Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spencer, Brent

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SPENCER, Sir BRENT (1760–1828), general, born in 1760, was the son of Conway Spencer of Trumery, co. Antrim. On 18 Jan. 1778 he was commissioned as ensign in the 15th foot, which was sent in the course of that year to the West Indies, and took part in the capture of St. Lucia. He was promoted lieutenant on 12 Nov. 1779, and was taken prisoner in February 1782, his regiment being part of the small garrison of Brimstone Hill, St. Kitts, which had to capitulate after nearly a month's siege.

Returning to England, he was given a company in the 99th (or Jamaica) regiment on 29 July 1783, from which he exchanged back to the 15th on 4 Sept. In 1790 the regiment was again sent out to the West Indies, and on 6 March 1791 Spencer obtained a majority in the 13th foot, then stationed in Jamaica. He shared in the expedition to St. Domingo, and distinguished himself at the capture of Port-au-Prince in 1794, but went home soon afterwards to join the 115th, a newly raised corps, in which he had been made lieutenant-colonel on 2 May.

On 22 July 1795 he exchanged to the 40th (or 2nd Somersetshire) regiment, and went for a third time to the West Indies, landing at St. Vincent at the end of September. He commanded the regiment there in the operations against the Caribs, and afterwards in Jamaica and St. Domingo. In the latter island he was made brigadier on 9 July 1797, and had command of the troops at Grande Anse. In the early part of 1798 he had eight thousand British and colonial troops under him, and was actively engaged against Toussaint L'Ouverture until the evacuation of the island.

He had been made colonel in the army and aide-de-camp to the king on 1 Jan. 1798. At the end of that year he returned with his regiment to England, and in August 1799, when it had been raised to two battalions, he commanded it in the expedition to the Helder under the Duke of York. On 10 Sept. he defended the village of St. Martin ‘with great spirit and judgment,’ as Abercromby reported, against the Dutch troops which formed the right column of Brune's army. The republicans were attacked in their turn on the 19th, and Spencer with the 40th, forming part of Pulteney's column, drove the Dutch troops through Oudt Carspel, and along the causeway to Alkmaar. The advance had to be made along a dyke swept by artillery fire, and cost the regiment eleven officers and 150 men. The British troops had eventually to fall back, owing to the defeat of the Russians at Bergen. The Duke of York spoke highly of Spencer's conduct (London Gazette, 24 Sept. 1799). The attack on the French positions was renewed on 2 Oct., but Pulteney's division was not actively engaged.

The British forces returned to England in November. At the end of March 1800 the 40th embarked for the Mediterranean, Spencer being in command of the 2nd battalion. After some months in Minorca, and after the abandonment of the attempt upon Cadiz, it went to Malta; and the four flank companies, under Spencer, accompanied Abercromby's expedition to Egypt. They formed part of the reserve under Moore, and in the landing at Aboukir Bay, on 8 March 1801, they were among the first troops ashore. There was a sandhill in their front, from which the fire was very severe. ‘With Moore and Spencer at their head, the 23rd and 28th regiments, and the four flank companies of the 40th, breasted the steep sandhill. Without firing a shot they rushed at one burst to the summit of the ridge, driving headlong before them two battalions of the enemy, and capturing four pieces of field artillery’ (Bunbury, p. 95; cf. Smythies, p. 86, from Landmann's Recollections). His coolness and conduct were mentioned in the highest terms by Moore and Abercromby (London Gazette, 9 May 1801).

Spencer and his men were in the hottest part of the battle of Alexandria (21 March), and helped to disperse the cavalry who were pressing on the 42nd. On 2 April he was sent to Rosetta with one thousand British infantry, accompanied by four thousand Turks. The French evacuated it on his approach, and on the 19th he took Fort St. Julien, which commanded the western branch of the Nile. Hutchinson, in his despatch, spoke of the zeal, activity, and military talents which he had displayed (ib. 5 June). On 17 Aug., shortly before the fall of Alexandria, Spencer was in command of a detachment of the 30th, less than two hundred strong, which held an advanced post, known as ‘the Green hill,’ on the east side of the city. The French made a sortie with six hundred men to cut off this detachment; but by Spencer's order it charged them with the bayonet, and drove them back into the place (ib. 22 Oct.).

