On the 19th October 1781 the British and German forces besieged at Yorktown, Virginia commanded by General Lord Charles Cornwallis “having little ammunition, food and supplies left” agreed to surrender to the French and American armies, the latter under General George Washington. Cornwallis had been waiting for a relief force under General Henry Clinton, but it came five days too late. The British and Germans marched out into captivity with their colours furled, the drummers playing a British march, reputedly (but in no way proved to have been) The World Turned Upside Down. This defeat led to Britain eventually acquiescing to American independence and the creation of the United States. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. But not far from Cornwallis on this day in 1781 would have been his good friend Benjamin Grisdale from Matterdale in Cumberland. One more example of how members of this small rural family seem to have spread throughout the world and been present at some key moments in history.

Surrender at Yorktown 1781

Benjamin Grisdale was born in Threlkeld in Matterdale and was baptized there on the 21st February 1744. He was the son of Benjamin Grisdale and Ann Browne. Benjamin followed a route already well trodden by the clever children of poor Cumberland families. He was probably a pupil at the Free Grammar School at Barton in Westmorland and entered Queen’s College, Oxford University in 1760 to study Divinity, aged 15. His maternal uncle Joseph Browne had been educated at Barton School and Queen’s College and was later to become the University’s Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy.

Benjamin received his BA from Oxford in 1764 and his MA in 1767. His brother the Rev Dr Browne Grisdale would follow the same route to Oxford and to ordination and was subsequently to become “Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty”, “Chancellor” of Carlisle and a powerful Justice of the Peace.

On the 22nd February 1768, shortly after receiving his MA, and probably through connections he had made at Oxford, Benjamin became the Chaplain of the British army’s elite infantry regiment: the 33rd Regiment of Foot, commanded by Colonel Charles Cornwallis, the “Earl Cornwallis”. For its conduct, professionalism and discipline during the War of Independence the regiment was later given the nickname ‘The Pattern’. One Sergeant commented:

I am bound to record here that I have felt a certain shamefacedness, on visiting the barracks of the 33rd Regiment, who were commanded by the young Earl of Cornwallis, to compare their high state of appointment and the steadiness of their discipline with the slovenly and relaxed bearing of most of our own companies. One can always correctly judge a regiment by the behaviour of its sentries. I have seen men go on duty in the 9th dead drunk and scarcely able to stand, but with the 33rd the sentry was always alert and alive in attention; when on duty, he was all eye, all ear… During the two hours he remained at this post the sentry continued in constant motion and could not have walked less than seven miles in that time. The 33rd thus set a standard of soldier like duty which made me secretly dissatisfied with the 9th, and which I have never since seen equalled but by a single other regiment [the 23rd RWF] which was brigaded with the 33rd under the same Cornwallis in the later campaigns of the American War. – Sjt. Roger Lamb, 23rd RWF

We know nothing of Benjamin’s early years in the army but when the American colonies rebelled the 33rd of Foot was sent to help in their repression. Benjamin Grisdale went with them. The 33rd landed at Cape Fear, North Carolina on the 3rd May 1776.

Cornwallis wrote this aboard the HMS Bristol about two weeks before their arrival in America:

I have nothing to inform your lordship of but that our passage has been very tedious and that we are still 370 leagues from our rendezvous at Cape Fear. We have with us twenty ships in company, besides two artillery-ships and four victuallers…. The troops are in general healthy…

The 33rd Regiment of Foot Guards

The regiment saw action almost immediately after landing; starting at the first siege of Charleston, South Carolina in June-July 1776. They then fought in many of the engagements of the American War of Independence: Long Island, NY (August 1776), Harlem Heights, New York (September 1776), Fort Washington, New York (November 1776), Brandywine, Pennsylvania (September 1777), Germantown, Pennsylvania (October 1777), Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania(December 1777), Monmouth, New Jersey (June 1778), the defence of Newport and Quaker Hill, Rhode Island (August 1778),  Old Tappan, New York (September 1778), Charleston, South Carolina (March-May 1780), Camden, South Carolina (August 1780), Wetzell’s Mill, North Carolina (March 1781), Guilford Court House, North Carolina (March 1781), Green Spring, Virginia (July 1781), before arriving in Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.

Benjamin Grisdale was there throughout.

There is much to tell about the exploits of Cornwallis’s regiment over the course of the war, but this story is not about the Americans’ struggle for independence but rather about Benjamin Grisdale himself.

General the Earl Cornwallis

Cornwallis himself was quickly “paroled” after Yorktown and returned to England but many of the men of the 33rd were not so lucky and were to remain in captivity until 1783. It is not known exactly when Chaplain Grisdale was released. But after returning to England and leaving the army, through the benefaction of Queen’s College he was given the “living” of the parish of Chedworth in Gloucestershire in 1785 and, through the intervention of the Cornwallis family, he also received the living of Withington Gloucestershire in 1791.

Benjamin Grisdale and Charles Cornwallis had obviously become good friends during their time together both in England and America, because they were to exchange numerous personal letters when Cornwallis was subsequently posted all over the world and until his death in India 1805. Here is one written by Cornwallis to his friend Benjamin from a “Camp near Banglalore” on September 8th 1791:

Dear Grisdale

In the same packet of letters which contained yours of the 18th December, I found one from Mrs Cornwallis, informing me that she had given you the living at Withington. I trust you will know me too well to doubt the sincerity of the joy which I felt on that occasion: may you long enjoy every comfort and happiness of domestic life.

God know when our war will end, I hope and trust it will be soon, or it will end me; I do mean that I am sick, I have stood a burning sun and cold wind as well as the youngest of them, but I am plagued, and tormented, and wearied to death.

God bless you my dear Grisdale, I have no time to send you news, but can only assure you that I am with great truth,

Your most faithful and affectionate friend,


Benjamin didn’t marry until 1791 when he was 47 His wife was Elizabeth Unwin  the daughter of William Unwin of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. They had seven children: Charles (1793), William (1795), Elizabeth (1797), Edmund (1799), Henry (1800) and William 1807/8. Of the boys only the second William was still alive in 1841 when he died at Cubberley Rectory in Gloucestershire where he was curate, aged just 34. He had attended Rugby School and followed his father to Queen’s College Oxford.

The Rev Benjamin Grisdale died on 18 June 1828. He had a full life indeed.

  1. […] Rev Benjamin Grisdale and the Siege of Yorktown 1781 […]

  2. […] Charles was only twenty-two and Benjamin’s first born child. He was named after Benjamin’s close friend General Charles Cornwallis, the commander of the British forces which had surrendered to George Washington’s Americans at Yorktown in 1781. Benjamin had been a long-time chaplain in the British Army and served throughout the American War of Independence; he was with Cornwallis at Yorktown. I wrote about him in a story called Rev Benjamin Grisdale and the siege of Yorktown 1781. […]

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