Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Robert Thomas
WILSON, Sir ROBERT THOMAS (1777–1849), general and governor of Gibraltar, fourth child and third son of the portrait painter Benjamin Wilson [q. v.], was born in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, on 17 Aug. 1777. He was educated at Westminster school, and also under Dr. Joseph Warton at Winchester. After the death of his father and mother, his elder sister, Frances, married early in 1793 Colonel Bosville of the Coldstream guards, who was killed on 15 Aug. 1793 at the battle of Lincelles; with her assistance Wilson joined the Duke of York in the following year at Courtray, furnished with a letter of recommendation from the king. He was at once enrolled as a cornet of the 15th light dragoons.
He took part in the storm and capture of Prémont on 17 April 1794 and the action of the 18th. On the 24th he was one of eight officers with the two squadrons of the 15th light dragoons who, with two squadrons of Leopold's hussars, mustering altogether under three hundred sabres, attacked and routed a very superior French force at Villiers-en-Couché. This action prevented the capture of the emperor Francis II, whom the French were endeavouring to intercept on his journey from Valenciennes to Catillon, and had already cut off by their patrols. The results of this magnificent charge, undertaken with the full knowledge of the danger incurred and of the object to be attained, were twelve hundred of the enemy killed and wounded, three pieces of cannon captured, and the withdrawal of all French posts from the Selle, with the consequent safety of the emperor. Wilson's horse was wounded under him. Four years later the emperor caused nine commemorative gold medals to be struck—the only impressions—one to be deposited in the imperial cabinet, and the others to be bestowed upon the eight British officers of the 15th light dragoons. George III gave permission for them to be worn ‘as an honorary badge of their bravery in the field’ (London Gazette, 9 June 1798). In 1800 the emperor conferred upon the same officers the cross of the order of Maria Theresa, which George III on 2 June 1801 permitted them to accept, with the rank of baron of the holy Roman empire and of knighthood attached. Two days after the affair of Villiers-en-Couché, Wilson was engaged with his regiment in the action at Cateau (26 April). He also took part in the battle of Tournay, or the Marque, on 10 May; in the capture of Lannoy, Roubaix, and Mouveaux on the 17th; in the disastrous retreat on the 18th to Templeuve, when he commanded the rearguard, and when the light cavalry, according to an eye-witness, ‘performed wonders of valour’ (BROWN, Journal); at the battle of Pont à Chin on 22 May; and at the action of Duffel on 16 July. He greatly distinguished himself in September at Boxtel-on-the-Dommel, when, with Captain Calcraft and the patrol, he penetrated to the French headquarters, captured an aide-de-camp of General Vandamme and two gendarmes, mounted them on the general's horses, and, notwithstanding that a regiment of red hussars and a regiment of dragoons pursued for six miles by separate roads to cut him off, made good his retreat with the captives; and on the same evening falling in with a party of French infantry cut it to pieces. The British army having retreated into Germany, Wilson returned to England at the end of 1795, and joined the depôt at Croydon in February 1796.
He was promoted to be lieutenant, by purchase, on 31 Oct. 1794, and on 21 Sept. 1796 he purchased his troop. He married in 1797, and in May 1798 accompanied Major-general St. John to Ireland, and served as brigade-major on his staff, and afterwards as aide-de-camp during the rebellion of 1798. He rejoined his regiment in 1799, and accompanied it to the Helder; in this campaign the 15th light dragoons were greatly distinguished at Egmont-op-Zee on 2 Oct. Wilson also took part in the actions of 6 and 10 Oct., and returned with the regiment to England in November.
