Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Napier, William Francis Patrick
NAPIER, Sir WILLIAM FRANCIS PATRICK (1785–1860), general and historian of the Peninsular war, born at Celbridge, co. Kildare, on 17 Dec. 1785, was third son of Colonel the Hon. George Napier [q. v.] and of Lady Sarah Bunbury, seventh daughter of the second Duke of Richmond. His father was sixth son of Francis, fifth lord Napier. His brothers, Charles James [q. v.], George Thomas [q. v.], and Henry Edward [q. v.], are noticed separately. Admiral Sir Charles Napier [q. v.] was his first-cousin. William received some education at a grammar school at Celbridge, but mainly spent his youth in field sports and manly exercises. When the insurrection of 1798 broke out, Colonel Napier armed his five sons and put his house in a state of defence. At the early age of fourteen William received his first commission as ensign in the Royal Irish artillery, on 14 June 1800. He was soon after transferred to the 62nd regiment. He was promoted lieutenant on 18 April 1801, and reduced to half-pay at the treaty of Amiens in March 1802. A few months later his uncle, the Duke of Richmond, brought him into the ‘Blues,’ and Napier joined the troop, then stationed at Canterbury, of Captain Robert Hill, brother of Lord Hill.
In 1803 Sir John Moore (1761–1809) [q. v.], who was forming his celebrated experimental brigade at Shorncliffe, proposed that Napier should take a lieutenancy in the 52nd regiment, at which young Napier caught eagerly. Moore was pleased by his readiness to learn his profession in earnest, and, on 2 June 1804, obtained for him a company in a West India regiment, whence he caused him to be removed into a battalion of the army of reserve, and finally secured for him, on 11 Aug., the post of ninth captain of the 43rd regiment, belonging to Moore's own brigade. Napier threw himself into his duties with ardour, and his company was soon second to none.
At this time Napier was exceptionally handsome, high-spirited, and robust. Six feet high, and of athletic build, he excelled in outdoor exercises, while his memory was unusually retentive, and he had a rare facility for rapid reading. In 1804 he made the acquaintance of Pitt, on the introduction of the latter's nephew, Charles Stanhope, an officer of Napier's regiment. He spent some time at Pitt's house at Putney, where he was treated with great kindness by Lady Hester Stanhope, and the great man was wont to unbend and engage in practical jokes with the two young officers. In 1806 Napier was selected to procure volunteers from the Irish militia to serve in the line. In 1807 he accompanied his regiment in the expedition against Copenhagen, was present at the siege, and afterwards marched under Sir Arthur Wellesley to attack the Danish levies assembled in the rear of the besieging force. He took part in the battle of Kioge, and in the subsequent pursuit of the enemy. On the return of the 43rd from Denmark in November, Napier accompanied the regiment to Maldon, and in the summer of 1808 moved to Colchester.
On 13 Sept. 1808 he embarked with his regiment at Harwich for Spain, and arrived at Coruña on 13 Oct. He reached Villa Franca on 9 Nov., and took part in the campaign of Sir John Moore. Napier's company and that of his friend Captain Lloyd were employed in the rear-guard to delay the French pursuit by destroying the communications. Napier spent two days and nights without relief at the bridge of Castro Gonzalo on the Esla river, half his men working at the demolition, and the other half protecting the workmen from the enemy's cavalry. Then he retired to Benavente, and to regain the army had to make a forced march of thirty miles. During the subsequent retreat to Vigo, Napier was charged with the care of a large convoy of sick and wounded men and of stores, with which he crossed the mountain between Orense and Vigo without loss; but the hardship suffered during this retreat, in which he marched for several days with bare and bleeding feet, and only a jacket and pair of linen trousers for clothes, threw him into a fever which nearly proved fatal, and permanently weakened his constitution.
