Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Leith, James
LEITH, Sir JAMES (1763–1816), lieutenant-general, a member of an old Scottish family, was third son of John Leith of Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire, who married Harriot, daughter and heiress of Alexander Steuart of Auchluncart, and died in 1763. James was born at Leith Hall, 8 Aug. 1763. He was educated under a private tutor, and afterwards at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and at the military school at Lille. In 1780 he was appointed second lieutenant in the 21st fusiliers, and after promotion into the 81st, or Aberdeenshire highlanders, obtained his company in 1782. This regiment was disbanded in Edinburgh in 1783 (Stewart, Scottish Highlanders, Edinburgh, 1823, vol. ii.) In 1784 Leith was posted to the 50th (not the 5th) foot at Gibraltar, and served as aide-de-camp, first to General Sir Robert Boyd, K.B. [q. v.], and afterwards to Generals Charles O'Hara and David Dundas (1735–1820) [q. v.] in the operations at Toulon in 1793. He received a brevet majority, and on 25 Oct. 1794 was commissioned as colonel, to raise the Aberdeen Fencibles, which were embodied in July 1795 as the ‘Princess of Wales's, or Aberdeenshire Highland Regiment of Fencible Infantry.’ Leith commanded the regiment in 1798 in Ireland, and until it was disbanded there in April 1803. In the same year he was appointed colonel of the 13th battalion of the army of reserve, and in 1804 a brigadier-general. After serving some time on the staff in Ireland, Leith joined Sir John Moore's army, and as major-general commanded a brigade in the Hon. (Sir) John Hope's division during the Corunna retreat, where he signalised himself by heading a gallant charge of the 59th in the affair at Lugo, 9 Jan. 1809. He afterwards took part in the battle of Corunna, and commanded a brigade in the Walcheren expedition. In the summer of 1810 he joined the Peninsular army, and was at first posted to a brigade in Sir Rowland Hill's division, with charge of the division, so as to leave Hill's hands free. Leith commanded a body of British and Portuguese, which became the fifth division of the army, in the lines of Torres Vedras and at Busaco. His account of his share in this action will be found in the ‘Wellington Supplementary Despatches,’ vi. 635–9. A relapse of Walcheren fever necessitated his return home on sick leave; but he rejoined the army after the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812, and commanded the fifth division at the last siege of Badajoz. On the night of the assault on the town Leith's division was ordered to make a feint on the Pardaleras, to be followed, if practicable, by a real attack on the San Vincente bastion. This was gallantly carried by escalade by Major-general George Townshend Walker's brigade, supported by Leith with some other troops of the division (Napier, rev. ed. iv. 112 et seq.) Leith was severely wounded at the head of his division in the desperate fighting with the French centre about Arapiles, at the battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812 (ib. iv. 261–72). He was sent home, and in 1813 he was made K.B. for distinguished conduct at Corunna, Busaco, Badajoz, and Salamanca, where, in personally leading a successful charge, ‘he and the whole of his personal staff were severely wounded.’ He also received ‘honourable augmentations’ to his family arms in consideration of his services at Badajoz and Salamanca. In 1813 Leith became a lieutenant-general, a rank he had held locally in Spain and Portugal since 1811. He rejoined the Peninsular army on 31 Aug. 1813, two days before the final assault on St. Sebastian (ib. v. 272–86), where he was again disabled while directing the movements of his division. Leith, who was temporarily replaced by Major-general Andrew Hay [q. v.], remained with the army, on the sick list, for a couple of months, and then went home again. In 1814 he was appointed commander of the forces in the West Indies and governor of the Leeward islands. Gurwood reproduces a letter from Wellington very cordially congratulating Leith on obtaining ‘one of the most lucrative positions in the service,’ but suggesting that he should calculate his expenditure on ‘the lowest scale suitable to the situation he occupies’ (Wellington Desp. vii. 213). Leith arrived at Barbadoes 15 June 1814. He carried out the restoration of the French West India islands to the Bourbons; but on the news of the return of Napoleon from Elba most of the islands re-hoisted the tricolour. In consequence, an expedition was despatched from Barbadoes in June 1815 under Leith, to secure the islands on behalf of the king of France. Martinique and Marie-Galante were reoccupied without trouble, but at Guadeloupe there was some sharp fighting before the place surrendered on 8 Aug. 1815, a month after the general peace. For his services at this juncture the British government presented Leith with a sword of the value of two thousand guineas; he also received the grand cordon of military merit from Louis XVIII. Leith was created a G.C.B. (2 Jan. 1815), and for his Peninsular services wore the Portuguese grand cross of the Tower and Sword and the gold cross and clasp for Corunna, Busaco, Badajoz, Salamanca, and St. Sebastian. He died of yellow fever at Barbadoes, after six days' illness, 16 Oct. 1816. His nephew, Sir Andrew Leith Hay [q. v.], succeeded him.
[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, vol. ii.; Burke's Landed Gentry; London Gazettes, under dates; Napier's Hist. Peninsular War, rev. ed. vols. iii. iv. and v.; Gurwood's Wellington Desp. vols. iv. v. vi. and vii.; Wellington Suppl. Desp. vols. vi. xiii.; and particularly Leith-Hay's Narrative of the Peninsular War, Lond. 1831, 2nd ed. 1834, 2 vols.]