CORNWALLIS, Charles, Lord (1738-1805), Major General, British Army. Letter signed ("Cornwallis") to Major Wemyss, 63rd Regiment of Foot in Camden, the letter PARTLY IN A BRITISH ARMY NUMERIC CIPHER, Charleston, South Carolina, 7 October 1780. 4 pages, 4to. Fine condition. -- Manuscript key to Cornwallis's numeric cipher, in an unknown hand, comprising a table headed "Cypher," listing numeric substitutions for the 26 letters of the alphabet, and with careful directions for the use of the cipher on the verso. 2 pages, 4to. -- A transcription of the body of Cornwallis's letter, undated, but evidently from the early 19th century. 1 page, 4to. -- A cover sheet, labeled "Autograph letter of Lord Cornwallis, in Cypher," n.d.. 2 pages, 4to. Together four items.
CORNWALLIS SPELLS OUT STRATEGY FOR HIS CAROLINAS CAMPAIGN: A VERY RARE LETTER IN CODE FROM THE BRITISH COMMANDER, WITH THE KEY FOR ITS DECIPHERMENT
A very remarkable survival. Cornwallis's coded letter (marked "duplicate" at the top) and a contemporary key for decipherment were found, according to an accompanying note in an early 19th-century hand, "among the papers of Col. Wemyss, late an Officer in the British Army," to whom the long letter is addressed. The cipher directions explain that "the state of the lower country, and the absolute Necessity of preventing the Enemy from Being in quiet possession of the East Bank of Santee [River], obliges me to change the Destination of the 63rd Regiment. I will therefore explain my Plan to you." At this point the ciphered text begins, which reads in clear text: "The object of marching into North Carolina is only to raise men, which from every account I have received of the number of our friends may be done to a very considerable amount. For this purpose I shall move in about ten or 12 days to Salisbury, and from thence invite all loyalists of the neighboring counties to repair to our standard, to be formed into Provincial Corps to be armed, clothed and appointed. From thence I mean to move my whole force down to Crosscreek about the middle of November. I shall then be in full communication with our shipping. I would have you mount your whole regiment and proceed into the country as soon as possible. I can give you no particular directions. My object is to prevent the Enemy from being thoroughly master of the country you have left. You will therefore act according to your discretion...until you hear of my march to Crosscreek when you will join me."
Cornwallis's bold strategy ultimately proved a disaster. After defeating the Americans under Gates at Camden, and concentrating his forces at Charleston, he determined to move north into North Carolina, enlisting loyalist regiments from the populace, and eventually into Virginia, the richest southern colony. But Nathanael Greene had been sent southward to take charge of the demoralized Continentals, and soon began to wage a clever campaign of sudden strikes against the far-flung British garrisons in the Carolinas, evading direct confrontations with the superior British force whenever possible, to husband his army's growing strength. Optimistic British attempts to enlist local loyalists bore some fruit, but never produced the many regiments Cornwallis had envisioned. On 9 November, Wemyss, in accordance with Cornwallis's orders here, led a mounted detachment in a surprise attack on the camp of the American partisan Thomas Sumter. The American pickets were alert, though, and Wemyss was disabled by two bullets and he and 25 of his men were captured.
Coded letters from the Revolution are very rare; we cannot trace another Cornwallis letter in code at auction in at least 30 years. (4)