On his return home in February 1809 Napier was appointed aide-de-camp to his uncle, the Duke of Richmond, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, but gave up the appointment to go with his regiment to Portugal in May. On the march to Talavera he was attacked with pleurisy, and was left behind at Placentia; but, hearing that the army had been defeated, and that the French, under Soult, were closing on Placentia, he got out of bed, walked forty-eight miles to Oropesa, and, there getting post-horses, rode to Talavera to join the army. He fell from his horse at the gate of Talavera, but was succoured by an officer of the 45th regiment. He was soon carried off by his brother George to the light division at the outposts of the army, and was afterwards in quarters at Campo Mayor, where his regiment in six weeks lost 150 men by the Guadiana fever.
At the fight on the Coa in July 1810, Napier highly distinguished himself. On the occasion General Robert Craufurd [q. v.], with five thousand men and six guns, stood to receive the attack of thirty thousand French, having a steep ravine and river in his rear, and only one bridge for retreat. Napier rallied his company under a heavy fire, and thereby gave time to gather a force to cover the passage of the broken troops over the bridge. He received on the field the thanks of his commanding officer. His company lost thirty-five men killed and wounded out of the three hundred, the loss in the whole division. Towards the end of the action he was shot in the left hip; but the bone was not broken, and, although suffering considerably, he continued with his regiment until the battle of Busaco, 27 Sept. 1810, where both his brothers were wounded. He took part in the actions of Pombal and Redinha. At the combat of Casal Novo on 14 March 1811, during Massena's retreat, Napier was dangerously wounded when at the head of six companies supporting the 52nd regiment, and his brother George had his arm broken by a bullet. It was after this fight that his brother Charles, hastening to the front with the wound that he himself had received at Busaco unhealed, met the litters carrying his two wounded brothers, and was informed that William was mortally injured. Napier rejoined the army with a bullet near his spine and his wound still open. He was appointed brigade major to the Portuguese brigade of the light division. He took part in the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro on 5 May 1811, and on the 30th was promoted brevet-major for his services. He continued to serve until after the raising of the second siege of Badajos, when he was attacked by fever. Ill as he was, he would not quit the army until Lord Wellington directed his brother to take him to Lisbon in a headquarter calèche. Wellington took a great interest in the Napiers, and himself wrote to acquaint their mother whenever they were wounded. From Lisbon in the autumn of 1811 Napier was sent to England, and in February 1812 he married Caroline Amelia, daughter of General the Hon. Henry Fox and niece of the statesman.
Three weeks after his marriage Napier sailed again for Portugal, on hearing that Badajos was besieged. Before he reached Lisbon Badajos was taken, 6 April 1812, and his dearest friend, Lieutenant-colonel Charles Macleod of the 43rd regiment, had been killed in the breach. Napier was deeply affected by this loss. He took command of his regiment as the senior officer, having become a regimental major on 14 May 1812. At the battle of Salamanca on 23 July 1812, the 43rd, with Napier at its head, led the heavy column employed to drive back Foy's division and seize the ford of Huerta. Napier rode in front of the regiment, which advanced in line for a distance of three miles under a constant cannonade, keeping as good a line as at a review. After Salamanca Wellington with his victorious army entered Madrid on 12 Aug., and here Napier remained with his regiment until the siege of Burgos was raised, when the 43rd joined the army on its retreat into Portugal.
Napier obtained leave to go to England in January 1813, and remained at home until August, when he rejoined his regiment in the Peninsula as regimental major. He landed at Passages, and found the 43rd regiment at the camp above Vera, in the Pyrenees. On 10 Nov., at the battle of the Nivelle, Colonel Hearn fell sick, and the command of the regiment devolved upon Napier, who was directed to storm the hog's back of the smaller Rhune mountain. This position had been entrenched by six weeks' continuous labour on the part of the enemy. Napier and the 43rd carried it with great gallantry. When Lord Wellington forced the passage of the Nive, the light division, in which was the 43rd regiment, remained on the left bank, and on 10 Dec. the divisions on the left bank were suddenly attacked by Soult. Napier and the 43rd were on picquet duty in front, and fortunately detected suspicious movements of the enemy, so that General Kempt was prepared. When the picquet was attacked, Napier withdrew without the loss of a man to the church of Arcangues, the defence of which had been assigned to him. Here he was twice wounded; but he continued to defend the church and churchyard until the 13th, when the fighting terminated by Lord Hill's victory at St. Pierre. Napier was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel on 22 Nov. 1813.
