Cotton, Stapleton (DNB00)

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COTTON, Sir STAPLETON (1773–1865), sixth baronet, first Viscount Combermere, field-marshal, colonel 1st life guards, and constable of the Tower of London, was second son and fifth child of Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, fifth baronet of Combermere Abbey, Whitchurch, Shropshire, by his wife Frances, daughter and coheiress of Colonel James Russell Stapleton of Boddrhyddon, Denbighshire, and was born at the old seat of the Stapletons, Llewenny Hall, Denbighshire, where his father resided until he succeeded to the baronetcy, on 14 Nov. 1773. His father, who sat in parliament for Cheshire for forty years, was ardently devoted to country pursuits, and kept up an open-handed hospitality, which eventually caused him to sell the Stapleton estates for 200,000l. At the age of eight Stapleton Cotton was sent to a grammar school at Audlem, a few miles from his father's park gates, where Vernon Harcourt, afterwards archbishop of York, was one of his schoolfellows, and where his education was greatly neglected. A quick, lively boy, he was known by his family as ‘Young Rapid,’ and was continually in scrapes. Afterwards, he was four years at Westminster School (entered 28 Jan. 1785), his father at that time having a town house in Berkeley Square. Next he went to a private military academy at Norwood House, Bayswater, kept by Major Reynolds of the Shropshire militia, where he learned little more than cleaning his firelock and accoutrements. On 26 Feb. 1790 he obtained a second lieutenancy without purchase in the 23rd royal Welsh fusiliers, and joined that corps in Dublin the year after. He became first lieutenant 16 March 1791, and did duty with the regiment until 28 Feb. 1793, when he was promoted to a troop in the 6th carabiniers. That fine regiment—the old 3rd Irish horse—was then notoriously Irish in tone, and the hard-drinking and duelling proclivities of his brother officers gave ‘Little Cotton's’ friends some concern, but his temperate habits and good temper kept him out of trouble. He embarked with his regiment in August 1793, and joined the Duke of York's army just after the siege of Dunkirk, and made the campaigns of that year and the following spring, when he was present at Prémont and the cavalry battle at Cateau in 1794. A few days after the latter Cotton was promoted to a majority in the 59th foot, and on 9 March 1794, at the age of twenty-one, became lieutenant-colonel of the newly raised 25th light dragoons, then known as Gwyn's hussars. He commanded the regiment at several stations in the south of England, including Weymouth, where he was a good deal noticed by George III and the royal family, and in 1796 embarked with it for the Cape and India. The regiment arrived at the Cape about July 1796, and, in view of an expected attack by the French and Dutch fleets on the colony, was at once mounted on Boer horses, in readiness for field service. Cotton commanded the advance guard of the force sent from Cape Town to Saldanha Bay, which witnessed the surrender, on 18 Aug. 1795, of the Dutch ships which had escaped when the colony was taken by the British in September 1795. The 25th dragoons then went on to Madras, and served through the campaign against Tippoo Sahib in 1799, including the battle of Malavelly and the siege of Seringapatam, during which Cotton appears to have made acquaintance with Colonel Arthur Wellesley. Cotton's elder brother, Robert, having died, his father, anxious for the return of his surviving son, procured for him an exchange home. Accordingly, he left the 25th (re-numbered a year or two later as the 22nd) light dragoons at Madras early in 1800, and joined the 16th light dragoons on the Kentish coast. There he met and, after a three months' courtship, married his first wife, Lady Anna Maria Clinton, a beautiful girl of nineteen, then staying at Margate with her mother, who was the widow of the third Duke of Newcastle, and afterwards married to General Catline Crauford. Cotton was next stationed with his regiment at Brighton for some time, and then proceeded with it to Ireland, and was stationed at Gort, where his eldest son was born, and afterwards in Dublin, where the 16th were quartered during Emmett's insurrection. Cotton, who attained the rank of colonel on 1 Jan. 1800, became a major-general 30 Oct. 1805, and for a time had command of a cavalry brigade at Weymouth under the Duke of Cumberland. In 1806 he was returned for Newark and sat for that borough until his elevation to the peerage. His wife, to whom he was tenderly attached, died in 1807, of a rapid decline, and for some time after Cotton remained in retirement with his family. In August 1808 he was despatched to Vigo with a brigade composed of the 14th and 16th light dragoons, the destination of which was changed to Lisbon. The brigade was employed on the Portuguese frontier during Moore's campaign in Spain, and afterwards served in the north of Portugal in 1809, including the operations against Oporto. Until the arrival of Lieutenant-general Payne, Cotton was in command of the whole of the allied cavalry. At Talavera he commanded a brigade and did signal