The Battle of Cawnpore-December 1857

Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN from WASHINGTON DC gives a brilliant analysis of the 1857 War of Independence.

Tantia Topi’s attack on Cawnpore in December 1857 was the only worthwhile sepoy countermove against the British at the strategic level.  Unlike the Delhi sepoys, the fact that Tantia’s force  reached the British line of communication and seriously threatened it proves Tantia’s ability as a first rate strategist and tactician.

We have seen that Tantia left Gwalior on 15 October 1857. They marched via Jalaun to Kalpi and crossed the Jumna River opposite Kalpi on 15 November 1857. Many of the sepoy Regiments at Banda joined him. Here it is important to note that bulk of Tantia’s troops belonged to the Gwalior  contingent which was not as well trained as Regular Bengal Army Infantry Regiments. The Gwalior contingent  comprised seven infantry and two cavalry regiments  and its total strength before the rebellion was 8,318 men439. All British writings repeatedly refer to Tantia Topi leading the Gwalior contingent to Cawnpore, but we must remember that the term “Gwalior Contingent”  is misleading, keeping in view the fact that in December 1857 this contingent was not the same as a military entity what it was in May 1857. Following factors greatly reduced its strength : -

  1. The 7th Infantry Regiment of the Gwalior Contingent marched to Delhi with the 72 NI and Ist LC after having rebelled at Nimach  on 3 June 1857.

  2. Major part of 6th Infantry Regiment of the Gwalior Contingent rebelled in May 1857 and marched to Cawnpore. Later on parts of this regiment retreated to Gwalior after having been defeated by Havelock in July 1857440.

  3. Part of the  Ist Infantry Regiment of the contingent at Etawah rebelled in  May 1857. Parts of it marched to Cawnpore and to Delhi441. However a large part of this regiment never rebelled and survived the rebellion being renumbered as 41 Bengal Native   Infantry442.

Roughly by December 1857 the Gwalior  Contingent which may have accompanied Tantia to Kalpi  and Gwalior could  not have exceeded 3,000 infantry  and 300 cavalry. The sepoys who may have joined him at Kalpi similarly could not have been more than 2,000. Delhi the focal point of rebel expectations by this time had fallen and the major part of the sepoy strength was committed at Lucknow. Tantia’s move against  Cawnpore at a time when the initiative had firmly been regained by the British was a titanic effort in terms of morale since the sepoy cause in Decmber 1857 was almost hopeless. All territory south of Ganges and north of Jumna had been recaptured by the British and their final victory was now just a matter of few months. Strategically the Grand Trunk Road was firmly in British control and steady reinforcements were arriving from Britain and China via the port of Calcutta. Viewed in face of these odds when the so-called martial races of India were swelling  the ranks of the irregular regiments of the newly raised British Regiments and the fiery Afghans had been cooled down with a cool retainer of 12 lakh per annum;  we can only salute this indomitable Mahratta who was still thinking like the ultimate Greek Hero!

Meanwhile, the following had been the situation at Cawnpore during November - December 1857443 : -

  1. Sir Colin Campbell had proceeded with the major part of his force to Lucknow for the final relief of Lucknow in November 1857. He had left General Windham at Cawnpore with a small force of 500 Europeans and some Sikh troops. Fitzgerald  Lee  and Radcliffe specified that there were  500 Europeans and 500 Madras infantry and  nine guns. Fortescue another very conservative man admits that 350 men of 2nd Royal Battalion reinforced Windham on 25 November444. Windham’s assigned task was to defend the Bridge over the Ganges by deploying his force behind an entrenchment just next to the bridge.

  2. By 19 November according to Michael Edwardes Tantia had severed  Cawnpore’s communication with  the area west of Cawnpore. It may be noted that Windham had requested Campbell permission to retain reinforcements passing through Cawnpore. Campbell had authorised Windham to retain these reinforcements on 14 November.  

