Beckwith, John Charles (DNB00)

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BECKWITH, JOHN CHARLES (1789–1862), a distinguished Peninsular officer and in later life the benevolent missionary to the Waldenses, was the grandson of Major-general John Beckwith, and nephew of the generals, Sir George [q. v.] and Sir Thomas Sydney Beckwith [q. v.]. His father, like his four brothers, had held a commission in the army, but had soon resigned it on his marriage with Miss Haliburton of Halifax in Nova Scotia (a sister of Judge Haliburton), and had settled in that colony. Charles Beckwith was born 2 Oct. 1789, and obtained an ensigncy through his uncle's influence in the 50th regiment in 1803. In 1804 he exchanged into the 95th or rifle regiment, of which his uncle, Sydney Beckwith, was lieutenant-colonel. He became lieutenant in 1805, and accompanied his regiment to Hanover, to Denmark, where he was present at Kioge, and to Portugal. He was with the 95th all through the retreat of Sir John Moore to Corunna, and became captain in 1808. He was engaged with the 2nd battalion of his regiment in the Walcheren expedition, and afterwards accompanied it to Portugal in the winter of 1810, when he found Lord Wellington's army in the lines of Torres Vedras, and his uncle, Sydney Beckwith, in command of a brigade. He was present with the light division in all the engagements which took place with Masséna's retiring army in the spring of 1811, at Pombal, Redinha, Condeixa, Foz d'Aronce, and Sabugal. In 1812, after his uncle had gone to England for his health, he was appointed by Brigadier-general Andrew Barnard, who had succeeded him, brigade-major to the 1st brigade of the celebrated light division, and was present in that capacity at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, and at the battles of Salamanca, Vittoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive, and Orthes. His eminent services drew upon him the repeated notice both of Lord Wellington and of General Alten, who had succeeded Craufurd in the command of the light division, and he was appointed deputy assistant quartermaster-general to the division. In this higher capacity he was present at the battle of Toulouse, and in 1814, at the conclusion of the war, he was made major by brevet. In 1815 he was appointed in the same capacity to Picton's division in the Netherlands, and was present at the battle of Waterloo, where he lost his leg, and after which he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and made a C.B. The loss of his leg made it impossible for him to expect active employment, and in 1820 he went on half-pay.

He had been but twenty-six years old at the battle of Waterloo, and was still but a young man when he retired, and hardly knew to what occupation a one-legged man could turn, when he happened one day in 1827, while waiting in the library of Apsley House, to look into Dr. Gilly's book on the Waldenses. He was so much interested that in the same year he paid a visit to the valleys of Piedmont. The past history of the people and their then condition of squalor and ignorance so worked upon his nature that he determined to settle among them, and, taking a house called La Torre, lived among them during the last thirty-five years of his life. His two main aims were to educate the people and to arouse in them once more the old evangelical faith which had first attracted his fancy. To educate them he established no less than 120 schools in the district, all of which he himself perpetually inspected, and the one-legged English general was well known and much loved throughout the Italian valleys. The greatness of his services was recognised by King Charles Albert of Sardinia, who mode him a knight of the order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus in 1848, and he further sealed his life to his work by marrying a Waldensian girl, named Caroline Valle, in 1850. Nevertheless he kept up his communications with England, and frequently corresponded with Dr. Gilly and others interested in the Waldenses. An especially interesting letter from him to Sir William Napier is published in Nopier's 'Life,' in which he acknowledges the receipt of a copy of the 'History of the Peninsular War,' and then dwells on the necessity of evangelical christianity to his old comrade of the light division. He had been promoted colonel in 1837, and major-general in 1846, but continued to live at La Torre till his death, 19 July 1862, when his funeral was attended by thousands of the peasants, whose lives he had made happy and cheerful. Of all the officers of the light division none found such a strange mode of employing his unexhausted energies, and few did such a great and self-denying work.

[For his life consult Il Generale Beckwith, sua Vita e sue Opere, par J. P. Meille. 1872, translated with notes by the Rev. W. Arnot, 1873, and condensed by A. Meille. 1879; Times, 5 and 14 Aug. 1862; Gent. Mag. for 1862, pt. ii. p. 362.]

H. M. S.