this crossing was the place to challenge the governor-general to all-out battle.

Anchoring his right flank on the river and his left on a looming mountain, Tipu deployed his army. His regular infantry wore turbans, cummerbunds, white jackets, and breeches. They were far outnumbered by thousands of irregulars, wearing every imaginable outfit. One cadre of horsemen wore nothing but loincloths and turbans. Tipu’s troops outnumbered Cornwallis’s army perhaps 2-to-1, but Tipu’s officer corps was weak and heavily dependent on French volunteers in the regimental commands.

At first both generals maneuvered to outflank each other, but Tipu finally concentrated most of his army on the mountain. Cornwallis accepted this challenge and attacked. The lowered bayonets of the howling regulars and sepoys soon produced panic in Tipu’s ranks. He ordered a retreat, which soon became a rout.

The way was open to Seringapatam, but Cornwallis found that he could not follow up his initial victory, since his army was on the brink of starvation. Reduced to half rations, the almost-but-not-quite conquering British host reeled back to Bangalore. In England an irreverent cartoonist portrayed a gleeful Tipu on the walls of Seringapatam, urinating a monsoon-like stream on a dismayed Cornwallis.

The governor-general, though, remained determined to defeat his adversary. Cornwallis spent the next months organizing a better supply system based on binjarries—Indians who were willing to carry loads of rice to the advancing army in an unending caravan. He added some 50,000 of these human beasts of burden to his army.

His supply problems solved, Cornwallis returned to the Cauvery River without serious opposition from Tipu. The sultan offered battle on the north side of the river where he had constructed strong redoubts. Cornwallis ordered a night attack, which he intended to lead in person. A full moon illuminated the troops as they moved into position. The army attacked in three columns, with Cornwallis leading the center.

Tipu’s troops responded with blasts of rockets and musketry. But the Earl’s infantry pressed home its favorite tactic, a bayonet assault. After about an hour of seesaw fighting, Tipu’s men broke, abandoned the redoubts, and fled across the river to Seringapatam’s main defense, an immense fort that Tipu had built in the center of the island.

 

SEEMINGLY TRAPPED, Tipu was still dangerous. He struck hard at Cornwallis’s flanks as he crossed the river to begin a siege. At one point the Mysore ruler cut off a British detachment in a redoubt and flung wave after wave of infantry at them. The dogged redcoats held out until Cornwallis counterattacked and rescued them. In that melee, bullets flew all around the governor-general, one nicking him in the hand. He dismissed it as a scratch and stayed in the fight.

When Cornwallis’s entire army got across the river, the men positioned the heavy artillery to begin the siege. Now it was only a question of time. Many of Tipu’s French officers began deserting to the British. Each day, ignoring enemy bullets, Cornwallis went forward to inspect the progress of his spade-wielding soldiers as their trenches zigzagged closer and closer to Tipu’s walls. The moment arrived when the battering ram would breach the wall and enable the infantry to swarm into the fort. The earl apparently enjoyed the role of besieger, perhaps hoping it would soften the memory of those days in Yorktown when he was on the wrong side of a siege.

Then, instead of fighting to the finish, Tipu settled for terms of surrender. Cornwallis was willing to negotiate, but his conditions were harsh: Tipu would have to cede half of Mysore to British control. He would also have to pay the East India Company an indemnity of £3 million, the equivalent of $200 million in today’s money. To guarantee his good behavior, he also had to surrender to the governor-general’s custody two of his young sons. The earl’s fatherly reception of the boys was celebrated in a famous painting, which was widely used to symbolize Britain’s supposedly benevolent imperialism.

The news of Cornwallis’s victory sparked celebrations throughout British India. There was talk in Calcutta of presenting him with a gigantic star-shaped diamond, but he quickly put a stop to the extravagance; he did not want to undermine the lessons of moderation and frugality that he had tried to impose in his five years as governor-general. Back in London, the East India Company awarded him a bonus of £10,000 plus a pension of £5,000 a year for the next two decades. The earl accepted this largesse because it was largely invisible to the public.

Historians of India credit Cornwallis with creating the foundations of a rule of moderation and order, backed by implicit force, that enabled London to govern the subcontinent for another century and a half. This achievement was not the last of his contributions to Britain’s empire: In 1798, the government made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he smashed a popular revolt backed by a French expeditionary force. He then devoted more than two years to persuading the corrupt Protestant clique that dominated the Irish Parliament to accept an Act of Union abolishing their rule and uniting Ireland with Britain. Unfortunately, Cornwallis was unable to persuade George III and others in England to give Catholics the right to vote and hold office. When the king spoke out against Catholic emancipation, the earl resigned. But His Majesty continued to dote on him, and the government selected him to negotiate a peace with Napoleon’s France. It proved a more exhausting and frustrating chore than pacifying Ireland. But the makeshift treaty, which would endure little more than a year, gave England some badly needed breathing space.

Now 63, Cornwallis tried retirement for a while, enjoying his grandchildren and visits from old friends, but found it boring. So when the government decided he was the man they needed in India once again, he responded eagerly. The soldier-rulers who succeeded him had defeated and killed Tipu Sultan and were preparing to launch an even more expensive war against the Marathas. Cornwallis sailed with orders to rein them in and again get the East India Company’s budget under control.

Alas, it soon became evident that Cornwallis was no longer the vigorous man who had arrived in 1786, able to bring order and decency to Britain’s colonial policy and win a crucial war. India’s debilitating heat prostrated him from the moment he debarked from his long voyage. He became less and less active and was soon an invalid. A little more than two months after he arrived, Cornwallis sank into a near coma and died on October 5, 1805.

Parliament voted to erect a statue to him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the East India Company built a magnificent mausoleum over his grave in India—all in all, remarkable tributes to a soldier whose early military career included a calamitous, historic defeat.

 

Historian and novelist Thomas Fleming has written many books about the American Revolution and other wars, including most recently A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (2013).

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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