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Mahdist War: Major General Charles Gordon

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Mahdist War: Major General Charles Gordon

Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Charles Gordon - Early Life & Career:

Charles George Gordon was born January 28, 1833, at Woolwich Arsenal in London. The son of Major General Henry Gordon and his wife Elizabeth, Charles initially received his education at the Fullands School before entering the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Graduating, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in 1852 and was assigned to the Royal Engineers. Dispatched to Chatham to complete his military training, Gordon's first engineering project was overseeing the building of fortifications at Milford Haven, Wales.

Charles Gordon - Crimea:

Promoted to lieutenant in 1854, he was dispatched to the Crimea the following year for service in the Crimean War. Arriving at Balaklava, he served in the Siege of Sevastopol and the expedition to Kinburn. With the conclusion of hostilities in 1856, Gordon was directed to join an international commission for marking the border between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Returning to Britain in late 1858, he was assigned to Chatham as an instructor. Promoted to captain in 1859, he volunteered for service in China during the Second Opium War and Taiping Rebellion.

Charles Gordon - China:

Landing at Tianjin in September, he joined European forces and took part in the occupation of Beijing. With the end of the war, he remained in China as part of General Charles William Dunbar Staveley's command. With the Taiping Rebellion raging, Staveley withdrew his men to Shanghai in early 1862 in order to protect the European settlement in the city. Arriving, the British joined with a locally-raised force commanded by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward. Collaborating with Ward, Staveley worked to push the rebels back from Shanghai.

Serving on Staveley's staff, Gordon provided engineering services during the successful campaign against the rebels. Following Ward's death at the Battle of Cixi in September 1862, the governor of Jiangsu province, Li Hongzhang, requested that Staveley appoint a British officer to lead Ward's "Ever Victorious Army." Assigned to the post in March 1863, Gordon embarked on a series of successful campaigns that saw him relieve Chansu, capture Kunshan, and win the Battle of Changzhou. For his achievements, Emperor Tongzhi elevated him to titu (commander of a provincial military).

Charles Gordon - To Africa:

Returning home, Gordon was promoted to lieutenant colonel and knighted. His exploits in the Far East also earned him the nickname "Chinese" Gordon. Following work on the Thames defenses, Gordon was tasked in 1872 with serving on a commission to maintain navigation at the mouth of the Danube River. While in the region, he met the Prime Minster of Egypt. Interested in Gordon's military service, he began negotiations for the British officer to serve under Khedive Ismail Pasha. Two years later, Gordon accepted the offer and was made a colonel in the Egyptian Army.

Arriving in Egypt, he was sent south to oversee operations at Gondokoro in southern Sudan. Working to suppress the slave trade, he built a line of way stations and assessed the possibility of opening a route through to Mombasa. Clashing with the Egyptian governor of Sudan, Gordon returned to Cairo and then departed for London. Eager to retain Gordon's services, the Khedive offered the British officer the post of Governor-General of Sudan. Accepting, Gordon returned and traveled up the Nile. Assuming his new position, he attempted to make peace with the Abyssinians and worked to suppress a revolt in Darfur.

Charles Gordon - Interlude:

Resigning in 1879, Gordon spent several weeks relaxing in Lausanne, Switzerland and assessing new offers of employments. Turning down positions in the Belgian Congo Free State and South Africa, he elected to become the secretary to the new Governor-General of India, the Marquess of Ripon. This position proved short-lived and he quit after a brief time in India. After traveling to China he was appointed Commanding Royal Engineer on Mauritius in 1881. Arriving on the island, he was soon promoted to major general and ordered to South Africa to aid in settling disputes in Basutoland.

Charles Gordon - The Mahdist War:

With this task completed, Gordon embarked on a personal exploration of Palestine and remained there into 1883. Approached again by the Belgians, he accepted a post in the Congo Free State. As he prepared for this position, the British government requested that he immediately return to Sudan to deal with a rebellion by Mohammed Ahmed. The self-proclaimed Mahdi (redeemer of Islam), Mohammed Ahmed's troops were overwhelming the thinly-stretched Egyptian forces in the region. With the situation deteriorating, London instructed the Egyptians to withdraw from Sudan in December 1883.

Departing in early 1884, Gordon was tasked with reporting on the best means for extracting the Egyptians from the crisis. Reaching Cairo, he was re-appointed Governor-General of Sudan with full executive powers. Moving up the Nile, he arrived at Khartoum on February 18. Directing his limited forces against the advancing Mahdists, he began evacuating women and children north to Egypt. Though London desired to abandon Sudan, Gordon believed the Mahdists needed to be crushed or they could overrun Egypt. Citing a lack of boats, Gordon ignored his orders and began organizing a defense of the city.

On March 18, 1884, the Mahdists laid siege to Khartoum. Though the government was displeased by Gordon's actions, it came under severe public pressure to rescue the besieged men. In August 1884, Prime Minister William Gladstone relented and issued ordered for a relief expedition. Forming under the leadership of General Sir Garnet Wolseley it began moving south in October 1885. Under increasing pressure, Gordon informed Wolseley in mid-November, via messenger, that he could only hold out for another forty days. Meeting stiff resistance, the Nile Expedition pushed on.

Aware of the expedition's approach, the Mahdists launched a massive assault on Khartoum on January 26. Overwhelming Gordon's starving men, they slaughtered the entire garrison. Though the Mahdi had issued orders that Gordon was to be spared, he was killed in the fighting near the governor's palace. In the wake of the city's fall, Gordon's body was beheaded. The lead elements of Wolseley's forces reached the outskirts of Khartoum two days later. Upon finding that the city had fallen, they withdrew north. Khartoum would remain in Mahdist hands until 1898 when Major General Herbert Kitchener defeated them at the Battle of Omdurman. Though a search was made for Gordon's remains after the city was retaken, they were never found. Acclaimed by the public, Gordon's death was blamed on Gladstone who delayed forming a relief expedition.

Selected Sources

  • Victorian Web: Major General Charles Gordon
  • BBC: Major General Charles Gordon

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