Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Neill, James George Smith

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NEILL, JAMES GEORGE SMITH (1810–1857), colonel and brigadier-general, eldest son of Colonel Neill of Burnweill and Swendridge Muir, Ayrshire, was born in the neighbourhood of Ayr on 27 May 1810. He was educated at Ayr and at Glasgow University. He obtained an army cadetship in the East India Company's service, and arrived at Madras on 1 June 1827. Sir Thomas Munro [q. v.], governor of the Madras presidency, who had married a relative of Neill, took kindly notice of the boy, and he was posted on 5 June, with date as ensign of 5 Dec. 1826, to the Madras first European regiment, then quartered at Machlipatnam. He was promoted lieutenant on 7 Nov. 1828. He was appointed fort adjutant at Machlipatnam on 15 Sept. 1829, and held the office until the regiment marched to Kampti. On 1 May 1831 he was made quartermaster and interpreter to the right wing of his regiment at Kampti. On 7 March 1834 he was nominated adjutant of his regiment, and was afterwards selected to command the escort of the resident of Nagpúr.

On 1 Jan. 1837 he left Kolikod on sick furlough to Europe. He returned to Madras on 25 July 1839, before the expiration of his furlough, in the hope of being employed in the operations in Afghanistan; but in this he was disappointed.

On 23 March 1841 he was appointed to the general staff as deputy assistant adjutant-general in the ceded districts. While holding this appointment he wrote a short account of the history of his regiment, which was published in 1843 under the title of ‘Historical Record of the Madras European Regiment.’ On 5 Jan. 1842 he was promoted brevet captain, and on 25 June he was made aide-de-camp to Major-general Woulfe. Neill was promoted captain (regimental) on 2 Jan. 1843, and major on 25 March 1850.

When the second Burmese war broke out in 1852, Neill threw up his staff appointment and hastened to rejoin his regiment, which had been ordered to the seat of war. On his way he was met by the announcement that he had been appointed to the staff of Sir Scudamore Steele, commanding the Madras troops in Burmah, as deputy assistant adjutant-general. He did admirable work all through the campaign. On the conclusion of the war he was left at Rangoon in command of the Madras troops, and was actively employed under Sir John Cheape [q. v.] in suppressing insurrections near Thurygyeen, Bassein, and elsewhere. Constant exposure and hard work in a bad climate brought on fever, which nearly proved fatal; but he recovered, and was sent to England, arriving in June 1854. For his services in the Burmah war he was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel on 9 Dec. 1853.

When the war with Russia commenced, General (afterwards Sir) Robert Vivian, who had been adjutant-general of the Madras army, was selected to command the Anglo-Turkish force, called the Turkish contingent, and Neill was appointed his second in command. He was given the rank of colonel on the staff, and went to Constantinople in April 1855. On his arrival he was appointed to command a division stationed in camp at Buyukdere, on the Bosphorus, where he remained till July, bringing the force under his command into a state of efficiency and discipline. Owing to the excesses of the Bashi-Bazoukhs, commanded by General Beatson, a military commission, composed partly of British officers and partly of Turkish officials, was appointed, with Neill as president, to inquire into the outrages. The commission was opened on 27 July at the embassy, and full powers were given to it to try and to punish the offenders. Severe and immediate punishment for plunder was administered, and soon produced good effects, while Neill reported that the excesses committed were due to lax discipline, and indicated what steps should be taken to amend it. Neill received the thanks of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, the ambassador, who directed General Beatson either to adopt Neill's recommendations or adhere to the resolution he had announced of resigning his command.

Neill displayed considerable ability in organising and reforming the Turkish contingent. He was determined to have no officers that were not fit for the work, and got rid of no less than twelve officers, including a brigadier-general, three lieutenant-colonels, and three majors. On the conclusion of the war Neill returned home, and, after spending the remainder of his leave with his family, sailed for India again on 20 Feb. 1857, arriving in Madras on 29 March. His regiment was away in the Persian Gulf, forming part of the expedition under Sir James Outram [q. v.] He was preparing to start for Bushire to join it when, on 6 April, intelligence arrived that the war with Persia was over, and on 20 April the Madras fusiliers reached Madras. Colonel Stevenson, who was in command, left for England on sick leave on the 28th, and Neill took over command of the regiment.

On 16 May news came from Calcutta that the troops at Mirat and Delhi had mutinied, and Northern India was in a blaze. Neill embarked his regiment at once, fully equipped for service, in accordance with instructions received, and arrived at Calcutta on 23 May. They were ‘entrained’ by detachments en route for Banáras.