After his return to England, Spencer served on the staff in Sussex, first as brigadier-general, and from 1 Jan. 1805 as major-general. George III, with whom he was a great favourite, made him one of his equerries, and he spent much of his time at court. In July 1807 he was appointed to the command of a brigade in the expedition to Copenhagen. The expedition returned in October, and shortly afterwards he was sent to the Mediterranean with about five thousand men with secret instructions. ‘He was to co-operate with Moore against the Russian fleet in the Tagus; he was to take the French fleet at Cadiz; he was to assault Ceuta; he was to make an attempt upon the Spanish fleet at Port Mahon’ (Napier, bk. ii. ch. iii.). Delayed by bad weather, which dispersed his force, he did not reach Gibraltar till March 1808. He went on to Port Mahon, but, on the outbreak of the Spanish insurrection, returned to Cadiz. Spain and England were nominally at war, and the Spaniards refused to let British troops enter Cadiz. Spencer would not risk his small force by advancing inland; but his appearance off the mouth of the Guadiana encouraged the insurgents in the south of Portugal, and prevented the detachment of troops from Junot's army to aid Dupont in his attempt on Seville.

The surrender of Dupont at Baylen on 19 July made it needless for Spencer to remain longer near Cadiz, and on 5 Aug. he joined Wellesley's force at the mouth of the Mondego, anticipating an order which Wellesley had sent him to that effect. He was present as second in command at the actions of Roliça and Vimiera. Wellesley acknowledged his assistance in his despatches, and recommended him for some mark of the king's favour. ‘There never was a braver officer, or one who deserved it better’ (Desp. vi. 124). It was deferred on account of the inquiry into the convention of Cintra, but on 26 April 1809 he was made K.B. He also received the gold medal.

He returned to England in October 1808, as his health would not let him share in Moore's campaign in Spain. He was one of the witnesses at the inquiry into the convention. His evidence was in its favour; but he supported Wellesley's contention that more might have been made of the victory of Vimiera. He had been made colonel of the 9th garrison battalion on 25 Nov. 1806, and transferred to the 2nd West India regiment on 25 June 1808; and on 31 Aug. 1809 he was made colonel-commandant of the 2nd battalion of the 95th (now rifle brigade).

In May 1810 he went back to the Peninsula to succeed Sir John Coape Sherbrooke [q. v.] as second in command under Wellington, but on the understanding that Graham, who was then at Cadiz, would fill that post if summoned to the army, and would be Wellington's successor in case of need. Spencer was given the command of the first division and the local rank of lieutenant-general (5 May 1810). He commanded his division at Busaco, in the lines of Torres Vedras, in the pursuit of Masésna, and at Fuentes de Oñoro. Wellington repeatedly mentioned in his despatches the able and cordial assistance which Spencer afforded him. He was left in command of the British troops in the north of Portugal, when Wellington was with Beresford near Badajoz, in the latter half of April 1811, and again from the middle of May to the middle of June. He had to watch Marmont; and when the latter moved southward to join Soult and relieve Badajoz, Spencer made a corresponding movement and joined Wellington.

Napier speaks of him as vacillating when left in separate command, and as ‘more noted for intrepidity than for military quickness.’ He was one of the officers who wrote despairing letters home at the time of the retreat to Torres Vedras, and helped to shake the faith of the government in Wellington's scheme of defence. In July Graham joined the army from Cadiz, superseding Spencer as second in command. The latter obtained leave to go home, and Wellington reported it without any expression of regret. Spencer received two clasps (for Busaco and Fuentes de Oñoro) and the Portuguese order of the Tower and Sword.

He saw no further service, and passed the rest of his life in retirement. He had become lieutenant-general in the army on 4 June 1811, and was made general on 27 May 1825. He was given the colonelcy of his old regiment (the 40th) on 2 July 1818. He was appointed a member of the consolidated board of general officers, and was also made governor of Cork. He died at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, on 29 Dec. 1828. The only portrait of him known to exist is a sketch belonging to Lord Garvagh, reproduced in the ‘Records’ of the 40th.

[United Serv. Journ. 1829, ii. 83–8; Gent. Mag. 1829, i. 179; Georgian Era, ii. 478; Roy. Mil. Cal. ii. 208; Smythies's Hist. Records of the 40th Regt.; Bunbury's Narratives of some Passages in the Great War; Wellington Despatches; Napier's War in the Peninsula; Stockdale's Enquiry into the Convention of Cintra.]

E. M. L.