Napier was present at the battle of Orthez on 27 Feb. 1814, but his wounds and ill-health afterwards compelled him to go to England. On his recovery from a protracted illness he joined the military college at Farnham, where his brother Charles was also studying. On the return of Napoleon from Elba, Napier made arrangements to rejoin his regiment, and embarked at Dover on 18 June 1815, too late for Waterloo. He accompanied the army to Paris. Napier, with the 43rd, was quartered at Bapaume and Valenciennes. On the return home of the army of occupation, the regiment was sent to Belfast. Want of means to purchase the regimental lieutenant-colonelcy of his regiment determined Napier to go on half-pay, and he accordingly retired from the active list at the end of 1819. He received from the officers of the 43rd a very handsome sword, with a flattering inscription, and was granted the gold medal and two clasps for Salamanca, Nivelle, and Nive, and the silver medal with three clasps for Busaco, Fuentes d'Onoro, and Orthez. He was also made a C.B.
Napier took a house in Sloane Street, London, and devoted himself to painting and sculpture, for which he had considerable talent, spending much of his time with the sculptor Chantrey, George Jones, R.A., Mr. Bickersteth (afterwards Lord Langdale), and several old friends of the Peninsula. He contributed to periodical literature and wrote an able article which appeared in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ in 1821 on Jomini's ‘Principes de la Guerre.’ In connection with this contribution he visited Edinburgh, where he made the acquaintance of Jeffrey and other literary celebrities. He also visited Paris with Bickersteth, and was introduced to Soult.
In 1823, on the suggestion of Lord Langdale, Napier decided to write a ‘History of the Peninsular War.’ He lost no time in collecting materials. He went for some time to Paris, where he consulted Soult, and then to Strathfieldsaye, to be near the Duke of Wellington. The duke handed over to him the whole of Joseph Bonaparte's correspondence which had been taken at the battle of Vittoria, and which was deciphered with infinite patience by Mrs. Napier.
In the autumn of 1826 Napier moved with his family to Battle House, Bromham, near Devizes. Here he was only a quarter of a mile from Sloperton, the residence of the well-known poet, Thomas Moore, and a warm friendship sprang up between the two families. At the end of 1831 he settled at Freshford, near Bath.
In the spring of 1828 the first volume of his ‘History’ was published, and Napier found himself at a bound placed high among historical writers. The proofs were sent to Marshal Soult, who had arranged that Count Dumas should make a French translation. Although the book was well received, John Murray the publisher lost money by it, and would not undertake the publication of the second volume on the same terms. Napier determined to publish the remainder of the work on his own account. The second volume appeared in 1829, when he had a very large subscription list. The third volume was issued in 1831. Early in 1834 the fourth volume was published, and the description of the battle of Albuera and the sieges of Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo elicited unqualified admiration. Towards the end of 1836 Napier was introduced to the King of Oude's minister, then in London, who told him that his master had desired him to translate six works into Persian for him, and that Napier's ‘History’ was one. In the spring of 1840 Napier completed his ‘History’ by the publication of the sixth volume. The French translation by Count Mathieu Dumas was completed shortly after, and translations appeared in Spanish, Italian, and German. The work steadily grew in popularity, and has become a classic of the English language, while the previous attempts of Captain Hamilton, of Southey, and of Lord Londonderry have been completely forgotten. It is commended to the general reader no less by its impartial admiration for the heroes on both sides than by the spontaneity of its style. Its accuracy was the more firmly established by the inevitable attacks of actors in the scenes described, who thought the parts they had played undervalued.
