Charles Gordon

(General 'Chinese' Gordon)


General Charles Gordon was one of the most admired heroes of Victorian England. He was both a brave soldier and a humanitarian. In many ways he exemplified the finest ideals of the British Empire, combining martial courage in combat, with selfless service to the disadvantaged and downtrodden in administration and government. Certainly the British imperial government fell far short of these ideals in many ways, but it did produce a handful of characters, such as Gordon, in whom it is difficult to find serious fault. One need not agree with Britain's foreign policy objectives in all cases to admire the integrity and courage of some of its finest heroes.

Charles Gordon was born into a Scottish military family, and sent to a military academy at a young age, where he showed special promise in engineering. His first combat experience came during the Crimean War, where he built fortifications for the siege of Sebastopol. His next military experience was during the Second Opium War, where he participated, with considerable dismay, in the destruction of the Emperor's Summer Palace. Eventually, the British assault had its effect on the Chinese government and treaties acceptable to westerners were made. British troops remained in China for several years after the close of hostilities to look after Britain's interests.

One of the reasons the Chinese government was willing to make terms with the despised foreigners was that, at the time of the second Opium War, the Tai Ping Rebellion, a Chinese civil War, was in full swing. The Taipings were a fanatical sect with very complicated beliefs, based in some part on Christian teachings, but it was led to a large degree by ruthless warlords, and towns that fell to the Taipings were frequently massacred. As the rebellion moved toward the coastal towns, the Chinese government became more alarmed and requested Western help.

Gordon had already proved himself a highly competent and courageous leader at this point, and when another English general was killed while leading the "Ever Victorious Army", a Chinese army that had been raised to fight the Taipings, Gordon was offered the command. The idea of an Englishmen leading a foreign army to benefit a non-western, non-democratic government did not sit well with him, but given the stakes at hand—millions had already been killed and the Taipings appeared to be run by a gang of thugs (although espousing noble ideas)—he reluctantly took on the very difficult job. It was in this position that Gordon first gained his great renown. Given a nearly impossible job, he executed it with great courage and extreme integrity. With Gordon's critical help, the Chinese government drove the Taipings out of all of their major strongholds, and Gordon was given the nickname "Chinese" Gordon.

After a several year assignment in Britain, where he lived a quiet and virtuous life, Gordon was again requested to take on a nearly impossible job in a foreign country. This time, Britain's interests in Egypt had led to their reluctant involvement with Soudan, a poverty stricken bastion of disease, slavery, and corruption, with no conceivable financial interests for the British government. Gordon was appointed governor of the region, a job so thankless and difficult that only a strong Christian and selfless humanitarian, such as Gordon would even consider the assignment. Again he spent years working selflessly for the good of the natives, fighting every type of corruption and human-trafficking, and trying to give the region a semblance of good government, and defend it from encroachers on all sides.

Gordon stayed in the Soudan for nearly five years, and during his administration, conditions improved, but shortly after his return to England due to deteriorating health, a rebellion broke out. No strong governor had been found to replace him, and the region was left defenseless against an army of fanatical dervishes under 'Mahdi' a murderous warlord. When Gordon heard that Khartoum was threatened, he voluntarily left his home and traveled there to help with the defenses. The British government desired only to retreat from the region, but Gordon pressured them to come to the aid of Khartoum, and his personal popularity and courage forced their hand. After many delays a British army was sent to relieve Khartoum, but it arrived two days too late. Khartoum had fallen, and "Chinese" Gordon, the hero of both the Taiping rebellion and Soudan, had been brutally killed.

Key events during the life of General Charles Gordon:

January 28. Charles George Gordon born.
Entered Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
Commissioned second lieutenant of engineers.
Sent to the Crimea, to construct huts and trenches.
Sent as major to explore Great Wall of China.
Took command of "Ever-Victorious Army" in China.
Crushed native rebellion and given highest rank in Chinese army.
Sent on first expedition to Egypt and the Soudan, as colonel.
Returned to England due to exhaustion and deteriorating health.
Made major-general.
Sent in command of expedition to relieve Khartoum.
January 24. Lost his life in the massacre at Khartoum.

Book Links
Story of General Gordon  by  Jeanie Lang

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
General Gordon  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
Recent Times  in  The Hanoverians  by  C. J. B. Gaskoin
Peace Under Heaven  in  China's Story  by  William E. Griffis
Gordon  in  Red Book of Heroes  by  Mrs. Andrew Lang
Monuments of Westminster in  Back Matter  by  books/lord/westminster/_back.html
Gordon  in  Boy's Book of Famous Soldiers  by  J. Walker McSpadden
Great Christian Movement and its Fate  in  Historical Tales: Japanese and Chinese  by  Charles Morris
Gathering Clouds in  Life of Gladstone  by  M. B. Synge
China's Long Sleep  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  M. B. Synge
Gordon—The Hero of Khartum  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  M. B. Synge
Some Account of Egypt and Sudan  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge
Gloomy Days in Egypt  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

The Gordon statue, Trafalgar Square
 in Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary

He told them stories from English history.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Gordon found time to attend to an old dying woman.
 in Red Book of Heroes

He cleaned his gun while the men stood by and stared.
 in Red Book of Heroes

They saw a man in uniform shining with gold flying towards them.
 in Red Book of Heroes

A shot ended his life.
 in Red Book of Heroes

He would lead the troops onward with the little cane he nearly always carried.
 in The Story of General Gordon

The Corporal was butted downstairs
 in The Story of General Gordon

The shell struck the ground five yards in front of him
 in The Story of General Gordon

With his own hands, he dragged him from the ranks
 in The Story of General Gordon

Gordon appeared with some towels, a brush, a sponge, and a fresh suit of clothes
 in The Story of General Gordon

In the Soudan, buy two children for a basket full of dhoora
 in The Story of General Gordon

There rode into their camp Gordon Pasha
 in The Story of General Gordon

Looking for the help that never came
 in The Story of General Gordon

General Gordon
 in Life of Gladstone

Gordon Memorial, now at Khartum
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

Short Biography
Victoria I Longest reigning English Monarch. Presided over the British Empire at its height.
William Gladstone Prime minister and member of the Liberal Party. Opponent of Disraeli.
Mahdi Raised an army of Rebel Muslim Sudanese. Caused widespread carnage. Besieged Khartoum.
Li Hung Chang Chinese General who fought during the Taiping rebellion and later negotiated extensively with foreigners.
Hung Sew-Tseuen Peasant and frustrated scholar who led the Taiping rebellion in China, in which millions were killed.