Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Man Who "Discovered" China

The name Gordon, brings to mind the warrior—perchance the Highland laddie who with bagpipes fiercely blowing charges down the rocky slope against the enemy.

"Chinese" Gordon, as one of this warlike clan will be known for all time, came indeed of a race of warriors, and was born in martial surroundings; but the man himself was far from being of that stern stuff that glories in a fight. As boy and man, he was quiet, lovable, and of intensely religious nature.

Gordon means a "spear," and the name was probably given to the clan several centuries ago. Its members had always been famous in battle. Chinese Gordon's great-grandfather led a very eventful life. He was taken prisoner in the battle of Prestonpans, and later went to Canada, on the special expedition which wrested that Dominion from the French. His son took part in many battles, and served with distinction. The next in line, the father of Chinese Gordon, was Lieutenant-General Henry William Gordon, a soldier of the highest type.

General Gordon lived at Woolwich, long noted for its arsenal. It is only nine miles out from St. Paul's, and is an object of interest at any time. But in times of war it fairly bristles with activity. Small wonder, then, that a boy coming from such a line of ancestors and born, almost, in a gun-carriage should have chosen to become a soldier. With any other environment Chinese Gordon would have become a preacher.

Of course, the name "Chinese," was not the way he was christened. "Charles George" are his baptismal names—but few people know that fact now.

He was the youngest child in a large family, five sons and. six daughters. This calls to mind other large families from which sprang famous soldiers—Napoleon, for example. Charles was born in 1833, after his father had reached middle age, and had settled down in the piping times of peace. The elder Gordon had won his spurs in the Napoleonic Wars.

We know very little of the boyhood of Charles Gordon, beyond the fact that during the first ten years of his life he lived at the Pigeon House Fort, in Dublin Bay, next in the Fort of Leith, and later on the Island of Corfu. All these places are spots of great natural beauty—a vista of stretching sea or mountain-top which the frowning fortress only aided in romance and charm. Many a long ramble must the boy have had, storing his memory with these quiet, sylvan pictures.

Not far from Leith was the famous battlefield of Prestonpans, where, nearly a century before, his great-grandfather had been taken prisoner. From his father or brothers he must have heard many a wild tale of the Highlanders and their exploits.

As a child, however, this did not appeal to him. He loved nature in her quiet moods best. He was timid and nervous, to such an extent that the firing off of the cannon, when the colors were lowered at sundown, would make him jump half out of his boots. It was only by the sternest sort of self-control that he obtained the mastery of himself.

Not that Charles Gordon was ever a coward. Morally he was ever-unflinching. He abhorred a lie, and was always ready to stand up for his convictions. But his physical frame was made of weaker stuff—much to his own vexation.

One of the few early stories related of him is that he had difficulty in learning to swim. He could not get the stroke and he had a horror of being in water over his head. So he made a practice of deliberately throwing himself into deep water, when out with his mates, knowing that it was "sink or swim," or a case of getting pulled out. He was then only nine.

A few years later, another instance reveals his determination. A great circus was advertised in London, a novelty in those days, and the Gordon boys had been promised the treat. But just before its arrival, Charles fell into disgrace. He was charged with some fault which he did not think should have been laid to his door. Later he was forgiven, and told that he might attend the circus. But his pride was aroused, and he refused to go.

When he was ten, the first definite step toward making him a soldier was taken—for of course, being a Gordon, he must be a soldier. He was sent to school at Taunton, preparatory to entering, as a cadet, the Royal Military Academy, at Woolwich. At that time, its commandant was a veteran of Waterloo, a peppery old chap who had left one of his legs on the soil of France, as a souvenir. He was a martinet as to discipline, and Charles, who had become accustomed to doing a good deal of thinking for himself, came into frequent clashes with him.

One day, the old man said, "Gordon, I am tired of fooling with you. You are incompetent; you will never make an officer."

The young cadet, a boy of sixteen, gave him look for look, without quailing—then by way of reply tore his epaulettes from his shoulders, turned on his heel, and strode out of the room.

Naturally, the guardhouse was next in order, where the culprit could cool his heels and meditate upon the sinfulness of superior officers. In this particular case he seems to have blamed it upon the missing leg, for he remarked, long afterwards: "Never employ any one minus a limb to be in authority over boys. They are apt to be irritable and unjust."

He remained in the Military Academy four years, having been put back six months by way of discipline, and left it without any regrets. At this time, indeed, he had a positive distaste for the army. It was all drill and monotony. One day was too much like another. What was the good of it all? Why did men have to learn to kill each other anyhow? Were we not put on earth for a higher mission?

