All the Gordon’s sons were army officers —descendants of military officers who devoted themselves to the idea that their children would inherit this tradition. And so they did. Major General and Mrs. Henry William Gordon were the parents of Charles George Gordon, Major General, British Army, Commander of the Bath (1833-1885). Owing to his father’s duty stations, Charles grew up in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Ionia. Charles’ education included the Fullande School in Taunton, the Taunton School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
While still a young lad, Charles’ younger sister succumbed to consumption; her passing devastated him and for several months he withdrew from the family. An older sister named Augusta, a particularly religious young woman, embraced Charles and she influenced him for the rest of his life. It was because of Augusta, for example, that Charles grew up to become a staunchly religious person. Despite his religious beliefs, Charles was a spirited and highly intelligent young man, one who developed the (then) deplorable habit of ignoring authority whenever he believed that its rules were foolish or unjust. This was a trait that held him back for two years at the military academy,. At the same time, Gordon had marvelous talents. He developed into an accomplished cartographer and engineer. He received his commission to Second Lieutenant of Royal Engineers in June 1852, completed his training at Chatham, and advanced to First Lieutenant in February 1854. Although trained as a sapper [Note 1], he became adept at reconnaissance, leading storming parties, demolitions, and providing rearguard actions.
His inclination to question or disregard orders aside, Charles Gordon evolved into a fine military officer. He had charisma, a superior leadership ability, and an unparalleled devotion to his assigned task or mission. His only problem was that in refusing to obey what he considered an unlawful or poorly conceived orders, many senior officers regarded him as rogue. Yet it was this very same trait that caused his men to love him.
Over time, Gordon became even more devoted to his religious principles. He was no zealot by any measure, at least not initially, but someone who maintained the strength of his convictions —and was steadfast in living his life according to those beliefs. In many ways, Gordon was a fatalist; believing in the after-life, he was not afraid of death and some say, in time, he began to pursue it.
During the Crimean War, Gordon performed his duties at the siege of Sevastopol, took part in the assault of the Redans as a sapper, and mapped the strongpoints of the city’s fortifications. What made this a particularly dangerous duty was that it subjected him to direct enemy fire from the fortress and he was wounded during one such sortie. During this war Gordon made several friends who remained so for the rest of his life; friends that would later defend him.
In 1855, the British and French initiated a final assault on Sevastopol. Following a massive bombardment, sappers assaulted the fortress at Malakoff Hill. The engagement was a massacre of British and French soldiers and none of the operation’s planned objectives were achieved. As a participant, Gordon distinguished himself by his courage under fire and his tenacity as a combat leader.
Following the end of hostilities in the Crimea, Gordon served the international commission charged with marking a new border between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire in Bessarabia. He later performed similar services on the frontier between Ottoman Armenia and Russian Armenia. It was during this time that Gordon became fascinated with a new American invention and took it up as a hobby: the camera.
Seeking adventure, Gordon volunteered to serve in China during the Second Opium War (1860). By the time he arrived in Hong Kong, however, the fighting was over. He had heard of the Taiping Rebellion [Note 2] but didn’t understand it. En route to China, he read all he could about the Taiping and initially found sympathy for the movement. Gordon was a young man, reading one individual’s opinion, and allowed himself to be influenced by it, but what made his empathy a bit odd was that the leader of the Taiping —a man named Hong Xiuquan— believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
After disembarking in Shanghai, Gordon made a tour of the Chinese countryside. The atrocities he witnessed committed by the Taiping against local peasants appalled him and he began to see the Taiping for what they were: cold-blooded killers.
During the early period of his tour in China, Gordon served under General Charles William Dunbar Staveley [Note 3], who occupied northern China until April 1862. During the war, Taiping armies came close enough to Shanghai to alarm European residents. European and Asian legations raised a militia to defend Shanghai. Legates detailed Frederick Townsend Ward [Note 4] to command this militia. Apparently, the British arrived in the nick of time. General Staveley decided to clear the rebels within 30 miles of Shanghai. He planned these operations in cooperation with Ward and a small force of French soldiers. At the time, Gordon served on Staveley’s staff as an engineer.