service, unrecorded in the despatches (see Comb. Corresp. i. 121–2). News reached him of his father's death at the end of the year, and in January 1810 he went home. A baronet with a goodly estate, which, through his father's unbusiness-like habits, was sorely in need of supervision, a man of fashion and well received in society, Cotton had many inducements to remain at home; but he preferred to pursue a military career, his qualifications for which, owing, perhaps, to his very youthful appearance at the time, and his modest reticence in regard of his services, were not always fully recognised. He is described at the time as of moderate stature, sparely built, very active, and an excellent horseman. He possessed a special aptitude for inspecting troops of all arms, particularly his own, having an intimate knowledge of details, and never allowing ‘smartness’ to serve as a cloak for deficiencies. Splendid in dress—his uniform and horse trappings were declared to be worth 500 guineas ransom—and ever foremost in danger, he was known as the ‘Lion d'Or,’ but not in any case was betrayed into exposing his men or fatiguing his horses unnecessarily; and Wellington, who recognised the imperative need of husbanding his inadequate force of cavalry, was wont to declare that in entrusting an order to Cotton he knew it would be carried out with discretion as well as zeal. On rejoining the army in the summer of 1810 Cotton was appointed to the command of the 1st division, and afterwards to that of the whole of the allied cavalry, with the local rank of lieutenant-general. He attained the same rank in the British army 1 Jan. 1812. Among his more important services at the head of the cavalry—which constituted a separate division after May 1811, the divisional cavalry and other duties being detached therefrom as needed—may be mentioned the covering of the long retreat from Almeida to Torres Vedras, lasting from July to September 1810, in which not a single baggage-wagon was left behind; the brilliant affair at Llerena, on 11 April 1812, during a cavalry demonstration towards Seville, when, by judicious measures concerted amid all the difficulties of a night march, he attacked and overthrew a superior force of Soult's rearguard; his foresight at Castrejon, near Salamanca, on 18 July 1812, when with Anson's brigade of cavalry and the 4th and light divisions he held Marmont's entire army at bay and baffled plans that would have jeopardised the whole British army; and his services at the battle of Salamanca, where he was second in command under Lord Wellington, and led the famous charge of Le Marchant's and Anson's heavy brigades. A chance volley from a Portuguese picket after the battle severely wounded Cotton in the right arm, and it was feared would have necessitated amputation. His arm was saved, and he went home, Lord Wellington writing to Colonel Torrens, the military secretary: ‘Sir Stapleton Cotton is gone home. He commands our cavalry very well—indeed much better than some that might be sent to us and might be supposed cleverer than he is.’ Wellington appears to have objected to Lord Bathurst's idea of conferring a peerage on Cotton, for fear of giving umbrage to Marshal Beresford, who was Cotton's senior in the army (Suppl. Desp. vii. 484). While at home Cotton became engaged to his second wife, Caroline, second daughter of Captain W. Fulke Greville, royal navy. A passage out of twenty-eight days made him three days late for the battle of Vittoria, but he commanded the allied cavalry throughout the ensuing campaigns in Spain and the south of France up to the peace, including the actions in the Pyrenees, at Orthez, and at Toulouse. On his return home Cotton, who had already received the red ribbon of the Bath, was raised to the peerage as Baron Combermere of Combermere Abbey, with a pension of 2,000l. a year for his own and two succeeding lives. His second marriage (18 June 1814) took place at Lambeth Palace, at eleven o'clock on the night of the grand entertainment to the allied sovereigns at the Guildhall, where the new peer was one of the guests. The lady was twenty years his junior, but the marriage promised to be in all respects a happy one. Among other points in common were their musical tastes, Combermere having some vocal and musical pretensions and his wife being an accomplished musician. Napoleon's return from Elba brought Combermere to the front again, but to the Duke of Wellington's annoyance the command of the cavalry in Belgium was given to Lord Uxbridge, afterwards Marquis of Anglesey. The appointment was known to have been made at the instance of the Prince Regent, and Combermere's biographers assume that the latter credited Combermere with a share in some gossip set afloat in Brighton years before concerning the prince's relations with Mrs. Fitzherbert. On the very day after Waterloo the duke wrote: ‘We must have Lord Combermere, if he will come.’ He came at his old leader's call, arriving in Paris on 18 July 1815, and commanded the whole of the allied cavalry in France until the following year, when the reduction of the army of occupation deprived him of his post. In 1817 he was appointed governor of Barbadoes and commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, which he held until June 1820. During his West Indian command Combermere's tact and sound sense did good service on several occasions, notably in restoring friendly relations with the French West India islands, which had been disturbed by a supposed discourtesy to the French flag on the part of an English man-of-war. A grievous shock befell him soon after his return in the death of his eldest son, who died, quite unexpectedly, of a neglected cold and sore throat in 1821. From 1822 to 1825 Combermere was commander-in-chief in Ireland. A successor to Sir Edward Paget, as commander-in-chief in India, being then needed, and an expedition against the fortress of Bhurtpore being not unlikely, Combermere was selected by the court of directors of the East India Company as the fittest man for the post, it is said, on the advice of the Duke of Wellington (see Comb. Corresp. ii. 29–30). Combermere, who attained the rank of general on 27 May 1825, had by that time started for India, leaving Lady Combermere at home. The expedition against Bhurtpore was successfully carried out; the great Jât fortress, which had been a standing menace to British rule ever since Lord Lake failed against it twenty years before, was taken with comparatively little loss and razed to the ground. Combermere was made a viscount in 1827, and on 16 Sept. 1829 colonel of the 1st life guards, having already been colonel of the 20th light dragoons 1813–18 and of the 3rd light dragoons 1821–29. He remained in India for the customary period of five years, during nine months of which he acted as governor-general while Lord Amherst was away on the hills, and returned home in 1830. On his return Combermere parted from his second wife. On her deathbed, at Dover, in January 1837, Lady Combermere ‘absolved him of all blame and unkindness throughout their union, and regretted the years of happiness lost to both by the misunderstanding’ (ib. ii. 243). In 1838 Combermere married his third wife, Mary Woolley Gibbings, only child of Mr. Gibbings of Gibbings Grove, co. Cork, and grandniece of an old Minden officer of the same name, who was in command of the royal Welsh fusiliers when Combermere served in that corps in Dublin forty-eight years before. The last thirty years of his long life were passed in the unostentatious performance of his parliamentary and social duties. An old-fashioned conservative, he was opposed to catholic emancipation, and voted against the reform bill, the repeal of the corn laws, army short service, and other innovations, but his modest, kindly nature made no political foes. He was governor of Sheerness from 1821 until 1852. On the death of the Duke of Wellington he was made constable of the Tower of London, and in 1855 a field-marshal. His last public duty was in April 1863, at the marriage of the Prince of Wales, when, in the ninetieth year of his age and the seventy-third of his military service, he attended as gold stick in brigade waiting. His death was accelerated by a severe cold. He died peacefully on 21 Feb. 1865. He was buried in the family vault in the parish church of Wrenbury, Shropshire, where is a monument to his memory. His third wife and three children by his second wife, a son and two daughters, survived him. At the time of his death Lord Combermere held the military appointments before recounted, was a grand cross of the Bath (1815) having been K.B. from 1812; was knight of the Hanoverian Guelphic order (1817), and of the Portuguese order of the Tower and Sword; was knight of Star of India (1861) and of St. Ferdinand and of Charles III in Spain; and was lord-lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets. For forty-five years he had been provincial grand master of the Freemasons in the county of Cheshire. A small cabinet portrait of him, about the time he was commander-in-chief in Ireland, taken in the now obsolete uniform of a general of British hussars—the gold-barred jacket and pelisse and scarlet overalls, which were his favourite battle garb in the Peninsula—is in the National Portrait Gallery. Two others, in possession of the family—one representing him as a youthful lieutenant-colonel of twenty-one, in the French-grey uniform of the 25th dragoons, the other as a field-marshal of ninety—are engraved in the ‘Combermere Correspondence.’ A memorial, in the shape of an equestrian statue, by Marochetti, for which the field-marshal sat repeatedly a year or two before his death, has been erected at Chester Castle, the cost of which, amounting to 5,000l., was defrayed by public subscription in the county.

[An excellent biography of Lord Combermere was prepared some years back, from original materials, by his widow, Mary, Viscountess Combermere, assisted by Captain (now Colonel) W. W. Knollys, and published under the title of the Combermere Correspondence, 2 vols. 8vo (London, 1866). It should be collated with the notices of Lord Combermere in the Wellington Despatches and Supplementary Despatches and Correspondence, and with the personal narratives, English and German (for the latter see the works of North Ludlow Beamish), of those present in the campaigns wherein he was engaged.]

H. M. C.