O is for Charles O’Hara

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 in 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.

Surrender at Yorktown

Surrender at Yorktown

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 Lincoln.

The moment is depicted in the painting above right with O’Hara in the centre standing next to Lincoln and Washington in the background.

What happened to the sword is a matter of dispute although it seems likely that Lincoln’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 the 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 within the film The Patriot.

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14 comments… Add yours
  • Leslie 24th October 2012

    Fascinating history…he had a fascinating although dangerous life.

    abcw team

  • Roger Green 24th October 2012

    What a complicated life!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Petty Pudding 24th October 2012

    Aha! I spotted the “deliberate” mistake – “And by 1866 O’Hara had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel…” That would have made him 126 yrs old! You mean 1766 – not 1866! Also with a name like O’Hara and a Portugese mother, I hardly think this guy even qualifies as British!

  • Mr Parrot 24th October 2012

    Thank you A J P Pudding – Deliberate mistake duly corrected!

  • Reader Wil 24th October 2012

    O’Hara had an interesting but dangerous life! Thanks for your post! Thanks for your visit.
    Have a great week.
    Wil, ABC Team.

  • Francisca 24th October 2012

    Er… I may be an imbecile, but what came to mind reading this twisted life history of O’Hara is a silly saying I learned in junior high school: Blessed are those who go round in circles for they become the big wheels. 😀 Also, Mr P, I had to go look up the word cornet and got this: cor·net/kôrˈnet/Noun: A brass instrument resembling a trumpet but shorter and wider. A compound organ stop with a powerful treble sound. Now I’m really confused! 😉

  • Mr Parrot 25th October 2012

    Sorry to have confused you Francisca. Cornet was the most junior rank of commissioned officer in the British army. It was where a young and well-connected lad like O’Hara would start their military career, usually as the standard bearer.

    The commission was purchased by the lad’s family, as were other army and naval officer commissions until this was abolished in 1871 and the rank of Cornet was replaced by Second Lieutenant.

  • Mr Parrot 25th October 2012

    I should add that in the UK, a cornet is also the cone used to hold ice-cream!

  • Francisca 25th October 2012

    Well, I have a tough time imagining O’Hara as an ice cream cone, too! 🙂

    I was kidding about being confused. I had not heard the term cornet, but surmised it was a low army rank. I just thought the multiple meanings was funny. Guess you had to be there. 😀

    Is Ms P on her road to wellness now?

  • Mr Parrot 25th October 2012

    The answer is yes and no regarding Mrs P. Her hip and leg is still sore as you would expect, but she is walking better every day. However, she is still in hospital regarding her reaction to some of the associated drug therapy, but will hopefully be home by the weekend.

  • Francisca 25th October 2012

    The rehabilitation after any surgery usually takes longer than we expect, but as long as there is continued improvement, there is cause for optimism. Reaction to medicine, however, is more frustrating, as that takes experimentation and time. At least for me, the “not knowing” time is the most upsetting. I hope Ms P is put on a medication suitable for her system, and thus feels better, soon.

  • willam coles 2nd November 2016

    General O’Hara surrendered to General Benjamin Lincoln, not Ben Franklin.
    Here are a couple of many sources confirming that:



    • Mr Parrot 3rd November 2016

      My apologies – I obviously got carried away somewhere and am happy to correct that statement.

  • Martin Horan 15th February 2017

    Interesting post. Thank you for it.
    My wife and I have been in Gibraltar a couple of times. I remember when there seeing a sign for O’Hara’s Breach.
    I gathered by his surname that he was Irish and have wondered if he was based on the Irish General–I think he was a General–O’Dowd, in Thackery’s “Vanity Fair.” O’Hara seems to have been a character much like O’Dowd. Also, “VF” was set in the period of the Napoleonic wars.
    Interestingly, there’s an area in Gibraltar (Gibraltar itself being only the size of a small country town) called Irishtown. So not just O’Hara but other Irish folk must have had an affect on Gibraltar.
    Also, James Joyce, in his “Ulysses,” set in Dublin, ends with Molly Bloom’s reminiscence of Gibraltar. Joyce himself had spent time there.
    It’s funny how one person can link us to other things!


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