After Ward’s death, command of his Asian army passed to another American, Henry A. Burgevine (shown right). It was an unhappy choice because Burgevine was ill-suited to the task of commanding a multi-ethnic mercenary force: he was inexperienced in leading a large body of men, lacked the necessary self-confidence of command, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol, making him unreliable. The Taiping rebellion was a civil war, of course, but unlike any other in the history of the world and Henry Burgevine was no Frederick Ward. He was much detested by the Chinese —so much, in fact, that the governor of Jiang-su Province asked General Staveley to appoint a British officer to command this largely mercenary force. The officer Staveley selected was Brevet Major Gordon. The British government approved Gordon’s appointment in December 1862. Gordon, it seems, was exactly the kind of man Governor Li Hong-Zhang was looking for: a man of good temper, clean of hands, and a steady economist.
Major Gordon, unlike many (if not most) Chinese officers, was honest and incorruptible. He did not steal the money that was earmarked to pay his men, and he insisted on paying the men on time and in full. Of course, the Chinese bureaucrats did not understand why Gordon insisted on paying his men. In their view, he should have allowed his men to loot and plunder the countryside for their pay —this was the way of things in China. Gordon would not have any of that sort behavior among his men. To instill a sense of pride in his men, Gordon designed their uniforms. He dressed his regulars in green, while designating blue uniforms for his personal guard.
Major Gordon assumed command of his army in March 1863 and led them at once to relieve the town of Chansu some forty miles northwest of Shanghai. Gordon quickly accomplished this first test, which was securing the respect and loyalty of his troops. As a means of encouraging the Taiping to either desert or surrender, he treated all prisoners of war with dignity and respect.
As an engineer, it occurred to Major Gordon that the network of canals and rivers that flowed through the Chinese countryside would be useful for moving his troops and establishing an expedient supply line. In matters of training and rehearsing his army, Gordon’s ideas were innovative and efficient. He was vocally critical of the methods Chinese generals used in war fighting. In contrast, Gordon was sought to avoid unnecessary casualties or large battle losses. By maneuvering his forces to deny enemy retreat, he found that enemy troops would quickly withdraw from the battlefield [Note 5]. Gordon believed that frontal assaults produced unacceptably high numbers of casualties (which is true). As his subordinate commanders were Chinese, they did not object to unnecessary carnage, but Gordon insisted on attacking the enemy’s flank whenever possible. Gordon’s innovative thinking, such as his creation of a riverine force, caused the Taiping army to avoid Gordon’s army on several occasions. Of some value to Gordon, once the peasants realized that Gordon’s strategy had a telling effect on the Taiping, they were more disposed to coming to his aid, which did occur on several occasions. The peasants, tired of Taiping terrorism, attacked the retreating Taiping and hacked them to death with simple farming implements. Among Gordon’s peers, he was“thoughtful and fearless in the face of grave danger.”
Because Gordon’s force was mercenary, their only loyalty was to money and the men willing to pay them. It was only Gordon’s stern disciplinary policies that kept his force from plundering the peasants, whom they were supposed to protect. At one point, Gordon ordered the execution of one of his Chinese officers who conspired to take his unit over to the Taiping. It was a distasteful duty and one that would never survive the modern evening news, but in China, it was a necessary and prudent step to avoid mass desertion. The fact is that Gordon’s mercenary force consisted of some of the worst elements of Chinese, British, and American society. Prior to Gordon’s assignment in command, it was commonplace for these mercenaries to enter a town or district, steal everything they could get their hands on, rape the women, and indiscriminately murder local citizens. It was only Gordon’s harsh discipline that changed this behavior. Any of his men who were accused of crimes against the people would very likely face a firing squad —from which there was no appeal.
When Gordon defeated Burgevine’s new mercenary force, which had aligned themselves with the Taiping, he had Burgevine arrested and deported. Burgevine, however made his way back to China, was promptly arrested by the Qing secret service, and was “shot while trying to escape.” Burgevine was many things but exceedingly bright wasn’t one of them.