On 28 June 1800 he purchased a majority in Hompesch's mounted riflemen, then serving under Sir Ralph Abercromby in the Mediterranean, and in the autumn travelled across the continent to Vienna on a mission to Lord Minto, by whom he was sent to the Austrian army in Italy. Having communicated with General Bellegarde and Lord William Bentinck, he proceeded to join Abercromby. He landed at Aboukir Bay on 7 March 1801, and took part in the action of the 13th and in the battle of Alexandria on the 21st, when Abercromby fell and was succeeded by Major-general (afterwards Lord) Hutchinson; the latter employed Wilson on several missions. In July he entered Cairo with Hutchinson, was at the siege of Alexandria in August, and its capitulation on the 25th. Wilson left Egypt on 11 Sept. and returned to England by Malta and Toulon, arriving at the end of December. He was made a knight of the order of the Crescent of Turkey for his services in Egypt.
In 1802 Wilson published ‘The History of the British Expedition to Egypt’ (l.p. 4to), which went through several editions, was translated into French in 1803 from an octavo edition in two volumes published that year, and also appeared in an abridged form. The fourth edition in 1803 contained ‘A Sketch of the Present State of the Country and its Means of Defence,’ with a portrait of Sir Ralph Abercromby. Lord Nelson wrote a characteristic letter to Wilson, on receipt of a presentation copy, which is printed in Randolph's ‘Life of Nelson.’ The work derived especial popularity from the charges of cruelty which it brought against Buonaparte, both towards his prisoners at Jaffa and his own soldiers at Cairo. Of these charges the emperor complained to the British government, but, receiving no satisfaction, caused a counter report to be issued by Colonel Sebastiani. Wilson was appointed inspecting field-officer in Somerset and Devonshire under General Simcoe.
In 1804 Wilson published an ‘Inquiry into the Present State of the Military Force of the British Empire with a View to its Reorganization,’ 8vo, in which he made his first public protest against corporal punishment in the army, and was complimented by Sir Francis Burdett in a letter dated 13 Aug. 1804 for the service thus rendered to humanity.
Wilson purchased a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 19th light dragoons in this month, and on 7 March 1805 exchanged into the 20th light dragoons. He sailed with 230 of them in the expedition under Sir David Baird and Sir Home Popham on 27 Aug. from Cork harbour for the Cape of Good Hope, and after a voyage to Brazil, where he purchased horses for the cavalry, and a narrow escape from shipwreck, disembarked with General Beresford on 7 Jan. 1806 in Saldanha Bay, Cape of Good Hope, as an advanced guard. After the battle of Blaauwberg, which took place just before his arrival, Wilson was employed in command of the cavalry on outpost duty until the terms of the capitulation were settled, and in receiving arms, colours, guns, and horses at Simon's Bay until General Janssen and the Dutch troops were deported in February. In June he obtained leave of absence and returned to England in the Adamant, but was nearly lost at sea in passing from one ship to another of the fleet. On 3 Nov. 1806 Wilson having been attached to the staff of Lord Hutchinson, then going on a special mission to the Prussian court, embarked with him at Yarmouth in the frigate Astræa, and was nearly wrecked in the Cattegat on the Anhalt shore, the guns having to be thrown overboard. He accompanied Lord Hutchinson and the king of Prussia to Memel in January 1807, and in February joined General Beningsen at the Russian headquarters of the army at Jarnova. He was present at the battle of Eylau on the 7th and 8th, and accompanied the headquarters to Heilsberg in March, and in April to Bartenstein, where on the 26th the emperor of Russia bestowed upon him the cross of St. George for his services at Eylau. Wilson took part in the campaign of June, was present at the action of the Passarge on the 5th, at the battle of Heilsberg on the 10th, and the battle of Friedland on the 14th, after which he retreated with the army to Tilsit.