Thus reasoned the young man, who, all his life, was subject to moods of introspection and intense religious thought—surely strange material out of which to build a soldier! He sensed this fact himself and was not at all anxious to enter the army; and frequently in later life expressed a lively dissatisfaction for the service. He was an exemplification of the poet's line:

"I feel two natures struggling within me."

When he entered the service, as a second lieutenant of the Engineers, at the age of nineteen, there was little to attract one in the army life. The long peace of Europe, which had followed the defeat of Napoleon, seemed likely to last forever. Except for a relatively small outbreak in France, in 1848, all Europe was quiet. Consequently, the army held little attraction to an active young man. It was all drill and the petty details of garrison life. But underneath the placid surface, the political pot of Europe was really boiling furiously—only waiting a chance to bubble over. That chance soon came.

Gordon's first assignment was to Pembroke, where plans were required for the forts at Milford Haven. Here with other engineers he worked for a few months, when he was ordered to the Island of Corfu. This was not altogether to his liking. He had spent a part of his boyhood there in the Ionian Islands, but felt that they were "off the map" so far as real activity was concerned.

Then the bubbling pot at last boiled over. Russia, impatient of bounds, had begun her march southward, past the Black Sea, and toward the coveted lands of Turkey. The "balance of power," that precarious something that has always kept Europe on edge—and particularly in the Balkans—was upset. Whether England wanted to or not, she must get into the breach.

Thus began the Crimean War, a desperate struggle that was to bear some glorious pages in England's history, and some dark ones as well. It was to see the "Charge of the Light Brigade"—splendid in itself, but brought about because "some one had blundered." It was to produce a Florence Nightingale—but also the hideous sufferings which she helped to assuage.

For England was unprepared. Her years of idleness had broken down her military organization. Splendid fighting men she still had, but the fighting machine itself was rusty.

Young Gordon, perhaps through his father's influence, obtained a transfer from Corfu to the Crimea. The father did not much like his new billet. He may have sensed something of what was coming. But he did not fear for his son.

"Get him into real action, I say," he would remark. "That will show whether there's any stuff in him. I guess there is," he added grimly, thinking of Charles's troubles in college. "All the time he was in the Academy, I felt like I was sitting on a powder barrel."

In mid-December, of 1854, Gordon set sail from England, on his first real job as a soldier. He was going with the task of building some wooden huts for the soldiers, and lumber was being shipped at the same time. But the soldiers for whom these shelters were intended were even then dying from exposure on the plains of Sebastopol. It was the first lesson of unpreparedness.

Of this, however, the young engineer was then ignorant. He was in high spirits over the prospect of action and seeing the world. He arrived at Marseilles "very tired," as he writes to his mother, but not too tired to give her a detailed description of what he has seen thus far—"the pretty towns and villages, vineyards and rivers, with glimpses of snowy mountains beyond."

On New Year's Day he reached his destination, Balaklava. It was the depth of winter, and disaster stared the British in the face. The Russians were having the best of it. They were outgeneralling the enemy at every turn. The British could do little more than dig in and hang on, with the bull-dog stubbornness which has always marked them.

At first, the young lieutenant heard little of this. His duties as construction engineer kept him busy six miles back of the battle line.

"I have not yet seen Sebastopol," he writes on January 3, "and do not hear anything of the siege. We hear a gun now and then. No one seems to interest himself about the siege, but all appear to be engaged in foraging for grub." Two days later he writes: "We have only put up two huts as yet, but hope to do better soon."

The army was suffering from both cold and hunger, and was in pitiable plight. Again he writes: "Lieutenant Daunt, Ninth Regiment, and another officer of some Sixtieth Regiment, were frozen to death last night, and two officers of the Ninety-Third Regiment were smothered by charcoal. The streets of Balaklava are a sight, with swell English cavalry and horse-artillery carrying rations, and officers in every conceivable costume foraging for eatables."

There was little military glamour in such sights as this. No wonder, young Gordon felt sick of it all. But he never gave the slightest indication of quitting. He only worked all the harder to help do his bit. As Spring advanced, he had an opportunity to work closer to the lines. He received orders to construct trenches and rifle pits, which at times was extremely hazardous and brought him under fire. On one occasion a Russian bullet missed his head by a scant inch.

