1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Picton, Sir Thomas

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

PICTON, SIR THOMAS (1758–1815), British general, was the younger son of Thomas Picton, of Poyston, Pembrokeshire, where he was born in August 1758. In 1771 he obtained an ensign's commission in the 12th regiment of foot, but he did not join until two years afterwards. The regiment was then stationed at Gibraltar, where he remained until he was made captain in the 75th in January 1778, when he returned to England. The regiment was disbanded five years later. On the occasion of its disbandment Picton quelled a mutiny amongst the men by his prompt personal action and courage, and was promised a majority in reward for his conduct. This, however, he did not receive, and after living in retirement on his father's estate for nearly twelve years, he went out to the West Indies in 1794 on the strength of a slight acquaintance with Sir John Vaughan, the commander-in-chief, who made him his aide-decamp and gave him a captaincy in the 17th foot. Shortly afterwards he was promoted major. Under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who succeeded Vaughan in 1795, he took part in the capture of St Lucia (for which he was promoted lieutenant colonel) and in that of St Vincent. After the reduction of Trinidad Abercromby made him governor of the island. He administered the island with such success that the inhabitants petitioned against the retro cession of the island to Spain, and their protest, with Picton's and Abercromby's representations, ensured the retention of Trinidad as a British possession. In October 1801 he was gazetted brigadier-general. But by this time the rigour of his government, as reported by his enemies, had led to a demand by humanitarians at home for his removal. Colonel William Fullarton (1754-1808) procured the appointment of a commission to govern the island, of which he himself was the senior member, Captain (afterwards Admiral Sir Samuel) Hood the second, and Picton himself the junior. Picton thereupon tendered his resignation, and Hood, as soon as the nature of Fullarton's proceedings became obvious, followed his example (1803). On his way home Picton took part with great credit in military operations in St Lucia and Tobago. Realizing, however, that the attacks upon him were increasing in virulence, he quickly returned to England, and in December 1803 he was arrested by order of the privy council. He was tried in the court of king's bench before Lord Ellenborough in 1806 on a charge of unlawfully applying torture to extort a confession from Luise Calderon, a mulatto woman of loose character who was charged, along with a man, with robbery. The torture consisted in compelling the woman to stand on one leg on a flat headed peg for one hour. The punishment was ordered under Spanish law (which in default of a fresh code Picton had been appointed to administer in 1801) by the local alcalde, and approved by Picton. On these grounds the court returned a merely technical verdict of guilty, which was superseded in 1808 by a special verdict on retrial. It should be mentioned that the inhabitants of the island, who had already given him a sword of honour, and had petitioned the king not to accept his resignation, subscribed £4000 towards his legal expenses, which sum Picton contributed in return to the relief of the suffering caused by a widespread fire in Port of Spain. He had meanwhile been promoted major-general, and in 1809 he had been governor of Flushing during the Walcheren expedition. In 1810, at Wellington's request, he was appointed to command a division in Spain. For the remaining years of the Peninsular War, Picton was one of Wellington's principal subordinates. The commander-in-chief, it is true, never reposed in him the confidence that he gave to Beresford, Hill and Craufurd. But in the resolute, thorough and punctual execution of a well defined task Picton had no superior in the army. His début, owing partly to his naturally stern and now embittered temper, and partly to the difficult position in which he was placed, was unfortunate. On the Coa in July 1810 Craufurd's division became involved in an action, and Picton, his nearest neighbour, refused to support him, as Wellington's direct orders were to avoid an engagement. Details of the incident will be found in Oman, Peninsular War, vol. iii. Shortly after this, however, at Busaco, Picton found and used his first great opportunity for distinction. Here he had a plain duty, that of repulsing the French attack, and he performed that duty with a skill and resolution which indicated his great powers as a troop-leader. After the winter in the lines of Torres Vedras, he added to his reputation and to that of his division, the 3rd, at Fuentes d'Onor. In September he was given the local rank of lieutenant-general, and in the same month the division won great glory by its rapid and orderly retirement under severe pressure from the French cavalry at El Bodon. In October Picton was appointed to the colonelcy of the 77th regiment. In the first operations of 1812 Picton and Craufurd, side by side for the last time, stormed the two breaches of Ciudad Rodrigo, Craufurd and Picton's second in command. Major-General Mackinnon, being mortally wounded. At Badajoz, a month later, the successful storming of the fortress was due to his daring self-reliance and penetration in converting the secondary attack on the castle, delivered by the 3rd division, into a real one. He was himself wounded in this terrible engagement, but would not leave the ramparts, and the day after, having recently inherited a fortune, he gave every survivor of his command a guinea. His wound, and an attack of fever, compelled him to return, to England to recruit his health, but he reappeared at the front in April 1813. While in England he was invested with the collar and badge of a K.B. by the prince regent, and in June he was made a lieutenant-general in the army. The conduct of the 3rd division under his leadership at the battle of Vittoria and in the engagements in the Pyrenees raised his reputation as a resolute and skilful fighting general to a still higher point. Early in 1814 he was offered, but after consulting Wellington declined, the command of the British forces operating on the side of Catalonia. He thus bore his share in the Orthez campaign and in the final victory before Toulouse.

On the break-up of the division the officers presented Picton with a valuable service of plate, and on the 24th of June 1814 he received for the seventh time the thanks of the House of Commons for his great services. Somewhat to his disappointment he was not included amongst the generals who were raised to the peerage, but early in 1815 he was made a G.C.B. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Picton, at Wellington's request, accepted a high command in the Anglo-Dutch army. He was severely wounded at Quatre Bras on the 16th of June, but concealed his wound and retained command of his troops, and at Waterloo on the 18th, while repulsing with impetuous valour “one of the most serious attacks made by the enemy on our position,” he was shot through the head by a musket ball. His body was brought home to London, and buried in the family vault at St George's, Hanover Square. A public monument was erected to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral, by order of parliament, and in 1823 another was erected at Carmarthen by subscription, the king contributing a hundred guineas thereto.

See Robinson's Life of Sir Thomas Picton (London, 1836), with which, however, compare Napier's and Oman's histories of the Peninsular War as to controversial points.