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Royal Naval Biography/Gordon, James Alexander

Knight Commander of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1805.]

This officer is the eldest son of Charles Gordon, of Wardhouse, in Aberdeenshire, Esq. by a daughter of the late Major James Mercer, of Auchnacant, in the same county.

He appears to have entered the naval service about the commencement of the French revolutionary war, and to have had the honor of sharing in the partial action off Frejus, July 13, 1795; and the great battles of Feb. 14, 1797, and Aug. 1, 1798[1]. In 1800, we find him serving as second Lieutenant of le Bourdelais, a post-ship, under the command of Captain Thomas Manby, by whom he was particularly mentioned as having signalized himself in an engagement already described at p. 205 et seq. of this volume. His conduct in other actions on the Jamaica station will be seen by the following letter from the late Captain Austin Bissell, of the Racoon brig, to the commander-in-chief, dated off that island, July 16, 1803:

“Sir,– I beg leave to acquaint you, that at 11-30 A.M. on the llth inst. while working between the island of Guanaba and St. Domingo, I observed a French national brig lying at anchor in Leogane roads, and I immediately bore up for her. On approaching I found her preparing to receive us with springs on her cables, &c. At 2-45 P.M. I anchored with springs, within thirty yards of the enemy, and immediately commenced an action, which was continued for 30 minutes, when she cut her cables and began to make off. I instantly cut and followed her; and, after about ten minutes more of well-directed fire, we so completely unrigged her that she struck her colours, and called out she had surrendered. We were obliged to anchor again immediately, to prevent driving on shore. She proves to be le Lodi, pierced for 20 guns, but had only 10 mounted, commanded by M. Pierre Isaac Taupier, Capitaine de fregate. Our sails and rigging are a good deal cut, but I am happy to say I had not a man killed; and the only person wounded is Mr. Thomas Gill, Master’s-Mate, whose left arm was carried off by a shot – a very worthy, promising young man, who has served his time in the navy, and will, if he survives, do credit to your patronage. The loss of the enemy is one killed and 13 or 14 wounded, by their own account.

“The conduct of Mr. James Alexander Gordon, the first Lieutenant, on this as well as many other recent occasions, has been highly exemplary and praiseworthy; and I have much pleasure in informing you, that the whole of the officers and ship’s company behaved fully to my satisfaction. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Austin Bissell.”

To Sir J. T. Duckworth, K.B.
Commander-in-Chief, &c. &c.

Some time after this affair. Captain Bissell was promoted into the Creole frigate, and Lieutenant Gordon appointed to succeed him in the command of the Racoon. Amongst other captures made by the latter, during his continuance on the Jamaica station, was l’Alliance French privateer, of 6 guns and 68 men. His post commission bears date May 16, 1805. From this period Captain Gordon does not appear to have been again employed until the spring of 1807, when he obtained the command of the Mercury, a 28-gun frigate, in which he convoyed some merchant vessels to Newfoundland; and on his return from that service was sent to join Lord Collingwood, on the Mediterranean station. An exploit performed by the Mercury and her companions, off Cadiz, on the 4th of April, 1808, has been noticed in our memoir of Sir Murray Maxwell, who reported in becoming terms, the gallantry and excellent conduct of all the officers and men employed under his orders.

About the month of August following, Captain Gordon was removed into the Active frigate, rated at 38, but mounting 46 guns. As the particulars of several gallant exploits achieved by his boats singly, and in conjunction with those of other ships, between June 29, 1810, and July 27, 1811, will be given in a subsequent part of this work[2], we shall here merely insert an extract from his senior officer’s public letter, relative to an important service performed at Ortano, on the coast of Italy, and then proceed to point out the brilliant actions in which he was afterwards more immediately engaged.

“I feel particularly indebted to Captain Gordon for the judicious manner in which his ship was placed, by which means he prevented any body of the enemy from forming in the rear of our men; and the promptitude and zealous co-operation I have constantly experienced from him since we have been serving together.

(Signed)Henry Whitby.”
Captain H.M.S. Cerberus.

