Gordon was born in Woolwich in 1833, the son of a Royal Artillery officer — one of 11 children, 5 girls and 6 boys in a closely-knit and very happy family. Gordon, who derived great comfort from his family over the years, was especially fond of his sister Emily, and her death, at 16 when Gordon was 10, was a great blow to him. Later, Gordon's eldest sister, Augusta, became his closest confidant. She was the first to point in the direction of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it was to her that he wrote about his new-found faith and zeal for the Lord.
Although in 1848, when Gordon entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich as a Gentleman Cadet, he intended to follow his father into the Royal Artillery, a lack of discipline prevented this, and he graduated in 1852 as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Royal Engineers. This corps who considered themselves the professional elite of the British army, were posted all over the world to build bridges, railways, quays for ships, design buildings, and undertake siege work. This part of the army proved the ideal environment for Gordon, who had shown himself to be hot tempered at Woolwich, brave and impetuous. The role of the military engineer made good use of these traits. Gordon was first posted to the Engineers depot at Brompton near Gillingham and then to Pembroke Dock in Wales, which were then being built by the Royal Engineers. It was here in 1853 that Gordon was converted to faith in Christ under the ministry of a fellow Engineer officer who became one of his closest friends.
This did not, however, prove to be a dramatic turning point in his spiritual life, and he remained rather indifferent to the need to spread the gospel at this time, but his letters to Augusta are full of his concerns about his soul and his desire to 'subdue the flesh'. They also show a developing desire to die and be with the Lord. He did not have a death wish; rather it was a realisation that Heaven was to be preferred to Earth. In 1854 Gordon managed to pursuade the War Officer to post him to the Crimea, despite his parents' efforts to keep him in England. Gordon was in his element in the Crimea, where his first task involved building huts as winter quarters for the troops. Once he completed this task, he managed to get a dangerous frontline job mapping the Russian trenches, which required him to look over the parapet and then draw what he could see. Many young engineer officers were killed doing this, and Gordon was surprised and somewhat disappointed that he wasn't. He was also present at the siege of Sevastopol. He was decorated for bravery by the French and mentioned in despatches by the British for his bravery during this action.
Gordon's ability as a surveyor gained him the post of Assistant Boundary Commissioner for the new Russian/Turkish border that was settled by the Treaty of Paris. This job bored Gordon; the excellent hunting was one of the few diversions for him.
In 1858, he was ordered to help build a new telegraph line by the War Office; however, the telegram confirming failed to arrive, so Gordon returned to England. He was to have spent 3 years building the line, but if he had done so he would never have gone to China and onto immortality as Chinese Gordon.
In 1860, Gordon was posted to China as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force that was fighting the 2nd Opium War. Once peace was made with the Chinese Emperor, Gordon was appointed as the Commander of the 'Ever Victorious Army', a force of mercenaries led by European Officers. The EVA was trying to suppress the Taiping rebellion, a revolt against the Manchus led by a 'messiah' who was trying to set up 'god's kingdom on Earth.
Gordon injected discipline and steel into the force. The EVA became a feared force and was instrumental in ending the rebellion. Gordon led the EVA into battle from the front carrying only a walking stick. When Gordon refused to allow the EVA to loot captured cities as the Manchus had allowed, the EVA mutinied. Gordon suppressed the mutiny by first shooting dead one of the ringleaders and then threatening to shoot one of the mutineers an hour until the mutiny was over. It was over inside the hour.
Soochow was captured by the EVA in 1864 after the Taipings surrendered to Gordon when he offered them safe conduct. Gordon was away on business when the Manchus had the Wangs, the leaders of the Taipings, executed. Gordon was furious and promptly resigned his command. He only returned after being implored to by the British and being promoted to the rank of Mandarin in the Chinese army. He refused an offer of 100,000 gold pieces by the emperor. This reinforced Gordon's reputation as being incorruptible. Gordon became known as 'Chinese Gordon' in England. The British rewarded him with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, and he became a Companion of Honour.
Upon his return to England the question was 'where next for Chinese Gordon?' The Government was unwilling to give him command of combat troops. In fact Gordon never had command of British combat troops — the Army would not trust him. He was posted to Gravesend in October 1865 as the Commandant of Engineers in charge of renovating the Lower Thames forts in Gravesend and Tilbury.
