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Stanley D. M. Carpenter

Southern Gambit

Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown

University of Oklahoma Press 2019

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in British StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Military HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & Society May 22, 2020 Scott Lipkowitz

Charles Lord Cornwallis’s campaign through the southern American colonies came to an ignominious close on October 19, 1781, on an open field outside Yorktown,...

Charles Lord Cornwallis’s campaign through the southern American colonies came to an ignominious close on October 19, 1781, on an open field outside Yorktown, Virginia. At approximately noon, Cornwallis’s beleaguered soldiers, exhausted and low on provisions, emerged from behind their fortifications, laid down their arms, and delivered the earl’s sword to Continental General Benjamin Lincoln, a man whom Cornwallis had helped vanquish a little over a year before at the siege of Charleston. This dramatic reversal of fortune closed the door on a once aggressive British stratagem designed to end the American rebellion by dismembering its southern limbs one by one. Initial victories at Augusta, Savannah, Charleston, and Camden appeared to augur well for Cornwallis’s campaign.

But what began with great promise in 1779 and 1780 soon ended in resounding defeat. After fighting Continental General Nathaniel Greene, Patriot partisans, and the Carolina backcountry throughout 1781, Cornwallis’s army was a spent force. Besieged at Yorktown, with no hope for relief, the earl was left with little choice but to surrender. Ever since, generals, historians, and popular culture have pilloried Cornwallis for his ostensibly inept handling of the southern campaign, and have laid responsibly for “losing” America firmly at his feet. But was the early truly to blame? Was Britain’s decision to move the seat of war to the southern colonies a sound strategy poorly executed, or simply a bad strategy? These questions form the analytical framework for Stanley D. M. Carpenter’s masterful strategic study, Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Numerous scholars, including Jeremy Black, Don Higginbotham, and most recently Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, have examined Cornwallis’s southern campaign from the British perspective. These scholars have pushed back against the traditional historiographic charge of gross incompetence on the part of senior British commanders, and have highlighted the myriad logistical, political, spatial, and temporal impediments the British faced in their pursuit of victory. “Southern Gambit” follows and expands upon this tradition, providing the first monograph-length work to analyze the campaign exclusively through a strategic lens. Carpenter, a former Command Historian and Professor of Naval Strategy and Policy at the US Naval War College, offers a new perspective on Cornwallis’s march through the South, as well as fresh insight into why the earl, despite his formidable tactical acumen, proved unable to defeat the master strategist Nathaniel Greene. Moreover, in “Southern Gambit,” Carpenter has produced a work possessing undeniable relevance to current US strategic planners. It is a requisite read for both scholars of the American Revolution and today’s military professionals.