Thomas Picton

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Thomas Picton
Sir Thomas Picton.jpg
Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton GCB
Born 24 August 1758[1]
Poyston, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Died 18 June 1815(1815-06-18) (aged 56)
Waterloo
Buried at St George's, Hanover Square, London.
Allegiance United Kingdom Great Britain
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1771–1815
Rank Lieutenant General
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
Napoleonic Wars
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath

Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton GCB (24 August 1758[1] – 18 June 1815) was a British Army officer who fought in a number of campaigns for Britain in the Napoleonic wars. According to the historian Alessandro Barbero, Picton was "respected for his courage and feared for his irascible temperament." The Duke of Wellington called him "a rough foul-mouthed devil", but very capable.

Picton came to public attention initially for his alleged cruelty during his governorship of Trinidad, as a result of which he was put on trial in England for illegally torturing a woman. Though he was convicted, the conviction was later overturned.

He is chiefly remembered for his exploits under Wellington in the Iberian Peninsular War, during which he fought in many engagements displaying great bravery and persistence. He was killed fighting at the Battle of Waterloo, during a crucial bayonet charge in which his division stopped d'Erlon's corps' attack against the allied centre left. He was the most senior officer to die at Waterloo.

Early life[edit]

Birthplace of Thomas Picton in Hill Street, Haverfordwest, marked with a commemorative blue plaque. The house later became the Dragon Hotel.

Thomas Picton was the seventh of twelve children of Thomas Picton (1723–1790) of Poyston, Pembrokeshire, Wales, and his wife, Cecil née Powell (1728–1806).[2] He was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire on (probably) 24 August 1758.[1] In 1771 he obtained an ensign's commission in the 12th Regiment of Foot, but he did not join until two years later. The regiment was then stationed at Gibraltar, where he remained until he was made captain in the 75th in January 1778, at which point he then returned to Britain.

The regiment was disbanded five years later, and Picton quelled a mutiny amongst the men by his prompt personal action and courage, and was promised the rank of major as a reward. He did not receive it, and after living in retirement on his father's estate for nearly twelve years, he went out to the West Indies in 1794 on the strength of a slight acquaintance with Sir John Vaughan, the commander-in-chief, who made him his aide-de-camp and gave him a captaincy in the 17th foot. Shortly afterwards he was promoted major in the 58th foot.[3]

Career in the New World[edit]

Under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who succeeded Vaughan in 1795, he was present at the capture of St Lucia (after which he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 56th Foot) and then that of St Vincent.

After the reduction of Trinidad in 1797, Abercromby made Picton governor of the island. For the next 5 years he held the island with a garrison he considered inadequate against the threats of internal unrest and of reconquest by the Spanish. He ensured order by vigorous action, viewed variously as rough-and-ready justice or as arbitrary brutality. In October 1801 he was gazetted brigadier-general. During the negotiations leading to the Peace of Amiens of 1802, many of the British inhabitants petitioned against the return of the island to Spain; this together with Picton's and Abercromby's representations, ensured the retention of Trinidad as a British possession.

By then, reports of arbitrariness and brutality associated with his governorship had led to a demand at home for his removal. (Picton was also making money from speculation in land and slaves and his mulatto mistress was believed to be corruptly influencing his decisions.) Furthermore, Trinidad no longer faced any external threat, the Pitt ministry had fallen and the new Addington administration did not want Trinidad to develop the plantation economy Picton favoured. In 1802, William Fullarton (1754–1808) was appointed as the Senior Member of a commission to govern the island, Samuel Hood became the second member, and Picton himself the junior.

Fullarton had a very different background from Picton. He came from a wealthy and long-established Scots land-owning family and was a Whig MP, a Fellow of the Royal Society, an improving landlord, and a patron of Robert Burns. He had been a junior diplomat, before in the course of the American War of Independence raising a regiment of which he naturally became the Colonel. He ended that war in India commanding an army of 14,000 men in operations against Tippu Sultan.[4] following which he had written an influential pamphlet arguing that the East India Company had brought trouble on itself by its unprincipled treatment of native princes and native subjects and that a more humane policy than "let them hate so long as they fear" would be more effective in securing its position. The new Secretary of State for the Colonies (Lord Hobart) had served as Governor of Madras soon after the pamphlet came out, knew Fullarton, and had been influenced by his views.