On the conclusion of the peace of Tilsit he went to St. Petersburg, and thence to England with despatches, arriving on 19 Sept. On 2 Oct. he left England with a confidential communication from Canning to the emperor of Russia, arriving at St. Petersburg on the 20th. He left again on 8 Nov. with despatches from Lord Granville to Canning, containing intelligence which Wilson had himself been the first to procure, that the emperor of Russia was about to invade Swedish-Finland and declare war against England. Notwithstanding the fact that a Russian courier had preceded him by thirty-six hours (Wilson's passport having been expressly withheld to give the courier the advantage), Wilson pushed from Abo across the Gulf of Bothnia, in very bad weather, reached Stockholm before the courier, arranged that the courier should be delayed, sailed for England, landed in the Tees on the evening of the 29th, posted to London, and saw Canning in bed at four o'clock in the morning of 2 Dec. He was directed to keep quiet until Canning's orders to the naval authorities at Portsmouth had been executed; and on his return to breakfast with Canning the following morning he was complimented upon his activity, which had resulted in the seizure of the Russian frigate Sperknoi, with money to pay the Russian fleet, while a fast vessel had been despatched to Sir Sidney Smith to intercept the Russian fleet.
In 1808 Wilson was given the command of the loyal Lusitanian legion, a body raised out of Portuguese refugees in England under British officers, and in August went to Portugal as a brigadier-general in the Portuguese army. He was engaged in various encounters with the enemy in Castille and Estramadura during the retreat of the British to Coruña in 1808–9; and after the battle of Coruña on 16 Jan. 1809, acting in conjunction with the Spaniards beyond the Agueda, by a series of spirited and judicious movements, he kept open the communications with Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, and held the enemy in check. He had a good deal of desultory fighting, took part in the pursuit of Soult, and with the Lusitanian legion and three thousand Spaniards advanced to within nine miles of Madrid. After the battle of Talavera on 27 and 28 July Wilson found himself at Escalona, cut off by the enemy from Arzobispo; crossing the Tietar, he scrambled over the mountains, and with difficulty gained the pass of Baños on 8 Aug., as Ney's corps was approaching on its march from Placentia to the north. Wilson endeavoured to stay its advance, and defended the pass with spirit for some hours, but was eventually dislodged, and retreated to Castello Branco.
When the British army went into winter quarters, Wilson returned home, and, as the Lusitanian legion was absorbed in the new organisation of the Portuguese army, offered himself to Lord Wellesley for special service on 6 May 1810. For his services in the Peninsula he was promoted on 25 July to be colonel in the army, and appointed aide-de-camp to the king, and in 1811 received the Portuguese medal, and was made a knight-commander of the Portuguese order of the Tower and Sword. In this year Wilson published, in quarto form, ‘Brief Remarks on the Character and Composition of the Russian Army; and a Sketch of the Campaign in Poland in 1806 and 1807.’ In the autumn of 1811 his offer of service was accepted, and on 26 March 1812 he was given the local rank of brigadier-general in the British army, and accompanied Sir Robert Liston [q. v.], the newly appointed ambassador to the Porte, to Constantinople, with instructions to assist in the conduct of negotiations for peace between Turkey and Russia (see Wilson's diary of the journey in Addit. MS. 30160). He arrived at Constantinople on 1 July, and on 27 July went on a mission from Liston to the grand vizier at Shumla, to the Russian admiral Tchichagoff, commanding the Danube army corps at Bucharest, and finally to the emperor of Russia at St. Petersburg. He reached the headquarters of the Russian army under Barclay de Tolly in time to take part in the battle of Smolensk on 16 Aug., arrived in St. Petersburg on the 27th, and had an audience with the emperor on 4 Sept. Having satisfactorily completed all the affairs entrusted to him, and received the thanks of Liston and of Lord Cathcart, British ambassador at St. Petersburg, he proceeded on the 15th, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Baron Brinken, and by Lord Tyrconnel, to join the Russian army at Krasnoi Pakra, near Moscow, as British commissioner, with instructions to keep both Lord Cathcart and Liston informed of the progress of events.
