Autobiography of Harry Smith
Monte Video and Buenos Ayres 1806-7.
Written in Glasgow in 1824 - HG SmithI WAS born in the Parish of Whittlesea and county of Cambridgeshire in the year 1. I am one of eleven children, six sons and five daughters. Every pains was taken with my education which my father could afford, and I was taught natural philosophy, classics, algebra, and music.
In 1804 the whole country was en masse collected in arms as volunteers from the expected invasion of the French, and being now sixteen years of age, I was received into the Whittlesea troop of Yeomanry Cavalry, commanded by Captain Johnson. During this year the Yeomanry in the neighbourhood patrolled through Norman Cross Barracks where 15,000 French prisoners were kept, when the Frenchmen laughed exceedingly at the young dragoon, saying, "I say, leetel fellow, go home with your mamma; you most eat more pudding." In the spring of 1805 the Whittlesea Yeomanry kept the ground at a review made by Brigadier-General Stewart (now Sir W. Stewart) when I was orderly to the General, who said, "Young gentleman, would you like to be an officer?"
"Of all things." was my answer.
"Well I will make you a Rifleman, a green jacket," says the General, "and very smart." I assure you the General kept his work, and upon the 15th [8th?] May, 1805, I was gazetted second lieutenant in the 95th Regiment Riflemen2, and joined at Brabourne Lees upon the 18th of August. A vacancy of lieutenant occurring for purchase, my father kindly advanced the money, and I was gazetted lieutenant the 15th September [August?], 1805. This fortunate purchase occurred when the 2nd Battalion of the corps was raising and the officers had not been appointed by which good luck twenty-seven steps were obtained by 100 pounds.
In the Summer of 1806 a detachment of three companies was directed to proceed from eth 2nd Battalion of the corps from Faversham to Portsmouth, there to embark and form part of an army about to proceed to South America under the command of Sir Samuel Auchmuty. This detachment was under the command of Major Gardner, and I was appointed Adjutant, a great honour for so young an officer. The army sailed for America, touching at Plymouth, Falmouth, Peak of Teneriffe, and Rio Janiero, at which place it stayed one week to take in water, stores, etc., and, covered by the detachment of Riflemen, landed within a few miles of Monte Video upon the 16th of January, 1807.
Some skirmishing took place the whole day with the light troops of the enemy. Upon the 17th and 18th the army halted for the artillery, stores, etc., to be landed. The outposts (Riflemen) were employed both these days.
Upon the 20th the garrison made a most vigorous sortie in three columns, and drove in our outposts, and heavy and general attack lasted for near two hours, when the enemy were driven to the very walls of the place. The Riflemen were particularly distinguished on this occasion.
The siege of Monte Video4 was immediately commenced and upon the morning of the 3rd of February, the breach being considered practicable, a general assault was ordered in two columns, the one upon the breach, the other an escalade. Both ultimately succeeded. Not a defence was destroyed nor a gun dismounted upon the works. The breach was only side enough for three men to enter abreast, and when upon the top of the breach there was a descent into the city of twelve feet. Most of the men fell, and many were wounded by each others bayonets. When the head of the column entered the breach, the main body lost its communications or was checked by the tremendous fire.
Perceiving the delay, I went back and conducted the column to the breach, when the place was immediately taken. The slaughter in the breach was enormous owing to the defence being perfect, and its not being really practicable.The surrender to this fortress put the English in the possession of this part of the country.
I was now afflicted with a most severe fever and dysentery, and owe my life to the kind attentions of a Spanish family in whose house I was billeted. My own relations could not have treated me with greater kindness. My gratitude to them can never be expressed or sufficiently appreciated.
In the Autumn an outpost was established on the same side of the river as Monte Video, but nearly opposite to Buenos Ayres, at Colonia del Sacremento. This had formerly belonged to the Portuguese. It was situated on a neck of land. and a mud wall was carried from water to water.
There were no guns up, and in one place a considerable breach. One particular night a column of Spaniards which had crossed the river from Buenos Ayres stormed this post, and were near carrying it by surprise had it not been for the valour of Scott and his guard of Riflemen, who most bravely defended the breach until the troops got under arms. The enemy were not pursued , as their numbers were not known and the night was dark. Why this breach was not repaired one cannot say, except that in those days our commanders understood little of the art of war, and sat themselves down anywhere in a state of blind security without using every means to strengthen their posts. Experience taught us better. The enemy did not re-cross the river, but took up a position about fourteen miles from Colonia, in which Colonel Pack (Afterwards Sir Dennis Pack), who commanded the British force, resolved to attack them.