Picton's policy with respect to various sections of the island population had effectively been "let them hate so long as they fear" and he and Fullarton rapidly fell out. (This, of itself, further worsened the rift: Fullarton's Indian pamphlet had also reported adversely on conflicts of interest and dissension between the English having weakened their ability to govern well, to negotiate effectively, and to effectively defend their possessions.) Fullarton commenced a series of open enquiries on allegations against Picton and reported his unfavourable views on Picton's past actions at length to meetings of the commission. Picton thereupon tendered his resignation and was soon followed by Hood (1803).

Picton joined Hood in military operations in St Lucia and Tobago, before returning to Britain to face charges brought by Fullarton. In December 1803 he was arrested by order of the Privy Council and promptly released on bail set at £40,000 (Picton was able to give surety for half of this; two West Indies plantation-owners covered the remainder).

The Privy Council dealt with the majority of the charges against Picton. Those charges related principally to excessive cruelty in the detection and punishment of practitioners of obeah, severity to slaves, and of execution of suspects out of hand without due process. Only the latter class of charge seems to have seriously worried the Privy Council, and here Picton's argument that either the laws of Trinidad (then still the laws of the former Spanish colonial power) or "the state of the garrison" justified the immediate execution in the cases specified eventually carried the day.[5]

Luisa Calderón being tortured, as illustrated in one of the many prints at the time

Picton was, however, tried in the court of King's Bench before Lord Ellenborough in 1806 on a single charge; the misdemeanor of having in 1801 caused torture to be unlawfully inflicted to extract a confession from Luisa Calderon, a young free mulatto girl suspected of assisting one of her lovers to burgle the house of the man with whom she was living, making off with about £500. Torture (but not the specific form) had been requested in writing by a local magistrate and approved in writing by Picton. The torture applied ("picketing") was a version of a British military punishment and consisted in principle of compelling the trussed up suspect to stand on one toe on a flat-headed peg for one hour on many occasions within a span of a few days. In fact Calderon was subjected to one session of 55 minutes, and a second of 25 minutes the following day.[6]

The period between Picton's return and the trial had seen a pamphlet war between the rival camps, and the widespread sale of engravings showing a curious British public what a personable 14-year-old mulatto girl being trussed up and tortured in a state of semi-undress might look like. The legal arguments, however, revolved on whether Spanish law permitted torture of suspects: on the evidence given,[7] the jury decided that it did not and found Picton guilty.

Picton promptly sought a retrial, which he got in 1808. At this, Picton's supporters brought forward other credible witnesses to testify to the (Spanish) legality of torture, its application in the recent past, and that Calderon had been old enough to be legally tortured. The jury reversed the verdict of the earlier trial but asked for the full court to consider the further argument of the prosecution that torture of a free person was so repugnant to the laws of England that Picton must have known he could not permit it,[8] whatever Spanish law authorised. (The full court never reached a decision on this; there were legal precedents to this general effect from the British occupation of Minorca — and a practical precedent from the British seizure of the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, but it remained to demonstrate that Picton should have known this, and by now Fullarton was dead and Picton a war hero.)

Friends of Picton in the military and among slave owners subscribed towards his legal expenses. Picton contributed the same sum to a relief fund after a widespread fire in Port of Spain. He had meanwhile been promoted major-general, and in 1809 he had been governor of Flushing in the Netherlands during the Walcheren expedition.

