Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sargent, John Neptune
SARGENT, JOHN NEPTUNE (1826–1893), lieutenant-general, was born on 18 June 1826, at sea, on board the East India Company's ship Atlas. He was by race an Irishman and a soldier. One of his ancestors had served under William III at the Boyne. His father, John James Sargent, was an officer of the 18th royal Irish, who, after more than thirty-one years' service as subaltern and captain, obtained a brevet majority for his conduct at the capture of Canton in 1841, and died about three years afterwards from the effects of the climate of Hong Kong. His mother, Matilda, born Fitzgerald, died in 1841.
Sargent obtained a commission by purchase in the 95th foot on 19 Jan. 1844, joined his regiment in Ceylon, and went on with it to Hong Kong in March 1847, having become lieutenant on 11 Dec. 1846. His company was sent to Canton to protect the factories after the outbreak in which six Englishmen were killed in December 1847, and he afterwards acted as assistant engineer at Hong Kong. He returned to England with his regiment in 1850, and was adjutant of it from 11 Nov. 1851 till 18 Nov. 1853, when he was promoted captain. In 1854 the regiment was ordered to Turkey, and by great efforts he escaped being left behind as junior captain. While the troops were at Varna he went on leave to the Danube, and was under fire there with General W. F. Beatson. At the Alma, in command of the leading company of the right wing of his regiment, he led the advance with ‘determined bravery,’ as his immediate commanding officer reported. He was wounded in the leg, but refused to be struck off duty, which was at that time heavy, as eighteen officers of the regiment were killed or wounded at the Alma.
He took part in the repulse of the Russian sortie on 26 Oct., for his regiment belonged to the second division; and he was in command of its outlying picket on the night before Inkerman. Kinglake has described how he noted and reported the sound of the Russian guns moving in the night towards the field, and prepared for the sortie which he anticipated. During the battle he was in command of the grenadier company, and he led the charge upon the head of the Russian column, mounting St. Clement's gorge, made by the right wing of the 95th. This body was for some time isolated, and so hard pressed that Sargent himself used a rifle. A successful charge by the Zouaves enabled him and his men to rejoin the troops on the ridge. He found himself in command of what remained of the 95th, and brought the regiment out of action.
He served throughout the siege, being the only captain of his regiment present with it from first to last, and he was wounded in the final attack on the Redan on 8 Sept. 1855. He was strongly recommended by his colonel as ‘a most zealous, meritorious, and brave officer,’ and was mentioned in despatches. He was given a brevet majority on 2 Nov. 1855, a meagre reward for his services. He received the Crimean medal with three clasps, the Turkish medal, the Medjidie (fifth class), and the Legion of Honour (5th class). He was appointed one of a committee of three officers to examine the equipment of other armies in the Crimea, and suggest improvements in the British equipment.
He was on half pay from 29 Feb. 1856 to 25 Aug. 1857, when he was given a majority in the buffs (second battalion). On 29 July 1859 he became second lieutenant-colonel in the first battalion, and served with it in the China war of 1860. He was appointed to command a provisional battalion for the garrison of Hong Kong, but was allowed to accompany his regiment when the expedition went north to take Pekin. He had charge of the advanced guard in the attack of Sinho on 12 Aug., and was present at the affair of Tanghoo, and during the storming of the north Taku forts on the 20th he commanded a mixed detachment which diverted the fire of batteries that would otherwise have taken the attacking troops in flank. When the army advanced on Pekin he was appointed British commandant at the Taku forts, and succeeded in establishing a market there which supplied the fleets.
Sir Hope Grant reported him as ‘one of the most active and useful officers in the field,’ and Sir Robert Cornelis (afterwards Lord) Napier [q. v.], under whom he served more directly, reposed the fullest confidence in ‘his good judgment and determination.’ He was made a C.B. on 27 Jan. 1862, and received the China medal with clasp.
On the voyage home the transport Athleta, with some companies of the buffs under his command, touched at the Cape, and the crew, tempted by higher wages or by the Australian goldfields, tried to desert. Sargent advised the captain to put to sea at once, and when the crew refused to work the ship he placed a guard over them, and called for volunteers from his men, who weighed anchor and set sail. They continued to act as sailors for a week, and the crew were then allowed to resume work, having been kept during that time on bread and water.
He commanded the second battalion of the buffs at Malta till July 1862, when he was given the command of the first battalion in England. This he held till 6 Dec. 1864, when he sold out of the regiment to half pay. He had become colonel in the army on 29 July 1864. For some years he commanded the Inns of Court volunteers, and Mr. (now Sir Joseph) Chitty bore witness to his success in this position (Times, 2 Jan. 1867). On 1 April 1873 he was appointed to a brigade depôt at Milford Haven, and in the following year he was transferred to Oxford. He remained there till he was promoted major-general on 1 Oct. 1877. Much objection had been made to the placing of a military depôt at Oxford, but ‘he worked most cordially with the university and civic authorities … and materially assisted to disarm prejudice and popularise the army in this county’ (Jackson, Oxford Journal, 23 Nov. 1878). On 2 Jan. 1874 he had been given one of the rewards for distinguished service.
After declining the offer of a brigade at Aldershot in 1880, he accepted the command of the troops in China and the Straits Settlements, and held it for three years from 1 April 1882, his tenure of it being shortened by his promotion to lieutenant-general on 7 Oct. 1884. The war between France and China made it a post of unusual responsibility. On his departure in March 1885 he received a cordial address from the civil community, in which due recognition is made of his military skill and promptitude in defending British interests in Shanghai and Canton. He did much not only for the defence of the port of Hongkong, but also for the health of the troops, while maintaining strict order and discipline.
This was his last command. He was placed on the retired list on 1 April 1890, and was made colonel of the first battalion Inniskilling Fusiliers on 17 Jan. 1891. He died at Mount Mascal, near Bexley, on 20 Oct. 1893. A man of great strength and tenacity, of kindly, leonine aspect, impetuous yet shrewd, he was an enthusiastic soldier.
He was twice married: first, on 10 March 1852, to Miss R. S. Champion, who died on 26 July 1858; and secondly, on 28 July 1863 to Alice M., second daughter of Thomas Tredwell of Lower Norwood, Surrey. He left several children.[Kinglake's War in the Crimea, vols. ii. and v.; London Gazette, 4 Nov. 1860; record of services; Times obituary, 24 Oct. 1893; private information.]