Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ponsonby, Frederic Cavendish
PONSONBY, Sir FREDERIC CAVENDISH (1783–1837), major-general, born on 6 July 1783, was the second son of Frederic Ponsonby, third earl of Bessborough, by Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, second daughter of the first Earl Spencer. He entered the army in January 1800 as a cornet in the 10th dragoons, and became lieutenant on 20 June of that year, and captain on 20 Aug. 1803. In April 1806 he exchanged to the 60th foot, and served on the staff of the lord lieutenant in Ireland. He became major in the army on 25 June 1807, and on 6 Aug. he obtained a majority in the 23rd light dragoons. He went with his regiment to Spain in 1809, and distinguished himself at Talavera. The 23rd were ordered, together with a regiment of German hussars, to charge a column of infantry advancing on the French right as they were in the act of deploying. They came in mid career on a ravine, which stopped the Germans and threw the 23rd into confusion. The colonel was wounded, but Ponsonby led the men on against the infantry, which had by this time formed squares. Repulsed by the infantry, the 23rd were charged by two regiments of French cavalry, and were driven back with a loss of more than two hundred officers and men; but the delay and disorder prevented the French column from taking part in the general attack on the British position (see Napier, iii. 559, 2nd edition, for Ponsonby's own account of this affair).
Ponsonby served on the staff as assistant adjutant-general at Busaco and Barosa. Graham, in his report of the latter action, said that a squadron of the 2nd hussars, King's German legion, under Ponsonby's direction, made ‘a brilliant and most successful charge against a squadron of French dragoons, which were entirely routed’ (Wellington Despatches, iv. 697). He had become lieutenant-colonel on 15 March 1810, and on 11 June 1811 he obtained the command of the 12th light dragoons, and led that regiment for the rest of the war. He played a principal part in the cavalry action near Llerena on 11 April 1812, being at the time in temporary command of Anson's brigade, to which his regiment belonged. The French cavalry under Pierre Soult was about two thousand strong. Ponsonby had about six hundred, as one regiment of the brigade was still in rear, and he was told by Sir Stapleton Cotton to detain and amuse the French while Le Marchant's brigade moved round upon their flank. The French, seeing his inferiority, advanced, and he retired slowly before them into a narrow defile between some stone walls. They were on the point of charging when his missing regiment came up, and at the same time the head of Le Marchant's brigade appeared on the right. The French turned, and were pursued by the two brigades to Llerena, where they found protection from their infantry, having lost more than 150 men. Ponsonby was praised by Cotton for his gallantry and judgment.
Ponsonby was actively engaged with his regiment in covering the movements of the army immediately before Salamanca, and in the battle itself, 22 July 1812, towards the evening, he made some charges and dispersed some of the already beaten French infantry, his horse receiving several bayonet wounds. After the failure of the siege of Burgos he helped to cover the retreat of the army, and was wounded. At Vittoria his regiment formed part of the force under Graham which turned the French right, and barred their retreat by the Bayonne road. It was engaged in the action at Tolosa, when Graham overtook Foy, and covered the communications of Graham's corps during the siege of San Sebastian. It took part in the subsequent operations in the Pyrenees and in the south of France, and returned to England in July 1814. On 4 June of that year Ponsonby was made a brevet colonel and A.D.C. to the king in recognition of his services.
In the following year the 12th, with Ponsonby still in command of it, formed part of Vandeleur's light cavalry brigade. At Waterloo this brigade was at first posted on the extreme left; but about half-past one, when the two heavy brigades charged, it was moved towards the centre, and two regiments, the 12th and 16th, were ordered to charge, to cover the retirement of the men of the Union brigade. They were told to descend the slope, but not to pass the hollow ground in front; once launched, however, they were not easily stopped. Ponsonby himself, after receiving several wounds, fell from his horse on the crest of the ridge which was occupied by the French guns. ‘I know,’ he says, ‘we ought not to have been there, and that we fell into the same error which we went down to correct, but I believe that this is an error almost inevitable after a successful charge, and it must always depend upon the steadiness of a good support to prevent serious consequences’ (Waterloo Letters, p. 112). His experiences as he lay on the battle-field were taken down from his oral account by the poet Rogers, and recorded in a letter to his mother which has been frequently quoted (e.g. Creasy, Decisive Battles). He was on the field all night, and had seven wounds; but he was ‘saved by excessive bleeding.’