Neill arrived at Banáras on 3 June 1857. The following day the 37th native infantry and a Sikh regiment mutinied. They were attacked and dispersed by the artillery, some of the 10th foot and of the Madras fusiliers. Thrice the rebels charged the guns, and thrice were driven back with grape shot; then they wavered and fled. Never was rout so complete. Brigadier-general Ponsonby, who was in command, was incapacitated by sunstroke, and Neill assumed the command. He was duly confirmed in the appointment as brigadier-general to command the Haidarabád contingent. His attention was at once called to Allahabád, where the 6th native infantry mutinied on 5 June and massacred their officers. The fort still remained in our hands, but was threatened from without by the mutineers, who were preparing to invest the place, while the fidelity of the Sikh troops within was doubtful. Neill at once despatched fifty men of the Madras fusiliers to Allahabád by forced marches. They arrived the following day (6th), and found the bridge in the hands of the enemy, but got in by a steamer sent from the fort for them. Another detachment sent by Neill arrived on the 9th, and on the 11th Neill himself, having made over the command at Banáras to Colonel Gordon, appeared with a further reinforcement of forty men. Neill experienced considerable difficulty in getting into Allahabád. He was nearly cut off en route from Banáras, and when he got near Allahabád it was blazing forenoon. A boat was obtained by stealing it from the rebels, and Neill and his men had to wade a mile through burning sand in the hot sun. Two of his men died in the boat of sunstroke. Neill's energetic measures soon altered the position of affairs. The heat was terrific, but Neill on 12 June recovered the bridge and secured a safe passage for another detachment of a hundred men of the fusiliers from Banáras. On the 13th he opened fire on the enemy in the adjacent villages, and on the 14th, a further detachment of fusiliers having arrived, the Sikh corps was moved outside the fort, and with it all immediate remaining danger.

On the evening of the 14th and during the 15th he continued to fire on the enemy in the villages adjoining. He also sent a steamer, with some gunners, a howitzer, and twenty picked shots of the fusiliers, up the Jamna. They did a great deal of execution. The Sikhs, supported by a party of the fusiliers, cleared the villages of Kaidganj and Matinganj. The insurgents were thoroughly beaten. The Moulavie fled, and the ringleaders dispersed. ‘At Allahabad,’ wrote Lord Canning to the chairman of the East India Company, ‘the 6th regiment has mutinied, and fearful atrocities were committed by the people on Europeans outside the fort. But the fort has been saved. Colonel Neill, with nearly three hundred European fusiliers, is established in it; and that point, the most precious in India at this moment, and for many years the one most neglected, is safe, thank God. A column will collect there (with all the speed which the means of conveyance will allow of), which Brigadier Havelock, just returned from Persia, will command.’ Before Havelock came, cholera suddenly appeared. It did not last long, but within three days carried off fifty men. Neill set to work energetically to equip a small force to push into Cawnpore to relieve Wheeler; he also collected guns and material for a large force to follow. For his services at Allahabád he was promoted colonel in the army and appointed aide-de-camp to the queen.

Havelock arrived on 30 June. The column which Neill had prepared for Cawnpore started under Major Renaud on 3 July. News had just arrived from Lucknow of the terrible tragedy enacted at Cawnpore, but it was not fully believed; at any rate, hopes were entertained that the story might be the invention of Nana Sahib. Captain Spurgin of the Madras fusiliers, with one hundred men and two guns, also left Allahabád on 3 July on board a river steamer to co-operate with Renaud. Havelock was delayed by want of bullocks for a few days, but finally left Allahabád on 7 July. Neill was left at Allahabád to reorganise another column. It was a great disappointment to Neill that, after his successes at Allahabád, he should be superseded by a senior officer; but he was somewhat consoled on 15 July by a telegram from the commander-in-chief directing him to hand over the command at Allahabád to the next senior officer, and to join Havelock as second in command. Neill reached Cawnpore in five days. His instructions were, to say the least, injudicious. They led him to think, rightly or wrongly, that the authorities had misgivings as to Havelock. and had complete confidence in him, while it led Havelock to regard Neill with some suspicion. On Neill's arrival at Cawnpore he was at once met by Havelock, who desired that there might be a complete understanding between them. Neill was to have no power nor authority while he was there, and was not to issue a single order. When Havelock marched on Lucknow he left Neill in command at Cawnpore.

