Sir William Patrick Francis Napier

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Napier, Sir William Francis Patrick, General, K.C.B., was born at Celbridge, near Dublin, 17th December 1785. He was third son of the Hon. George Napier and Lady Sarah Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond; and was consequently first cousin of Charles James Fox and Lord Edward FitzGerald. William was educated at Celbridge with his elder brother, Charles, afterwards conqueror of Scinde, who had been born in London. After passing through some experiences of the Insurrection of 1798, he entered the army as an ensign, 14th June 1800; became lieutenant, 18th April 1801; and captain, 2nd June 1804. He served at the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, and in 1808 went with his regiment to Spain, and bore more than his share of the hardships of Sir John Moore's retreat. He conceived a great veneration for Moore, and in after years declared that it was mainly to clear his memory from false imputations that he conceived the idea of writing a history of the Peninsular War.

In 1809 Napier became Aide-de-camp to his uncle, the Duke of Richmond, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, but gave up the appointment to accompany his regiment to Portugal. He received a hip wound at the fight on the Coa; was at Busaco, and at Cazal Noval, where he received a bullet in the spine, and his brother George had an arm broken. As a reward for their bravery, the brothers were selected by Wellington (two of eleven captains out of the whole army) for the brevet rank of major. While still suffering from his wounds he fought at Fuentes d'Onore; but after the second siege of Badajos was stricken with fever, and obliged to return home in the autumn of 1811. In the spring of the following year he married a daughter of General Henry Fox, and only three weeks afterwards, on learning that Badajos was besieged, sailed again for Portugal, though far from recovered of his wounds. He took command of the 43rd Eegiment, which was not in the best of training, and required vigorous measures to restore it to proper discipline.

He was present at Salamanca in July, and was with the division that entered Madrid next month. Major Napier went to England in January 1813, and rejoined his regiment in the Pyrenees in the following August, taking a prominent part in the storming of the Petite Rhune, and at the passage of the Nive. He was severely wounded in defending the churchyard of Arcanques; and was again engaged at Orthes. He returned to England in April or May 1814, and received the brevet rank of Lieutenant-Colonel at the termination of the campaign. After recovering from a protracted illness, resulting from wounds and exposure, he joined the Military College at Farnham, whence he was hurried to Belgium in the summer of 1815; but, much to his mortification, arrived too late to take part in the battle of Waterloo. He now devoted himself to literary pursuits, while taking an intelligent and active interest in home politics. From 1842 to 1848 he was Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey; in the latter year he was created a K.C.B., and subsequently a General. Besides minor publications, he wrote The Conquest of Scinde (1844); a history of his brother Charles's administration of Scinde (1851); English Battles and Sieges in the Peninsula (1855); and — Life and Opinions of General Sir Charles Napier, 4 vols. (1857). In this last work, as remarked by a critic, "the idolatry of the Napiers was carried to the extremest] fanaticism, and every one who had by any chance interfered with the plans or prospects of either of the brothers was attacked with the most contemptuous acerbity." The great work upon which his reputation as an author rests is his History of the War in the Peninsula and the South of France, 1807 to 1814. The first volume appeared in 1828, and the sixth and last in 1840. This History has passed through several editions, and is considered a standard work. The following remarks upon it will be found in the English Cyclopaedia (1857): "Perhaps no military history of equal excellence has ever been written. It cost the author sixteen years of continuous labour.

He was himself a witness of several of the series of operations, and was engaged in many of the battles. His wide acquaintance with military men enabled him to consult many distinguished officers, English and French, and he was especially supplied with materials and documents by the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Soult. The ordinary sources of information were embarrassing from their abundance. One mass of materials deserves especial mention. When Joseph Bonaparte fled from Vittoria, he left behind him a very large collection of letters, which, however, were without order, in three languages, many almost illegible, and the most important in cipher, of which there was no key. It was the correspondence of Joseph Bonaparte while nominally King of Spain. Sir William Napier was in a state of perplexity, and almost in despair of being able to make any use of these valuable materials, when his wife undertook to arrange the letters according to dates and subjects, to make a table of reference, and to translate and epitomize the contents of each. Many of the most important documents were entirely in cipher; of some letters about one-half was in cipher, and others had a few words so written interspersed. All these documents and letters Lady Napier arranged, and with a rare sagacity and patience she deciphered the secret writing. The entire correspondence was then made available for the historian's purpose. She also made out Sir William Napier's rough interlined manuscripts, which were almost illegible to himself, and wrote out the whole work fair for the printers, it may be said three times, so frequent were the changes made. Sir William Napier mentions these facts in the preface to the edition of 1851, and in paying his tribute to Lady Napier, observes that this amount of labour was accomplished without her having for a moment neglected the care and education of a large family." Criticisms and rejoinders to statements in this work form almost a literature in themselves, and are fully detailed by Allibone.

General Sir William Napier died at Clapham, 12th February 1860, aged 74. A marble statue has been erected to his memory in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Sources

40. Biographical Division of English Cyclopaedia, with Supplement: Charles Knight, 7 vols. London, 1856-'72.

250a. Napier, General Sir William, Life: H. A. Bruce. 2 vols. London, 1864.

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