Cornwallis, Charles (1738–1805), soldier and lord lieutenant of Ireland (1798–1801), was born 31 December 1738 in London, eldest son of Charles (1700–62), 1st Earl Cornwallis , and his wife Elizabeth (d. 1785), daughter of Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend. Educated at Eton and the military academy of Turin, he was commissioned ensign in the Grenadier Guards 8 December 1756 and served in Germany, becoming lieutenant-colonel of the 12th Foot (1761–2). He was elected whig MP for Eye, Suffolk (1760–62), and after his father's death returned to England in June 1762 and sat in the lords. Much liked by George III, he served as his ADC (1765–6), joint vice-treasurer of Ireland (1769–70), and privy councillor (1770), and was promoted lieutenant-general (1777).
Although opposed to the measures that led to revolt in America, he accepted a command against the colonists in February 1776, and established a reputation as an able and energetic general, winning a series of victories until he surrendered at Yorktown (19 October 1781). When Pitt became prime minister in December 1783 the king pressed him to appoint Cornwallis as lord lieutenant of Ireland, although Rutland (qv) was eventually appointed. In February 1786 Cornwallis was made governor general of Bengal, where he implemented wide-ranging reforms and, as commander-in-chief in the East Indies (1786–93), led British forces to victory in the third Mysore war (1790–92). In October 1792 he was created a marquess, and promoted full general in 1793. He returned to England in February 1794, and joined the cabinet as master-general of the ordnance (1795–1801).
In May 1797 he was offered the post of commander-in-chief of the Irish army to deal with growing disaffection. He was reluctant to accept, responding that he would do so only if concessions were granted to the catholics, or in the event of dire emergency. The emergency was not long in coming: on 23 May 1798 rebellion broke out in Ireland and with the lord lieutenant Camden (qv) anxious to be replaced and Gen. Lake (qv), unsuitable as commander-in-chief, Pitt appointed Cornwallis to both positions. He was sworn in on 20 June, the day before the Wexford rebel army was defeated at Vinegar Hill. However, the continuation of a bloody and often indiscriminate counter-insurgency campaign horrified Cornwallis. He was astounded by the ferocity and bigotry of Irish loyalists, noting that ‘their folly in making it a religious war, added to the ferocity of our troops who delight in murder, most powerfully counter-act all plans of conciliation’ (Cornwallis corr., ii, 357). Deciding on a policy of firmness and leniency to restore order, Cornwallis agreed to pardon the rank-and-file and to spare the lives of United Irish leaders sentenced to death, in return for information and their exile. He attempted to halt indiscriminate reprisals by bringing crown forces under proper military discipline and having properly constituted courts martial; Cornwallis spent much of his time reviewing their sentences, and commuted about a third of them. Many Irish loyalists denounced the new viceroy as ‘Cropwallis’, a weak English liberal who was overly sympathetic to rebels and papists – rumours even circulated that he had taken a catholic mistress. Cornwallis, however, was adamant that he applied leniency or severity as the circumstances demanded, and throughout July and August his measured policy did much to pacify the country.
In late August 1798, on learning that the French had landed at Killala, Co. Mayo, Cornwallis took personal command of the army and marched westwards to repel the invasion. Although the French force was small (about 1,000 men), after the British defeat at Castlebar (27 August) he was anxious to avoid a major French victory that might reignite the rebellion. Proceeding cautiously, he accumulated an army of over 10,000 men and then divided it in two: he commanded the division that blocked a French advance on Dublin, while Lake pursued the French through north Connacht. The Franco–Irish army was eventually overwhelmed at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford (8 September 1798), the action that effectively marked the end of the rebellion. The invasion, however, highlighted Ireland's vulnerability and gave additional impetus to Pitt's plan for union. Cornwallis promoted this over the next few months, but on 23 January 1799 a motion for union was narrowly defeated in the Irish commons. Cornwallis was largely blamed for this defeat, and was heavily criticised by several leading members of his own administration such as Lord Clare (qv), John Beresford (qv), and Edward Cooke (qv). His austere style also gave cause for complaint: Bishop Thomas Percy (qv) noted that he was ‘very civil and pleasant, but he will not be a favourite here, for he is very sober himself, and does not push the bottle’ (G.E.C., 456).
The defeat of January 1799 shook away the government's complacency, and Cornwallis and his chief secretary Lord Castlereagh (qv) set about constructing a parliamentary majority by nakedly employing their powers of patronage. Cornwallis also undertook tours to the south in July and August and the north in October to enlist public support, and paid considerable attention to securing the support of catholics, intimating to them that emancipation would soon follow union. He also courted Irish MPs and political magnates more readily, although he still regarded them as bigoted, avaricious, and untrustworthy. After several months of political dealing he noted: ‘How I long to kick those whom my public duty obliges me to court! If I did not hope to get out of this country, I should most earnestly pray for immediate death’ (Cornwallis corr., iii, 100). Only his belief that union was an essential measure for the safety of the British empire gave him sufficient consolation to carry on. Cornwallis was also involved with other issues, such as taking steps to improve food supply after the bad harvest of 1799, for which he was thanked by the Irish parliament.
Although he found bargaining for votes more distasteful than Castlereagh did, Cornwallis provided him with unqualified support and guaranteed the forty-four creations and promotions in the Irish peerage required to pass the union. However, his relations with the home secretary, the duke of Portland (qv), were poor. Portland believed that Cornwallis did not keep him sufficiently informed and that he had promised too many peerages; only by threatening to resign was Cornwallis able to honour his commitments. By early 1800 he and Castlereagh had constructed a parliamentary majority in favour of union, and in August 1800 the act was passed with little opposition in or out of parliament. Even Clare eventually conceded that ‘he has on the whole been the man, of all others, best selected for the crisis’ (PRONI, T3456/1). Cornwallis, however, was deeply disappointed by the king's failure to grant catholic emancipation, which he regarded as a short-sighted move that risked the long-term security of Ireland and the empire, and he joined Pitt and Castlereagh in resigning in March 1801.
Sent as plenipotentiary to negotiate the peace of Amiens in March 1802, he was outmanoeuvred by the French delegation. In 1805 he was summoned out of retirement to become governor general of Bengal. Three months after landing in India, he died 5 October 1805 at Ghazipore, and was buried there. Although generally regarded as an able rather than a brilliant statesman, he was much admired for his humanity, modesty, and devotion to duty.
He married (1768) Jemima Tullikens Jones (d. 1779), daughter of Col. James Jones; they had an only son, Charles (1774–1823), second Marquess Cornwallis.