|This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
Charles O’Hara was a British soldier who had the dubious distinction of surrendering to both George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.
He was born in Lisbon 1740, the illegitimate son of General James O’Hara and his Portuguese mistress. He was educated at Westminster School, but joined the army as a cornet at the age of twelve. Before he was 16 he was commissioned as a lieutenant, just as Europe was about to enter another of its interminable wars.
During the Seven Years War he served in Germany and then in Portugal under his father. And by 1766 O’Hara had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel when he was appointed commandant of the Africa Corps in Senegal.
But it was in 1778 that he arrived in America where the War of Independence had already been boiling for three years. He immediately took command of the troops at Sandy Harbour, New Jersey, to counter the French Fleet threatening New York.
O’Hara was promoted to Brigadier in 1780 when he was appointed as second in command to Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. He enjoyed some success during the Southern Campaign, although he was badly wounded during the battle of Guildford Courthouse. However, these victories only brought him closer to the Siege of Yorktown.
You can read details of the battle elsewhere, but it was perhaps the pivotal engagement of the war which is surprising since the casualties were relatively light on both sides – just 244 killed and 627 wounded by the British, French and Americans combined. The point is that the British were forced to surrender and O’Hara was the man chosen to do the deed because Cornwallis was ill.
O’Hara first attempted to surrender Cornwallis’ sword to the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, but in the spirit of fraternity, he deferred to General George Washington. Ever the stickler for good form, Washington in turn delegated the responsibility to his second in command, Ben Franklin.
The moment is depicted in the painting above right with O’Hara in the centre standing next to Franklin and Washington in the background.
What happened to the sword is matter of dispute although it seems likely that Franklin’s acceptance of the sword was a symbolic act and that he then returned it to O’Hara.
O’Hara remained a prisoner of the Americans for a while before being exchanged and at the end of the war he returned to Britain as a major general.
The intervening years were eventful for personal reasons, but by 1793 he was again captured, this time at Fort Mulgrove in Toulon in an operation commanded by the up and coming Napoleon who personally accepted O’Hara’s surrender.
He was deemed to be an ‘insurrectionist’ and was imprisoned in Luxembourg for two years until he was exchanged for the same Comte de Rochambeau last seen in America.
O’Hara was named Governor of Gibraltar for a second time in 1795 and he was promoted to full general in 1798. He died in 1802 from complications due to the wounds he took in America.
And for the record, despite his place of birth and education, O’Hara spoke with an Irish accent and not with upper-class English accent he was portrayed with in the film The Patriot.