The most important naval event which had for some time occurred in the Mediterranean, or indeed on any other station, was the victory obtained by Captain (now Sir William) Hoste, over a French squadron, near Lissa, on the 13th Mar. 1811. For its extent, the engagement was unquestionably one of the most severe, and for bur countrymen, one of the most brilliant that took place during the late war. Captain Hoste’s force consisted of the Amphion, Cerberus, Active, and Volage, mounting in the whole 156 guns, and carrying only 879 men. To those four ships were opposed six frigates, one brig, and four smaller vessels, numbering in guns 284, and in men 2655[3]! The enemy were totally discomfited, after a conflict of six hours: two frigates being captured, another destroyed, and the remainder obliged to fly from the scene of action. The British sustained a joint loss of 50 killed and 150 wounded; only 9 of the former, and 26 of the latter belonged to the Active – a convincing proof that the number of casualties on board any particular ship is not to be considered as a sure criterion by which to judge of the part borne by her in a general battle. Captain Hoste, in his official letter, which we have inserted at full length in its proper place, does such ample justice to the subject of this memoir as to render any farther observations on our part superfluous.

On the 29th Nov. following, another severe engagement took place near the same spot, in which Captain Gordon was the principal actor, and his ship the greatest sufferer. The result was the capture of la Pomone, French frigate, of 44 guns and 322 men, by the Active, unassisted by her consorts, the Alceste and Unité; and of la Persanne, a 26-gun ship, by the latter frigate. Another ship of similar force to la Pomone was enabled to escape in consequence of the Alceste having unfortunately lost her main-top-mast when leading into action, and being afterwards much disabled in her sails and rigging[4].

From a letter written by one of the Active’s officers, we learn that about the middle of the action, Captain Gordon, while giving his orders with the greatest coolness, lost his leg. He was standing on a shot-rack, and leaning on the capstan, when a 36-pound shot came in through a port-hole, grazed the carriage of a carronade, took off a seaman’s leg, and struck the Captain on the knee-joint, carrying all off as if it had been done with a knife, and leaving the leg hanging by the tendons. Although he instantly fell, he did not become insensible, but calmly directed the first Lieutenant (William Bateman Dashwood) to fight the ship, and, as he was being carried below, told the second Lieutenant (George Haye), who commanded on the main-deck, to do his best, should any mischance befal his senior officer. As though these words had been prophetic, poor Mr. Dashwood very soon after lost his arm, and was likewise conveyed below. Mr. Haye then assumed the command, and closed the action. When the Alceste came up with the Active, Captain Maxwell, liberally considering la Pomone as the fair trophy of the latter ship, most nobly and honorably sent the sword of the French commander to Captain Gordon, as his right by conquest.

The Active on this occasion had 8 persons killed, and 27, including 2 mortally, wounded. Her opponent’s loss has been stated at p. 804, where we find Captain Maxwell drawing his brave friend’s character in the most lively and glowing colours:– he says “it is with poignant regret I inform you” (Captain Charles Rowley), “that Captain Gordon has lost a leg: but, thank God, he is doing well; his merits as an officer I need not dwell upon, they are known to his country, and he lives in the hearts of all who have the happiness to know him.

Captain Gordon fortunately survived the amputation of his limb, and, returning soon after to England, rapidly recovered his health. In the autumn of 1812, he was appointed to the Seahorse, another fine frigate, which had just been thoroughly repaired, and was then fitting for foreign service. The Board of Admiralty about the same time presented him with a gold medal, descriptive of the action off Lissa, to be worn with his uniform in the usual manner[5].

From this period we lose sight of Captain Gordon till Nov. 13, 1813, when he fell in with a large French lugger, which surrendered after a chase of three hours, but not until she was so much damaged by shot that she immediately afterwards went down, and the Seahorse was only able to save 28 of her crew, one of them severely wounded. She proved to be the Subtile privateer, of 16 guns and 72 men.

Captain Gordon subsequently joined Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane on the American station, where he displayed his usual zeal, courage, and ability, as will be seen by the following account of his services in that quarter.

Previously to the commander-in-chief entering the Patuxent, in Aug. 1814[6], he sent Captain Gordon up the Potowmac, with a squadron under his orders[7], to bombard fort Washington, situated on the left bank of that river, about 10 or 12 miles below the American capital, with a view of destroying that fortification, and opening a free communication above, as well as to cover the retreat of the British troops from Washington, should their return by the Bladensburg road be found too hazardous from the accession of force the enemy might obtain from Baltimore, and other places to the northward and westward.

