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“Leonidas” to Cornwallis

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

August 27.—A writer of South Carolina presents the following address to Lord Cornwallis:—”My lord,—As a generous enemy I mean to address you with candor. I possess not the acrimony of a satirist nor the disposition to encourage it. I wish only to approach you with the confidence of truth, and by telling you what you really are, make you reflect on what you really may be.

“Tour panegyrist in the Charleston paper, has labored to give a brilliant and finished portraiture of your military character. What he says of your qualities I believe in general terms to be true. Your mental powers, I am told, are heightened and refined by a genteel and liberal education, and your commerce with the world, it is said, has taught you a knowledge of all the motives of action, and the principles which are best calculated to impose upon the credulity of the world.

“To give a polish to your military achievements, I observe by your public letters, is the peculiar object of your attention; the great outlines by which truth alone is to be ascertained, are so lost in the pomp of your descriptions, that the garb seems better suited to the glitter of a Roman triumph, than the ornament of a little action. But you wrested the laurels from the conqueror of Burgoyne, and fought the battle of Camden; yes, my lord, you did; and for your conduct, deserve to be handed down to posterity with some degree of credit. It was a stroke, indeed, severe and painful to our interest, but you did not improve the advantages as a great man ought to have done; it was far, very far from being decisive, and by no means so very important, my lord, as you would fain make your royal master and the world in general believe it was. Who can read your publications without pitying our expiring liberties? Who is there that lives three thousand miles from the scene of action, but from your representation would suppose that all America had fallen prostrate at your feet? Had Caesar given such a puff to the battle of Pharsalia, it would, in the same ratio, have gone infinitely beyond the powers of any language to encompass the magnitude of its consequences. As it is, it only runs parallel with your famous battle of Camden, and the conqueror of the world now finds a competitor for fame in the Earl of Cornwallis.

“The gloss given to the battle of Guilford is equally ingenious; but why you should relate circumstances so palpably erroneous, is something so very strange, and of a nature so very extraordinary, (when you might have confined yourself to truths that would reflect equal honor on your conduct without betraying so much ingenuity,) that I am willing to suppose your letter had either been altered by the ministry in England, or that the printer, in a fit of negligent industry, had published the rough original instead of the corrected copy. You assert, with great confidence, that Colonel Tarleton had given Lieutenant-Colonel Lee a handsome drubbing in the morning of the action; whereas, on the other hand, that gallant partisan drove Tarleton’s dragoons up to the head of the British column, cut down several of them in their flight, killed a captain of the guards, and halted your whole army (which was the object of his meeting you) for upwards of an hour. During your halt, General Greene was busily employed in arranging his little army in order of battle. I will here beg leave to remark, my lord, that our force consisted chiefly of militia, and our numbers on that day did not exceed three thousand three hundred men; the British army, on the other hand, consisted of at least twenty-five hundred old veteran soldiers, inured to action, and made firm by discipline to oppose them. When you advanced, the British troops rushed on with a confidence that did honor to themselves and their country, but it must be acknowledged, my lord, that you met with a warm reception, and that the greater part of the militia poured into your ranks the severest and longest fire, that perhaps ever was known by any irregular body of men upon any former occasion. You were heard to acknowledge at Cross Creek, that the Virginia militia were nearly equal to regulars, and that if the North Carolinians had made the same opposition, your army must have been inevitably ruined. Your old veterans were several times staggered, victory for some minutes appeared doubtful, and so very much cut to pieces were they when they got up to the Continental troops, that had it not been for an unlucky circumstance which occasioned a part of the Maryland line to give way, we should have balanced the battle of Camden, and your lordship would no longer have been thought the Hannibal of the British army. Whilst every thing was giving way, and a retreat was ordered, the first regiment of Marylanders made a charge, and being seconded by the horse, the guards were cut to pieces, and a check given to the pursuit of your whole army; whilst Mr. Tarleton, at an awful distance, with three times the number of horse that Colonel Washington had on the field, beheld with astonishment, such an instance of superior firmness. Yet, my lord, notwithstanding those violent efforts, you only lost between four and five hundred men. Were I allow-‘ed the liberty of judging upon this occasion, I should determine nothing short of seven hundred. It is certain a return was brought from your orderly office, which made your loss in killed, wounded, and taken, six hundred and sixty-three men, exclusive of officers; but if your loss was so very trifling as you affect to represent, how comes it about that you should retreat before us with such precipitation, three days after the action? And why should your officers, particularly those who have seen the longest service, declare, upon every occasion, that it was the hottest and bloodiest action, by a very great deal, that had happened in America since the revolution? And why, great sir, should you leave so many of your wounded behind you at New Jordan, with a request that we should take charge of them in your absence? All these circumstances seem to prove your loss to be heavy, and fix upon you all the consequences of a defeat, or, surely, my lord, as a great general, you ought to have fought us again. We pushed you hard, you must acknowledge, and offered you opportunities of giving us battle every day during the pursuit; but, as if your army had been composed of so many nimble-footed Mercuries, you flew with the celerity of a light corps, and by making a timely escape over Deep River, saved the destruction of your army. You were permitted to go and enjoy your visionary conquests in Wilmington, while General Greene moved into South Carolina and Georgia, and recovered those two States from the most oppressive tyranny. From Wilmington you took your course to Virginia, triumphing as you went, in the ruin of individuals, without one single prospect of gaining any advantage, either to yourself or to the nation for which you fight. But here, my lord, I must carry you back to the memorable 17th of January, when the hero of the British legion delivered up his laurels to the eminently great General Morgan of the American army. What a scene for a pen like yours! You have handled it indeed, my lord, with an art peculiar to yourself. No man but you dare give it such a touch; whilst it labors for a ray of truth, it holds out the speciousness of facts.

“You acknowledge the stroke to be unexpected, but will not allow the consequence of a defeat. You say four hundred men were killed, wounded, and taken, but that Tarleton retook his baggage, and gave Colonel Washington a drubbing. Is it possible, my lord, that you dare deceive your countrymen with such a tale? Where was the necessity of concealing facts that must force themselves upon the world? If you are so ignorant of circumstances, I will inform you that upwards of one hundred were killed on the field, two hundred wounded, and that five hundred and thirty were brought off prisoners, after a pursuit of twenty miles. It was the most finished defeat I ever heard of. Mr. Tarleton, although at the head of three hundred cavalry, was routed, and lost near a hundred of his best dragoons, by Lieutenant-Colonel Washington, who appeared at the head of only ninety. Whilst your favorite hero had nothing to oppose but a few raw and undisciplined militia, he did great wonders, every newspaper was filled with eulogiums, and England was intoxicated with his worth. But when disciplined soldiers met him, all the honors he had ever reaped were lost, and that same Tarleton who was but as yesterday the terror of the militia, is now the object of their ridicule and contempt. You, my lord, owe some of your fame to this same kind of success, as yet you have never had a regular force equal to your own to contend with; but I wish not to detract from your military character; it is a good one, and were you engaged in any other cause it would be a great one. You have, by flashes of success, raised your name to a very considerable pitch; but take care that some ill-fated blow does not level you with your friend Tarleton. Fortune is whimsical, and often plays tricks with characters who venture as much as you do. At present you are the admiration of your countrymen, but one ill-fated stroke may make you the object of their resentment. America has felt too sensibly your insults ever to let an army like yours trample upon her liberties while she has the means of preventing it. When your royal master shall be able to maintain a force of two hundred thousand men on the continent of America, then, and not till then, my lord, can he possibly hope for conquest over a free and independent people.”1


1Leonidas,” in the Pennsylvania Packet, September 20.