‘MY CONDUCT IN AMERICA’: The Blame-Game for failing to Defeat ‘General Washington’ in New York and New Jersey Begins
Eight foolscap pages (32x20.5cm) comprising two bifoliums with browning to edges and old folds. The British government secretary has used Britannia watermarked paper with vertical chainlines. The text is written in an easily legible forward-sloping hand with a few corrections; a fair copy. The text breaks off three quarters of the way through Cornwallis’s testimony which he gave to the House of Commons sitting as a Committee on 6 May, 1779 - the general had returned to England to attend to his dying wife before once more going back to north America for his final still more disastrous contribution to the British cause, ending in defeat at Yorktown. This version of Cornwallis’s testimony is distinct and almost certainly earlier than the two principle printed sources for the day’s events which are The Parliamentary Register for 1779 and Earl Howe’s memoir. Unlike the later versions the parliamentary secretary follows parliamentary convention and records the Latin name for the day of the hearing: ‘Jovis 6 die Maii 1779’ whereas the printed record gives the date in English as ‘May 6, 1779’. Being a contemporary record of this crucial hearing, the opening of our manuscript is written in the present tense: ‘Committee to Consider of the several papers which were presented to the House by Mr De Grey upon the 19th’ whereas the printed record, compiled in retrospect, sets the scene differently: ‘The House went into a committee to consider of the several papers which were presented to the House by Mr de Grey.’ Confirming the priority of our manuscript, both the printed records (Howe’s Memoir and the Register) misspell the name of Colonel Rall (commander of the Hessian troops at the Battle of Trenton) as ‘Rhall’. As befits our manuscript which is reliant on first hand testimony compiled by a witness to the hearing, ‘Rall’ is correctly cited here. In most other respects our manuscript matches the lat er printed record.
It is one of the peculiarities of the British response to the first phase of the American War of Independence that the recriminations began almost immediately - and have continued ever since. The hearing of May 6, 1779 was called by General William Howe himself in an effort to exonerate himself in London from the criticism that he failed to achieve a decisive battle to end the rebellion. This meant that Howe, the outgoing Commander in Chief in the American colonies and, crucially, a member of the House of Lords, got the chance to interrogate his subordinate officer Charles Cornwallis - an examination recorded in these pages. The discomfort experienced by Cornwallis - shortly to rejoin those very forces under examination in New England, and responsible for the decisive British loss at Battle of Yorktown - is apparent in his responses as he attempted to stay loyal to his superior ‘I think he hath deserved greatly of his Country’ but insists that ‘I do not come here to answer to Questions of opinion, but merely to Questions of Matter of Fact’. Having established between them the extreme difficulty of gathering intelligence from the colonists, Howe asks Cornwallis to consider the terrain with an obviously leading question: ‘Is not the Country in general so covered with Wood and so favourable to Ambuscades, that but an Imperfect knowledge of it can be obtained from reconnoitring? ‘ - a proposition eagerly accepted by Cornwallis - ‘I never saw a stronger Country, or one better calculated for the Defensive.’ In his interrogation Howe moves on to the Brooklyn campaign of the summer of 1776 where he has been criticised for his delay - an essential tactic according to Cornwallis who confirmed that he had seen ‘the Enemys lines at Brooklyn, during the action of the 27th of August 1776’ and ‘I never did hear it suggested by any one, that those Lines could have been carried by assault.’ The matter of delay in crossing to Manhattan is addressed as Howe asks: ‘Did you Observe that any time was lost in making Preparations for the landing on York Island?’ with Cornwallis in supportive mode: ‘Preparations were of a Complicated Nature, and depended in some degree on the Naval Department.’ Cornwallis alludes to his action ‘superintending the Works, thrown up for the defensive Army’ that was to remain in [New] York island’, and the reasons ‘for not attacking the Enemy’s entrenchments at White Plains on the 28th October after the defeat of the Corps on the Enemies Right’. Again Cornwallis defended the slowness of the British pursuit of Washington’s army: ‘I could not have persued the Enemy from Brunswick with any prospect of Material Advantage, or without greatly distressing the Troops under my command.’ Finally Cornwallis is brought to events at Trenton, taking some credit ‘as I believe, that I was the person that first suggested the Idea to the General of taking Trenton and Burdenton into the Chain of his [Howe’s] Cantonments’ and ‘the advantage that must Naturally arise from Holding so large a part of the Jerseys’. However ‘Human Prudence could not foresee the Fatal Event of the surrender of Col Rall’s Brigade - I apprehended no Danger, but the Chance of having our Quarters beat up in the Winter.... The Misfortune at Trenton was owing entirely to the Imprudence and Negligence of the Commanding Officer.’ And then, crucially: ’Were there any Solid Reasons for not Attempting the Passage of the Delaware thro’ Jersey at that time? There were certainly many solid Reasons against it.’ Finally the hearing moved to ‘the Expediency of the Expedition to Pennsylvania’ which prompts Cornwallis’s only reference to his nemesis, George Washington, in person, answering a question about the Pennsylvania manoeuvre being ‘a Powerful Diversion in favour of the Northern Army’ and whether the ‘Rebel Main Army did not March into Pennsylvania to oppose the Corps on that Service? [Cornwallis] I apprehend the Main Army did, that is, the Army commanded by General Washington, and it was understood the greatest part, if not the whole, did.’
A would-be peacemaker with the American colonies William Howe (1729-1814) became commander of the British forces in October 1775, quickly deciding to focus on New York in order to ‘terminate this expensive war’. But it was during the summer of 1776 that Howe gave up opportunities for a decisive battle though winning minor victories at White Plains and Long Island. The defeat of forces at Trenton and Princeton forced the British withdrawal from all save eastern New Jersey and restored American morale, with Howe continuing to shift from one strategy to another before returning to England to defend his wrecked reputation. This document records the way that his subordinate Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) was drawn into that blame game which played out before the British Parliament. Cornwallis’s refusal to blame his boss has been interpreted as an attempt to protect himself against the equally damning judgement upon his actions during this campaign when he was ‘hotly engaged in the fighting at the Battle of Long Island but still allowed Washington to escape across the East River to Manhattan... Chasing Washington's army south across New Jersey, Cornwallis almost caught up with his quarry on the banks of the Raritan at New Brunswick on 1 December, but there he stopped, acting on orders from Howe to go no further.’ This pattern was repeated until at Trenton, near Princeton where he was ordered to ‘avenge a defeat Washington had inflicted on the Hessians in British service. Bogged down in winter mud and harried by sniper fire, Cornwallis's 8000 men took a whole day, 2 January 1777, to march the 10 miles from Princeton to Trenton. Arriving at twilight, with a swollen waterway, the Assanpink Creek, between him and Washington's men, Cornwallis decided to rest his men rather than attempt an assault in the dark. Fatally, however, he failed to put the proper outposts in place, and while his men rested in the village of Trenton, Washington again escaped, under cover of darkness... It was of this affair that Clinton was to observe famously that Cornwallis was guilty “of the most consummate ignorance I ever heard of [in] any officer above a corporal' (Wickwire and Wickwire, War of Independence, 98).” ODNB