The Seahorse and her companions entered the Potowmac on the 17th Aug.; but being without pilots to guide them through that difficult part of the river called the Kettle Bottoms, and having contrary winds, they were unable to reach fort Washington until the evening of the 27th. Nor was this effected but by the severest labour. Each of the ships was not less than twenty times aground each time they were obliged to haul off by main strength; and their crews were employed warping for five whole successive days, with the exception of a few hours, a distance of more than fifty miles.

The bomb vessels were placed in the evening of the 27th, and immediately began the bombardment of the fort, it being Captain Gordon’s intention to attack it with the two frigates at day-light the following morning. On the bursting of the first shell the Americans were observed to retreat; but supposing some concealed design, Captain Gordon directed the fire to be continued. At eight o’clock, however, his doubts were removed by the explosion of the powder magazine, which destroyed the inner buildings; and at daylight on the 28th he took possession. Besides the principal fort, there was a battery on the beach, a martello-tower, and a battery in the rear, containing altogether 21 heavy cannon and six field-pieces. The whole of these guns were already spiked by the enemy, and their complete destruction, with that of their carriages also, was effected by the seamen and marines sent on that service, in less than two hours.

The city of Alexandria thus lost its only defence; and Captain Gordon declined giving any answer to a proposal made to him for its capitulation, until the following morning, when he was enabled to place his squadron in such a position as ensured assent to the peremptory and humiliating conditions which he had determined to enforce. The following is a copy of the articles which were acceded to by the Common Council of that place:–

“The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the part of the Americans; nor shall their dwelling houses be entered, nor the inhabitants molested in any manner whatever, if the following articles are strictly complied with:–

“I. All naval and ordnance stores, public or private, must be immediately given up.

“II. Possession will be immediately taken of all shipping, and their furniture must be sent on board by the owners without delay.

“III. The vessels that have been sunk must be delivered up in the state they were in on the 19th August, the day the squadron passed the Kettle Bottoms.

“IV. Merchandise of every description must be instantly delivered up; and to prevent any irregularities that might be committed in its embarkation, the merchants have it in their option to load the vessels generally employed for that purpose, when they will be towed off by us.

“V. All merchandise that has been removed from Alexandria since the 19th instant is to be included in the above article.

“VI. Refreshments of every description to be supplied the ships, and paid for at the market price, by bills on the British government.

“VII. Officers will be appointed to see that the articles Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, are strictly complied with, and any deviation or non-compliance on the part of the inhabitants of Alexandria, will render this treaty null and void.

(Signed)James A. Gordon.”

This capitulation was signed by the President of the Common Council on the 29th Aug. and the whole of the captured vessels that were sea worthy, twenty-one in number, were fitted and loaded by the 31st, when Captain Henry Loraine Baker, of the Fairy brig, arrived with despatches from Sir Alexander Cochrane, and confirmed the rumours which had already reached Captain Gordon, of strong measures having been taken by the enemy to oppose the return of the squadron; the Fairy having had to fight her way up the river, past a battery of five guns and a large military force. In consequence of this intelligence, Captain Gordon deemed it prudent to quit Alexandria without waiting to destroy those remaining stores which he had not the means of bringing away.

Contrary winds again occasioned our countrymen the laborious task of warping the ships down the river, in which a day’s delay took place, owing to the Devastation getting aground. The Americans took advantage of this circumstance to attempt her destruction by means of three fire-vessels, attended by several row-boats; but their object was defeated through the promptitude and gallantry of her commander, Captain Thomas Alexander, who pushed off with his own boats, and being followed by those of the other ships, chased the enemy’s boats up to the town so recently evacuated. The cool and steady conduct of Mr. John Moore, Midshipman of the Seahorse, in towing the nearest fire-vessel on shore, whilst the others were removed by the smaller boats of the Devastation, gained him Captain Gordon’s highest commendation.