At last, in the month of June, came his first chance to do some real fighting. Every branch of the service was marshaled by the commanding general, Lord Raglan, for a massed attack. What happened can best be described in Gordon's own words:

"About three a.m. the French advanced on the Malakoff tower in three columns, and ten minutes after this our signal was given. The Russians then opened with a fire of grape that was terrific." And again: "They mowed down our men in dozens, and the trenches, being confined, were crowded with men who foolishly kept in them instead of rushing over the parapet, and, by coming forward in a mass, trusting to some of them at least being able to pass through untouched to the Redan, where, of course, once they arrived, the artillery could not reach them, and every yard nearer would have diminished the effect of the grape by giving it less space for spreading. We could thus have moved up the supports and carried the place. Unfortunately, however, our men dribbled out of the ends of the trenches ten and twenty at a time, and as soon as they appeared they were cleared away."

Thus ended the first engagement in which Gordon took part. The Allies suffered defeat, and Lord Raglan died a few days later of a broken heart. It was not an auspicious baptism of fire.

In August another assault was made, which also met defeat. Gordon ends his account with the remark: "We should have carried everything before us, if the men had only advanced."

Perchance one reason why the men failed to advance was that their morale had been lowered, by reason of the privations they had undergone. This was before the days of the Red Cross, the army canteen, or the Y.M.C.A. with its homely comfort. The men had had to shift for themselves. Nursing the sick and wounded was almost unknown, until the white-clad figure of Florence Nightingale showed the world its dereliction. Listen to what this devoted pioneer among nurses has to say:

"Fancy working five nights out of seven in the trenches. Fancy being thirty-six hours in them at a stretch, as they sometimes were, lying down, or half-lying down often forty-eight hours with no food but raw salt pork, sprinkled with sugar, rum, and biscuit; nothing hot, because the exhausted soldier could not collect his own fuel, as he was expected to do, to cook his own rations; and fancy through all this, the army preserving their courage and patience, as they have done, and being now eager (the old ones as well as the young ones) to be led into the trenches. There was something sublime in the spectacle."

Sublime? Granted. But no soldier fights well on an empty stomach.

Despite their hardships and reverses, however, the Allies were at last successful in the capture of Sebastopol. But it was a barren victory, as the Russians had set fire to the town and destroyed practically everything of value. The war soon afterwards ceased, and with it the first hard lesson in Charles Gordon's military training. He had entered it a somewhat careless youth. He came out of it a seasoned veteran.

That his government had learned to appreciate his services is shown by the fact that he was soon afterward placed on a joint commission of the English, French, Russians, and Austrians, to lay down a boundary line between Russia and her neighbors at the southwest. It was only one of many later attempts to define the Balkans.

"The newly-ceded territory is in great disorder," writes Gordon. "The inhabitants refuse to obey the Moldaves and own nobody's authority. This is caused, I suspect, by Russian intrigues."

Already cracks were beginning to show in the new boundary wall.

After three years of steady but interesting work following up the ravages of war, Gordon returned home. It was a rest well earned, and likewise needed, for there were still more strenuous days ahead. Then back he went, in the Spring of 1858, to complete his work in the Caucasus.

"I am pretty tired of my post as peacemaker," he writes; "for which I am naturally not well adapted. . . . I am quite in the dark as to how my mission has been fulfilled, but it is really immaterial to me, for I will not accept other work of such an anomalous character."

The "other work" that was being stored up for him was of quite different nature. He might have called it "anomalous," but it was to tax and bring out every resource in him.

China, that land of distance and mystery, was undergoing a period of upheaval. A usurper had tried to seize the reins of government, and the French and British ships had been attacked. The British sent a force of reprisal, somewhat like that sent against the Boxer rebellion in recent years. This was in 1860; and Gordon was sent out with the rank of captain.

The first work of this expeditionary force was scarcely worthy of a civilized country. They set fire to a summer palace and gardens of a prince who had mistreated some English prisoners. It was a piece of vandalism that went against the grain with Gordon.

"You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the palaces we burnt," he writes. "It made one's heart sore to destroy them. It was wretchedly demoralizing work."

In the Spring of 1862, Gordon had become a major, and was ordered, with a Lieutenant Carden, to explore the Great Wall of China. This was more to his liking. The two men were congenial and well fitted by temperament and experience for the task. They penetrated provinces in the interior never before entered by a white man, and had a variety of adventures, some amusing, others exciting.

During the winter it grew extremely cold, high up in the mountains. He relates that eggs were frozen as hard as if they had been boiled. At another time they are caught in a terrific dust storm, which he thus describes:

"The sky was as dark as night; huge columns of dust came sweeping down, and it blew a regular hurricane, the blue sky appearing now and then through the breaks. The quantity of dust was indescribable. A canal, about fifty miles long and eighteen feet wide, and seven deep, was completely filled up."

