The Ride of a Lifetime

16 June 2015


Having several ancestors on both sides of my family who survived Waterloo, I thought it only fitting that Adam Matthew should mark the 200th anniversary with a tribute to heroism and the British stiff upper lip.

In July 1815, the English court painter Sir Thomas Lawrence wrote enthusiastically to Mrs Isabella Wolff about the courage and heroism of Lord Wellington and, in particular, of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon; the Duke’s Aide de Camp. This letter (GLC00496.119) survives in the Gilder Lehrman Institute and can be found in American History 1493-1945.

His description of events on 18 June is delivered with a starry gaze and a far-off look; a kind of hero worship now typically reserved for members of One Direction.Correspondence from Sir Thomas Lawrence to Mrs. Wolff discussing the Duke of  Wellington's heroism in the Battle of Waterloo and the death of Sir Alexander Gordon.  24 July 1815
Correspondence from Sir Thomas Lawrence to Mrs. Wolff discussing the Duke of 
Wellington's heroism in the Battle of Waterloo and the death of Sir Alexander Gordon. 
24 July 1815. Image courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. 
Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Seeing several regiments faltering on the battlefield, Wellington ordered Gordon to ride for reserve troops and steady the line. His path included a sizable stretch of open ground and Gordon would have known that the chances of him crossing this unscathed were slim. Sure enough, the inevitable stray bullet found its mark, halting his progress mid-ride. There must have been several agonizing seconds watching from the side-lines, knowing that the fate of many men rested on those orders getting through. The wound however did not deter the valiant Gordon. Collecting himself, he raced off again, joined the reserve line, marched with them into battle and then galloped to re-join his Commander in Chief. On his arrival, Lawrence describes how Gordon “… was pale and drooping, and faintly said his orders were executed …” The alleged exchange which followed is stoically British:

[Wellington] “Gordon you are wounded – I fear severely.”

[Gordon] “I’m afraid I am My Lord.”

According to Lawrence, Gordon died on his way to the surgeon, his duty fulfilled.

Evidently Lawrence had been passing on tit-bits of battle gossip for a while to Isabella however, as you might expect, Lawrence’s version is highly romanticized.

Accounts differ as to what actually happened to Alexander Gordon and how long he took to die. After being hit in the leg by a cannon ball – musket ball – grape shot [insert deadly projectile here], Gordon did indeed carry out his orders but far from expiring like a hero in front of his commanding officer, all accounts (including those of the attending surgeon, Dr John Hume!) agree that his leg was amputated and he died at half-past three on 19 June 1815; over five agonizing hours after the end of the Battle of Waterloo.

Whatever you believe, the heroic expiration after duty done or the much more plausible (and painful!) death by amputation and blood loss, I think you will agree that Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon deserves to be celebrated along with the thousands of heroes who gave their lives to help keep Europe free.

Clement-August Andrieux's 'The Battle of Waterloo', 1852Clement-August Andrieux's 'The Battle of Waterloo', 1852. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

The full text of the letter reads:

24 July 1815

My dear Friend

The papers that I send will give you the traits of heroism in Lord Wellington – the dreadful loss and hazard of the conflict – I send you one of a private nature – of Sir Alexander Gordon, Brother to Lord Aberdeen.

Lord W. seeing two or three Regiments giving way, told him to ride instantly to others in reserve, and bid them advance immediately to their support. The space of ground was comparatively open through which he had to ride, and when he had got about half way, they saw him stop and bend on his horse – An Aid de Camp of Lord W. said to him “Sir – Gordons stopped,” “Is he” said he “Then I know he’s wounded” but he was seen to raise his head and gallop forward as before – He reached the Regiments – he advanced with them, and then rode back full speed to Lord W but evidently hardly able to support himself. When he came up he was pale and drooping, and faintly said his orders were executed “Gordon you are wounded – I fear severely”, “I’m afraid I am My Lord.” They then took him off his horse and he died as they were carrying him to the Rear. He was wounded in the thigh, and an artery touched – died from loss of blood.

Lord Wellington and Bonaparte were twice within a few yards of each other, and the former threw himself into a square of infantry at the moment it was attacked by Bonaparte heading his Guards.

At one time all our Cannon were taken every one but Lord Wellington despaired “What a Conflict! What a Result! How dreadful as you see the loss! How imperishable the Fame!”

I dine today with Sir Henry Towers at Fulham and will give you on Monday any new details that I may learn.

Give my best remembrances to Mrs Marshall and believe me ever my dear Friend most truly yours

Thomas Lawrence


The complete American History 1493-1945 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.