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John Thomas De Burgh

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Category: Military
Reference No: 8911
Status: Available
Price: £295.00
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Irish nobleman and soldier, 13th and 1st Earl of Clanricarde

Educated at Eton, De Burgh was commissioned in July 1762 with the rank of Ensign in the 1st Foot Guards. A veteran of the American War of Independence, by 1793 he had reached the rank of Major-General.

In November 1794, he led a sortie of 3000 men from Nimeguen, near Rotterdam, Holland, against the French, and was wounded. A few nights later he succeeded in extracting his troops from overwhelming odds, although many Dutch troops were lost in the confusion of the retreat.

Britain had temporary control of Corsica from 1794 to 1796 and appointed a Scottish diplomat, Sir Gilbert Elliot (1751-1814), as Viceroy.

By Oct 1796 the Corsicans had decided to support their compatriot, Napoleon, and wanted the British off their island. The decision was made to evacuate and on the 14th October Nelson's fleet arrived at Bastia to take them to Elba, 40 miles to the east.

On the 7th November a force of 500 men defeated the French garrison at Piombino on the island and De Burgh was put in charge of the army on Elba

It was De Burgh who refused to evacuate the troops when Britain decided to withdraw from the Mediterranean. Nelson brought the fleet to Elba at the end of Dec 1796 but there were no evacuation orders for De Burgh. When Nelson advised him to embark for Gibraltar he decided to keep the army where they were. The fleet left and fought the Spanish at Cape St Vincent off southwest Portugal on 14th Feb 1797. It was not until the end of April that they returned to Elba and the regiment was finally taken off.

On his return to England de Burgh resumed his duties as Colonel of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot (1794–1808) and was later appointed Governor of Hull (1801–1808).

De Burgh became a close friend of Nelson during his time in the Mediterranean.

Nelson said of him "General de Burgh [is] one of the most gentlemanlike in the world. He is cool and well skilled in his profession; and his reputation for spirit and courage is established on sure testimony of his former conduct and actions, which have been very distinguished in this war"

This is an extraordinary and important 4-page (each page is 12.5" x 8") handwritten and signed letter in ink from a critical time in the war in the Mediterranean.

Written from his headquarters in Elba in February 1797 to Sir William Hamilton*, it explains the circumstances of his decision NOT to evacuate the island.

Most interestingly, in addition to mentioning some of the greatest names of the Napoleonic Wars, including General Charles O’Hara (who had the unique distinction of having been captured by both George Washington and Napoleon himself) and Admiral Sir John Jervis, it refers three times to Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William.

The letter is without tears or other major faults and is in remarkably good condition for a 220 year-old document. It reads as follows (a couple of words have proved indecipherable and the structure of some of the sentences would undoubtedly have benefited from revision by De Burgh!):


Your letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot by means of Captain Stewart only arrived last night. Sir Gilbert, as my late letter must have informed you e’er this, left us about three days since. In consequence of instructions which he had left on that subject, with a Gentleman here in his confidence, and as your letter appeared to contain enclosures, I took the liberty of desiring that it might be opened. The contents I must confess are not of a consolatory nature. They correspond with accounts which had reached me from Turin, and Venice.

From your letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot, I am to understand, Sir, that Admiral Sir John Jervis has partly exposed to you the order under which he is now acting, and his future Plan of operations. He appears to have thought that my movements, and decisions, would have (illegible) upon the grounds of the order, and instructions transmitted to him. These prove to me most fully that Government expect me to act correspondently to the these orders, and to others (of which I have copies) sent to General O’Hara, but being placed here by peremptory orders, I do not feel myself at liberty to remove this army, unless a very pressing solicitation on Sir Gilbert Elliot’s part had been made to me. However as he is too much wedded to another Scheme of Politicks to have an urgent Evacuation of Porto Ferrajo I have decided to remain till I get orders from home (illegible) in possession of this place, as long as I am able to retain it, under the possibility, at least, of very embarrassing circumstances.

Any future orders which may arrive, it may perhaps be difficult from our present naval force be very hazardous to execute (?) We have a sort of account from Paris respecting an attempt at invasion in Ireland which I am disposed to think has some foundation. It states to have been partly successful, and partly not so. I rather credit the account which says it has failed, as we hear also of a naval defeat to the French in the Channel, but nothing authenticated.

I have to trouble you, Sir, on the subject of Emigrants. It appears that there is an unaccountable omission of a Monsignor de Vaurnale. This is a matter which, from first to last, I have never interfered in, nor shall I do so now, further than to assure you that it comes to my knowledge from Sir Gilbert Elliot himself that Monsignor de Vaurnale is on his List for £100 per annum pension, and his Lady for 50£ more. The family is in deep distress on account of this omission. The only consolation I can afford them is an assurance, that I would as strongly as I am able certify the matter to you, which I now take the liberty to do, in hope of inducing you to continue this Pension, until you can receive on this head from England.

I am very much ashamed, Sir, at obtruding a private matter of my own upon you, which I beg a thousand pardon for doing. I should esteem it a favor if I could be informed if any of my Naval friends, who undertook Naples commissions for me, have taken the liberty to impose any part of the trouble they engaged in for me, on Lady Hamilton. A Merchant here, by name Philips, speaks of some china, which Lady Hamilton mentioned as for me – I regret having no better means to express my thanks for any obligations Lady Hamilton may have conferred upon me than by letter

I have the honor to remain, Sir, with perfect regard and Esteem.

Your very sincere and obedient servant

J.Thos.de Burgh

 Porto Ferrajo

February 2nd 1797

A fascinating and genuine piece of history as it was happening, of museum-grade quality and interest.

*Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803)

Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist. After a short period as a Member of Parliament, he served as British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800.

For most of Hamilton's time as ambassador, Naples had been a political backwater. But when France declared war on Britain in 1793 events in Naples became more turbulent, and Hamilton's role became more important, just as his health was declining. Nelson's fleet arrived in the Bay of Naples after defeating the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798 and Nelson was a guest of the Hamiltons. At the end of the year the King and Queen abandoned Naples as the French Army advanced and fled to Palermo in Sicily. The Hamiltons went with them