Major Gordon was appalled by the poverty and suffering of the Chinese people. It was this hardship that strengthened his faith because, as he would frequently argue, there had to be a just and loving God who would one day redeem humanity from wretchedness and misery [Note 6]. Nevertheless, it was Gordon’s humanity that brought him the respect and friendship of those who opposed him politically. He led his mercenary army from the front, never personally armed with anything more than a rattan cane. His coolness in battle led many Chinese to believe that he possessed supernatural powers; it was only that Gordon was a fatalist and predestinate.
Imperial troops joined Gordon’s force in capturing Suzhou. He had let it be known that any Taiping soldier who surrendered would be humanely treated. After pacifying surrounding towns and villages, Gordon himself entered Suzhou but, given the tendency of his men to loot, he denied them entry into the confines of the city. Only the Imperial forces [Note 7] would be allowed to enter the city, and when they did, much to Gordon’s anguish, they promptly executed every Taiping who had surrendered. Angry, he wrote, “If faith had been kept, there would have been no more fighting, as every town in China would have given in.” Of course, what Major Gordon did not understand was that while it is possible to take a Chinese man out of China; it is impossible to take China out of the Chinese man. Even today, most Chinese are devoid of a sense of humanity.
As a measure of the man and his integrity, the Emperor of China, in recognition of Gordon’s achievements, subsequently awarded Gordon ten-thousand gold coins, laudatory flags, fine silk clothing, and a title equivalent to Field Marshal. All of these things Gordon refused —and all because the Imperial troops, in executing the Taiping prisoners, had made Gordon out to be a liar. Rebuffing the Chinese emperor did nothing to solidify their relationship, but it was consistent with Gordon’s sense of self. It was after his service in China that the press and his peers began to refer to him as “Chinese Gordon”. The nickname stayed with him to the end of his days. Gordon’s father did not approve of his son working in the service of the Chinese government and it was an estrangement that had not been settled before his father’s death. Charles, of course, felt guilty about his failure to reconcile with his father and deeply regretted it for the rest of his life.
After Gordon’s return to England, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the Royal Engineers near Gravesend, Kent, and tasked to prepare fortifications in defense of the River Thames. By then, Chinese Gordon has become a press celebrity —except that Gordon wanted nothing to do with it. He promptly informed the press to leave him alone. In Gravesend, Gordon volunteered to teach at a local school, called the Ragged School [Note 8].
Tasked with constructing forts, Colonel Gordon disapproved of the notion that they were in any way necessary. He regarded them as expensive and useless. The Duke of Cambridge [Note 9], in his role as Commander in Chief of the Forces (head of the British Army) visited one of the construction sites and praised Gordon for his excellent work. Gordon answered, “I had nothing to do with it, sir. It was built regardless of my opinion, and, in fact, I entirely disapprove of its arrangement and position.” Gordon didn’t mince his words, regardless of who he was talking to. And, of course, Gordon was entirely correct. It was a waste of limited resources.
Gordon was advanced to Colonel on 16 February 1872. Afterward detailed to inspect British military cemeteries in the Crimea, and when transiting through Constantinople, he made his manners to the Prime Minister of Egypt, Raghib Pasha. Pasha opened negotiations with Gordon to serve under the Khedive (Viceroy) Ismai’il Pasha. French educated, Isma’il admired Europe as a model of excellence, but favored most France and Italy. He was a devout Moslem who enjoyed Italian wine and French champaign. The language of Ismai’il’s court was French and Turkish, not Arabic. It was the Viceroy’s dream to make Turkey culturally part of Europe and he spent enormous sums of money in the modernization and Westernization of Egypt. The doing of this sent Egypt deeply into debt —even after the American Civil War had transformed Egyptian cotton into “white gold,” Ismai’il’s spending increased Egyptian debt to more than 93-million pounds sterling.
