Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

General Humbert: The Year of the French, 1798 and New Orleans, 1815 (Part 2 of 2)

By Adrian McGrath

General Jean Joseph
Amable Humbert
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

(Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of the story from
Part 1. This is the second and final part. Click the link above for the Part 1.)

Part 2: General Humbert’s Military Actions in Ireland and New Orleans

The Year of the French

On August 22nd, the French arrived. Landing on the west coast of Ireland in Kilcummin, Mayo, General Jean Humbert gave new hope for the Irish cause. Humbert led a small force of 1,100 French troops supported by approximately 5,000 Irish Rebels. Ireland had one last, desperate chance for independence. This heroic but doomed adventure became known as “Bliain n bhFrancach” in the Irish Gaelic language -- The Year of the French.

Map of Ireland by Johann Homann, 1716
Connacht is on the west coast, in color
Wikimedia Commons

There were other attempts by the French to land raiding parties and supplies on the shores of Ireland in 1798, but they failed. Should Napoleon have attempted a larger invasion of Ireland? Most likely General Bonaparte realized the great difficulty of getting ships, men, and supplies past the powerful British Navy and dealing with the dangerous seas and storms near Ireland in the Atlantic. Fighting so close to England itself would mean the British could easily bring in their own supplies and reinforcements while the French could not. Napoleon understood that the odds heavily favored the British, so he focused on Egypt, disrupting British commerce in the East, and not Ireland but did support limited operations there.

General Humbert, despite all obstacles, successfully landed and showed great leadership skills commanding his small force and moved on the town of Killala, gathering Irish support on the march. He defeated the British at the Battle of Castlebar, routing the enemy to the point where the battle was later referred to as “the Castlebar Races.” The British militia literally ran away in panic. The Franco-Irish force had about 2,000 men against a much larger British force of about 6,000 -- composed mainly of local militia but some British regular soldiers plus artillery and cavalry. It was a great victory for Humbert.

The Battle of Castlebar
"Castlebar Races" where Gen. Humbert
defeated the British in 1798
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The vast majority of the regular British Army was to the east near Dublin, however. It was only a matter of time before thousands upon thousands of highly trained British regulars would surround and attack Humbert.

The French leader nevertheless continued forward. He proclaimed the area of Ireland he and his men liberated as the Republic of Connacht -- the name of that province in Ireland. Humbert liberated Killala, Ballina, and Castlebar, and moved to the east. If he could raise enough local support, there was a slim chance he could even approach Dublin.

But as thrilling as this was, the reality was that this small French force was now thousands of miles from home, out of supply, and in a hostile environment surrounded by tens of thousands of British soldiers. The Irish rebels were brave, but they were untrained and badly equipped.


Lord Cornwallis, leader
of the British forces in Ireland.
He surrendered to G. Washington in 1781
at the Battle of Yorktown.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British eventually mustered up enough troops and surrounded Humbert. The French and Irish -- about 2,500 strong -- were forced to surrender on September 8 at the Battle of Ballinamuck in County Longford to a much larger British force of about 25,000 (10 to 1 odds against Humbert). The French liberation of part of Ireland had lasted less than three weeks.

The British, who eventually had about 60,000 soldiers in Ireland, were led by two officers who became known for other reasons famous in American history. The overall British commander was Lord Charles Cornwallis. He was the British general who was defeated at the Battle of Yorktown by a rebel American army under George Washington and supported by a French army under General Comte de Rochambeau. Another British officer on the field at the defeat of brave Humbert was Edward Pakenham, with the 23 Light Dragoons. He would meet Humbert again in combat 17 years later in New Orleans.

Edward Pakenham,
British officer in Ireland and
British commander at New Orleans
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British treated the French prisoners properly under the code of war and eventually exchanged and released Humbert and the French troops back to France. But they did not consider the Irish to be soldiers but treasonous rebels and traitors to Britain. The British treated the Irish prisoners as criminals and summarily executed many of the Irish rebels and leaders.

Then the British Army finished off the Irish rebellion with a ruthless destruction of peasants’ dwellings and homes and indiscriminate brutalization of the Irish people, including the war crimes of murder and rape.

Pakenham’s star was now rising. He would follow his brother-in-law Wellington to fight the French again in Spain and be chosen as the man to bring ruin to America. He would sail with a huge British force, gathered from British possessions around the globe, assemble at the British base in Jamaica, and set sail for south Louisiana. The British government felt it would be a simple task now for the British to take New Orleans by force of arms.

But there were men in New Orleans who were determined to stop them. One was Andrew Jackson and the other was Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.

The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1815
Redcoats attack Line Jackson at Chalmette and are defeated.
Gen. Humbert advises Gen. Jackson on the field of battle.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British did not take the War of 1812 seriously for a long while. Yes, they were at war with America; but America then was a new and very weak country. The enemy Britain feared was France which was led by one of the greatest military minds in human history -- Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he was a military genius, his ambition, his ego mania, could cause Napoleon to make serious mistakes. 

Russia, for example, was the obvious failure. Le Grand Armee was destroyed mainly by the environmental conditions in Russia rather than by battles. Afterall, Napoleon did capture Moscow. But the climate and environment and Napoleon’s boundless, even mad, ambition drove him to his own doom. He retreated from Russia with a destroyed army and a vulnerable empire.

After his loss at Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations, Napoleon was now in exile on Elba, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. The British could finally switch their attention to their other enemy -- the United States.