The column consisted of three companies of Riflemen, the 40th regiment, two 6-pounders, and three light companies. It marched upon the night of [6-7 June], and arrived in sight of the enemy at daylight in the morning.
They were drawn up on an elevated piece of ground, with a narrow but deep, muddy, and miry river in their front. Their cavalry formed a right angle upon the right of their infantry and they had seven guns upon the lift. The Rifle brigade covered the troops whilst crossing the rivulet, and in about twenty minutes by a rapid advance the position was carried, the enemy leaving behind him his guns, tents, stores, etc., with a great quantity of ammunition. In the destroying of the latter poor Major Gardner and fourteen soldiers suffered most dreadfully from an explosion.
Some flints had been scattered upon the field; the soldiers took the shot to break the cartridges and thus the whole blew up. About two hundred shells also exploded.
The army at a short distance lay down and not an individual was touched. Colonel Pack, with his army, the captured guns, etc., returned to Colonia in the evening.5
A considerable force having arrived under General Whitelock, who took the command, the army was remodelled and embarked in August [really on eth 17th of June], 1807, to attack Buenos Ayres. The post of Colonia was abandoned, and the three companies of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade were embodied with five of the 1st just arrived from England, and I was appointed adjutant of the whole under the command of Major McLeod.
The army landed upon [28 June}, and was divided into two columns, the one consisting of the light troops under General Craufurd, and of a heavy Brigade, the whole under Major-General Levenson-Gower. [Some uncomplimentary epithets are here omitted]. His column was one day in advance of the main body commanded by General Whitelock in person. his orders were to march up to the enemyıs outposts and take up a position.
In place of obeying his orders General Levenson-Gower immediately attacked the enemy in the suburbs of Buenos Ayres, and drove them in with great loss, leaving their cannon behind them. Having thus committed himself, in lieu of following up the advantage he had gained and pushing forward into Buenos Ayres, which would have immediately surrendered, he halted his column and took up a position. The enemy recovered from his panic, and with the utmost vigour turned to and fortified the entrances of all the streets. (Buenos Ayres is perfectly open on the land side, but has a citadel of some strength within the town and upon the river.
The houses are all flat-roofed, with a parapet of about three feet high.) The day after the affair alluded to, General Whitelock with his Column arrived. The next day he reconnoitred the enemy, drove in their outposts, and partially invested the city. Some very heavy skirmishing took place in the enclosures, the fences consisting of aloe hedges, very difficult to get through, but making excellent breastworks. The Rifle Corps particularly distinguished themselves. Upon the [5 July] the whole army attacked in four columns. The men were ordered to advance without flints in their musquets, and crowbars, axes, etc., were provided at the head of the column to break open eth doors, which were most strongly barricaded. It must be stated that the streets of Buenos Ayres run at right angles from each other. Each street was cut off by a ditch and a battery behind it. Thus the troops were exposed to a cross fire. The tops of the houses were occupied by troops, and such a tremendous fire was produced of grape, canister, and musquetry, that in a short time two columns were nearly annihilated without effecting any impression. The column I belonged to, under Brigadier-General Craufurd, after severe loss, took refuge in a church, and about dusk in the evening surrendered to the enemy. Thus terminated one of the most sanguinary conflicts Britons were ever engaged in, and all owing to the stupidity of the General-in-Chief and General Leveson-Gower. Liniers, a Frenchman by birth, who commanded, treated us prisoners tolerably well, but he had little to give us to eat, his citadel not being provisioned for a siege. We were three or four days in his hands, when, in consequence of the disgraceful convention entered into by General Whitelock, who agreed within two months to evacuate the territory altogether and to give up the fortress of Monte Video, we were released. The army re-embarked with all dispatch and sailed to Monte Video. Our wounded suffered dreadfully, many dying from slight wounds in the extremity of lockjaw. The division of troops I belonged to sailed upon [12 July], under the command of Brigadier-General Lumley. I confess I parted from the kind Spanish family, who during my illness had treated me with such paternal kindness, with feelings of the deepest sorrow and most lively gratitude. The old lady offered me her daughter in marriage and $20,000, with as many thousand oxen as I wished, and she would build me a house in the country upon any plan I chose to devise. Now I am brought to leave the fertile plains of the Plate, let me make some little mention of its climate, soil and productions.