Napier was promoted colonel on 22 July 1830. In April 1831 he declined, on account of his ill-health, his large family, and his small means, an offer of a seat in parliament from Sir Francis Burdett. Other offers came in succeeding years from Bath, Devizes, Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham, Westminster, Oldham, and Kendal, but Napier declined them all. Nevertheless, he took great interest in politics. He was extremely democratic in his views, and spoke with great effect at public meetings. Owing to the wide influence exerted by his speeches, the younger and more determined reformers thought in 1831 that Napier was well fitted to assume the leadership of a movement to establish a national guard whereby to secure the success of the political changes then advocated by the radicals, and to save the country from the dangers of insurrection. Burdett was the president of the movement, and both Erskine Perry and Charles Buller wrote to Napier pressing him to undertake the military leadership. Napier refused. ‘A military leader in civil commotions,’ he said, ‘should be in good health, and free from personalties. I am in bad health, and I have a family of eight children.’
An insatiable controversialist, Napier, in letters to the daily papers or in pamphlets, waged incessant warfare with those who dissented from his views, besides writing many critical articles on historical or military topics. In 1832 Napier had published a pamphlet, ‘Observations illustrating Sir John Moore's Campaign,’ in answer to remarks on Moore which appeared in Major Moyle Sherer's ‘Recollections in the Peninsula.’ Napier offered to insert, as an appendix to his ‘History,’ any reply Major Sherer might desire to make. The offer was declined. Napier entered the lists on every occasion against the real or supposed enemies of Sir John Moore; and when a biography, written by Moore's brother, appeared, Napier expressed his dissatisfaction with it in a severe article on it in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for April 1834.
In the summer of 1838 Marshal Soult visited England as the representative of Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Napier wrote a very warm letter to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ in defence of the marshal, who had been attacked in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and he accompanied Soult on a tour to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and other places. In December Napier defended, in a letter to the ‘Times,’ the character and intellect of Lady Hester Stanhope. Lady Hester appreciated his intervention, and a long and kindly correspondence ensued. During 1839 the Chartist agitation reached its climax in the deplorable Bull-ring riots at Birmingham. Napier regarded these proceedings with abhorrence; but in a letter to the Duke of Wellington he expressed the belief that the rioters were treated with a severity unjustifiable in a whig government, which, as he thought, had been ready to avail itself of the excesses of the people for its own advantage in 1832.
On 29 May 1841 Napier was given a special grant of 150l. per annum for his distinguished services. On 23 Nov. he was promoted major-general, and in February 1842 was appointed lieutenant-governor of Guernsey and major-general commanding the troops in Guernsey and Alderney. He landed at Guernsey on 6 April, and threw himself into his new duties heart and soul; but he found much to discourage him. The defences were wretched, the militia wanted complete reorganisation, and the administration of justice was scandalous. In the five years of his government, despite local obstruction, he devised a scheme of defence which was generally accepted by a special committee from London of artillery and engineer officers, and was partially executed. He reorganised and rearmed the militia. He powerfully influenced the states of the island to adopt a new constitution, by which feuds between the country and town parties, which had lasted eighty years and impeded improvement, were set at rest. Finally, he procured the appointment of a royal commission of inquiry into the civil and criminal laws of the island, whose recommendations tended to remove the evils in the administration of justice.
At Guernsey he devoted his spare time to writing a history of the ‘Conquest of Scinde,’ the achievement in which his brother Charles had recently been engaged. On the return of Lord Ellenborough from India he wrote, offering to publish the political part of the history first, and after some correspondence which established a lifelong friendship between him and Ellenborough, this was done. In November 1844 the first part was published, and was read by the public with avidity; but, as with the ‘History of the Peninsular War,’ it involved Napier in endless controversy. There was this difference, however: the ‘History of the Conquest of Scinde’ was written with a purpose. It was not only the history of Sind, but the defence of a brother who had been cruelly misrepresented. The descriptions of the battles are not surpassed by any in the Peninsular war, but the calmness and impartiality of the historian are too often wanting. The publication of the second part of the ‘Conquest of Scinde’ in 1846 drew upon him further attacks, and the strength of his language in reply often exceeded conventional usage.
At the end of 1847 Napier resigned his appointment as lieutenant-governor of Guernsey. In February 1848 he was given the colonelcy of the 27th regiment of foot, and in May he was made a K.C.B. In the same year Napier wrote some ‘Notes on the State of Europe.’ Towards the end of 1848 the Liverpool Financial Reform Association published some tracts attacking the system by which the soldiers of the army were clothed through the medium of the colonels of regiments. The association sent its tracts to Napier, himself a clothing colonel, upon which he wrote a series of six vindicatory letters to the ‘Times’ newspaper, dating 29 Dec. 1848 to 1 Feb. 1849. They form Appendix VII. to Bruce's ‘Life of General Sir William Napier.’
