Overconfident Cornwallis and Surprises in Washington’s Army

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The promise of freedom was offered to the slaves who ran away to the British lines during the American Revolution. Find out what went wrong in Cornwallis’s planning to overturn Washington’s army.

Painting in which Commander George Washington can be seen addressing his troops.
Though a strong force, the British had to face failures at the hands of the American troops who made it difficult for them to fight in winter and recaptured many posts from them. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Goodies for Runaway Slaves

The newly freed slaves, like Colonel Ty and his Black Brigade, served in the British Army as scouts, engineers, and raiders in New York and New Jersey. Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of Virginia, briefly recruited an Ethiopian regiment of runaway slaves to turn and fight their former masters. The success of the British in the South caused havoc on the frontier and the coastlines.

What Happened to Commander Horatio Gates?

Over Washington’s disapproval, Congress split 1,400 Continentals from Washington’s command sending them south in June 1780, where Horatio Gates, the victor of the Battle of Saratoga, was appointed as the overall American commander. Gates quickly proved how well placed Washington’s disapproval was. The main British force in the Carolinas was turned over by Sir Henry Clinton to Lord Cornwallis while Clinton returned to directing operations in New York City. On August 16, Cornwallis defeated Gates at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina. Gates was so badly beaten that he himself mounted a horse and rode to Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Result of Army Shortage

Cornwallis had few men to hold the American territory he now controlled. In October, his loyalist force of 1,200 men under Major Patrick Ferguson was attacked at King’s Mountain in western North Carolina by American militia who surrounded them, overran their position, and, like Tarleton and the British Legion had done to the Waxhaws, hanged nine of the loyalist leaders as traitors.

Painting depicts the war field in King's Mountain where British Major Patrick Ferguson was killed by the American troops.
Major Patrick Ferguson’s death was a major setback for Cornwallis who decided to pull back his troops. (Image: Chappel, Alonzo, 1828-1887 (artist), Jeens, Charles Henry, 1827-1879 (engraver), Virtue & Yorston (publisher)/Public domain)

The loss of Ferguson and his loyalist legion forced Cornwallis to pull back. Winter in South Carolina, where lack of supplies and raids by American guerrillas like Francis Marion, Swamp Fox, and Thomas Sumter, together made winter quarters as miserable for the British as the British had made winter quarters miserable for the Americans at Valley Forge.

Henry Clinton’s Attempts to Control New York City

Sir Henry Clinton had his own troubles in New York City and little to spare for the aid of Cornwallis. In an effort to break Washington’s grip around New York City, Clinton attempted to seize the strategic American forts above the city at Stoney Point and Paulus Hook. He did capture them, only to have Washington just as easily recapture them. Clinton tried again by bribing a senior American general, Benedict Arnold, to betray the Continental’s outpost on the Hudson River at West Point.

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Benedict Arnold’s Betrayal

Benedict Arnold served with bravery in the disastrous Quebec Expedition in 1775, deserving more credit for the Saratoga victory than Horatio Gates. But Arnold, despite that distinguished record, was in debt as he had married a loyalist wife and was embittered by Congress’s unwillingness to reward his military genius. He joined hands with Clinton to betray West Point, a plot that nearly worked until Clinton’s adjutant general, Major John Andre, was captured by the Continental Army. Andre had tried to slip through the American lines with papers for Arnold. Andre was hanged, but Arnold escaped to New York City, where he completed his turn of coat by commanding a British raid on the Chesapeake at the end of 1780.

Diminishing Conditions of Continental Army

Cornwallis’ misery in South Carolina might have been easier to bear had he realized that the Continental Army was also in some unhappy straits. It was becoming a habit for the Continental Congress to lose interest in the army whenever it went into winter quarters, and Washington’s men had to endure two more freezing, hungry winters in 1779 and 1780. There were also sporadic mutinies over pay that was not forthcoming from Congress.