Ismai’il’s love affair with western culture alienated the more conservative members of Egyptian Islamic society. Ismai’il’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali (The Great) attempted to depose the ruling Ottoman family in favor of his own, but failed due to the interference of Russia and Britain. With this knowledge, Ismai’il turned his attention south with the notion of building an Egyptian empire in Africa. Toward this end, Ismai’il hired westerners to work in his government, including Colonel Gordon, both in Egypt and the Sudan. His chief of general staff was the American brigadier general Charles P. Stone [Note 10]. He, and a number of other American Civil War veterans commanded Egyptian troops. In the opinion of some, American officers in the employ of Egypt were mostly composed of misfits in their own land. As harsh as this criticism sounds, it may be based on fact. Valentine Baker was a British officer who was dishonorably discharged after his conviction of rape. After Baker was released from prison, Ismai’il Pasha hired him to work in the Sudan. In any case, Colonel Gordon, with the consent of the British government, began working for Ismai’il Pasha in 1873—his first assignment was as governor of Equatoria Province (present-day Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda). His mission included extending Equatoria into Southern Uganda with the goal of absorbing the entire Great Lakes region of East Africa.
While serving in Sudan, Colonel Gordon undertook efforts to suppress the slave trade, and doing this while struggling against a corrupt and inefficient Egyptian bureaucracy—and one with no interest in suppressing the slave trade. Gordon was later distressed to learn that his immediate superior was heavily engaged in slaving and actively countermanded many of Gordon’s efforts. Despite his lofty position in the Egyptian government, Gordon believed that the Egypt was inherently oppressive and cruel and he was soon in direct conflict with the system he was supposed to lead. What Gordon did achieve was close rapport with the African people, who had long suffered from the activities of Arab slave traders. These same people were being converted from animists to Christians by European and American missionaries, and this gave Gordon some encouragement. What made the effort a struggle was the fact that the basis of Sudan’s economy was slavery. Gordon did manage to shepherd a number of reforms that materially improved the lives of the common man, such as in abolishing torture and public floggings.
(Continued next week)
- Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton. A History of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
- Karsh, E. Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
- Marlowe, J. Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon. Littlehampton Press, 1968
- A sapper is a soldier responsible for the construction of roads and bridges and laying and clearing mine fields. They are combat engineers (sometimes called pioneers) who remove enemy obstacles in order to keep the attack in progress.
- The Taiping Rebellion was one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. It lasted from 1850 to 1864 with estimated dead numbering in excess of 40-million people.
- General Staveley’s sister was married to Gordon’s brother.
- Ward was born in Massachusetts in 1831. Because of his rebellious nature, his father consigned him to work aboard a clipper ship commanded by a friend. The ship made frequent voyages to China. While in China, Ward became a filibuster. He was killed while commanding the “Ever Victorious Army” at the Battle of Cixi on 21 September 1862.
- The problem with allowing the enemy to withdraw is that they live to fight another day, perhaps under conditions or on terrain of their choosing.
- It is true that there was much wretchedness in the world in Gordon’s day; to find it, he might have looked closer to home —in London, for example.
- Gordon referred to the Imperial army as “Imps.”
- Prior to 1870, there was no universal school system in the United Kingdom. The so-called Ragged Schools were a network of privately funded schools that offered free education to children whose parents were too poor to afford the fees associated with available schools. Unhappily, as with a few other senior British officers, 21st Century writers have used such examples of humanity to suggest, in Gordon’s and William Slim’s cases, that their compassion was likely motivated by their attraction to young boys. The claims are ludicrous, of course, but this is what revisionists do to in their attempt to destroy the reputations of men (after their death) who occupied prominent footnotes in history.
- George William Frederick Charles, also known as Prince George of the House of Hanover, was a professional army officer with the rank of field marshal. He served as commander in chief for 39 years, a period of time when the British Army became a moribund and stagnant institution. I am quite sure he had something to say in response to Gordon’s caustic remark.
- ‘Urabi was a serving Egyptian officer who participated in the 1879 mutiny that developed into a general revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of Khedive Tewfik. He was promoted to a place in Twefik’s cabinet and began reforms of Egypt’s military and civil administrations, but demonstrations in Alexandria in 1882 prompted a British naval bombardment and invasion. ‘Urabi was deposed and the British occupied Egypt.