Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, William (1779?-1840)

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THORNTON, Sir WILLIAM (1779?–1840), lieutenant-general, colonel of the 85th foot, born about 1779, was the elder son of William Thornton of Muff, near Londonderry, by his wife Anne, daughter of Perrott James of Magilligan. He obtained a commission as ensign in the 89th foot on 31 March 1796, and served with his regiment in Ireland. He was promoted to be lieutenant in the 46th foot on 1 March 1797, and captain in the same regiment on 25 June 1803. Early in this year he had been appointed aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-general Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.], then inspector-general of infantry. On Craig's appointment to be commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Thornton accompanied him as aide-de-camp in April 1805, arriving at Malta on 18 July. On 3 Nov. he left Malta with Craig in the expedition to Naples, to co-operate with the Russians under General Maurice Lacy [q. v.], and, disembarking at Castellamare, in the bay of Naples, on 20 Nov., took part in the operations for the defence of the Neapolitan frontier. On 14 Jan. 1806, on the withdrawal of the Russian troops to Corfu, Thornton embarked at Castellamare with the British army for Messina, and after the disembarkation of the troops, which did not take place until 17 Feb., was busy with his general in organising the defence of that fortress. In April Thornton returned to England with Craig, who had resigned his command on account of ill-health.

Thornton next served as aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-general Earl Ludlow, commanding the Kent military district, until 13 Nov. 1806, when he was promoted to be major in the royal York rangers. He served in Guernsey in temporary command of the regiment until August 1807, when he went to Canada as military secretary and first aide-de-camp to Craig, who had been appointed governor-in-chief and captain-general in British North America. On 28 Jan. 1808 he was promoted to be brevet lieutenant-colonel, and appointed, in addition to his other duties, to be inspecting field-officer of militia in Canada. He returned to England with Craig in 1811, and on 1 Aug. of that year was brought into the 34th foot as a lieutenant-colonel. On 23 Jan. 1812 he was transferred from the 34th foot to be lieutenant-colonel commanding the Greek light infantry corps, and became assistant military secretary to the commander-in-chief, the Duke of York. On 25 Jan. 1813 he was given the command of the 85th light infantry.

In July 1813 Thornton went in command of the 85th foot to the Peninsula, and took part in the siege of St. Sebastian. He commanded the regiment at the passages of the Bidassoa, Nivelle, Nive, and Adour rivers, and in all the operations of the left wing of the Duke of Wellington's army, including the investment of Bayonne. He received the medal and clasp for the Nive.

In May 1814 Thornton embarked with the 85th at Bordeaux, and sailed in the expedition under Major-general Robert Ross [q. v.] for North America. He was promoted on 4 June 1814 to be brevet colonel for his services in the Peninsula. He landed with the expedition on 19 Aug. at St. Benedict's on the Patuxent, and was given the command of a brigade consisting of the 85th foot, the light infantry companies of the 4th, 21st, and 44th regiments, and of a company of marines. The army marched on Washington by Nottingham and Marlborough, Thornton leading with his light brigade. On 24 Aug. the enemy were met at Bladensburg, where they were posted in a most advantageous position on rising ground on the other side of and above the river. Thornton pushed quickly through the town, and although suffering much from the fire of the enemy's guns when crossing the bridge, he was no sooner over than, spreading out his front, he advanced most gallantly to the attack. He was severely wounded, and, the enemy being completely defeated, he was left at Bladensburg when the British army advanced to Washington. The raid on Washington and the destruction of its public buildings having been successfully accomplished, Ross returned to the ships, leaving his wounded at Bladensburg under charge of Commodore Burney of the American navy, who had been wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Bladensburg, and who was given his parole. It was arranged with Burney that Thornton and the rest of the wounded should be considered prisoners of war to the Americans, and exchanged as soon as they were fit to travel. Early in October Burney himself escorted Thornton and the other prisoners in a schooner to join the British fleet in the James river, where the British army, after the failure at Baltimore and the death of Ross, had embarked.

Thornton sailed with the army on board the fleet to Jamaica, where Major-general Keane, having arrived from England with reinforcements, took command. The expedition sailed on 26 Nov. for New Orleans, which was reached on 10 Dec.; but it was the 21st before all the troops were landed on Pine Island in Lake Borgne. An advanced guard, consisting of the 4th, 85th, and 95th regiments, was formed under Thornton's command, and, embarking in boats, proceeded up the creek Bayo de Catiline by night to within a few miles of New Orleans on its northern side, where they landed and established themselves. After repulsing a night attack with considerable loss, the advanced guard was reinforced gradually by the arrival in detachments of the main body, and the whole army was in position by 25 Dec., when Sir Edward Michael Pakenham [q. v.] arrived from England and took command. After an ineffectual attack on the 27th, Thornton was busy cutting a canal across the neck of land between Bayo de Catiline and the river. This was completed on 6 Jan. 1815, when he embarked the 85th and other details, amounting to under four hundred men, crossed the river on the night of the 7th, and took a most gallant part in the attack of 8 Jan., gaining on his side of the river a complete success. Storming the intrenchments, he put the enemy to flight, capturing eighteen guns and the camp of that position. In this attack he was severely wounded, and learning in the moment of his victory of the death of Pakenham and the disastrous failure of the main attack, he retired to his boats, recrossed the river, and joined the main body. The reunited army made the best of their way back to the fleet and re-embarked. Thornton was sent to England, where he arrived in March 1815. He was made a companion of the order of the Bath, military division.

On 12 Aug. 1819 Thornton was appointed deputy adjutant-general in Ireland. He was promoted to be major-general on 27 May 1825. He was made a knight commander of the Bath in September 1836, promoted to be lieutenant-general on 28 June 1838, and appointed colonel of the 96th foot on 10 Oct. 1834. On the death of Sir Herbert Taylor [q. v.] he was transferred to the colonelcy of his old regiment, the 85th light infantry, on 9 April 1839. For the last few years of his life he resided in the village of Greenford, near Hanwell, Middlesex. He became subject to delusions, and shot himself on 6 April 1840 at his residence, Stanhope Lodge, Greenford. He was buried in Greenford churchyard. He was unmarried. The order announcing the death of their colonel to the 85th light infantry observed that it was ‘to his unremitted zeal and noble example the regiment is principally indebted for that high character which it has ever since maintained.’

[Burke's Landed Gentry; War Office Records; Despatches; Royal Military Calendar, 1820; Bunbury's Narratives of some Passages in the great War with France from 1799 to 1810, London, 1854; A Narrative of the Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans under Generals Ross, Pakenham, and Lambert in 1814 and 1815, by the author of The Subaltern, London, 1826; Napier's History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France from 1807 to 1814; United Service Journal, 1840.]

R. H. V.