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“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” —Philippians 1:21

The Death of
General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon
January 26, 1885

Born on January 28, 1833, Charles George Gordon gained international fame as a Major General who testified boldly concerning his Christian faith, lived a life of biblical consistency, exhibited extraordinary courage and fearlessness in battle, and died a hero’s death at the age of 51, defending the City of Khartoum in North Africa. While his life was full of controversy and dangers, his favorite verse, oft quoted by him and essential to understand Gordon, is found in Philippians 1:21, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), c. 1880

Charles Gordon’s father served Queen Victoria’s armies as a Major General, the fourth generation of Gordons to do so. “Charlie” followed in the military service footsteps of his sires, but chose the Royal Engineers for his career calling. Various influences over the course of his life led him to embrace the Christian faith. His aunt gave him a Bible at a young age, which was presented to Queen Victoria after his death. A former soldier—Capel Molyneux, who had taken holy orders in the Anglican Church—became the curate of the Church the Gordons attended. It was said that he “had a special gift for making Christianity alive and compelling for officers and others who had looked on churchgoing as little more than a component of their gentility.” Although Charlie was bored by sermons and laughed at his pious sisters, at the age of 14 he had a troubled soul. The following year he entered the Royal Military Academy as a gentleman cadet, from which he graduated at the age of 19 and commissioned as a II Lieutenant in the Royal Brigade of Engineers.

Rev. Capel Molyneux (1804-1877) Vicar at St. Paul’s Church, Onslow, London, England

In active use from 1806 to 1939, Royal Military Academy was a British military training facility for commissioned officers of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers

At his first posting in Wales, Gordon met Captain Francis Barry Drew of the 11th Foot (Devonshires) who, with his wife, were “convinced Christians and eager to persuade others.” Their close friendship seems to have been the tipping point in Gordon’s conversion to Christ. He later said that by the time he was sent to the War in the Crimea (1855) “I knew Jesus to be my Saviour and had assurance.” He later stated that he was aware of his “hot temper, his ambition, and his love of praise,” but was determined to be dead to them.

Francis Barry Drew (c. 1825 – c. 1905)

British cavalry charge against Russian forces at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (1853-1856)

In the Crimea, his commanders put him to sketching the Russian forts and defense works in earnest. His drawings were detailed and accurate “to every nook and cranny.” Charlie was constantly under fire but absolutely fearless to the point of carelessness. In the trenches, Gordon became close friends with Garnet Wolseley, the future Field Marshall of Britain, then only a captain, and like Gordon “small, energetic, humorous and good company.” Also, like Gordon, he was impatient of stupid or incompetent senior officers, but not as quick as Gordon to ignore and disobey them. Aware of the dangers about them, Gordon dismissed them saying that he expected to die in the Crimea, for death was the gate to everlasting life. Between actions and duties, Gordon studied his Bible, especially the Gospels.

Field Marshall Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913)

Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula extends southward into the Black Sea

Gordon gained a reputation for having an iron constitution, once serving in the trenches for thirty-four consecutive days, usually under fire. It became a byword—“if you want to know what the Russians are up to, send for Charlies Gordon.” When the war in the Crimea finally ended, his career and reputation were firmly established and the admiration for his skills and character universal in the army.

An 1884 painting depicts the recapture of the provincial city of Anqing during the “Taiping Rebellion” (1850-1864) in which an estimated 20-30 million people were killed, a figure comparable to the death toll of World War I

In May of 1862, Charles Gordon was sent to China to assist in the bloodiest civil war in history (20-30 million dead, much of it from plague and famine) which pitted the Manchu Qing Dynasty against the Taipings’ Heavenly Army whose capitol was located at Nanking. The army fighting on behalf of the Emperor against the insurgents was known as The Ever Victorious Army (EVA), which was commanded by an American, Frederick Townshend Ward. Upon his death in battle, command fell to an incompetent. Charles Gordon took command after several ignominious defeats and uncontrolled looting by undisciplined EVA troops. For two years, Gordon trained and led the EVA against the Taipings, helping bring about their ultimate defeat. In every battle, Gordon led from the front, unarmed but for his walking cane. In a war that killed more than 20 million people, casualties in battle were often incredible. The Chinese came to believe that Gordon could ward the bullets away with his cane, and could not be killed. The English engineer officer led the EVA from victory to victory through the 1860s. So important and influential was his service in China that he became known as “Chinese” Gordon.

Gordon was promoted to the rank of Tidu “Chief commander of Jiangsu province”, a title equal to Field Marshal

Members of the Ever Victorious Army, c. 1860-1864

After returning to England for a season, Gordon requested a dangerous assignment. He missed the excitement and dangers of China. After several minor adventures in central Europe, the Egyptian Pasha offered Gordon the governor-generalship of the area of South Sudan. As a diplomat and British general, he attacked the slave trade, angering his sponsors and the Arab slavers of the region. Gordon tried to end public floggings and torture of prisoners. His stubbornness caused the Arab officials to say that Gordon Pasha was of the same race as the camel.

General Gordon in Egyptian uniform

By 1884, the Egyptian hold on the Sudan became tenuous as a native revolt led by Muhammed Ahmad (who called himself the Mahdi) threatened all of Sudan. The English government sent Gordon to the City of Khartoum to arrange the evacuation of British subjects and others before the Mahdi could overtake that strategic city at the junction of the Blue and White Nile. Gordon overstayed his commission and reinterpreted it to sanction his defending the city. After an incredible, almost year-long defense of Khartoum, the forces of the Mahdi captured the city, killing Gordon two days before his 52nd birthday, 1885. He was mourned across Britain, and statues to him were erected in many places. Not a few historians considered Gordon of Khartoum England’s greatest military officer. His death motivated Missionary Societies to take the Gospel to Sudan and the Middle East.

Muhammad Ahmad (1844-1885) claimed to be the Mahdi, an messianic figure who, according to the teachings of Islam, will appear at the end of times to rid the world of evil and injustice

A memorial service in London was held in General Gordon’s honor at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his tomb is also located

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