After a great deal of fighting near the Great Lakes on the border with Canada, and some raids along the East coast including one where the US White House was actually burned, the British felt extremely confident. American troops had fled in terror before British regulars at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland. The British commanders began to think all they needed to do was to show up, open fire, and the Americans would run away.

They turned their attention now to New Orleans. Capture that city, control the Mississippi River, control the shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and the Americans will be defeated.

In late 1814 the British sailed for Louisiana. Their leader was Edward Pakenham. He could not have possibly imagined that after all these years he would be facing General Humbert again in cypress swamps on the other side of the world.

In late December of 1814, the British troops began to assemble near Lake Borgne and march towards the river levee south of New Orleans. Pakenham, who was a smart officer, felt it would be better to try to outflank the Americans. But the terrain -- cypress swamps, the river, and lakes -- allowed little room to maneuver. 

His officers advised Pakenham to simply bombard the enemy with cannons and Congreve Rockets and then march through with musket volley and bayonet charge, and the Americans would flee as they did at Bladensburg, Maryland.

The British had “the victory disease.” Because they succeeded in the past they thought they would succeed easily again. This time, however, the Americans were an assortment of skilled marksmen with Kentucky Longrifles from Tennessee, professional American Army soldiers and Marines, an assembly of local volunteers including Choctaw Indians and Freemen of Color, and ruthless and highly experienced pirate cannoneers, Baratarian pirates under Jean Lafitte. Lafitte had supplied Jackson with gunpowder and pirate sailors in exchange for pardons for himself and his men.

But there was one other man on the American side -- General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert. He understood the British and their tactics, and he was happy to advise General Jackson.

Andrew Jackson, leader of the Americans
at the Battle of New Orleans. Both of his parents were from
Carrickfergus, Ireland. He was advised at the battle
by French general Jean Humbert.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Jackson verbally placed Humbert in command on the Westbank of the Mississippi River to prevent the British from outflanking the main American force and possibly bringing up cannon to bombard the city. 

The American officers on the Westbank, however, refused to take orders from a foreign officer, as Jackson forgot to make written orders. So Humbert re-joined Jackson on the Eastbank, on the main battlefield at Chalmette, and was a personal advisor to Jackson during the battle. All during the battle, General Humbert was under fire from the enemy.

The British Army advanced against Jackson’s line, but the Americans held. The British Army was shattered. Many British officers were killed by the accuracy of the pirates’ cannon fire and the long range rifle fire of the Kentucky and Tennessee volunteers.

More than 2,000 of the 8.000 British troops were killed. Jackson’s 5000 men held the ground and won the day.

It was a stirring success for the Americans and the most decisive victory of the war. Pakenham was killed with multiple bullet wounds. His body was sent back to Britain preserved in a barrel of rum. Humbert lived to see his British enemy from Ireland thoroughly defeated.

Andrew Jackson, of course, became a national hero and later the president of the United States.

Humbert Remembered

A monument of "Mother Ireland"
in honor of Gen. Jean Joseph Amable Humbert,
of The Year of the French, 1798
 in Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland on Humbert Street
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
and Miles O'Neill in public domain

Humbert spent the rest of his life until his death in 1823, more or less, living in New Orleans. He remained close friends with Jean Lafitte, and he was possibly even involved later on with Lafitte's "business enterprises" in Galveston, Texas.

It was said that Humbert was buried in what was then called the Girod Street Cemetery, which was near to where the Superdome is today in New Orleans. It is unsure what happened to the body. Some accounts say he was buried in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 behind the French Quarter.

Other accounts claim Humbert was a Mason and, arguably, would not be placed in a Catholic cemetery in those days. Some accounts say Humbert’s head was preserved but not the body, and that the Girod Street Cemetery itself was amended to make street repairs and then the cemetery removed, the bodies exhumed, and reburied elsewhere.

Whatever the case, Humbert lived and died and was almost certainly buried in New Orleans -- exactly where, we do not know.

Humbert was a colorful and romantic figure of the Napoleonic Era. (Indeed, he was alleged to have once had an affair with Napoleon’s sister, Pauline.)

It is too bad that General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert is not better remembered in America or especially in New Orleans, a country and city he fought to defend.

But he is a hero in Ireland to this day where he will always be remembered for one year of his incredible life, 1798 -- The Year of the French.

Sources and Further Reading:

Shannon Selin’s website ; History of New Orleans by John Kendall*.html#note14 ; Wikipedia’s article Battle of Castlebar ; Wikipedia article on the Irish Rebellion in 1798; Old NOLA Journal article on Humbert; Wikipedia article on Jean Humbert ; Mayo County Library, Ireland article on Humbert Footsteps; article about Humbert from an Irish pub ; “He Fought Pakenham Twice” article from the New Orleans Bar Review ; All photographs and artwork are in public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Map of Ireland; Andrew Jackson painting; Humbert Monument Ballina; Castlebar Races painting; Cornwallis painting; United Irishmen painting; Battle of New Orleans painting; Pakenham painting; Pitchcapping drawing; Scullabogue Massacre Drawing; Halfhaning drawing;   An Irish song book called "Bliain na Bhfrancach: Songs of 1798 The Year of the French" by Duchas, 1982. The book has Irish songs about 1798 and historical data. The booklet discusses General Humbert and mentions his burial in New Orleans.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Adrian. I grew up with a family of McGraths in our neighborhood and schools in KC Mo.