Its summer is, of course, in January ; during this time it is very hot. Still you have a sea breeze and a land breeze, which is very refreshing. During the rainy seasons the weather is very tempestuous. The climate altogether is, however, most mild and salubrious. Corn of all descriptions grows with the least possible care. The fertile grass plains are immense. The country is not dead flat, but undulated like the great Atlantic a few days after a gale of wind. Upon these plains thousands of Oxen and horses are grazing ; they are so thick that were an individual ever entangled amongst them he would be lost as in a wood. These animals are, however, all the property of individuals, and are not wild as supposed, and each horse and ox is branded.
You could buy a most excellent horse for two dollars (I gave ten for one, he being very handsome, which was a price unheard of before), a cow and calf one dollar, a pair of draft oxen five (they are thus dear in consequence of being trained).
The country abounds in all sorts of wild fowl and innumerable wild dogs, which nature must have provided to eat the carcasses of the slaughtered cattle, many of which are killed merely for their hides, a few of the prime pieces alone being made use of for food. The marrow is usually also taken and rendered into bladders, with which they cook everything, using it, in short, as we use butter, which makes their dishes very palatable.
The native inhabitants, called "peons," or labourers, are a very superior race of men, almost Patagonians, are beautiful horsemen, and have a peculiar art of catching horses and oxen by what is termed the 'lasso.' This is a leathern thong of about thirty feet resembling the lash of a hunting-whip. An iron ring is at one end, through which the other end is passed, by which means a noose is formed ; the end is then fastened to the girths of the horse. The lasso is collected in the man's hand, he swings it circularly round his head, and when the opportunity offers, he throws it over the head of the animal he wishes to catch. He is sure of his aim ; the noose draws tight round the animal's throat, and he is of course choked, and down he drops.
In killing bullocks they are very dexterous. The moment the bullock finds himself caught he begins to gallop round ; the end being fast to the saddle, the horse turns gradually round so that he is not entangled. A second peon with his lasso gallops after the bullock, and throws his lasso round the hind leg above the hough and rides in a contrary direction to the other horseman. Consequently the bullock is stretched between the two horses. The riders jump off and plunge their knives into the bullock, and other persons are employed to dress it, etc.
The fleet separated in a gale of wind off the Azores. During this gale the transport I was in carried away its rudder. Our captain kept so bad a reckoning we ran four hundred miles after he expected to make the Lizard. In the chops of the Channel we fell in with the Swallow, a sloop of war, to whom we made a signal of distress, and she towed us into Falmouth Harbour [5 Nov].
It blew the most tremendous gale of wind that night. A transport with the 9th Dragoons aboard was wrecked near the Lizard, and this would inevitably have been our fate had we not been towed in by the sloop of war.
The rudder was repaired, we were driven into Plymouth, and in the middle of December anchored at Spithead, where we delighted to have arrived. However, to out great mortification, we were ordered to the Downs, there to disembark.
I obtained leave of absence, and was soon in the arms of a most affectionate family, who dearly loved me. My mother's delight I shall never forget. There are feelings we possess in our youth which cannot be described. I was then only nineteen. My brothers and sisters were all well, and every moment called to my recollection some incident of juvenile delight and affection.
Footnote1 -The birthplace of Sir Harry Smith in St. Mary's Street, Whittlesey, is now called 'Aliwal House.' In his MS he left the year of his birth vacant, and it would appear that he was uncertain of his own age (cp. pg 73). This may account for the date of his birth having been often given wrongly as 1788. The east end of the south aisle of St. Mary's church was at this time partitioned off and used as a schoolroom, the vicar or curate teaching, It was here that Harry Smith received his education from the Rev. George Burgess, then curate, who survived to welcome him in Whittlesey in 1847 on his return after the battle of Aliwal.
This part of the church, having been restored in 1862 as a memorial to him, is now known as 'Sir Harry's Chapel.'
Harry Smith's father, John Smith (son of Wakelyn Smith), born 1756, died Sept. 2nd 1843, married in 1781 Eleanor (born 1760, died 12 Dec. 1813), daughter of Rev. George Moore, M.A. (Queen's College, Cambridge), vicar of St Mary and St Andrew, Whittlesey, and minor canon of Peterborough Cathedral. They had in all fourteen children, but only eleven survived infancy, viz. 1, Mary Anne; 2, John Stona; 3, Eleanor Moore: 4, Elizabeth : 5, Henry George Wakelyn (born 28 June, 1787); 6, Jane Alice (Mrs. Sargant), born 1789: 7, William : 8, Thomas Lawrence (b 25 Feb. 1792) ; 9, Anna Maria ; 10, Charles (b 10 Aug. 1795) ; 11, Samuel.