One of Neill's first acts on assuming the command at Cawnpore was to inquire into the particulars of the dreadful tragedy. When he became aware of its full horror, he was determined to make such an example that it might be a warning to the mutineers at Lucknow and elsewhere. The following order was issued: ‘25 July 1857. The well, in which are the remains of the poor women and children so brutally murdered by this miscreant, the Nana, will be filled up, and neatly and decently covered over to form their grave; a party of European soldiers will do so this evening, under the superintendence of an officer. The house in which they were butchered, and which is stained with their blood, will not be washed nor cleaned by their countrymen; but Brigadier-general Neill has determined that every stain of that innocent blood shall be cleared up and wiped out, previous to their execution, by such of the miscreants as may be hereafter apprehended, who took an active part in the mutiny, to be selected according to their rank, caste, and degree of guilt. Each miscreant, after sentence of death is pronounced upon him, will be taken down to the house in question, under a guard, and will be forced into cleaning up a small portion of the bloodstains; the task will be made as revolting to his feelings as possible, and the provost marshal will use the lash in forcing any one objecting to complete his task. After properly cleaning up his portion the culprit is to be immediately hanged, and for this purpose a gallows will be erected close at hand.’ This was carried out. The sentence was severe, but ‘severity at the first,’ Neill wrote, ‘is mercy in the end.’

Neill had only three hundred infantry, half a battery of European artillery, and twelve veteran gunners with him in Cawnpore when Havelock endeavoured to advance to the relief of Lucknow. Neill's instructions were to endeavour to defend so much of the trunk road as was then in British possession in the neighbourhood of Cawnpore, to aid in maintaining Havelock's communications with Allahabád and with Cawnpore, to strengthen the defences on both sides of the river, to mount heavy guns in them, and to render the passage of the river secure by establishing, in co-operation with the two steamers, a boat communication from entrenchment to entrenchment. Havelock commenced the passage of the river on the 20th, but it took a week of labour and difficulty before the whole column was assembled on the Oudh bank. On the 29th Havelock advanced on Onao and routed the enemy. He gained another victory at Bashíratganj and then fell back on Mangalwár. On 31 July he informed Neill that he could not advance to Lucknow without further reinforcements, and desired Neill to furnish workmen to form a bridgehead on the Oudh bank, to collect rations for his troops, and get ready two 24-pounders to accompany his advance, and push across any British infantry so soon as they might arrive. Havelock no doubt was right to risk nothing in order to make sure of relieving Lucknow effectually, but his retrograde movement created bitter disappointment in Cawnpore, and Neill chafed so much under his mortifications that he wrote a very insubordinate letter to Havelock, complaining bitterly of his action. He received a severe reply. Havelock again pushed forward, but once more, after further successes in the field, felt compelled to await reinforcements before he could make good his advance upon Lucknow.

While Havelock was thus advancing and waiting, Neill was threatened at Cawnpore by large bodies of insurgent sepoys. He sent the steamers up the river with a small force and two field guns and a mortar, and checked the rebels to some extent, but on 10 Aug. they approached nearer. A part of Neill's small force was sick in hospital, and Neill sent word to Havelock that he could not keep open his communications, as his force was barely sufficient to enable him to hold on to Cawnpore, and that four thousand men and five guns were at Bithor, already threatening Cawnpore. So Havelock, having struck another blow at the enemy at Burhiya, returned, attacked the enemy at Bithor on 16 Aug., dispersed them, and established himself in Cawnpore. Then came cholera. The troops were not adequately provided with shelter during the rainy season, and Neill thought they were unnecessarily exposed. Neill, who was a friend of the commander-in-chief, Sir Patrick Grant, kept up a correspondence with him, in which he seems to have criticised Havelock's doings freely, and Grant, on relinquishing the command-in-chief to Sir Colin Campbell (afterwards Lord Clyde) [q. v.], wrote a friendly letter to Neill, impressing upon him the necessity of loyally supporting his immediate superiors. Unfortunately Neill did not act upon this advice. He opened a correspondence with Outram, who was coming up with reinforcements to take command, and expressed his opinions as freely to him as he had done to Grant. Havelock and Neill were essentially unlike both in character and disposition, and neither sufficiently appreciated the other. But despite Neill's attitude of disloyalty to Havelock, which is the one blot upon Neill's fame, Havelock was magnanimous enough to take Neill with him in the advance to Lucknow, with the rank of brigadier-general to command the right wing of the force. On the 15th, on Outram's arrival, the arrangement was confirmed, and orders issued, the right wing consisting of the 5th and 84th foot, the Madras fusiliers, and Maude's battery of artillery.