The Meteor and Fairy, assisted by the Anna Maria tender, a prize gun-vessel, and a boat belonging to the Euryalus, armed with a howitzer, had greatly impeded the progress of the enemy in their works, notwithstanding which they were enabled to increase their battery to eleven guns, with a furnace for heating shot. On the 3d, the wind changing to the N.W., the Etna and Erebus succeeded in getting down to their assistance, and the following day they were joined by the frigates and prizes; but the Devastation, in spite of every exertion, still remained five miles higher up the river.

The Erebus, being placed by Captain Bartholomew in an admirable position for harassing the workmen employed in the trenches, was now attacked by three field-pieces, which did her considerable damage before they were silenced. Another attempt was likewise made to destroy the Devastation; but the enemy’s fire-vessels were immediately obliged to retreat by some boats under Captain Baker, whose alacrity in proceeding to her assistance was highly extolled by the Commodore. His loss, however, was considerable, owing to the Americans having sought refuge under some guns in a narrow creek, from which it was impossible for him to dislodge them.

On the 5th, at noon, the wind coming fair, and Captain Gordon having made all his arrangements, the Seahorse and Euryalus anchored within short musket-shot of the batteries, while the whole of the prizes passed between them and a shoal; the bombs, &c. firing as they passed, and afterwards anchoring in a favorable position for facilitating the further removal of the frigates. At 3 P.M., having completely silenced the enemy’s fire, the latter cut their cables, and the whole fleet proceeded to the next position taken up by the American troops, where they had two batteries, mounting from 14 to 18 guns, on a range of cliffs, extending about a mile, under which the British were of necessity obliged to pass very close. Captain Gordon did not intend to make the attack that evening; but the Erebus grounding within range, the other men of war were necessarily called into action. On this occasion, the fire of the Fairy had the most decisive effect, as well as that of the Erebus, while the bombs threw their shells with excellent precision, and the guns of the batteries were thereby silenced about eight o’clock.

At day-light on the 6th, Captain Gordon made signal to weigh, and so satisfied were the whole of the parties on shore[8] of their opposition being ineffectual, that they allowed the whole of the shipping to pass without further annoyance.

It has been justly said, that “of the many expeditions up the bays and rivers of the United States, during the late war, none equalled in brillancy of execution that up the Potowmac to Alexandria[9].” “Captain Gordon’s farther success,” says Sir Alexander Cochrane, in his despatches to the Admiralty, “has exceeded my most sanguine expectations; having forced the populous city of Alexandria to capitulate, and having brought down the river in triumph, through a series of obstacles and determined opposition, a fleet of 21 enemy’s vessels. The difficulties which presented themselves to these ships in ascending the river, impeded by shoals and contrary winds, and the increased obstacles which the enemy had prepared against their return with a confident hope of obstructing their descent, were only to be overcome by the most indefatigable exertions. I trust, therefore, that the resolution and gallantry displayed by every one employed upon this service, which deserve my warmest applause, will be further honored by their Lordships’ approbation.” We shall only add, that the hammocks of the squadron were down but two nights during the whole of the operations in the Potowmac, comprising a period of 23 days. Happily, the loss in this “daring enterprise” did not exceed 7 killed and 35 wounded. Amongst the former was Lieutenant Charles Dickinson, of the Fairy; and in the latter list we find the names of Captains Charles Napier and David Ewen Bartholomew, of the Euryalus and Erebus. The latter vessel appears to have suffered more than any other of the squadron.

We are not exactly aware of the manner in which Captain Gordon was employed from the period of his rejoining Sir Alexander Cochrane, in the Chesapeake, until the month of December following, when he formed a junction with the naval and military forces proceeding against New Orleans; hut he is mentioned in the public despatches relative to that unfortunate expedition, as having afforded his “unwearied and cheerful assistance” to Rear-Admiral (now Sir Pulteney) Malcolm, during the whole of the operations, a detail of which will be found in our memoir of Sir Edward Codrington, K.C.B.[10] Since the peace he has commanded in succession the Madagascar, Meander, and Active frigates. The following extract from a respectable periodical publication, contains an account of a miraculous escape which he experienced in the month of Dec. 1816.

