Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, John William
GORDON, Sir JOHN WILLIAM (1805–1870), major-general, K.C.B., royal engineers, eldest son of Colonel Thomas Gordon of Harperfield, Lanarkshire, N.B., was born in 1805. The estate came to him while still young on his father's death, and through his mother, Miss Nisbet of Carfin, niece of Andrew, last earl of Hyndford, he inherited Carfin and Maudslie Castle. From a private school at Bexley he passed into the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and obtained a commission in the royal engineers on 1 Dec. 1823. He passed the first twenty years of his service at various stations at home and in North America. On his promotion to captain in July 1845 he was appointed to command the 1st company, royal engineers, which he took shortly afterwards to Bermuda. He remained there six years, and his name was remembered in the islands long after his departure, not only for his athletic feats, but for a liberality to the poor which continued for many years after he had left the place.
On the outbreak of the Crimean war he was at once sent to the East, was present at the battles of Alma and Inkerman, and was director of the right attack during the early days of the siege. A month after the siege commenced, owing to several casualties, Gordon found himself commanding royal engineer of the army, and held the position until the arrival of Sir Harry Jones. The loss of officers increased the strain upon the survivors, and Gordon's energy and physical training were severely tried. During one bombardment he never slept nor sat down to a meal for the greater part of three days. 'Gordon of Gordon's battery' was a name known wherever an English newspaper penetrated. He was very popular among the naval brigade, and was always welcome in their lines, even when the tall form which he disdained to hide drew the enemy's fire, an effect so often produced that the sailors called him 'Old Fireworks' throughout the siege.
In the great sortie of 22 March 1855 Gordon was severely wounded, and, although he soon returned to duty and commanded the royal engineers in the Kertch expedition, he had eventually to be invalided before the fall of Sebastopol.
He obtained a brevet majority on 12 Dec. 1854, a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy 24 April 1855, and a brevet colonelcy 29 June 1855. He was also made a C.B. and aide-de-camp to the queen. The following year he was appointed deputy adjutant-general at the Horse Guards, a position which he held for five years. While at the Horse Guards he was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Gordon's next appointment was commanding royal engineer of the southern district, where the works for the defence of Portsmouth had recently been commenced. His command at Portsmouth was broken temporarily by a call to Canada to command the engineers on occasion of the Trent affair at the end of 1861. While at Portsmouth he was made a K.C.B., and soon after leaving that command, on promotion to major-general, he was selected for the appointment of inspector-general of fortifications, the head of the corps of royal engineers. He did not long enjoy the honour of high office. Disease of the brain, caused by increasing irritation of his Crimean wound, set in, and the suffering which finally destroyed his judgment was borne patiently and in silence. Accompanied by his friend Colonel Charles George Gordon [q. v.], he was on a visit to his brother-in-law, Colonel Hutchinson, at Westward Ho! in February 1870, when in a temporary fit of insanity he killed himself on 8 Feb. 1870, aged 65 years. A full-length portrait of him hangs in the headquarter mess of the royal engineers at Chatham. He was a man of great height and strength, and careless of danger; his earnest religious convictions governed his whole conduct, though his warmth of feeling was hidden under a cold exterior.
[Corps Records; Chesney's Essays in Military Biography; Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Memoirs in vol. xxxi.]