A few paces west of the public beach in Yorktown, Virginia, is a little cave looking out toward the water. We all know Yorktown from history class. This is where, in October 1781, the British army commanded by Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans under General George Washington and the French under the Comte de Rochambeau.
It’s not much of a cave, really, but tourists by the thousands stop to peep into it, as they have for more than two centuries. It is known to this day as “Cornwallis’s Cave,” and for most of our history, visitors have been told that this is where the British general took refuge during the last days of the siege. He hid there, guides said, and visitors nodded knowingly. That is because, as we all know, Cornwallis was a coward, and it was just like him to find such a fittingly ignominious hole wherein to snivel and whimper while, in the defenses around the town, his troops were destroyed.
Because we have learned that is what British generals did in the war. They ponced about in their splendid red uniforms, dipped snuff, and looked down their snooty noses as the silly-billy Americans dared take on the Most Powerful Army in the History of the World. And the moment the cannons burped, they abandoned their troops to be slaughtered while they stayed safely out of harm’s way, lest their wigs get mussed.
It’s part of our national mythology that does not serve us well. By belittling the enemy, we diminish the magnitude of our American achievement. While well intended, this “History Channel” fairytale about Cornwallis, the other British generals, the troops they led, and the conduct of the war is counterproductive. It is an instance of American exceptionalism—we are always better, smarter, and more courageous than the “JV teams” we face—that we should guard against, not encourage. It makes us vain and smug, and therefore tempting prey for the ruthless SOBs of the world who are amused by our assumptions of unassailable virtue and sparkling intelligence and would take advantage.
So who was Charles Cornwallis, really? While the most aristocratic of British commanders in North America, he was also one of the least pretentious. He had little patience for ceremonies and far less use for titles than our own John Adams. He was also a dedicated soldier. Over the protests of his wife, he came to fight in America, even though “nothing could be expected” of the war, which he realized would not be a cakewalk. He did not cower in the rear. He led his troops from the front and, like Washington, had horses shot out from under him, several times.
While chasing Nathanael Greene’s troops in North Carolina, he ordered his own supply wagons to be burned, living off the land with his men. One of his sergeants said Cornwallis “would allow no distinction” in the treatment of his officers and the men they commanded, “nor did he indulge himself even in the distinction of a tent; but in all things partook our sufferings and seemed much more to feel for us than for himself.”
Cornwallis “in no way fits the popular image of the British officer as effete,” says Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, the author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. “The way Cornwallis is portrayed is highly misleading. The Mel Gibson movie The Patriot shows him more concerned with his sartorial elegance than winning the war, when he was the least pompous of the British generals.”
The popular notion of the siege of Yorktown seems to blame Cornwallis for seeking refuge there, as if he was chased to the water’s edge. In fact, with winter coming on, he was ordered to find a port for British ships and did so. We all know too about the surrender ceremony and how he pleaded illness and sent someone in his place. This in itself is considered suspicious and revealing. It means he was a liar and a coward. But Cornwallis might well have been telling the truth.
“It is entirely plausible that he really was ill,” O’Shaughnessy says. “He suffered from malaria more than once during the war, and by the time his troops got to Yorktown, they had marched hundreds of miles and were exhausted. Many of them were indeed sick.”
We like to think of Cornwallis as a failure, but he was not regarded as such in England, where thousands cheered his return. He was hailed as a hero for coming as close to subduing the rebellious colonies as could be expected once the political will to continue the war had collapsed. In 1786, George III made him a Knight of the Garter. That same year he became governor-general of Bengal and commander-in-chief of all British forces in India, where his army of about 20,000 defeated 40,000 troops under Tipu Sultan in the Third Mysore War. After serving as viceroy of Ireland from 1798–1801, he returned as governor of India where, in 1805, he died.
As for the battlefield tactics Cornwallis and the rest of the British generals employed in North America, they too were not what we’ve been led to assume. The television reenactments always show the same dreary footage. Robotic redcoats march forward in rigid ranks, wave after suicidal wave, while the “ragtag”—always “ragtag”—colonials crouch behind stone fences, picking them off with their squirrel guns. This, for the most part, is also nonsense.