Napier moved in 1849 with his family to Scinde House, Clapham Park, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1850 his brother Charles, then commander-in-chief in India, resigned his command because he had been censured by Lord Dalhousie. He arrived in England in March 1851. Napier was indignant, and, after Sir Charles Napier's death, defended him in a pamphlet.
In 1851 Napier completed and published the ‘History of the Administration of Scinde.’ This work, recording the gradual introduction of good government into the country, contains some masterly narratives of the hill campaigns. In 1856 Carlyle read it, and wrote to Napier: ‘There is a great talent in this book, apart from its subject. The narrative moves on with strong, weighty step, like a marching phalanx, with the gleam of clear steel in them.’
When the Birkenhead transport went down in Simon's Bay, Cape of Good Hope, Napier, impressed with the heroism of the officers, and seeing no step taken to reward the survivors, wrote letters to every member of parliament he knew in both houses. The result was that Henry Drummond brought the matter before the House of Commons, and the two surviving officers were promoted and all the survivors received pecuniary compensation for their losses.
Napier was much affected by the death of the Duke of Wellington in September 1852. He was one of the general officers selected to carry banderoles at the funeral. He watched at the death-bed of his brother Charles in August 1853, and succeeded him in the colonelcy of the 22nd regiment. He had been promoted lieutenant-general on 11 Nov. 1851. On 13 Oct. 1853 followed the death of his brother Henry, captain in the royal navy. Napier solaced himself in his grief by preparing for the press the book which Charles had left not quite completed, viz. ‘Defects, Civil and Military, of the Indian Government,’ and by commencing the story of Charles's life, which he published in 1857. The work is that of a partisan.
During 1857 and 1858 Napier became increasingly feeble. He had long been unable to walk. In October 1858 he had a violent paroxysm of illness, and, although he rallied, he never recovered. He was promoted general on 17 Oct. 1859, and died on 10 Feb. 1860. He was buried at Norwood. His wife survived him only six weeks. She was a woman of great intellectual power, and assisted her husband in his literary labours.
His only son, John, was deaf and dumb, but held a clerkship in the quartermaster-general's office at Dublin. His second surviving daughter married in 1836 the Earl of Arran. The third daughter died on 8 Sept. 1856. In 1846 his fifth daughter married Philip Miles, esq., M.P., of Bristol. His youngest daughter, Norah, married, in August 1854, H. A. Bruce, afterwards Lord Aberdare and Napier's biographer.
Napier was noble and generous by nature, resembling his brother Charles in hatred of oppression and wrong, in a chivalrous defence of the weak, and a warm and active benevolence. He was an eloquent public speaker, but sometimes formed his judgments too hastily. He had a great love of art, and was no mean artist. His statuette of Alcibiades, in virtue of which he was made an honorary member of the Royal Academy, received the warm praise of Chantrey. When at Strathfieldsaye, obtaining information from the Duke of Wellington for his ‘History,’ he copied some of the paintings very successfully, and made two very fine paintings of the duke's horse Blanco. The activity of his mind to the very last was extraordinary, considering the helpless state of his body. He was one of the first to advocate the right of the private soldier to share in the honours as he had done in the dangers of the battlefield. On the south side of the entrance to the north transept of St. Paul's Cathedral is a statue by G. G. Adams of Napier, with the simple inscription of his name, and the words, ‘Historian of the Peninsular War.’ On the other side of the entrance is a statue of his brother Charles. A portrait in crayons, by Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., is in the possession of Napier's son-in-law, Lord Aberdare.
