Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erskine, William (1769-1813)

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ERSKINE, Sir WILLIAM (1769–1813), major-general, was the only son of William Erskine of Torry, Fifeshire, whose father, Colonel the Hon. William Erskine, was deputy governor of Blackness Castle, and elder son of David Erskine, second lord Cardross, by his second wife, Mary, daughter of Sir George Bruce of Carnock. He was born in 1769, entered the army as a cornet in the 15th light dragoons in 1786, and was promoted lieutenant in 1788, and captain on 23 Feb. 1791. He was created a baronet on 21 June 1791, and first saw service in the campaigns of the Duke of York in Flanders in 1793–5. He was one of the officers who saved the Emperor Leopold by their famous charge with part of the 15th light dragoons at Villiers-en-Couche in May 1793, and received the order of Maria Theresa with them, was promoted major in his regiment in June, and lieutenant-colonel on 14 Dec. 1794. After his return to England he was elected M.P. for the county of Fife in 1796, went on half-pay in 1798, was promoted colonel of the 14th garrison battalion on 1 Jan. 1801, was re-elected M.P. in 1802, and again placed on half-pay in 1803 on the reduction of his battalion. He did not again stand for parliament in 1806, and applied repeatedly for active employment. He was promoted major-general on 25 April 1808, and in the following year joined Lord Wellington's army in the Peninsula, and took command of a brigade of cavalry. Wellington believed him to be an officer of real ability, and when Major-general Robert Craufurd went home invalided from the lines of Torres Vedras he gave Erskine the temporary command of the light division. A more unfortunate choice could not have been made. Erskine was brave to a fault, and his recklessness during the pursuit after Masséna in the spring of 1811 nearly ruined the light division on more than one occasion. At Sabugal, in particular, he launched his battalions at the retreating enemy in a fog, and it was only by the skill of his brigadiers, Barnard and Beckwith, that a great disaster was averted; for when the fog lifted Ney was found with his whole corps d'armée in an exceedingly strong position. When Craufurd returned, Erskine was transferred to the command of the cavalry attached to the southern force under the command of Sir Rowland Hill, in succession to General Long. He was selected with Picton, Leith, and Cole for the rank of local lieutenant-general in Spain and in Portugal in September 1811. He commanded Hill's cavalry in his advance on Madrid in 1812 after the victory of Salamanca, and covered his retreat when he had to retire from Andalusia, coincidently with Wellington's retreat from Burgos. Erskine had already shown several signs of insanity during this period, and at last it became so obvious that he was ordered to leave the army. On 14 May 1813 he threw himself from a window in Lisbon, and was killed on the spot. As he died unmarried, his baronetcy of Torry became extinct.

[Burke's Extinct Baronetage; Army Lists; Napier's Peninsular War; Cope's History of the Rifle Brigade; Larpent's Journal in the Peninsula.]

H. M. S.