Gordon, James Alexander

James Alexander Gordon, naval commander (b 1782; d 1869). A career sailor who rose to the highest echelons of the Royal Navy, James Alexander Gordon distinguished himself in the naval campaigns against Napoleon before setting sail for the New World to confront the American navy during the War of 1812.

Serving first as a midshipman in 1793 aboard HMS Arrogant, he fought in a series of battles against the French, eventually joining HMS Goliath as master’s mate. Gordon and his ship joined the fleet that served a crushing defeat upon the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, under the command of the famous Horatio Nelson. Gordon was made a second lieutenant of the sloop Bordelais, which was given the task of protecting British ships in the West Indies. It saw battle with three French brigs, capturing one in 1801.

Napoleonic Wars

Fate turned against Gordon during his service in the Caribbean. While serving on a mission to Haiti, he was captured by the government and imprisoned for four months before his release was secured. Redoubling his efforts after his capture, Gordon was made lieutenant of HMS Racoon, which served with distinction in the West Indies by capturing the French corvette Lodi. For his actions in battle, he was promoted to commander and was made captain of the Racoon. Despite numerous victories, illness followed him throughout the Napoleonic Wars. At the Battle of Lissa his knee was shattered by a cannonball and his leg was amputated. Undeterred, Gordon was fitted with a wooden leg and returned to life on the sea, doing escort runs to the West Indies and supporting the British blockade of France while in command of the frigate Seahorse.

War of 1812

In 1814, Gordon’s talents helped the British naval effort against the Americans during the War of 1812. He led a daring and successful expedition up the Potomac River from August to September. His raid on Alexandria and attack on Fort Washington were meant to divert American eyes away from General Robert Ross’s attack on Washington. Navigating the hazardous Kettle Bottom Shoals for 10 days (Gordon claimed all his vessels were grounded 20 times!), Gordon got into position, and with his bomb vessel, he released an assault on Fort Washington. The American commander’s reaction got him dismissed: he spiked his own guns, destroyed the fort and retreated!

To avoid being sacked, Alexandria surrendered and handed over its vast stores, including 22 merchant ships. The raid itself could not have gone better. But, as can happen in war, a tactical success can help ruin a strategic victory. When Gordon was ordered to return to support Admiral Cochrane’s assault on Baltimore, he found his exit more difficult than his entrance. Fighting their way out, lightly injured but greatly delayed, Gordon’s ships managed to rejoin Cochrane’s fleet at Chesapeake Bay on 9 September. All the while, Baltimore bolstered its defences. Cochrane’s assault eventually failed. While the failure was not strictly a result of the delay, an earlier return by Gordon might have lessened the blow.

The Last of Nelson’s Captains

After the war, Gordon was made knight commander of the Order of Bath for his efforts in the War of 1812. He remained a sea-going commander for a handful of years, and then served in a series of land-side positions within the navy, including command of a Royal Navy hospital. He died at the age of 86, an admiral of the fleet, and was noted as being the “last of Nelson’s captains.” A tough and dashing naval commander, some historians believe Gordon was the model for such fictional naval heroes as Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, though the latter days of the age of sail were filled with many dynamic personalities, of which Gordon was certainly one.

Author: Jason Ridler

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