  3. On 24 November 1857 Windham decided to move south and stall Tantia Topi before he could enter Cawnpore. He therefore, moved south on the Kalpi road with 1,200 men and 12 guns if we can believe the contemporary British accounts. On the 26th a small battle book place few miles south of Cawnpore. Windham was forced to retreat and the British historians were forced to inflate Tantia’s strength to 25,000 men! (This exceeds the total number of sepoy regiments and Gwalior contingent troops present in Central India before the rebellion started! ). We must not forget that there were about nine sepoy regiments in Central India and seven Gwalior contingent infantry Regiments. This makes 16 regiments of infantry. Out of these five regiments of sepoys (12 NI, 15 NI, 30 NI, 23 NI and 72 NI) went to Delhi. One Regiment  of Gwalior contingent went to Delhi and one to Cawnpore. One regiment  of sepoys i.e. the 31 NI never rebelled. This leaves about three sepoy regiments i.e. 42 NI 50 NI and 52 NI.  These went to Banda. Four regiments arrived from Dinapur and Orissa.  There could not have exceeded  2,000 men after a  long march and considerable fighting in Dinapur (and these went to Lucknow in November 1857 and were never at Cawnpore). The British  ego, however, scoffs at odds lower than ten to twenty times when Indians are concerned!

  4. Our hero Windham defeated those 25,000 sepoys he encountered on 26 November but was forced  to retreat due to shortage of Cavalry! This Honourable Fortescue wants us to believe us as we read page 329 of his book. We believe him because the British very cleverly hanged Tantia at Sipri!

  5. Windham retreats and Tantia with his 25,000 lazy sepoys follows hi! Tantia enters Cawnpore and advances towards the entrenchment on a five mile wide front because Fortescue has to do something with 25,000 men! This happens on 28 November when Windham is finally forced to retreat behind his entrenchment! Providence sends four companies of the third battalion of the Rifle  Brigade. By 29 November Tantia’s artillery was fully operational and had opened fire on Windham’s entrenchment!

  6. Meanwhile Sir Colin Campbell with part of his force from Lucknow arrived at Cawnpore on 28 November and by 29 November Campbell had started engaging Tantia’s obsolete 9 and 12 pounders with the vastly superior and sophisticated Heavy Naval guns of Peel’s  heavy brigade  from across the Ganges. Thus by mid-day 29 November 1857 Tantia’s artillery was completely silenced. The British authorities especially Fortescue underplayed the havoc created by Peel’s eight heavy guns and two rocket launchers.

The situation by 30 November was steadily favouring the British. The 24 pounder heavy guns of Peel had silenced and effectively neutralised Tantia’s artillery. Some 3,000 soldiers had reinforced Windham bringing British strength over 5,000 troops445.

Tantia’s position had some serious drawbacks. He was occupying built up area along the west bank of the Ganges canal. His numerical superiority if he ever had any keeping in view the dubious  British claims was turned into inferiority because  of the fact that Tantia could not reinforce his vulnerable right flank by shifting troops from his centre or left. This fact  has been somehow admitted by the British  authors ! We are very grateful to them for having been a little intellectually honest for a change  in this case. In this Campbell left no choice to subsequent British historians by admitting this fact in despatch written about the battle of Cawnpore.  

Campbell’s plan of battle was as following446 : -

  • Adrian Hope’s brigade to cross the Ganges bridge and take position  to the south east of Cawnpore so that communication with Calcutta could be reopened. Deploy facing the west and ensure safe passage of British non-combatants of Lucknow Residency which were being  evacuated to Calcutta after the withdrawal of Lucknow Residency garrison.

  • Six companies of 34th Foot to escort convoy of non-combatants to Allahabad.

  • Main attack on 06 December 1857 after the non-combatants were safely away from Cawnpore organised as following:-


  1. Feint from entrenchment and artillery fire in order to convince the rebels into believing that the main British attack would come from the north or the British Right.

