Sir Charles George Gordon. British general and adventurer, b. Woolwich, England 1833-01-28, d. Khartoum, Sudan 1885-01-26.
Born a military brat (his father was an artillery officer), the young Charles Gordon did what sons of such families often did, joined the military himself as an engineer and was commissioned in 1852. Soon after that he was sent to the Crimea where he distinguished himself in the trenches of Sevastopol through the foolish brand of bravery that characterised that ill-fated campaign and would later be his undoing.
In 1860 he volunteered for service in China, where the British were fighting the second Opium War (Arrow War) against the imperial Chinese forces. He took part in the occupation of Beijing and in 1863 led an army of 3500 peasant troops defending Shanghai to victory.
News of his exploits in China had reached England and by the time he returned in January 1865 he was already a bit of a war hero. During the next five years he lived in Kent as head of the Royal Engineers. At the same time he developed the personal form of Christian zealotry which would make him a fanatic crusader for the rest of his life.
In 1873 the khedive of Egypt appointed Gordon governor of the province of Equatoria in the Sudan and later made him governor-general of the entire Sudan. Gordon religiously (and successfully) pursued rebels and slave-traders until poor health forced him to resign from the position in 1880. The next two years saw him serve in China, the Indian Ocean and southern Africa. During his travels, he discovered the site known as the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and expressed his belief that it was the Calvary.
When a Muslim mystic by the name of Mohammed Ahmed proclaimed himself Mahdi and led a successful rebellion against the British and Egyptians, General Gordon was called upon to evacuate the threatened British forces from the fort at Khartoum. Gordon, however, defied his orders and barricaded himself inside the city to defend it. One month after his arrival, Khartoum came under siege. The government in London was taken by surprise and hesitated to send him reinforcements, wary of the losses already suffered in north-east Africa.
Khartoum was stormed and Gordon and his troops were killed two days before the British relief expedition arrived. Some historians suggest Gordon did have ample time to escape the siege and meet up with the relief forces but preferred to go out in a blaze of glory. Public outrage in Britain was tremendous and Gordon was proclaimed a martyr and victim of the government's failures. The government was seriously embarassed and his death was a significant factor in the downfall of William Gladstone's administration the same year.