Wilson took part in the successful attack on Murat at Winkowo on 18 Oct., in the battles of Malo-Jaroslawitz on the 24th, of Wiasma on 3 Nov., of Krasnoi on 17 Nov., and in all the affairs to the cessation of the pursuit of the French. He exchanged into the 22nd light dragoons on 10 Dec. 1812. Early in 1813 he marched across Poland to Kalish, and thence to Berlin, where he arrived on 31 March. On 8 April he proceeded by Dessau and Leipzig to Dresden. On 2 May he took a prominent part in the battle of Lützen, where, aided by Colonel Campbell, he rallied the Prussians, carried the village of Gros Gorschen, which he held until night, and subsequently drove the enemy back on Lützen. He further distinguished himself at the battle of Bautzen on 20 and 21 May, and at the action of Reichenbach on the 22nd. During a review of the troops near Jauer on the 27th the emperor of Russia decorated Wilson in front of the imperial guard with the cross of the third class or knight commander of the order of St. George, taking it from his own neck and making a most complimentary speech, in which he stated his desire to mark his esteem for Wilson's courage, zeal, talent, and fidelity throughout the war.
Wilson was promoted to be major-general on 4 June 1813. During the armistice he travelled about the country inspecting the fortresses. When Austria joined the alliance against Buonaparte and hostilities were resumed, Wilson was conspicuous in the attack upon Dresden on 26 Aug., when he took part in storming the grand redoubt, and was the first to mount the parapet, followed by Captain Charles. On this occasion he lost his cross of the order of Maria Theresa in the mélée, and the emperor of Austria presented him with another, which was sent to him with a complimentary letter from Count Metternich (dated Töplitz, 24 Sept. 1813). In the battle of 27 Aug. Wilson was with the emperor of Russia and General Moreau when the latter was mortally wounded. He was also present at the battles of Kulm and Kraupen on the 29th and 30th, and charged repeatedly with the Austrian cavalry on the 30th.
On 7 Sept. Wilson joined the Austrian army at Leitmeritz as British commissioner, having been transferred from the Russian army. On the 27th he received from the king of Prussia the grand cross of the order of the Red Eagle, of which order he had received the fourth class in the last war. He was with the staff of Marshal Prince Schwartzenberg, commanding the allied armies, at the battles of Leipzig on 16 and 18 Oct., and at the capture of the city on the 19th. Schwartzenberg wrote to Lord Aberdeen, the British ambassador, attributing the success at Leipzig on the 16th chiefly to Wilson's intelligence and able dispositions.
Shortly after the battles of Leipzig Lord Castlereagh appointed Lord Burghersh to be British commissioner with Schwartzenberg, and transferred Wilson to the Austrian army in Italy. Both the emperors and also the king of Prussia desired to retain Wilson with them. Metternich wrote to Aberdeen that he was commanded by the emperor to express his sense of Wilson's great services, and his wish that he should remain with the army, and Schwartzenberg told him that conspicuous as were Wilson's services in the field, they fell short of those he had rendered out of the field. Aberdeen wrote to Castlereagh (Despatch, 11 Nov. 1813): ‘From his intimate knowledge of the Russian and Prussian armies, and the great respect invariably shown him by the emperor of Russia and the king of Prussia, he is able to do a thousand things which no one else could do. He was the means of making up a difference between the king and Schwartzenberg which was of the utmost importance.’ Castlereagh was, however, firm; he deemed the applications of the foreign sovereigns an unwarrantable interference, and observed that if Wilson had the confidence of all other governments he lacked that of his own. Party politics alone account for the fact that, although loaded with distinctions by allied foreign sovereigns, he received none from his own. In November the emperor of Russia bestowed upon him the Moscow medal for the campaign of 1812.
On 22 Dec. 1813 Wilson went to Basle by Aberdeen's direction to join the allied commission, but on the 25th his instructions arrived from Castlereagh to join the Austrian army in Italy, and to report direct to him, keeping the British ambassador to Austria informed. Before leaving, the emperor of Russia presented him with the first class or grand cross of the order of St. Anne at Freiburg on 24 Dec., and the emperor of Austria promoted him to be knight commander of the order of Maria Theresa on 4 Jan. 1814. He joined Marshal Bellegarde at Vincenza on 12 Jan., accompanied him in the occupation of Verona early in February, and was present on the 8th at the battle of Valeggio, where he greatly distinguished himself and was nearly captured by the French. On the 10th he was present at the action on the right bank of the Mincio. On 28 March he went to Bologna, where he met Lord William Bentinck and Murat, with whom he commenced negotiations. The abdication of Buonaparte put an end to his mission, and in June he left Italy for Paris.
