Born 1734 Died 1801
Sir Ralph Abercromby was the eldest son of George Abercromby of Tullibody, Clackmannanshire, and was born in October 1734. Educated at Rugby and Edinburgh University, in 1754 he was sent to Leipzig to study civil law, with a view to his proceeding to the Scotch bar. On returning from the continent he expressed a strong preference for the military profession, and a cornet's commission was accordingly obtained for him (March 1756) in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He served with his regiment in the Seven Years war, and the opportunity thus afforded him of studying the methods of the great Frederick moulded his military character and formed his tactical ideas. He rose through the intermediate grades to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the regiment (1773) and brevet colonel in 1780, and in 1781 he became colonel of the King's Irish infantry. When that regiment was disbanded in 1783 he retired upon half-pay. That up to this time he had scarcely been engaged in active service was owing mainly to his disapproval of the policy of the government, and especially to his sympathies with the American colonists in their struggles for independence; and his retirement is no doubt to be ascribed to similar feelings.
On leaving the army he for a time took up political life as member of parliament for Clackmannanshire. This, however, proved uncongenial, and, retiring in favor of his brother, he settled at Edinburgh and devoted himself to the education of his children. But on France declaring war against England in 1793, he hastened to resume his professional duties; and, being esteemed one of the ablest and most intrepid officers in the whole British forces, he was appointed to the command of a brigade under the Duke of York, for service in Holland. He commanded the advanced guard in the action at Le Cateau, and was wounded at Nijmwegen. The duty fell to him of protecting the British army in its disastrous retreat out of Holland, in the winter of 1794-1795.
In 1795 he received the honour of a knighthood of the Bath, in acknowledgment of his services. The same year he was appointed to succeed Sir Charles Grey, as commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies. In 1796 Grenada was suddenly attacked and taken by a detachment of the army under his orders. He afterwards obtained possession of the settlements of Demerara and Essequibo, in South America, and of the islands of St Lucia, St Vincent and Trinidad. He returned in 1797 to Europe, and, in reward for his important services, was appointed colonel of the regiment of Scots Greys, entrusted with the governments of the Isle of Wight, Fort George and Fort Augustus, and raised to the rank of lieutenant-general.
He held, in 1797-1798, the chief command of the forces in Ireland. There he laboured to maintain the discipline of the army, to suppress the rising rebellion, and to protect the people from military oppression, with a care worthy alike of a great general and an enlightened and beneficent statesman. When he was appointed to the command in Ireland, an invasion of that country by the French was confidently anticipated by the English government. He used his utmost efforts to restore the discipline of an army that was utterly disorganised; and, as a first step, he anxiously endeavoured to protect the people by re-establishing the supremacy of the civil power, and not allowing the military to be called out, except when it was indispensably necessary for the enforcement of the law and the maintenance of order. Finding that he received no adequate support from the head of the Irish government, and that all his efforts were opposed and thwarted by those who presided in the councils of Ireland, he resigned the command. His departure from Ireland was deeply lamented by the reflecting portion of the people, and was speedily followed by those disastrous results which he had anticipated, and which he so ardently desired and had so wisely endeavoured to prevent.
After holding for a short period the office of commander-in-chief in Scotland, Sir Ralph, when the enterprise against Holland was resolved upon in 1799, was again called to command under the Duke of York. The campaign of 1799 ended in disaster, but friend and foe alike confessed that the most decisive victory could not have more conspicuously proved the talents of this distinguished officer. His country applauded the choice when, in 1801, he was sent with an army to dispossess the French of Egypt. His experience in Holland and the West Indies particularly fitted him for this new command, as was proved by his carrying his army in health, in spirits and with the requisite supplies, in spite of very great difficulties, to the destined scene of action. The debarkation of the troops at Aboukir, in the face of strenuous opposition, is justly ranked among the most daring and brilliant exploits of the English army. A battle in the neighbourhood of Alexandria (21 March, 1801) was the sequel of this successful landing, and it was Abercromby's fate to fall in the moment of victory. He was struck by a spent ball, which could not be extracted, and died seven days after the battle.
His old friend and commander the Duke of York paid a just tribute to the great soldier's memory in general orders: "His steady observance of discipline, his ever-watchful attention to the health and wants of his troops, the persevering and unconquerable spirit which marked his military career, the splendour of his actions in the field and the heroism of his death, are worthy the imitation of all who desire, like him, a life of heroism and a death of glory". By a vote of the House of Commons, a monument was erected in his honour in St Paul's cathedral. His widow was created Baroness Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir Bay, and a pension of £2,000 a year was settled on her and her two successors in the title.
A memoir of the later years of his life (1793-1801) by his third son, James (who was Speaker of the House of Commons, 1835-1339, and became Lord Dunfermline), was published in 1861. For a shorter account of Sir Ralph Abercromby see Wilkinson, Twelve British Soldiers (London, 1899).
Being the entry for ABERCROMBY, SIR RALPH in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.