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Lot 17: Cornwallis, Charles. Autograph letter signed ("Cornwallis"), 2 pages (9 x 7 ¼ in.; 229 x 184 mm.)

The Property of a Distinguished American Private Collector

by Profiles in History

December 18, 2012

Calabasas Hills, CA, USA

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Description:

17. Cornwallis, Charles. Autograph letter signed (“Cornwallis”), 2 pages (9 x 7 ¼ in.; 229 x 184 mm.), “New York,” 26 November 1781, to [Nisbet] Balfour, a distinguished British officer who was the commandant of Charleston.

Cornwallis informs his commandant at Charleston of his surrender at Yorktown.

Cornwallis writes in full: So many of my letters to you have miscarried that I cannot attempt giving you any accou[n]t of my history for those last five months without entering into a detail much too long.... I shall only say that altho’ I have been unfortunate I trust I have not been criminal. They tell me that you are leaving Charlestown [Charleston], I rejoice for your sake, but lament it for my country, & for Leslie to whom I am sure you would have been peculiarly usefull. Wherever you go be assured of my unalterable regard & friendship, but I trust that we shall soon meet in England. As I thought you might possibly have left Carolina before the arrival of this letter I have troubled Leslie with the little business I had at Charlestown. We embark in a few days on board the Robust.  In a postscript, Cornwallis has added: Lt. Garrat of Brown’s Corps who behaved remarkably well on every occasion has got a Commission in the 23d.

At the conclusion of Cornwallis’ letter his aide has added, You will lament for every reason both publick & priva[te] the misfortunes of this Campaign, but I am very certain that you will at least have the satisfaction to hear from all quarters that they have not happened by Lord Cornwalli[s’] fault.  Lord Cornwallis has written to General Leslie & has desired that he will send all our baggage .  .  .  .

Cornwallis wrote this letter five weeks after his surrender to Washington at Yorktown after a siege, brilliantly executed by joint French-American land and sea forces, had virtually ended military operations in the U.S. War of Independence.  Earlier in May 1781, “after a series of reverses and the depletion of his strength in the Southern campaign, the British commander Lord Cornwallis made his way to the coast, moving from Wilmington, North Carolina to Petersburg, Virginia.... Threatened by a sizeable Continental force under the Marquis de Lafayette, Cornwallis retreated through Virginia, first to Richmond...and finally, near the end of July, to Yorktown, which he proceeded to fortify.  Lafayette’s forces, now numbering 8,000 troops, blocked any possible escape route by land. Cornwallis’ army, totaling 7,000, waited in vain for rescue or reinforcements from the British Navy.  Instead, a French fleet of 24 ships under the Comte de Grasse assumed control of the strategic waters of Chesapeake Bay.   Under this naval umbrella, General George Washington in late August and early September led 7,000 additional Franco-American troops from New York to Virginia in hopes of entrapping Cornwallis on the Yorktown Peninsula.  When a British rescue fleet, two-thirds the size of the French, set out for Virginia on 17 October with some 7,000 British troops, it was too late. Bombarded by the French fleet and 16,000 allied troops on land, the Cornwallis surrendered his entire army on 17 October, virtually assuring success to the American cause.

In 1778, Nisbet Balfour had accompanied Cornwallis to Charleston, where he was appointed a commandant after the capture of the city and raised 4,000 militia among the loyal colonists.  The following year he accepted the difficult post of commandant at Charleston, and there acquitted himself to the complete satisfaction of Cornwallis.  In late July, Cornwallis sent the British general, Alexander Leslie to Charleston but Clinton ordered him back to New York. Reaching New York around mid-August, he was supposed to sail for Charleston on 28 August but Clinton rescinded this order and held him at headquarters another two months. During this time Leslie took part in the councils of war that Clinton held during the Yorktown Campaign.  In late October Leslie sailed to Charleston as Cornwallis’ successor in the Southern Theater.

A fine letter with great historic importance.

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