On 10 Jan. 1816 Wilson was instrumental, in conjunction with Michael Bruce and Captain John Hely-Hutchinson (afterwards third Earl of Donoughmore), in the escape from Paris of Count Lavalette, who, having been condemned to death, had escaped from prison by changing dress with his wife. Wilson passed the barriers in a cabriolet with Lavalette disguised as a British Officer, and conveyed him safely to Mons. He sent a narrative of the adventure to Earl Grey (reprinted in Gent. Mag. 1816), which was intercepted. He was arrested in Paris on 13 Jan. The three Englishmen were tried in Paris on 2 April and sentenced on the 24th to three months' imprisonment (see Annual Register, 1816). On 10 May a general order was issued by the Duke of York, commander-in-chief, expressing the prince regent's high displeasure at the conduct of Wilson and Hutchinson.
In 1817 Wilson published ‘A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia,’ which went through several editions, and was severely attacked by the ‘Quarterly Review’ (vol. xix., September 1818). In 1818 Wilson was returned as member of parliament for Southwark, defeating Charles Barclay, the brewer, and on this occasion he replied to the attack of the ‘Quarterly Review’ in ‘A Letter to his Constituents in Refutation of a Charge for despatching a False Report of a Victory to the Commander-in-chief of the British Army in the Peninsula in 1809.’ In 1820 he was again returned for Southwark, defeating Sir Thomas Turton.
Queen Caroline (1768–1821) [q. v.], who had been friendly to Wilson and to whom his eldest son was equerry, died on 7 Aug. 1821. Wilson attended the funeral on the 14th, when an encounter took place between the household cavalry and the mob at Cumberland Gate, Hyde Park. Shots were fired, and Wilson interposed to prevent bloodshed. He was peremptorily dismissed from the army on 15 Sept. without any reason being assigned, or any opportunity of explanation afforded. Having purchased all but his first commission, he lost a large sum of money, and a subscription was raised to compensate him for the loss. On 13 Feb. 1822 in his place in parliament Wilson moved for papers, and in a long and able speech (see Hansard) vindicated his action, and called in question the prerogative of the crown to dismiss any officer without cause. The government, confining themselves to the questions of prerogative, easily defeated the motion. In 1823 Wilson went to Spain to take part in the war first in Galicia and then at Cadiz. He was again returned to parliament for Southwark in 1826, when the poll lasted six days, and he defeated Edward Polhill. He made a speech in the House of Commons on 12 Dec. on the policy of aiding Portugal when invaded by Spain, which was published separately. He was an active politician, and took a prominent part in the formation of the Canning ministry (see Wilson, Canning's Administration: Narrative of Formation, with Correspondence, &c., 1827, ed. Herbert Randolph, 1872, 8vo). He was again returned to parliament for Southwark in 1830. On the accession of William IV Wilson was reinstated in the army with the rank of lieutenant-general, to date from 27 May 1825 (London Gazette, 22 July 1830). The Reform Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 1 March 1831. Wilson regarded it as ‘the initiatory measure of a republican form of government,’ and in consequence, in spite of great pressure, refused to vote with the government and resigned his seat, losing for a time the colonelcy of a regiment and all opportunities of useful employment.
On 29 Dec. 1835 Wilson was appointed colonel of his old regiment, the 15th hussars. On 23 Nov. 1841 he was promoted to be general, and in 1842 he was appointed governor and commander-in-chief at Gibraltar. He had only recently returned home when he died suddenly on 9 May 1849 at Marshall Thompson's hotel, Oxford Street, London. He was buried on 15 May beside his wife in the north aisle near the western entrance of Westminster Abbey, and a fine memorial brass, next to the grave of John Hunter, marks the vault (for will cf. Chester, Westminster Abbey Register, p. 513).