From these more or less peaceful incidents, Gordon was presently called to more exciting events. The great Tai-ping rebellion had been raging for some months. It was the work of a Chinese schoolmaster, who said that Heaven had sent him to rescue China. He chose for title "The Heavenly King," and with some thousands of fanatical followers, overran a large part of the interior. His seat of government was in Nanking.

In his first clashes with the small British army, in 1862, his troops had the better of the argument. They spoke with open contempt of the foreigners, and all English, whether soldiers or missionaries, were in imminent danger. Things came to such a pass that an American, named Ward, obtained permission to organize a band of volunteers for mutual protection. This band did remarkable work, and soon grew from a force of two hundred, to two thousand—every man of them ready to die in his tracks.

They met the fanatical followers of "The Heavenly King" more than half-way, and gave them such thorough doses of hot shot and cold steel, that the rebels finally ran at sight of them. It is said that Ward's men fought seventy engagements in one year, and won every fight. The Imperial Chinese Government was very grateful for their aid, and conferred upon them a high-sounding name which meant, "Ever-Victorious Army."

Unluckily, Ward lost his life in leading an assault, and left his army without a general. Li Hung Chang, the statesman, who was later known as the Grand Old Man of China, came to the British commander General Stavely, and asked him to appoint a British officer to lead the Ever-Victorious Army.

Stavely cast about him, and his eye fell upon Major Gordon, who was then engaged upon a survey of the defenses of Shanghai. He had known Gordon and admired him. He believed that here was the man for the task.

"What he was before Sebastopol he has been since—faithful, trusty, and successful," reasoned the General. "Before Pekin and Shanghai he has evinced just the qualities that are needed now. Although he has never been in command, he will rise to this occasion, to which he is more fitted than any other man whom I know."

Gordon at first declined the honor, perhaps through false modesty, and the command was given to a Captain Holland, with bad results. Holland traded too much on the invincibility of the Ever-Victorious Army, and attacked a strongly fortified position at Taitsan. His forces were driven off with a loss of three hundred men. It was a grievous loss, but the moral loss was far deeper. His men lost spirit, while the rebels were extravagant in their glee.

Something had to be done at once. Again they came to Gordon with the offer of leadership, and this time, he accepted—but not without some misgiving. In a letter home, dated March 24, 1863, he writes:

"I am afraid you will be much vexed at my having taken the command of the Sung-kiang force, and that I am now a Mandarin. I have taken the step on consideration. I think that any one who contributes to putting down this rebellion fulfills a humane task, and I also think tends a great deal to open China to civilization."

Gordon soon proved that he had both courage and resourcefulness. He did not risk another, assault upon Taitsan, as the rebels expected, but decided to attack them in another quarter. He took one thousand men by river to an inland town, Chanzu. Here was a loyal Chinese garrison which had been besieged by the rebels and was in sore straits.

The coming of Gordon was a bold and unexpected move, as the rebels must have outnumbered his force five to one. But Gordon had brought two field pieces along, and at once opened fire. By night-fall the enemy had enough of it, and retreated. The next morning the Ever-Victorious Army marched triumphantly into Chanzu, where they received a great welcome. Gordon thus received reinforcements not only from this garrison, but also from some of the rebel forces who had begun to "smell a mouse" and decided to come over while the coming was good.

Gordon was much interested in some of these young rebel chiefs. He says that they were very intelligent, and were splendidly dressed in their silks, and had big pearls in their caps. The head man was about thirty-five years old, and was ill and worn with anxiety.

"He was so very glad to see me, and chin-chinned most violently, regretting his inability to give me a present, which I told him was not the custom of our people."

This rapid victory was productive of several good results. It once more put the rebels "on the run," it restored the morale of his troops and gave them confidence in their new leader, and it brought him many recruits. One especially gratifying result was that several British officers asked leave to serve under him.

Gordon had made a firm friend of Li Hung Chang, who aided him in every possible way. He introduced much-needed discipline into his troops, who had been at first mere adventurers, and also established regular grades of pay. The Chinese Government was glad to assume these payments; while the English authorities were well content with the unique arrangement; Whether or not, Gordon would have called it "anomalous"—it was working, and that was the main thing.

Gordon saw to it that his men were well armed, well paid, well dressed, and well fed. Always he had the horrible example of the Crimean campaign before his eyes, and he was 'resolved that never again, if he could help it, should such conditions recur. He was thus one of the first of our generals to meet the need of a modern army in a modern way. As he wrote, at the destruction of Sebastopol, "The old army is dead."