He left his regiment on 26 Aug. 1820, exchanging to half-pay, and on 20 Jan. 1824 he was appointed inspecting field officer in the Ionian Islands. He became major-general on 27 May 1825, and on 22 Dec. of the following year he was made governor of Malta, where he remained till May 1835. On 4 Dec. of the latter year he was given the colonelcy of the 86th foot, from which he was transferred to the royal dragoons on 31 March 1836. In 1831 he was made a K.C.B. and a K.C.H.; he was also a G.C.M.G. (1828), a knight of the Tower and Sword of Portugal, and a knight of Maria Theresa of Austria. He kept up his interest in cavalry questions, and in the ‘Wellington Despatches’ (viii. 335) there is a letter from the duke, dated 7 Nov. 1834, in reply to one of his upon details of cavalry equipment and formations. When in Spain he had made an abridgment of some ‘Instructions for Cavalry on Outpost Duty,’ drawn up by Lieut.-colonel von Arentschildt, who commanded the hussar regiment which was to have charged with the 23rd at Talavera, and this abridgment was printed at Freneda in 1813. It was reprinted, together with the original instructions, London, 1844.
Ponsonby died near Basingstoke on 11 Jan. 1837. He married, 16 March 1825, Lady Emily Charlotte Bathurst, second daughter of the third Earl Bathurst, and left three sons and three daughters.
The eldest son, Sir Henry Frederick Ponsonby (1825–1895), born at Corfu on 10 Dec. 1825, entered the army on 27 Dec. 1842 as an ensign in the 49th regiment. Transferred to the grenadier guards, he became lieutenant on 16 Feb. 1844, captain on 18 July 1848, and major on 19 Oct. 1849. From 1847 to 1858 he was aide-de-camp to Lord Clarendon and Lord St. Germans, successively lord-lieutenants of Ireland. He served through the Crimean campaigns of 1855–6, becoming lieutenant-colonel on 31 Aug. 1855; for the action before Sebastopol he received a medal with clasp, the Turkish medal, and third order of the Mejidie. After the peace he was appointed equerry to the prince consort, who greatly valued his services. On 2 Aug. 1860 he became colonel, and in 1862, after the death of the prince, he was sent to Canada in command of a battalion of the grenadier guards which was stationed in the colony during the American civil war. On 6 March 1868 he became major-general. On 8 April 1870 Ponsonby was appointed private secretary to Queen Victoria. Energetic, ready and tactful, he commanded the confidence not only of his sovereign, but of all her ministers in turn. In October 1878 he added to his duties those of keeper of the privy purse. He was made a K.C.B. in 1879, a privy councillor in 1880, and a G.C.B. in 1887. On 6 Jan. 1895 he was attacked by paralysis; in May he retired from his offices, and on 21 Nov. died at East Cowes in the Isle of Wight. He was buried at Whippingham. He had married, on 30 April 1861, Mary Elizabeth, eldest daughter of John Crocker Bulteel, M.P., of Flete or Fleet, Devonshire, one of the queen's maids of honour. He left three sons and two daughters (Times, 22 Nov. 1895; Men of the Time, vol. xii.; Burke, Peerage, s.v. ‘Bessborough;’ Army Lists).[Gent. Mag. 1837, pt. i.; Royal Military Cal. iv. 239; Records of the 12th Light Dragoons; Wellington Despatches; Combermere's Memoirs; Napier's War in the Peninsula; Siborne's Waterloo Letters.]