  2. Brigadier Greathed to attack the rebel Centre based in General Ganj area

  3. Main attack on the sepoy right by Brigadier Inglis’s  and Brigadier Adrian Hope’s Brigades.

  4. Cavalry Brigade to threaten the rebel communication with Kalpi.

  • Order of Battle : -

  1. Cavalry Brigade (600 Sabres)

  • HM 9th Lancers

  • Ist Punjab Cavalry  (Parts)  (Authors unit)

  • 2nd                            

  • 5th                            

  • Hodson’s Horse

    2  Greathed’s Brigade

  • HM 8 Foot

  • HM 64 Foot

  • 2nd Punjab Infantry

   3   4th Infantry Brigade

  • HM 42 Foot

  • HM 53 Foot

  • HM 93 Highlanders

  • 4th Punjab Rifles

   4   5th Infantry Brigade

  • HM 23 Foot

  • HM 32 Foot

  • HM 82 Foot

   5   6th Infantry Brigade

  • Parts of Rifle Brigade

  • Detachment of HM 38 Foot

  • In all the British had about 5,000 infantry, six hundred cavalry and thirty five guns, if we are to believe Fortescue. But nowhere does Fortescue mention superiority in terms of being armed with the Enfield Rifles which automatically reduced  the rebel potential to one fourth and multiplied the British hitting power by four times. It may be noted that the main British attack was going south of the built up area where the  advantage of close quarter battle and thereby reduced engagement ranges which benefited the sepoy was nullified. In addition the tremendous British artillery superiority must not be under estimated.

The rebel left rested on the Ganges and their centre was based on the built up area of Cawnpore which was located on both east and west bank of the Ganges canal. The Sepoy right extended for about one and half to two miles south of the Cawnpore city on the west bank of the Ganges canal.

The British attack commenced after a heavy artillery preparation at nine O’clock on the morning of 06 December 1857. All praise to Tantia Topi who with all the tremendous odds against him managed to march all the way from Gwalior to Cawnpore with a obsolete pre-1815 Brown Bess whereas we so miserably failed to advance more than ten miles despite having the most sophisticated tank of 1960s. Those who have any doubt must visit a village called “Patton Nagar” near Valtoha in Indian Punjab! The British victory was a foregone conclusion and Tantia’s defeat as inevitable as that of Russians in the Crimean War or the Afghans in the First Afghan War!

Despite all this superiority Brigadier Mansfield who had been specifically ordered by Campbell with blocking the retreat of Tantia’s centre miserably failed in his assigned task! Thus the rebel centre was able to execute an organised withdrawal along the Bithur road. Fortescue compares this inexcusable blunder with John Stuart’s at Wellington’s passage of the Douro River during the Peninsular war447.

The British casualties were nominal, i.e. just 98 killed or wounded448. Pursuit continued  till 08 December 1857. Tantia escaped towards Kalpi while his centre  and left escaped towards Bithur. From here some of them withdrew towards Farrukhabad whereas some crossed the Ganges and withdrew into Oudh.


The Rohailkhand Campaign

Rohailkhand was the last major sepoy stronghold after capture of Lucknow in March 1858. Sir Colin Campbell made the following plan to recapture Rohailkhund449: -

a. The attacking force was divided into four columns which were to advance from the west the south   west the south and the south west and to ensure that the sepoys were pushed towards the Himalayan rain forest of Terai.

b. The south eastern force consisted of General Walpoles column originating from Lucknow  consisting of :-                                                       

  1. HM 9th Lancers

  2. 2nd Punjab Cavalry

  3. 42 Highlanders

  4. 79 Highlanders

  5. 93 Highlanders

  6. 4th Punjab Infantry

  7. Two Troops Horse Artillery

  8. Two 18 Pounders

  9. Two 8  Inch Howitzers

  10. Some Mortars

c. Walpole was to march from Lucknow towards west and clear the northern bank of Ganges River and the districts bordering  the western bank of  Ganges River. Subsequently he was to join forces with the force commanded by Seaton attacking from Fatehgarh and little south of Shah Jahanpur. Walpole’s force was about 6,000 men  of all arms.

d. Seaton Commanding a column consisting of 82 Foot, a Sikh Battalion and some irregular         troops was to march north from Fatehgarh and effect a junction with Walpole short of Shahjahanpur.

e. The Third Column commanded by General Penny was to advance from Meerut and advance Eastwards joining the two other columns east of Bareilly.

f. The fourth column commended by General Coke was to cross the Ganges from Rurki side  and was to ensure that no sepoys escaped west of Bareilly.