After Gordon had got his new army in readiness—and not until then—he launched his systematic campaign against the rebels. First he moved against Quinsan, an important strong-hold. It was a large city, some four or five miles in circumference, and clustered about a commanding hill. This city and its approaches were held by a force of about twelve thousand. Against them Gordon brought a force of two thousand infantry, and six hundred artillery.

On the east side of the city was a considerable body of water, Lake Yansing, and on the other side of the lake, the village of Soochow, also occupied by the rebels. Gordon brought up his fleet of small ships and one steamboat on which he had placed guns, and, running in between the two towns, cut the enemy in two, throwing them into such confusion that both towns were soon taken by assault.

Gordon wrote home an amusing account of this battle. It seems that the rebels inland were unused to steamboats, and when this vessel charged up with whistle going, they thought it some sort of wrathful god or demon.

"The horror of the rebels at the steamer is very great. When she whistles they cannot make it out," he says; and adds that because of this victory he has been given the rank of Tsung-ping, or Red Button Mandarin—about equivalent to brigadier general.

These engagements were but the forerunner of many similar ones. His army took town after town until order was once more restored, and "broke the back of the rebellion."

The grateful Chinese Government showered him with titles. He was made a "Ti-tu," which gave him the highest rank in the Chinese army. The Emperor himself commanded that he should be rewarded with "a yellow riding jacket, to be worn on his person, and a peacock's feather to be carried on his cap; also, that there be bestowed on him four suits of the uniform proper to his rank of Ti-tu, in token of our favor and desire to do him honor."

It must not be inferred that Gordon came into his high honors in China easily. He was constantly beset by difficulties. His own men on more than one occasion tried to start a mutiny, and it was only by a display of his highest and sternest qualities of leadership, that he restored order. The Chinese officials, also, had to be handled with diplomacy. They were accustomed to bargaining, and could not believe at first that Gordon was not working for selfish ends. It was only when they realized the true character of the man, that their esteem and affection were fully enlisted.

The Emperor wished to bestow on him a large sum of money, but this was refused. The Chinese were nonplussed. Prince Kung reported to a British official as follows:

"We do not know what to do. He will not receive money from us, and we have already given him every honor which it is in the power of the Emperor to bestow. But as these can be of little value in his eyes, I have brought you this letter, and ask you to give it to the Queen of England, that she may bestow on him some reward which would be more valuable in his eyes."

The love of this strange race of people for a foreign officer was not idly bestowed. They were the first to recognize his highest qualities, and though he later won high rank under the Union Jack, it is as Chinese Gordon that his name will most frequently appear in history.

A fellow campaigner in China writes: "What is perhaps most striking in Gordon's career in China, is the entire devotion with which the native soldiers served him, and the implicit faith they had in the result of operations in which he was personally present. In their eyes General Gordon was literally a magician to whom all things were possible. They believed him to bear a charmed life; and a short stick or rattan cane which he invariably carried about, and with which he always pointed in directing the fire of artillery or other operations, was firmly looked on as a wand or talisman. These notions, especially the men's idea that their general had a charmed existence, were substantially aided by Gordon's constant habit, when the troops were under fire, of appearing suddenly, usually unattended, and calmly standing in the very hottest part of the fire."

As to Gordon's personal appearance, a pen picture by a comrade-in-arms, Colonel Butler, deserves place:

"In figure Gordon, at forty years of age, stood somewhat under middle height, slight but strong, active, and muscular. A profusion of thick brown hair clustered above a broad open forehead. His features were regular, his mouth firm, and his expression when silent had a certain undertone of sadness, which instantly vanished when he spoke. But it was the clear, blue-gray eye and the low, soft, and very distinct voice that left the most lasting impression on the memory of the man who had seen and spoken with Charles Gordon—an eye that seemed to have looked at great distances and seen the load of life carried on many shoulders, and a voice that, like the clear chime of some Flemish belfry, had in it fresh music to welcome the newest hour, even though it had rung out the note of many a vanished day."

Important Dates in Gordon's Life

1833. January 28. Charles George Gordon born.
1849. Entered Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
1852. Commissioned second lieutenant of engineers.
1854. Sent to the Crimea, to construct huts and trenches.
1862. Sent as major to explore Great Wall of China.
1863. Took command of "Ever-Victorious Army" in China.
1864. Crushed native rebellion and given highest rank in Chinese army.
1874. Sent on first expedition to Egypt and the Soudan, as colonel.
1881. Made major-general.
1884. Sent in command of expedition to the Soudan.
1885. January 24. Lost his life in the massacre at Khartoum.