“The Meander, Captain Sir James Alexander Gordon[11], is arrived at Sheerness, in a sinking state, having struck upon a shoal, lying about 18 miles S.E. of Orfordness. She sailed from Sheerness for Leith on the 16th Dec., but owing to thick weather she was obliged to anchor occasionally until the 18th. On the 19th, at 8-30 P.M. having been working to windward the whole day, endeavouring to gain an anchorage in Yarmouth Roads, it then blowing a gale of wind, breakers were reported on the lee-bow and beam; the ship, under her fore and main-top-sails and foresail, would not stay, and in falling off she struck upon the shoal, in 24 feet water: fortunately she went over it, and was immediately anchored in 17 fathoms. In a few minutes afterwards the carpenter reported nearly six feet water in her hold; ‘and here,’ says an officer belonging to her, ‘it will be necessary to pause for a moment, at the dangerous and awful situation of the ship’s company the wind blowing a gale, with a tremendous sea, the ship making upwards of 20 feet water an hour, and nearly twelve hours’ darkness before them: not a moment was to be lost, for not a hope of safety was entertained, save in the mercy of the Almighty, and the united exertions of every soul on board.’ By the zeal and energy of the Captain and his officers, and the almost unparalleled exertions of the men, the ship was kept free until the morning: during the night, most providentially, the Great Disposer of all Events had lulled the storm, and hushed the raging sea. Minute guns were fired the whole time, and every blue-light in the ship was burnt, in the hope of drawing the attention of vessels near; but it was not until long after day-light on the 20th, that several vessels were seen approaching, some of which were afterwards directed to stay by the Meander, in the event of its becoming necessary to quit her. The wind and tide being fair for Sheerness, the cable was cut, and sail made by the officers, it not being possible to remove a man from the pumps: at this moment the leaks had increased; but two sails, fitted with thrums, were then dropped over the bows, and had a wonderful effect in checking the leaks. At noon, on the ship’s arrival within signal-distance of Sheerness, her distressed state was made known, and the greatest and most prompt assistance was immediately afforded by the Captains of the different ships, and the Hon. Commissioner Boyle, with the officers and men under their respective commands; but it was not until the 22d, with all the skill and exertions employed, that the ship was safely secured in dock. On examination, it was ascertained she had carried away the whole of her fore-foot, about ten feet of the garboard strake on the larboard side, and a great part of her false and main keels. While these serious and alarming defects evidently shew what must have been the exertions at the pumps, for upwards of 20 hours, before any personal assistance was afforded, they also most satisfactorily prove what gracious goodness and mercy must have been vouchsafed to them by that Almighty Being, whose arm alone can save the wanderers of the trackless deep. * * * * The officers of the Meander speak of Captain Gordon in terms of the highest respect and most affectionate regard; his firmness and zeal gave animation to all around him in the midst of this awful time, in which not a murmur was heard, nor the slightest disposition shewn towards intoxication. It appears that the pilot of the ship is a clever, steady, deserving man, and not the slightest blame whatsoever is to be attached to him. The Meander is ordered by the Admiralty to be fitted with all possible dispatch.”

Sir James A. Gordon was presented with the freedom of Aberdeen in 1817. He married Aug. 27, 1812, the youngest daughter of John Ward, of Marlborough, Wilts, Esq.

Agent.– J. Copland, Esq.

  1. See Vol. I. pp. 254, 20 et seq. and note † at p. 180 et seq.
  2. See Memoirs of Captain William Henderson, and Commanders William Slaughter and George Haye.
  3. See note * at p. 472.
  4. La Pomone had on board at least 100 men more than the Active. See note † at p. 804.
  5. See note * at p. 476.
  6. See Vol. I. p. 524.
  7. Seahorse 38; Euryalus 36; Devastation, Etna, and Meteor, bombs; Erebus rocket-vessel, and Anna Maria tender.
  8. “Commodore Rodgers, with a chosen body of seamen from the Guerriere, at Philadelphia; Captains Perry, Porter, and other ‘distinguished officers;’ a party of officers and men from the Constellation, at Norfolk; the men that had belonged to Barney’s flotilla, regular troops, riflemen, artillerists, and militia; all flocked to the shores of the Potowmac, to punish the base incendiaries.’” See James’s Nav. Occ. p. 384.
  9. See id. p. 381.
  10. See vol. I. note at p. 637, et seq. N.B. Captain Gordon superintended the landing of the advanced guard of the army on Isle aux Poix
  11. Captain Gordon was nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815.