Europe service[edit]

Picton painted by Martin Archer Shee

In 1810, at Wellington's request, he was appointed to command a division in Spain. Wellington recalled that Picton had been recommended to him by General Miranda, who considered him "extremely clever", but also did not trust him, because "he has so much vanity that if you sent him out to the Caraccas or the West India Islands, he would attempt to become the prince of them". Wellington commented of when he met Picton,

I found him a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived, but he always behaved extremely well; no man could do better in different services I assigned to him, and I saw nothing to confirm what Miranda had said of his ambition.[9]

For the remaining years of the Peninsular War, Picton was one of Wellington's principal subordinates. The commander-in-chief, it is true, never reposed in him the confidence that he gave to Beresford, Hill and Robert Craufurd. But in the resolute, thorough and punctual execution of a well-defined task Picton had no superior in the army. His debut, owing partly to his naturally stern and now embittered temper, and partly to the difficult position in which he was placed, was unfortunate. On the River Coa in July 1810 Craufurd's division became involved in an action, and Picton, his nearest neighbour, refused to support him, as Wellington's direct orders were to avoid an engagement. Shortly after this, however, at Busaco, Picton found and used his first great opportunity for distinction. Here he had a plain duty, that of repulsing the French attack, and he performed that duty with a skill and resolution, which indicated his great powers as a troop-leader.

After the winter in the lines of Torres Vedras, he added to his reputation and to that of his division, the 'Fighting' 3rd, at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro. In September he was given the local rank of lieutenant-general, and in the same month the division won great glory by its rapid and orderly retirement under severe pressure from the French cavalry at the engagement at El Bodon. In October Picton was appointed to the colonelcy of the 77th Regiment of Foot.

In the first operations of 1812 Picton and Craufurd, side by side for the last time, stormed the two breaches of Ciudad Rodrigo, Craufurd and Picton's second in command, Major-General Henry Mackinnon, being mortally wounded. At Badajoz, a month later, the successful storming of the fortress was due to his daring self-reliance and penetration in converting the secondary attack on the castle, delivered by the 3rd Division, into a real one. He was himself wounded in this terrible engagement, but would not leave the ramparts, and the day after, having recently inherited a fortune, he gave every survivor of his command a guinea. His wound, and an attack of fever, compelled him to return to Britain to recoup his health, but he reappeared at the front in April 1813. While in Britain he was invested with the collar and badge of a Knight of the Order of the Bath by the Prince Regent George, and in June he was made a lieutenant-general in the army.

At the Battle of Vitoria, Picton led his division across a key bridge under heavy fire. According to Picton, the enemy responded by pummeling the 3rd with 40 to 50 cannon and a counter-attack on their right flank (which was still open because they had captured the bridge so quickly) causing the 3rd to lose 1,800 men (over one third of all Allied losses at the battle) as they held their ground.[10] The conduct of the 3rd division under his leadership at Vittoria and in the engagements in the Pyrenees raised his reputation as a resolute and skilful fighting general to a still higher point. Early in 1814 he was offered, but after consulting Wellington declined, the command of the British forces operating on the side of Catalonia. He thus bore his share in the Orthez campaign and in the final victory before Toulouse.

On the break-up of the division the officers presented Picton with a valuable service of plate, and on 24 June 1814 he received for the seventh time the thanks of the House of Commons for his great services. Somewhat to his disappointment he was not included amongst the generals who were raised to the peerage, but early in 1815 he was made a G.C.B.

Death[edit]

Picton Monument at Carmarthen

When Napoleon returned from Elba, Picton, at Wellington's request, accepted a high command in the Anglo-Dutch army. He was severely wounded at Quatre Bras on 16 June, but concealed his wound and retained command of his troops. His name stands in the list of invited characters to the Duchess of Richmond's Ball that was held on 15 June, the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras.

At Waterloo two days later, he was in command of the 5th Infantry Division. When Napoleon sent in The Comte d'Erlon's Corps to attack the Allied centre near La Haye Sainte at 13:30, Picton launched a bayonet charge on the advancing French column. While repulsing the attack with impetuous valour, he was shot through the temple by a musket ball, making him the highest ranking victim of the battle on the allied side.

Since his luggage had not arrived in time, he had fought the battle wearing civilian clothes and a top hat. Welsh folklore says that his top hat was shot off by a cannonball moments before his death, but this is not known to be backed by any historical source. Family folklore contends that he did not ride out in tails but in his night shirt and top hat because he had overslept, and he died at the hands of one of his own men who shot him in the back of the head because they hated him so much. Again this is not backed by any historical source.