Mrs. Sargant, Harry Smith's favourite sister, resided for many years in Clapton Square, and died in 1869. She was the author of Joan of Arc, a Play, Charlie Burton (a tale, translated into French and German), and many other works.
Thomas Lawrence (frequently mentioned in this book) received his commission in the 95th (Rifle Brigade) on Mr. 3rd, 1808, and took part in the actions of Sir John Moore's expedition to the battle of Corunna. Like his brother Harry, he served with the light Division throughout the Peninsular War to the Battle of Toulouse, being dangerously wounded at the Coa.
He was recommended for promotion for his conduct at Waterloo. He proceeded with his regiment to Paris, and riding as Adjutant at the head of the 2nd Battalion, was the first British officer who entered the city on 7 July, 1815. He went on half-pay in 1817. In 1824 he was appointed Barrack-master, in which capacity he served in Ireland till 1838, when he was transferred to Chatham.
On the formation of Aldershot Camp in 1855, he was appointed Principal Barrack-master there, and held his appointment till 1868. On retirement he was made CB and granted a special pension.
He died in London on 6 April, 1877, and was buried in the cemetery, Aldershot. Charles was present as a 'Volunteer' with the 1st Battalion 95th at Quatrebras and Waterloo, after which he received a commission as Second Lieutenant. Two or three years later he retired from the army and settled at Whittlesey. He became JP and DL for Cambridgeshire, and Lieut.-Colonel of the Yeomanry Cavalry of the county and died at Whittlesey on 24 Dec. 1854.
Further information about Sir Harry Smith's family was given to Mr. Arthur M. Smith, at his request for his book The Smiths of Exeter, and will there be found, although, in the opinion of the present editor, no connexion between the two families can be established. return
Footnote 2 - In consequence of a representation made to the Government by Colonel Coote Mannigham and Lieut.- colonel the Hon. William Stewart, and "experimental Corps of Riflemen" was formed early in 1800, with Manningham as colonel and Stewart one of the Lieut.-colonels. It was actually organised by Stewart. On the 25th of December, 1802, the corps were ordered to be numbered as the 95th Regiment. In 1803 they were brigaded with the 43rd and 52nd as part of Sir John Moore's Camp of Instruction at Shorncliffe. The 2nd Battalion was formed on the 6th of May, 1805, according to Cope, and joined the 1st Battalion at Brabourn Lees, near Ashford, in June (see Cope's History of the Rifle Brigade, P.1 etc.). return
Footnote3- The following extracts from Hughes and Clark's Life of Adam Sedgwick (i p 76 etc.) refer to this time. "Sedgwick went on Dec. 17, 1804, to spend Christmas with Ainger at his father's house at Whittlesea....He never forgot the simple pleasures which he there enjoyed....It was on this occasion that he made the acquaintance of Henry Smith, son to the surgeon of Whittlesea, then a boy of 16. Sedgwick watched his career with affectionate interest.
"in 1807 he wrote to Ainger -
"'Pray has Henry Smith escaped the fate which many of our brave countrymen have met in Egypt? I believe his regiment was in the expedition.'
"W. Ainger replies -
"Whittlesea, August 3, 1807.
"'Henry Smith after whom you inquired did not go into Egypt , but to Buenos Ayres. His father had a letter form his after the engagement. His Captain was killed by his side in the outset : the command of the Company then of course devolved to Henry, who, I believe, acquitted himself very creditably, and did not, to use his own expression, get a single scratch. Last week brought his friends another letter from Monte Video, which acquainted them that he was then (in April) just recovering from the attack of a fever, which appears, Sedgwick, to have been not less formidable than your was. He says he has lost all his flesh ; but I find he retains all his spirit." return
Footnote 5 - Cope says he could find no particulars of this affair of the 7th of June beyond the mention of it and the casualties. Pack's own report of the affair, however (with Whitelocks covering despatch), is given under his name in Phillipparts Royal Military Calendar (1820). It is interesting to compare that account with the one in the text, as each has some details not in the other. It seems that the Spaniards two thousand in number, were under Major-General Elio (see pg 79 below) and the name of their position was San Pedro. return
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