Most of the senior British officers had fought in the French and Indian War. They understood from that experience that, in the words of George Germain, the secretary of state for America during the war, this would be a different kind of campaign, one that relied heavily on what the British command called the “Indian” style of combat. William Howe, the commander-in-chief of British forces, was selected because he had been a pioneer of light infantry tactics, which involved the use of small units in irregular formations.
European warfare could involve up to 100,000 soldiers facing each other over cleared ground extending over several miles, but this, of course, was impractical in North America. Armies in the Revolution rarely included 10,000 men. When Cornwallis campaigned in the Carolinas he commanded an army of about 2,000 troops. By European standards, what we think of as great battles—Germantown, Monmouth, Saratoga—would be “considered as skirmishes of little account,” as the London Register reported in 1781.
British foot soldiers knew how to march. That’s true. So did the Americans, after Von Steuben schooled them at Valley Forge. But the redcoats also knew how to charge, and did so bravely. They would fire their muskets in volleys, which in Europe was usually enough to clear the enemy from the field; if that didn’t work, they would attack those who remained with their bayonets—far more lethal than the muskets, which weren’t even aimed at anybody in particular.
The bayonet, however, proved of limited value when fighting in the heavily forested colonies, which called for an adjustment of tactics—to the “Indian” style. This included the soldiers disguising themselves, in some cases, as Indians. The conventional wisdom to the contrary notwithstanding, the Americans weren’t the only ones with sense enough to prefer this kind of camouflage to dress uniforms.
The Americans also weren’t alone in scrambling from tree to tree or take cover behind stone fences. Matthew H. Spring in With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Campaign in North America, 1775–1783 offers a bracing and long overdue reassessment of British tactics. Perhaps the most important lesson British officers learned in the French and Indian War, Spring writes, involved what they called “bushfighting.” As part of their training in bushfighting, two soldiers working in tandem shared a tree from behind which they would alternately fire and retire a few feet to reload. They were also trained to lie on their backs and bellies to fire their pieces. The command “to tree” became a part of British military jargon.
A July 1776 journal entry of Major General Baron Riedesel, who commanded German mercenaries at Saratoga, describes the kind of maneuver he expected of his well-trained troops:
As soon as the first line has jumped into [the] ditch, the command ‘fire’ is given, when the first line fires, reloads its guns, gets up out of the ditch, and hides behind a tree, rock, shrub or whatever is at hand, at the same time firing off four cartridges in such a manner that the line is kept as straight as possible. As soon as the first line has fired off four cartridges, the second line advances and fires off the same number in the same manner. While this is taking place, the woods have been thoroughly ransacked by the sharpshooters who have thus become familiar with every part of it.
Over time, as the Americans became more disciplined themselves, the French took a more active role. As British political support for subduing the rebels disintegrated, Washington’s war of attrition prevailed. The siege of Yorktown began on October 9, 1781, and ten days later, Cornwallis surrendered. Peace talks began the following spring, and in November 1782, eight years after Lexington and Concord, preliminary accords recognized U.S. independence.
Cornwallis, while understandably stung by the defeat, was feted at Yorktown by the American and French commanders. Then he packed up and left. There’s no evidence he ever cowered in that cave near the Yorktown beach. Robbie C. Smith, a park ranger at the battlefield, says there is only one primary source on where Cornwallis made his headquarters during the last days of the siege. He moved from the house of Thomas Nelson Jr., which still stands, into a “grotto” on a ravine near a corner of Nelson’s garden. No such grotto has been found.
“There was no indignity in moving your headquarters into a cave,” O’Shaughnessy says. But the one that remains was far too small to accommodate a general and his staff, and the sign outside it today says only that Cornwallis moved his operations “to a nearby cave.” Maybe it’s time to retire the sign altogether and do something more useful with the hole in the cliff. Let a vendor take over the spot and sell French fries or, if that causes discomfort, “freedom fries.” Call it Rochambeau’s.