British Gen. Charles O’Hara was, by most reports, a dedicated and brave officer. He began his military career at the age of 12 as an ensign and then fought in the Seven Years War, attacked through a raging river while under fire in the Revolutionary War, and continued leading his men forward after being struck in both the chest and thigh during a battle with Nathaniel Greene.
British Gen. Charles O’Hara had a distinguished career punctuated by multiple surrenders and some time in jail.
Which made things sort of awkward when it came time for him to surrender British forces to groups of ragtag revolutionaries.
While the surrender at Yorktown is generally referred to as Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendering to Gen. George Washington, Cornwallis actually claimed illness, preventing him from conducting the surrender personally. Instead, he sent O’Hara, a brigadier general at this point, in his stead.
It’s titled ‘The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown,’ but then-Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara actually conducted this surrender.
O’Hara initially tried to surrender to a French general who promptly pointed out that he wasn’t in command. O’Hara would have to give his sword to that guy over there, Gen. George Washington, a farmer and colonial who had been deemed too country for a British officer commission.
So, O’Hara presented Cornwallis’s sword to Washington. Accounts differ at this point as to exactly what happened.
In most accounts, Washington did not even let O’Hara reach him, directing the man instead to present the sword to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who had been forced to surrender in May, 1780, in Charleston.
Whatever the case, O’Hara got out of it alright. He was promoted to major general as he began his trip back to Britain, so it appeared that he wasn’t blamed for the failure in the colonies and his reputation as a rising star remained intact. As a major general, he was later named military governor of Gibraltar.
But then he got promoted to lieutenant general and was appointed military governor of Toulon — and that was a huge problem.
The British and Spanish arrival at Toulon was nearly unopposed, but still a little chaotic.
See, Toulon was an important French city, housing nearly half of the French fleet, but the French Republic wasn’t super popular there. Many of the (rich) people who lived there wanted a return to royal rule, and so they allowed an Anglo-Spanish fleet to take the city nearly unopposed and everyone’s old friend, O’Hara, was soon named the governor.
The French Republic, unsurprisingly, wanted neither a return of the monarchy nor to give up such an most important city and port.
O’Hara still could have come out of this well. He was a brave warrior with plenty of troops, artillery, and a massive fleet at his back. He held the city. He was a hero once again. He could’ve been on easy street for the rest of his career. General. Governor.
But there was one problem across the trenches from him: a young artillery officer named Napoleon.
Napoleon was young, relatively inexperienced, but still skilled as all hell.
Napoleon was not yet famous, but this battle would lay the major groundwork. The French siege at Toulon initially floundered, despite Napoleon offering very sound artillery advice and strategies. Two commanders were relieved before a third arrived, heard a couple ideas from Napoleon, and said, “well, get on with your bad self, then.”
Napoleon took command of additional forces and gave the suggestions that would form the major plans. The battle started to shift with the French taking many of the outlying forts and redoubts.
O’Hara, always bold, saw too many French guns in redoubts around his city and decided to personally lead an attack against them.
On Nov. 28, 1793, he and 3,000 men marched out of the city under the cover of artillery fire at 4 a.m. and were able to surprise the French positions at Hauteur des Arenes near Toulon. The French Republicans retreated quickly and messily. O’Hara, instead of focusing on spiking the guns, reducing the position, and returning to the city, decided to give chase.
But Napoleon was always watching… waiting…
O’Hara was fighting his way toward the French division commander when Napoleon and a few other officers charged into his flank with hundreds of men. O’Hara’s force broke and began a hasty retreat back to the city, struggling to stay ahead of Napoleon.
Unfortunately for O’Hara, always one to lead from the front, he had no chance of getting back around the French and was forced to surrender. He was taken prisoner and sent to Paris for confinement.
The British general spent two years in a French prison before returning to England. He would survive seven more years, long enough to see Washington serve as America’s first president and Napoleon become the First Consul of the French Consulate.
Probably sour grapes for the general who fought ably against both of them, but not quite well enough to defeat either.