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John William Gordon

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Major-General Sir John William Gordon, KCB, (c1805-1870)


1871 Obituary [1]

MAJOR-GENERAL SIR JOHN WILLIAM GORDON, K.C.B., was the eldest son of Colonel Thomas Gordon, of Harperfield, in Lanarkshire.

This estate came to him while he was still young, at his father's death ; and through his mother, Miss Nisbet, of Carfin, in the same county, niece of Andrew, last Earl of Hyndford, he not long after inherited Carfin and Maudslie Castle, formerly part of the Hyndford property. He was therefore born to such good prospects as would have indisposed most young men to steady exertion; but of his own choice he entered a hard-working profession, to labour thenceforward as though dependent wholly on it. His ample means he throughout life treated as a steward for others rather than an owner.

From a private school at Bexley, in Kent, he passed the entrance examination-not very difficult in those days of nomination-into Woolwich Academy. During his cadet life he was remarkable chiefly for his physical powers, his carelessness of danger, and his steady application to work. To the latter almost entirely-for young Gordon was not gifted by nature with quickness of parts-he owed the prize he worked for, a commission in the Royal Engineers. The times were those of profound peace. In no part of the army did mere soldiership promise any special advantage, and perhaps least of all in the Engineers, whose war duties were almost ignored. Gordon passed from his first home station to North America, undistinguished from other subalterns ; for the simple habits of life which were to him as a nature, prevented his being even known generally to be more wealthy than his fellows.

He left Halifax after a long term of duty there, much regretted by a few friends who had discovered the sterling worth which was concealed by a reserved exterior, and learnt something of the kind deeds which he had already begun to practise the doing of in secret. But to the many he was known chiefly by his great height and by the endurance and activity which he displayed in the moose-hunts for which Nova Scotia was then noted, or for his avowed adherence to earnest, and to those not conversant with Scotch Presbyterianism, what seemed gloomy religious convictions. Promotion was of course in those days very slow in a seniority corps, and Gordon looked a middle-aged man when, in 1845, he was promoted, after sixteen years’ service, to the rank of captain, and sent to Chatham to take charge of the 1st Company of Engineers, or Sappers and Uiners as they were then called.

A neglected cold at this time brought out a predisposition to chest disease, and to those about him seemed to threaten his life ; but happily his Company was under orders for Bermuda, and the change to that mild climate soon restored him to his natural vigour and the out-of-door habits in which he always delighted, though never allowing them to interfere with the duties of the desk.

During the next five years he was constantly employed on the large works which were to create a Gibraltar of the West out of the sandhills that ages have solidified into Bermuda stone. His spare time, of which he allowed himself but little, was devoted wholly to manly exercises and to the good works which formed part of his daily life. Among these was a night-school kept by himself for the instruction of his men, and which he never allowed any engagement to interfere with Frugal and temperate in his own habits, his ready hospitality was known to every passer-by who visited his station. Sparing in expenditure on himself, his liberality towards the poor near him, or in cases made known from any distance, was exhaustless. He not only gave, as a matter of course, to those that asked, if they deserved it, but his delight was to send help to those who deserved it and had not asked. The venerable bishop of the diocese has lately revealed the fact that Gordon maintained the private charities which he began at Bermuda for many years after he had left the island, and that his name is still familiar there among those who have head it blessed by the aged and infirm whose special wants he had carefully ministered to. Meanwhile no case of distress or difficulty in his own corps, however far from him, but received instant attention when brought to his knowledge.

But it was not for his large-hearted charities that he became as well known at this time as for his marvelous physical powers and endurance. His theory was, that a soldier, to do his duty properly to his country, must keep his body in the highest perfection of its powers. Acting stringently up to this idea, he lived constantly, except in his exceeding temperance of diet, in such a state of regular training as few men ever reach even for a special purpose and a brief time. His work never slackened anywhere in consequence of this. It was confessed that no one ever saw so much labour got out of large working parties of soldiers or of convicts as Gordon obtained, and that without a harsh word. No office detail, however petty, was below his attention. A favourite fancy of his was the preparing of working drawings, which he might well have left to his subalterns but for his passion for labour ; and after returning from a run of 12 miles, done within two hours, he would go straight to his high desk, without a moment's intermission, and fall to work with a steady hand in the standing attitude which he always used.

He returned to England about the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was designed to usher in an era of universal peace. His reputation for strength and fearlessness and honesty of purpose went before him ; but some of his comrades laughed at his theory of being ready for the active service which in their time could never come. Two years afterwards the nation was rushing into the Crimean war, and no department which had the choice would have overlooked such a born warrior and practical engineer as the subject of this memoir. Gordon was at once put under orders for the Crimea, being then a captain of some standing, and fifth in seniority of the Royal Engineers selected for service in the East.