Wilson married Jemima (1777–1823), daughter of Colonel William Belford of Harbledown, Kent, eldest son of General William Belford [q. v.] of the royal artillery. She was coheiress with her sister, Mrs. Christopher Carleton, of their uncle, Sir Adam Williamson [q. v.] Both Wilson and Miss Belford were wards of chancery and under age, and the marriage ceremony, with the consent of both families, took place on 8 July 1797 at Gretna Green and again on 10 March 1798 at St. George's, Hanover Square, London. They had a family of seven sons and six daughters. Of the latter, Jemima married, as his second wife, Admiral Sir Provo William Parry Wallis [q. v.]
There are several engraved portraits of Wilson; one by Ward, from a painting by Pickersgill, represents him in uniform with all his orders; another is by Cooper after Wivell. A miniature was painted by Cosway and engraved by William Holl, and is reproduced for the frontispiece of Randolph's ‘Life.’ He also figures in the well-known painting of the death of Abercromby.
The following are works by Wilson not mentioned above: 1. ‘An Account of the Campaign in 1801 between the French Army of the East and the English and Turkish Forces in Egypt,’ translated by Wilson from the French of General Regnier, with observations, London, 1802, 8vo. 2. ‘Narrative of Events during the Invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte and the Retreat of the French Army,’ 1812, edited by Wilson's nephew and son-in-law the Rev. Herbert Randolph, London, 1860, 8vo. The introduction gives a brief memoir of Wilson up to 1814; 2nd edit. the same year. 3. ‘Private Diary of Travels, Personal Services, and Public Events during Missions and Employment with the European Armies in the Campaigns of 1812, 1813, and 1814, from the Invasion of Russia to the Capture of Paris,’ edited by the same, London, 1861, 2 vols. 8vo. 4. ‘Life from Autobiographical Memoirs, Journals, Narratives, Correspondence,’ &c., edited by the same, London, 1863, 2 vols. 8vo. This work was never completed, and stops at the end of 1807.[Besides the materials for a biography supplied by Wilson himself in his works, and in election and other pamphlets, see especially A Letter in reply to Wilson's Enquiry, 1804; Forgues's Guerre de Russie en 1812, 1861; Dupin's Procès des trois Anglais, 1816; Nightingale's Trial of Sir R. Wilson, &c., 1816; see also War Office Records; Despatches; Alison's History of Europe (frequent allusions); Alison's Lives of Lord Castlereagh and Sir Charles Stewart (frequent allusions); Quarterly Review, vols. v. xiii. xvi. xvii. and xix.; Gent. Mag. 1816, 1822, and 1849; Ann. Reg. 1816, 1822, 1830, 1849; Blackwood's Mag. vols. viii. xiv. xvi. xxi. xxii. and xxviii.; Hall's Atlantic Monthly, April 1865; Mayne's Narrative of the Campaigns of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion under Sir R. Wilson, &c., 1812, 8vo; Public Characters, 1806–7, vol. ix.; Burke's Celebrated Naval and Military Trials; Royal Military Calendar, 1820; Royal Military Chronicle, vols. iii. and v.; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. vols. viii. and ix. 5th ser. vols. i. ii. iii. and v.; Tait's Edinburgh Mag. 1849 (obituary notice); Lavalette's Memoires et Souvenirs; London Times, 10 May 1849; Cathcart's Commentaries on the War in Russia and Germany, 1812–13; Londonderry's Narrative of the War in Germany and France, 1813–14; Odleben's Campaign in Saxony, 1813, translated by Kempe; Phillippart's Northern Campaign, 1812–13; Porter's Campaign in Russia in 1812; Walsh's Campaign in Egypt, 1801; Anderson's Journal of the Expedition to Egypt, 1801; Gleig's Leipsic Campaign.]