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British Leaders

Lord Cornwallis was the primary British general in the field at Yorktown. He had proven his bravery in the field many times since coming to the colonies. He was popular with his men and a skillful tactician. He had a strong belief that winning battles was enough to win a war. It would be this belief that would ultimately doom Cornwallis.

British Commanders at Yorktown

Military leaders in the 18th century was significantly different than today. The British had developed military leadership on a political system, that is, the generals were appointed to be leaders based on their political support back in England instead of their ability to command in the field. With that in mind, the 2 main British leaders, in 1781 were both 43 years of age, but were on different sides politically. This meant there was some degree of distrust between them.

Sir Henry Clinton

Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton was commander-in-chief in North America. He was 43 years old at the time of Yorktown. Clinton's had a problem that prevented him from giving clear, concise orders to his subordinates. He was also hampered by waiting on orders to arrive from England before acting. He had a good understanding of the situation in the colonies, but failed to realize the difficulty remote posts might face if the Americans had a naval force, which for most of the conflict, this was the case. It wasn't until 1781 that the Americans acquired a strong naval presence thanks to the joining of the French navy.


Sir Henry Clinton

Clinton was always aware of the big picture of the conflict in the Americas and for good reason: this theater of war was his responsibility.

After the war of revolution, the British put most of the blame for Yorktown squarely on Clinton's shoulders. Although given the opportunity to clear his name, he refused the enquiry.

Lt. General Charles, Earl Cornwallis

Like Clinton, Cornwallis was as a political man. He agreed to serve in the American colonies reluctantly. At an engagement with the American's at Brandywine, Cornwallis was given command of a division. After the fall of of Charleston in the south, was given command of all the British southern forces.

Cornwallis Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG (31 December 1738 � 5 October 1805)

Given Clinton's habit of giving vague orders and the great distance between the two men, Cornwallis chose to pursue his own strategy whenever possible. He believed that Virginia was the key to success against the Americans and as soon as Clinton gave him command over the southern forces, he moved north to Virginia. Here he began a long series of skirmishes throughout the Virginia countryside until he received orders from Clinton to establish a suitable seaport that the Royal Navy could safely use.

Initially Cornwallis selected Portsmouth, Virginia, but then received orders to secure a port somewhere protected on the Chesapeake. After some scouting, Cornwallis selected the small port of Yorktown and began buiding defensive positions just in case Lafayette would foolishly try to attack his heavily fortified position. His position was perfect. He establsihed a position across the York River at Glouchester, his defensive earthworks protected him from a land invasion, and his small armada of ships would soon be reinforced by the Royal Navy.