Napier's chief works are: 1. ‘History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France from the year 1807 to the year 1814,’ including answers to some attacks in Robinson's ‘Life of Picton’ and in the ‘Quarterly Review;’ with counter-remarks to Mr. D. M. Perceval's ‘Remarks,’ &c.; justificatory pieces in reply to Colonel Gurwood, Mr. Alison, Sir W. Scott, Lord Beresford, and the ‘Quarterly Review,’ 6 vols. London, 1828–40, 8vo; 2nd edit., to which is prefixed a ‘Reply to Various Opponents, together with Observations illustrating Sir John Moore's Campaign,’ vols. i. to iii., London, 1832–3, 8vo. No more appears to have been published of this edition; 3rd edit. of vols. i. to iii., London, 1835–40, 8vo; 4th edit. of vol. i., London, 1848, 8vo. A new revised edition, in 6 vols., appeared in London, 1851, 8vo; another edition, 3 vols. London and New York, 1877–82. Various epitomes and abridgments of the ‘History’ have appeared, the most valuable being Napier's own ‘English Battles and Sieges in the Peninsula,’ 1852, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1855. 2. ‘The Conquest of Scinde, with some Introductory Passages in the Life of Major-general Sir Charles James Napier,’ &c., 2 vols. London, 1845, 8vo. 3. ‘History of Sir Charles Napier's Administration of Scinde and Campaign in the Cutchee Hills,’ with maps and illustration, London, 1851, 8vo. 4. ‘The Life and Opinions of General Sir C. J. Napier,’ 4 vols. London, 1857, 8vo; 2nd edition same year. In addition Napier wrote innumerable controversial pamphlets and articles in the ‘Times’ and other newspapers. He contributed ‘an explanation of the Battle of Meanee’ to the tenth volume of the ‘Professional Papers of the Royal Engineers’ (1844).[The main authority is Bruce's (Lord Aberdare's) Life of General Sir W. F. P. Napier, with portraits, 2 vols. London, 1864; but War Office Records and Despatches have been consulted for this article. The controversies excited by Napier's writings are mainly dealt with in the following works:—Smythe's Lord Strangford: Observations on some passages in Lieutenant-colonel Napier's Hist. of the Peninsular War, 1828; Further Observations occasioned by Lieutenant-colonel Napier's Reply, &c., 1828; Sorell's Notes of the Campaign of 1808–9 in the North of Spain in reference to some passages in Lieutenant-colonel Napier's History of the War in the Peninsula, 1828; Strictures on Certain Passages of Lieutenant-colonel Napier's History of the Peninsular War which relate to the Military Opinions and Conduct of General Lord Viscount Strangford, 1831; Further Strictures on those parts of Colonel Napier's History of the Peninsular War which relate to Viscount Beresford, to which is added a Report of the Operations in the Alemtejo and Spanish Estramadura during the Campaign of 1811, by Sir B. D'Urban, 1832; Gurwood's Major-general Gurwood and Colonel Gurwood, 1845; Reviews of the work entitled ‘The Conquest of Scinde’ … by … W. F. P. Napier, &c. (republished from the ‘Bombay Monthly Times’ of March 1845), Bombay, 1845, 8vo; The Scinde Policy—a few Comments on Major-general W. F. P. Napier's Defence of Lord Ellenborough's Government, 1845; Perceval's Remarks on the Character ascribed by Colonel Napier in his History of the War in the Peninsula to the late Right Hon. Spencer Perceval; Beresford's Refutation of Colonel Napier's Justification of his Third Volume, 1834; Long's Reply to the Misrepresentations and Aspersions on the Military Reputation of the late Lieutenant-general R. B. Long, contained in Further Strictures on those parts of Colonel Napier's History of the Peninsular War which relate to Viscount Beresford, &c., 1832; Buist's Correction of a few of the Errors contained in Sir W. Napier's Life of Sir C. Napier, 1857; Cruikshank's (the Elder) A Pop-gun fired off by George Cruikshank in defence of the British Volunteers of 1803 against the uncivil attack upon that body by General Sir William Napier, 1860; Holmes's Four Famous Soldiers, 1889. An admirable criticism of Napier's History, in which Napier is described as the compeer of Thucydides, Cæsar, and Davila, was contributed by Mr. Morse Stephens to the 9th edit. of the Encyclopædia Britannica.]