Announcing his death in his typically laconic style, Wellington wrote to Minister of War, Lord Bathurst:

Your lordship will observe, that such a desperate action could not be fought, and such advantages could not be gained, without great loss; and, I am sorry to add, that ours has been immense. In Lieutenant-general Sir Thomas Picton, his majesty has sustained the loss of an officer who has frequently distinguished himself in his service; and he fell, gloriously leading his division to a charge with bayonets, by which one of the most serious attacks made by the enemy of our position was defeated.

His body was brought home to London, and buried in the family vault at St George's, Hanover Square. A public monument was erected to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral, by order of parliament, and in 1823 another was erected at Carmarthen by subscription, the king contributing a hundred guineas.

Namings in his honour[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Authoritative sources such as Havard 2004 give his date of birth as 24 August 1758. Older sources sometimes give it as 20 August, and this is the date that appears on the plaque on his birthplace.
  2. ^ Havard 2004.
  3. ^ He was probably still acting in a 'staff' role rather than (simply) as a regimental officer : Fortescue History of the British Army notes him 'making his first appearance in these pages' directing reinforcements to various islands without need for reference to Vaughan
  4. ^ The general being sacked for incompetence, Fullarton, (a civilian 3 years ago, and fresh to India) was (because he had raised a regiment at his own expense) senior in the Army List to other colonels present, and hence took command (and acquitted himself well)
  5. ^ This was not a foregone conclusion, nor unimportant to Picton: one of the cases was the execution without trial or court-martial of a British soldier for desertion and rape; in the same period, the former military commander of Gorée was publicly hanged for having a soldier flogged to death without a court-martial.
  6. ^ After confessing, she was held for another 18 months before being released: under English law, if found guilty, she would have been eligible to be hanged.
  7. ^ by/for the prosecution: Picton's lawyers don't seem to have anticipated this point being moot, but to have expected arguments on whether a British governor could/should apply Spanish law in matters where it was contrary to basic precepts of English law
  8. ^ Torture of slaves was permitted in most of the British West Indies, as indeed was their summary execution for a number of reasons—for example having attempted to resist arrest.
  9. ^ Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831- 1851, Oxford University Press, 1938, p.69
  10. ^ Richard Cannon, Historical Record of the Seventy-fourth Regiment (Highlanders), Published by Parker, Furnivall & Parker, 1847

Bibliography[edit]

  • Barbero, Alessandro (2005). The Battle: a new history of Waterloo. New York: Walker & Co. p. 14. ISBN 9780802714534. 
  • Epstein, James (2007). "Politics of Colonial Sensation: The Trial of Thomas Picton and the Cause of Louisa Calderon". American Historical Review 112: 712–41. doi:10.1086/ahr.112.3.712. 
  • Havard, Robert (1996). Wellington's Welsh general: a life of Sir Thomas Picton. London: Aurum. ISBN 1854104020. 
  • Havard, Robert (2004). "Picton, Sir Thomas (1758–1815)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22219.  (subscription required)
  • Michelena, Carmen L. (2010). Luces revolucionarias: De la rebelión de Madrid (1795) a la rebelión de La Guaira (1797). Caracas: CELARG. 
  • Myatt, Frederick (1980). Peninsular General: Sir Thomas Picton, 1758–1815. Newton Abbott: David & Charles. ISBN 0715379232. 
  • Naipaul, V. S. (1969). The Loss of El Dorado: a history. London: André Deutsch. 
  • Robinson, Heaton Bowstead (1836). Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir T. Picton, including his correspondence, etc. (2nd ed.). London. 
  • Swann, B.P. (1984). "Sir Thomas Picton: some unpublished facts about his career and relations". Dyfed Family History Journal/Cymdeithas Hanes Teuluoedd Dyfed 1: 172–5. 

External links[edit]

Political Summary[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Ralph Abercromby
Governor of Trinidad
1797–1802
Succeeded by
Commission (William Fullarton, Samuel Hood, Thomas Picton)
Preceded by
Louis Cesar Gabriel Berthier
Governor of Tobago
1803
Succeeded by
William Johnstone