Seventeen-hundred Pennsylvania Continentals set off for Philadelphia to confront the Congress, and Sir Henry Clinton, in New York City, sent two emissaries in civilian clothes secretly through the lines to offer those rebellious Continentals full pardons and pay if they would desert to the British. But the Pennsylvanians wanted redressal of grievances, not commission of treason. They hanged Clinton’s emissaries and, on the strength of promises from George Washington, went back to the camp.

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Tough Call by Cornwallis

In January 1781, Lord Cornwallis had only 1,300 men ready for duty, and not more than 3,000 British soldiers were under his immediate command. Another 5,000 British soldiers in Charleston and Savannah were needed to guard those positions, especially when the French Navy was hovering off the American coasts. The French Navy impelled Cornwallis to his most difficult decision.

Unable to draw supplies overland from Charleston or from Savannah due to Francis Marion and the American guerrillas, Cornwallis planned to set up a new base at Wilmington, North Carolina, where the Cape Fear River empties out into the Atlantic. Cornwallis believed that he would be in a perfect position to receive supplies and reinforcements by sea and could reopen communications with Sir Henry Clinton in New York and set new plans for redeeming the Carolinas for Great Britain.

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Impressive Nathanael Greene

Portrait shows General Nathanael Greene
General Nathanael Greene. (Image: After Charles Willson Peale/Public domain)

Cornwallis was not facing Horatio Gates who was officially relieved of command at the end of 1780 and had been replaced by one of Washington’s favorite officers, Nathanael Greene. Greene, a Rhode Islander, was the youngest general in Washington’s army. He, like so many of the rest of Washington’s officers, had no training in military affairs before the Revolution. Greene was a quick and nimble learner with a natural aptitude for military command.

Greene dangled one part of his army of Continentals and militia north of Cornwallis’s march route, the route Cornwallis would normally take toward Wilmington, to decoy him away from the coastline. Cornwallis took the bait, and detached Tarleton and 1,100 men to crush what he assumed was an isolated and unsuspecting body of American militia.

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Overconfident Tarleton

On January 17, Tarleton found 700 Continentals and militia at Hannah’s Cowpens under the famous rifleman Daniel Morgan. Morgan lured the reckless and overconfident Tarleton onward with a helpless, confused stream of untrained militia as skirmishers. Tarleton thought it yet another opportunity to ride over more Americans; but once Tarleton was committed to the attack, the militia stepped aside to reveal Morgan’s Continentals, who proceeded to shred Tarleton’s ranks as they advanced to the bayonet charge. The militia closed the trap by curling around Tarleton’s flanks, whose loyalists and regulars collapsed. Only 140 mounted troopers, including Tarleton himself, managed to escape.

Common Questions About the American Revolution

Q: What was Horatio Gates role in the American Revolution?

1,400 Continentals from Washington’s command were sent south in June 1780, where Horatio Gates, the victor of the Battle of Saratoga, was appointed as overall American commander. On August 16, Cornwallis defeated Gates at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina. Gates was so badly beaten that he went back to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: Did the Colonial Army take control of New York City?

The Colonial Army led by Sir Henry Clinton attempted to seize the strategic American forts above the city at Stoney Point and Paulus Hook. They did capture them, only to have Washington just as easily recapture them. Clinton tried again by bribing a senior American general, Benedict Arnold, to betray the Continental’s outpost on the Hudson River at West Point.

Q: Who did Benedict Arnold betray?

Benedict Arnold had served in the disastrous Quebec Expedition in 1775. Despite a distinguished record, Arnold was embittered by Congress’s unwillingness to reward his military genius. He joined hands with Clinton to betray West Point, a plot that nearly worked until Clinton’s adjutant general, Major John Andre, was captured by the Continental Army. Arnold escaped to New York City, where he completed his turn of coat by commanding a British raid on the Chesapeake at the end of 1780.

Q: What is Nathanael Greene best known for?

Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Islander, was the youngest general in Washington’s army. Greene, like so many of the rest of Washington’s officers, had no training in military affairs before the Revolution. Greene was a quick and a nimble learner and had a natural aptitude for military command.

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