Charles Emilius Gold is said to have been born at Woolwich, London, England, into an army family, on 6 January 1809. His parents' names are unknown, but his father served as a senior artillery officer at Waterloo, and in 1806 had published a volume of aquatints of Indian scenes. Gold purchased an ensign's commission in the 65th (2nd Yorkshire, North Riding) Regiment of Foot on 20 March 1828 and a lieutenant's commission on 28 October 1831; from 1830 until 1837 he was stationed in British Guiana and the West Indies; he served in Canada from 1838 till 1841. He rose, by purchase, to captain (1836) and major (1844) in the regiment, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 30 December 1845. While serving in Kingston, Canada, Gold married Eleanor Felicia Askin Geddes on 1 June 1839. They were to have 15 children.
In September 1846 the regiment was ordered to New Zealand and Gold and his family arrived at Auckland on 4 January 1847. He soon afterwards commanded a detachment of troops accompanying Governor George Grey to the Bay of Islands, in the aftermath of the northern war. Gold spent the greater part of his service in New Zealand at Wellington, from August 1847 to September 1858, in command of the regimental detachment there. He was promoted to colonel by brevet on 20 June 1854. C. W. Richmond, who met him in 1857, described Gold as a 'pleasant gentlemanly soldierly fellow'. Garrison life during the years at Wellington was uneventful, but Eleanor Gold in particular cut a figure in the social life of the township, serving as hostess to her husband, and raising contributions for the Crimean patriotic fund. The regiment won public esteem for its services to the community after fire and earthquake.
During his periods of leisure Gold executed a number of idiosyncratic watercolour views, which show a rather childlike technique but in some cases a memorable, rhythmic vision of vegetation patterns. The paintings are largely of scenes around Wellington, Auckland and New Plymouth.
On 1 November 1858, at Auckland, Gold assumed by seniority command of the military forces in New Zealand, and on 25 January 1860 attended the Executive Council meeting which made the decision to proceed with the survey of the Waitara block. On 1 March he arrived at New Plymouth with Governor Thomas Gore Browne and 200 troops. Gold was in command of the troops at Taranaki until early August 1860. His reputation has been blighted by his apparent overall incapacity and by his failure to secure a quick and decisive victory over Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake. Gold's capture of the abandoned Te Kohia pa was ridiculed in the press, he was vilified by Taranaki settlers for his apparent abandonment of colonial detachments in action at Waireka, and he was blamed for failing to provide support to Major Thomas Nelson at Puke-ta-kauere.
It is clear that Browne and the Taranaki settlers generally had unrealistic expectations of the military at the outset of the first Taranaki war. Gold himself is said to have told Browne that a single volley 'would settle the whole affair', but his bravado foundered in the face of effective Maori tactics, difficult terrain and the over-riding need to defend a vulnerable, badly overcrowded and sickness-ridden town during a miserable winter.
Gold's conduct of the campaign was regarded as feeble – one anecdote which has survived suggests that he did not think that family men should take undue risks in war – but he did not entirely deserve the extreme personal vilification to which he was subjected at the time. The defeat at Puke-ta-kauere, it seems, was due less to Gold's dereliction than to Nelson's over-confidence: there is no evidence that Nelson expected help from Gold during the action; and during the period from 20 April to 23 June Browne ordered Gold to suspend hostilities for fear of Kingite intervention.
On 3 August 1860 Major General Thomas Pratt arrived from Melbourne to replace Gold in command at Taranaki. Gold, having himself been promoted to major general on 15 June, returned to Auckland, where he spent his last days in New Zealand avoiding his many creditors. Gold had been financially embarrassed for some years, a state of affairs which he blamed on the size of his family. A contemporary allegation was that at the time of the Taranaki campaign he was deeply in debt to Auckland tradesmen, and to officers and sergeants of his regiment who had raised loans to enable him to pay off his debts at Wellington. Gold is said to have secretly boarded a ship for England on 3 February 1861 and to have spent some time living in Belgium; he died, allegedly in poverty, at Dover, in England, on 29 July 1871.