Theoretically in April 1858 the British  situation was excellent and all should have proceeded like clock work. But the British had one very gifted general by the name of Walpole. He left Lucknow with his column on 7th April 1858. All proceeded well till this outstanding general arrived at a small fort Ruiya about 51 miles south west of Lucknow on 15 April 1858. Walpole was told by his spies  that the Talukdar Nirpat Singh occupying the fort had no intention of opposing the British but only wanted by putting up a token resistance order to preserve appearances and to save his honour. Walpole refused to believe this and decided to assault the fort without bothering to carry out any type of reconnaissance of the fort. Subsequently it was discovered that the rear wall of the fort in contrast with the front wall was so low that even a child could climb it ! Walpole’s frontal assault  on the   front failed with a casualty figure of over 100 killed and wounded including  a very promising officer by the name of Brigadier Adrian Hope. While Walpole was planning a future assault Nirpat Singh  abandoned the fort  during the night with his entire force 450!

Meanwhile Brigadier Coke crossed the Ganges a little west of Hardwar and moving south east twice defeated the sepoys halfway between Ganges and Bareilly on 17 and 21 April and finally arrived on 26 April about five miles west of  Muradabad. At Moradabad Coke carried out a house to house search to find prince Feroze Shah but Feroze Shah had already escaped  towards Shahjahanpur.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Penny was killed in a night ambush short of Badaun and was succeeded by Brigadier Jones. On 27 April Campbell effected a junction with Walpoles column while marching north. On 30 April they entered Shahjahanpur and left a garrison of 500 men under Colonel Hale.  They joined Penny’s column at Miranpur Kattra on 3rd May 1858 and  marched towards Bareilly.

Cokes Column  defeated a sepoy force at Nagina on 21 April 1858 and  reached Mirganj on 5 May about 14 miles west of Bareilly.

Campbell had now about 8,000 men from the following units451 :-

a.         64 Foot

b.         78 Foot

c.         42 Highlanders

d.         79 Highlanders

e.         93 Highlanders

f.          4 Punjab  Rifles

g.         2nd Punjab Infantry

h.         22nd Punjab Infantry

i.          Baluch Battalion

Khan Bahadur Khan contested Campbells force about two miles south of Bareilly but was defeated on 05 May 1858. He withdrew towards Pilibhit near the Terai.

Meanwhile, the Maulvi of Faizabad i.e. Maulvi Ahmadullah had attacked Hale with 500 men and had  forced Hale to fortify himself in jail. This situation continued till Shahjahanpur was relieved by Brig. Jones on 11 May 1858. The Maulvi was soon joined by Firoz Shah and Hazrat Mahal and the battle continued till 15 May 1858 once after being reinforced again Jones was finally able to recapture Shahjahanpur. Thus ended the last major resistance in Northern India452


            439 Page-2-The Revolt in Central India-Op Cit.

            440 Pages-4 & 12-Ibid.

            441 Page-5-Ibid.

            442 Page-110- The Armies of  India -Major General George.F.Macmunn-Adam and Charles Black-London-1911.

            443 Pages-328 to 334-J.W  Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.

            444 Foot Note on Page-329- Ibid.

            445 Page-334 & 335-  Ibid.Pages-831 & 832- Henry Beveridge-Volume-III-Op Cit.

            446 Pages-334 and 335-J.W  Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.

            447 Page-335-Ibid.

            448Page-835-Henry  Beveridge-Vol-III-Op Cit.

            449 Pages-371 to 374-J.W  Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.

            450 Pages-144 & 145-Battles of the Indian Mutiny-Op Cit.

            451 Pages-372 & 373-J.W  Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.

            452Pages -149 & 150-Battles of Indian Mutiny-Op Cit.