Just after he arrived in Gravesend, Gordon received news that his father was dying. He hurried to father's bedside and nursed him until he died. This, coupled with the death of one of his brothers, had a profound effect on Gordon, who resolved to abandon superficial religion. He returned to Gravesend a different person. Gordon's duties occupied him from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, after which he threw himself into social work, visiting the sick and dying, giving money to the poor, and teaching in the local Ragged school. The street boys, his 'kings', were the special objects of his concern. He bought them clothes, fed them, nursed them when they were ill, and found them jobs. He went on to found and partly finance the Gravesend and Milton Mendicant Society, which aimed to assist itinerant workers. He also came under the influence of the Freeses, an evangelical couple who spent many hours talking with him about the practical outworking of the gospel. Frederick Freese introduced Gordon to the Ragged school.
Gordon, who once said to the Catholic priest that 'the church is like the British Army, one army but many regiments,' never allied himself to any church or became a member of one; he was friends with the Presbyterian chaplain, the Church of England vicars in the area, the Methodist and Baptist pastors and the Catholic priest. He attended all of their churches at one time or another. Gordon became completely absorbed by his social work in Gravesend, to the exclusion of normal social contact. As the commander of the Engineers in Gravesend, he might have enjoyed a busy social life, but he shunned this in favour of what he saw as his God-given duty.
These years in Gravesend were his happiest and, for him, his most fulfilling time. He paid a pension to a number of elderly people, it has been estimated that he gave away 90% of his Colonel's pay of �3,000 a year, and he maintained this in the years after he left Gravesend.
In 1871 Gordon was promoted to full colonel and became the British commissioner on the Danube Commission. This was another boundary settling role. In 1874 Gordon once again reached a crucial turning point when he was appointed lieutenant Governor, then full Governor General, of the Sudan. He, one again, threw himself into his new role. His chief job was to suppress the then burgeoning slave trade, which he did with enthusiasm. An energetic commander of his native troops, he often exhausted his men. An example of this is that he would set off from Khartoum on a camel with his escort. His staff might expect him to take 12 hours to cover the distance to them if he went at the usual stately walk. Instead, Gordon ride his camel at full gallop, leaving his escort behind and arriving 3 hours after he set out, upon which he disciplined anyone not doing his job properly, often by sacking them.
Gordon, who was replaced in 1879, in 1880 received the appointment of the Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India. During the period from 1874 to 1884 he championed the cause of native rule in many countries such as Botswana, South Africa and even Ireland. This was the chief cause of his unpopularity in government circles.
In 1884 when the Mahdi, a Muslim fundamentalist leader, led a revolt in the Sudan against Anglo-Egyptian rule, the British Government needed someone to conduct an orderly withdrawl of British and Egyptian troops down the Nile. In Britain, everyone except the Government saw Gordon, a major general by this time, as the natural choice to go to the Sudan as Governor General. Gordon, who had been approached by King Leopold of Belgium to serve as governor of the Congo, wanted to accept and resign his commission. However, the public clamour of 'Gordon for the Sudan' forced the government to appoint him as Governor General, and he duly set out and arrived in Khartoum in February 1884, with orders to conduct an orderly evacuation of the troops. Gordon did not obey his orders, because, his journals reveal, he believed that a shortage of suitable boats made evacuation too dangerous.
When the Mahdi besieged Gordon in Khartoum, the Government were implored by everyone, including the Queen, to send a relief mission. They refused until October 1884, Gladstone, the prime minister, was furious at Gordon for, apparently, disobeying his orders. The relief column reached Khartoum 2 days after it fell to the mahdi on 26th January 1885. Gordon was murdered at some point, but no one is quite sure when. Some think he was killed along with the rest of the garrison; others think he was captured and executed in the camp of the Mahdi. Official records suggest he was captured and a ransom was asked for, and when it was refused, Gordon was killed. It is unlikely that Gordon would have allowed all of his men and the civilians in the city to be butchered. He may well have negotiated a surrender.
Whatever actually happened, there was a public outcry, led by the Queen, at what was seen as Gladstone's bungling. The outpouring of grief was very similar to that when Princess Diana died. Statues were erected and schools named after him; Gravesend even has a Gordon Memorial Gardens. Copies of his journals, personal reminiscences about him, biographies and copies of his only book, a mystical treatment on Palestine, sold in their millions right up until the first world war.
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Last modified 9 June 2010