The advance commenced on 19 Sept. On the 21st the enemy opened fire, but were driven off the field. Then it rained incessantly, but the column marched on until half-past three, when the troops were quartered in a small serai. It rained all night and all the 22nd, when a similar march was made without any fighting, and on the arrival of the force at their bivouac the guns at Lucknow were distinctly heard. On the 23rd there was a bright sun, and the men felt the heat greatly. On approaching the Alambagh, where a considerable force of the enemy was posted, fire was opened by the British force advancing in line as soon as they came within range. While crossing a deep watercourse Neill's horse plunged and nearly fell, and as he did so a round shot grazed the horse's quarters, passing a few inches behind Neill. The line was exposed to a heavy fire, and many fell. Neill rode in front of the Madras fusiliers, and cheered on the men, waving his helmet. The enemy were driven back a mile beyond the Alambagh, and the force occupied the Alambagh for the night. The baggage had not come up, and a pouring rain for an hour caused discomfort to the force. Neill at once got permission for an extra dram for the men. On the morning of the 24th the enemy's fire was annoying, and the force was ordered to move a thousand yards to the rear, to be more out of range of the enemy's guns; but in executing the movement there was much confusion among the baggage animals and carts, and the rebel cavalry charged the rearguard and baggage-guard, killing a good many men. Neill ordered up two guns and the volunteer cavalry. The rebel cavalry galloped off again, leaving fifteen of their number dead. Then Havelock's force rested, and arrangements were made for the attack. On the morning of the 25th Neill marched off at 8 A.M. with the first brigade in advance. The brigade consisted of Maude's field battery of artillery, the 5th fusiliers, a detachment of the 64th regiment, the 84th foot, and the Madras fusiliers. They had not advanced two hundred yards when they were met with a murderous cross-fire from the rebel guns, and also with a heavy musketry fire. Neill pushed on, telling Maude to do his best to silence the guns. Neill directed his infantry to clear the walled enclosures on each side of the road, whence came the enemy's musketry fire. On turning into a village they were met by two guns firing straight down the road. Neill, at the head of the Madras fusiliers, charged the guns. Numbers of Neill's men were mowed down, but the guns were captured. Neill then led his men round the outskirts of the city with very trifling opposition until they reached the road along the bank of the Gúmti towards the residency. They halted once or twice to let the guns come up, and thought the worst was over. But as they approached the Mess-house and the Kaisar Bagh a sharp musketry fire was opened upon them. The fire was returned, but for some two hundred yards the column was exposed to an incessant storm of bullets and grape shot. It was now nearly sunset. As they passed out of the lane into a courtyard, fire was opened from the tops of the houses on each side. Neill was on his horse giving orders, trying to prevent too hasty a rush through the archway at the end of the court, when he was shot dead from the top of a house. Spurgin, of the Madras fusiliers, saved his body, and, putting it on a gun-carriage, carried it into Lucknow. As the churchyard was too exposed to the enemy's fire to admit of funerals in the daytime, he was buried on the evening of the 26th.

Great was the grief of the brigade for the loss of their commander, and both in India and in England it was felt that the death of Neill was the loss of a very resolute, brave, and energetic general, who had been the first to stem the torrent of revolt, and who had, when in command for a short time, shown a capacity for the position, a fertility of resource, and a confidence in himself that had been equalled by few. Lord Canning, in publishing the despatches on the relief of Lucknow, wrote: ‘Brigadier-general Neill, during his short but active career in Bengal, had won the respect and confidence of the Government of India; he had made himself conspicuous as an intelligent, prompt, and self-reliant soldier, ready of resource, and stout of heart.’

The ‘Gazette’ announced that, had Neill lived, he would have been made a K.C.B., and his widow was declared to enjoy the same title and precedence to which she would have been entitled had her husband survived and been invested with the insignia of a K.C.B. The East India Company gave a liberal pension to the widow.

Memorials were erected in India in Neill's honour, and a colossal statue by Noble was erected in Wellington Square, in his native place, Ayr, in Scotland. Neill married, on 31 Oct. 1835, Isabella, daughter of Colonel Warde of the 5th regiment of Bengal cavalry, then employed as assistant to the resident at Nagpore. He left two sons.

[India Office Records; Despatches; Marshman's Life of Havelock; Kaye's History of the Sepoy War, and Lives of India Officers; Malleson's Hist. of the Indian Mutiny.]

R. H. V.