Chesney, Charles Cornwallis (DNB00)

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CHESNEY, CHARLES CORNWALLIS (1826–1876), brevet-colonel royal engineers, was a nephew of General Francis Rawdon Chesney [q. v], in whose house he was born, and to whom he owed his first advance in life. He was the son of another Charles Cornwallis Chesney, who had been a captain in the East India Company's Bengal artillery until ill-health obliged him to return to England, where he died in 1830. The younger Charles Cornwallis was born near Kilkeel, in county Down, on 29 Sept. 1826, and, losing his father before he was four years old, owed his early training to his mother, a woman of more than ordinary energy and strength of character; was educated at Blundell's school, Tiverton, and for a year at a private school at Exeter, and, obtaining in 1843 a nomination to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, was gazetted as sub-lieutenant in the royal engineers in 1845, passing out head of his term.

He served with his corps first in Ireland, and then in the Bermudas, whence he was soon transferred to the West Indies, and, returning to England in 1853, he was ordered to New Zealand, having obtained his company, in 1854, but his delicate health obliged him to come home two years later. His studies had long been directed to the historical criticism of military events, and his decided talent in this direction procured him the appointment of professor of military history, first at the Cadet, and afterwards at the Staff College at Sandhurst. Here he was speedily recognised as the best military critic of his day. When he began his instruction, he found the means of teaching young officers the scientific history of their profession very inadequate; no really critical works on the subject existed in English, and little attempt had been made to open the military student's mind to a scientific view of the art of war in the past and the present. Chesney's lectures effected nothing less than a revolution in this respect. Gifted with a singularly judicial cast of mind, and with the power of clear and logical, as well as graceful, expression, his critical examination of past and passing military events was in the highest degree instructive to the young officers who thronged to hear him. It was a bold adventure to subject the American civil war to a dose and searching military criticism while it was still in progress, yet his lectures on the 'Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland,' which were published in 1863 (2nd ed. 1864), were at once recognised as a valuable contribution to military history; while his 'Waterloo Lectures,' which were printed in 1868 (3rd ed. 1874), have ever since been a text-book at the military schools, not only of England, but (in translations) of Germany and France. The main characteristic of both volumes is their absolute impartiality. An instance of Chesney's immovable devotion to truth was found in his treatment of the Waterloo campaign, where, after quenching the Napoleonic glamour which has dazzled most accounts of the battle, he proceeded to reject the patriotic fiction of our countrymen, and gave Blucher the full credit of his important share in the victory. His other works were: 'The Tactical Use of Fortresses,' 1868; 'The Military Resources of Prussia and France,' published in conjunction with Mr. Reeve in 1870; and 'Essays in Military Biography,' a collection of papers reprinted in 1874 from the 'Edinburgh Review,' to which he was a frequent contributor, and 'Fraser's Magazine.' The volume included essays on the military careers of General Grant, General Lee, and Henry von Brandt, and an appreciative review of the achievements of Chesney's old friend Chinese Gordon [see Gordon, Charles George]. He served as a member of the Royal Commission on Military Education, which sat, under the presidency of Lord Dufferin, and afterwards of Lord Northbrook, from 1868 to 1870. In 1871 he was sent by government to report on the Franco-German war, and was afterwards closely engaged upon Lord Cardwell's scheme for the localisation of the army. On his promotion to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1868 he went to Aldershot for five years, and, having obtained his brevet rank of colonel in 1873, was appointed to the command of the home district of the royal engineers. It was while engaged in the duties of this post that he caught the chill which caused his death from pneumonia on 19 March 1876, at the early age of forty-nine. He was buried at Sandhurst with military honours, in the presence of a great company of his colleagues and former pupils.

[Private information.]

S. L-P.