When the siege of Sebastopol was a month old, casualties had made of the captain the Commanding Royal Engineer of the army, and honours and rank were coming thick upon him. Gordon carried on his duties under the superintendence of Sir John Burgoyne, who had come out as adviser to Lord Raglan ; and he acted afterwards as second to Sir Harry Jones, when Government sent that officer to take Sir John's place. To write the story of the duties of Gordon of Gordon's battery, and how they were performed, would be to write the history of the siege. His long-practised endurance now enabled him to do what no other man could in the way of personal attendance to the works in progress ; and during one bombardment it is reported of him that he never slept nor sat down to take a meal for three days and three nights. His valour was not so much mere courage as a perfect indifference to danger, which became a proverb in the lines. "How do you manage to keep so cool under this fire?" said to him a regimental colonel noted for his gallantry, and beloved by his battalion, though his language was notoriously violent and coarse under excitement. "Colonel Y.," was the answer, given with much deliberation, "I am so cool because I read my Bible; you don't read yours." His gallant regiment buried Colonel Y. three months later, after the first assault on the Redan, but it is said that no man in it during that three months had heard an oath pass his lips. This is but one instance given from direct witness of a hundred that might be offered of the marvelous influence Gordon’s pure life had on others.

A severe wound received in the great Blarch sortie, and much neglected afterwards, broke down his health just before the siege closed, and he was absent when the stronghold was surrendered, which, more than any other single man, he had contributed to make our prize. In the following year, being still regimentally captain of Engineers, but by breveat full colonel and A.D.C. to the Queen, he was called suddenly from a holiday in Scotland to become practically the military head of his corps as Deputy Adjutant-General.

'It is a splendid appointment,” he said, “but one I would rather not have, for the principal duty lies in refusing different men different things they want.” With this somewhat morbid view about what discipline should be, it is not surprising that he was not as popular at the Horse Guards as his friends could have desired to see him ; but his translation to the important charge of the great fortifications of Portsmouth, the largest military Engineer’s command then in the world, which happened not long after, gave his zeal and energy and his natural kindliness better scope. His Sunday-evening entertainments, open to all his command weekly without special invitation, drew his young officers together once more as they had another generation of young officers fifteen years before, the survivors of whom warmly own the valuable influence these genial meetings had on them. With the design of the works of the Portsmouth district Sir W. Gordon (who received his knighthood while employed there) was not concerned. His duty was merely executive, and as an executive officer it may be fairly declared that he has never been surpassed. His command there was broken by a temporary call to Canada at the time of the ‘ Trent ’ affair ; but the alarm over, he returned once more to the charge of the great works round Spithead, of the execution of which his old opponent, Todleben, after being escorted by him round them, publicly expressed his unalloyed admiration.

When Deputy Adjutant-General of Engineers he had become an Associate of the Institution, on the 3rd of February, 1857, and was a constant attendant at its meetings ; but with his usual extremely retired manner shrank from taking any more active part than listening. ’In January, 1870, however, he rose to express his thanks for the mention made of the Royal Engineers in the President’s Address, which pointedly alluded to himself, and he did so in a speech full of manly feeling and of sensible acknowledgment of what the education of the Royal Engineers owes to the civil branch of the profession, “their intercourse with which, he hoped, might, on all occasions, be as close and friendly as heretofore.”‘ He had then not long been appointed by popular wish, as it were, no less than by royal choice, to the revived office of Inspector-General of Fortifications, which his friends thought to see him fill with the same dignity with which hes poke that night. Alas! disease, produced by the irritation of his severe Crimean wounds, acting on the nervous system, was even then preying on his brain. Traces of aberration of mind had been observed some time before by watchful and anxious friends, and a few weeks later he passed from among us by the saddest end a gallant soldier could know. In strength a giant, in modesty a maiden, in humility a child, so pure and noble a life never came to a more painful close, when, his mind losing its self-control, he suddenly laid violent hands on his own life, and died on the 8th of February, 1870, being at the time sixty-five years of age.

Left by his parents at the age of twenty-one the care of a younger brother and sister, he had discharged his difficult duties as though he had been the most loving and thoughtful of fathers. Of his practical benevolence let this one trait suffice. When defrauded by an agent he had implicitly trusted of several thousand pounds, he insisted on charging his own want of supervision as the chief fault in the temptation it had offered, and refused therefore to prosecute the offender. More than this, when he found the wretched man afterwards starving (who had robbed his employer only to fall into deserved penury), he ministered to the needs of the only living being who had ever done him serious harm. The sudden loss of such a hero may well have cast a gloom over the service which was proud of him, even had the circumstances been less painful; while to his personal friends, their bereavement would have been bitter in any case.


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