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Napier was a British general and historian and the brother of Sir Charles James Napier. William Napier served in the Peninsular War and wrote a History of the War in the Peninsula (6 vols., 182840).
Napier was born at Celbridge, county Kildare, on 17 December 1785; he was educated at a grammar school at Celbridge, but spent much of his time on field sports. During the 1798 rising, Colonel Napier armed his five sons and put his house in a state of defence. On 14 June 1800, at the age of fourteen, William received his commission as ensign in the Royal Irish artillery. He was soon transferred to the 62nd regiment and was promoted to Lieutenant on 18 April 1801. With the Peace of Amiens in March 1802 he was reduced to half pay and unemployment. A few months later his uncle, the Duke of Richmond, brought him into the 'Blues' (the Royal Horse Guards) and Napier joined Captain Robert Hill's troop, then stationed at Canterbury.
In 1803 Sir John Moore proposed that Napier should take a lieutenancy in the 52nd regiment; on 2 June 1804, Moore obtained a company in a West India regiment for Napier and on 11 August, Napier was made a captain of the 43rd regiment. A 'natural' soldier, Napier's company was soon second to none. In 1804 Napier met Pitt the Younger through Pitt's nephew Charles Stanhope who was an officer in Napier's regiment. Two years later, Napier was chosen to recruit volunteers from the Irish militia to serve in the line. In 1807 he accompanied his regiment on the expedition against Copenhagen, was present at the siege, and served under Sir Arthur Wellesley in the attack on the Danish army. He took part in the battle of Kioge, and in the subsequent pursuit of the enemy.
On 13 October 1808 Napier's regiment at arrived at Coruña as part of the Peninsular army. He took part in Sir John Moore's campaign where Napier's and Captain Lloyd's companies were employed in the rear-guard to delay the French pursuit by destroying the communications. Napier and his company spent two days and nights without relief at the bridge of Castro Gonzalo with half his men demolishing it and the other half protecting the workmen from the enemy's cavalry. To rejoin the main army they had to make a forced march of thirty miles. During the retreat to Vigo, Napier was put in charge of a large convoy of sick and wounded men and of stores.
Napier returned to England in February 1809 and was appointed aide-de-camp to his uncle, the Duke of Richmond,who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He gave up the appointment in May to go to Portugal with his regiment. He suffered an attack of pleurisy and was left behind at Placentia. When he heard that Soult and the French were closing on the defeated British army at Placentia, he walked forty-eight miles to Oropesa where he acquired horses. He then rode to Talavera to join the army. Napier distinguished himself on the Coa in July 1810, where he was shot in the hip. The bone was not broken and he continued with his regiment until the battle of Busaco on 27 September 1810. He was seriously wounded at Casal Novo on 14 March 1811 while leading six companies supporting the 52nd regiment: a bullet lodged in his spine. His brothers were informed that William was fatally injured: however, Napier rejoined the army although his wound had not healed and he was appointed brigade major to the Portuguese brigade of the Light Division. He took part in the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro on 5 May 1811 and on the 30 May was promoted Brevet-Major for his services. He continued to serve until after the raising of the second siege of Badajos, when he suffered from a fever.
In February 1812 he married Caroline Amelia Fox. Three weeks later he sailed for Portugal again, after he had heard that the British had besieged Badajos, which was taken on 6 April 1812. Napier was promoted Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on 22 November 1813 and was at the battle of Orthez on 27 February 1814. However, his wounds and ill-health forced him to return to England. During Napoleon's 'Hundred Days', Napier made arrangements to rejoin his regiment, embarking for the continent at Dover on 18 June 1815: the same day as the Battle of Waterloo finally terminated the French Wars.
When the British army left France, Napier's regiment was sent to Belfast but he could not afford to buy the regimental Lieutenant-Colonelcy so he went on half-pay and retired from the active list at the end of 1819. Napier spent much of his time on painting and sculpture, writing for various periodicals including the Edinburgh Review. He visited Paris and was introduced to Soult; then in 1823 he decided to write a History of the Peninsular War. The first volume was published early in 1828; however, the publisher lost money by it so Napier decided to publish the remainder of the work on his own account. The second volume appeared in 1829; the third and fourth volumes were published in 1831 and 1834 respectively. In the spring of 1840 the sixth and final volume was published.
Napier was promoted to the rank of Colonel on 22 July 1830 and in April 1831 he declined an offer of a seat in parliament from Sir Francis Burdett, giving as reasons his ill-health, large family, and lack of money. Subsequently, he was offered parliamentary seats elsewhere, all of which he declined even though he took an interest in politics. He had very democratic views so in 1831 the younger reformers thought that Napier was well fitted to save the country from the dangers of insurrection during the 1830 Reform Act Crisis.
In the summer of 1838 Napier accompanied Marshal Soult on a tour of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, among other places. During 1839 the Chartist agitation culminated in the Bull-ring riots at Birmingham: Napier wrote to the Duke of Wellington saying that the rioters were treated with unjustifiable severity. At the same time, his brother Charles was commanding the army in the north of England where he acted with great sympathy towards the poverty-stricken people who had turned to Chartism in their distress.
On 29 May 1841 Napier was given a special grant of £150 a year for his distinguished services and on n 23 November he was promoted to the rank of major-general. In February 1842 he became lieutenant-governor of Guernsey and a major-general commanding the troops in Guernsey and Alderney. In the five years of his government he devised a scheme of defence which was partially executed. He also reorganised and rearmed the militia. While he was in Guernsey he devoted his spare time to writing a history of the Conquest of Scinde, a campaign in which his brother Charles had been engaged.
At the end of 1847 Napier resigned his appointment as lieutenant-governor of Guernsey and in February 1848 he was given the colonelcy of the 27th regiment of foot; in May he was made a KCB. The following year, Napier and his family moved to Scinde House, Clapham Park, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1851 Napier completed and published the History of the Administration of Scinde.
Napier was grief-stricken at the death of the Duke of Wellington in September 1852; he was one of the general officers selected to carry banderoles at the funeral. Napier's brother Charles died in August 1853, and Napier succeeded him in the Colonelcy of the 22nd regiment. On 13 October 1853 his brother Henry, a captain in the Royal Navy, died. During 1857 and 1858 Napier became increasingly weak and in October 1858 he had a serious illness from which he never recovered. He died on 10 February 1860 and was buried at Norwood. His wife survived him by only six weeks.
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