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 1 of 2)

Gen. Jean Joseph
Amable Humbert
Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

(Editor’s note: This is a two part article dealing with the story of General Humbert. Part 1 deals with the historical background, setting the stage. Part 2 deals with Humbert’s military actions
in Ireland and in New Orleans. Click the link above for Part 2.)

Part 1: The Historical Background in Ireland and New Orleans during the Age of Napoleon

There is an old saying which is often true: Fact is stranger than fiction. At the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, the last great battle of the War of 1812, three generals appeared who, oddly enough, all had direct ties to Ireland. Two of them were indeed the commanders of the opposing armies.

But it is the third man who has the most remarkable Irish story of all.

The first general was Edward Pakenham. He was born at Tullynally Castle (Pakenham Hall) in County Westmeath, Ireland; he was an English aristocrat living on lands taken from the Irish long ago.
He was the brother-in-law of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington; the Duke would ultimately defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Pakenham served with Wellington with the British army fighting Napoleon’s French army in Spain during the Peninsular War. Because of his capable service in Spain, Pakenham was chosen to lead the British land invasion of Louisiana and capture the key American port city of New Orleans, which controlled all commerce on the Mississippi River and beyond, in 1814.
Edward Pakenham
Wikimedia Commons

The second general was the leader of the American forces, General Andrew Jackson. Both of Jackson’s parents were from Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Ireland and emigrated to America.
Andrew Jackson, born in the Waxhaws in South Carolina, was Protestant Irish, also known as
Scots Irish Presbyterians or Dissenters. Many of these Ulster Scots Irish left the north of Ireland
to avoid the discrimination placed on them by the British. They came to America seeking a new and freer life. Andy Jackson, his brother, and his mother acting as a nurse, aided the American cause
during the Revolutionary War of 1776. His soldier brother and his mother died during the war, and Jackson, who was a very young army scout at the time became a prisoner-of-war.

A ruthless British officer struck young Andrew with a sword when Jackson defiantly refused to shine the officer’s boots. Now in 1815 General Jackson faced a British general on the Chalmette Battlefield just outside of New Orleans, renewing a struggle against British imperialism in the New World which had its roots in the Old.

Young Andrew Jackson refuses
to shine a British officer's boots.
Photo Wikimedia Commons

But it is the third general who had the strangest coincidences. He was buried in New Orleans, but he was not an American. He fought the British in Ireland, but he was not Irish. He fought Pakenham first in Ireland in 1798 and again in 1815 in New Orleans. He was a personal friend of Napoleon Bonaparte’s and of the Baratarian pirate Jean Lafitte. At the Chalmette battlefield he was warmly welcomed as a volunteer and praised by General Andrew Jackson. He was the French revolutionary named Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.

In Irish history Napoleon Bonaparte is seen as a hero who tried to save Ireland from British tyranny. Jean Humbert was Napoleon’s bold and daring general who almost made that happen. Humbert failed in Ireland, but he helped the Americans stop the British in Chalmette.

“Bliain n bhFrancach” -- The Year of the French

United Irishmen, a political society of
Irish Protestants and Catholics, at first wanted political reform and
later wanted independence from Britain
Photo Wikimedia Commons

This Irish rebellion had its origins in a philosophical and political organization called the United Irishmen. This was an incredible mixture of Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants who put aside their religious and cultural differences for a common cause -- and what that they saw as the solution to “The Irish Question.” Initially, they only wanted reform within the British Empire. Later they saw that the solution was independence -- remove British rule from Ireland, and let the Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, govern themselves in peace. The United Irishmen were greatly influenced by two other revolutions --- the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789.

In May of 1798 the Irish rebellion began. It attempted to put an end to British tyranny in Ireland which dated back centuries and created a society of British elites, who were Church of England and the related Church of Ireland, and second class subjects, suppressed under the Penal Laws, who were mainly Irish Catholics or non-Anglican Irish or Scots Irish Protestants, such as Presbyterians.

In addition to ethnic and religious discrimination, there was classism. People who did not own land had little, if any, political influence.

Oddly enough, the Catholic Church in Rome was opposed to the United Irishmen and their rebellion. The Church especially feared Revolutionary France which was largely anti-clerical. However, some individual clergy members did support the rebellion like the famous Father John Murphy of Wexford mentioned in the Irish Rebel song "Boolavogue."

The Irish Protestant leader of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, attempted to get the assistance of revolutionary France to help in the revolt in Ireland. In 1796 the French did attempt to land
a fairly large force of 13,000 troops in Ireland; but for many unfortunate reasons, including violent storms at sea, the expedition failed to land. General Bonaparte, as he was called -- as The Directory, a form of revolutionary council, was officially ruling France at that time -- was occupied fighting the Austrians in Italy, and in early 1798 he led a military expedition to Egypt, attempting to disrupt British commerce in the East.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Invasion of Egypt, 1798
"Battle of the Pyramids" by
Antoine Jean Gros, 1810
Wikimedia Commons

There was fighting all over Ireland between ill-armed and ill-prepared rebels and the professional British Army and their militias. Most of the Irish were armed with mere wooden pikes -- long homemade spears, while the British had firearms -- muskets with bayonets and cannons.

Pikes had some value against cavalry charges and in some hand-to-hand melees, but clearly the ancient weapons were inferior to military guns in the hands of disciplined British soldiers.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill
The Irish pikes were no match
for firearms and professional soldiers.
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Many of the major battles occurred in the Southeast of Ireland, including the important Battle of Vinegar Hill in Wexford in late June. This was the turning point of the conflict, and it appeared that the Rebel cause was doomed.

In addition to set piece battles, the British army terrorized the Irish civilian population. It is also true that the Rebels committed some atrocities against pro-British, Loyalist civilians as well. A terrible atrocity occurred at Scullabogue where pro-British Loyalist civilians were burned to death in a barn, in unjustified retaliation for the burning to death of anti-British civilians elsewhere.
Hatred and violence swept over Ireland.

Scullabogue. Loyalist civilians were
massacred in retaliation for the massacre
of Rebel civilians. Hate followed hate in
Photo Wikimedia Commons

The British Army suppressed the Irish with many brutal methods including executions, mainly by hanging, and also fiendish tortures such as “halfhanging” and “pitchcapping.”

In halfhanging a victim was hanged partly until almost dead and then quickly released. He was then halfhanged again and again in an attempt to punish him or extract information.

Half hanging, British torture of suspected
Irish Rebels
Photo Wikimedia Commons

In pitchcapping, hot tar was poured over the skull of a victim, whose hands were tied behind his back. The burning tar would cause extreme pain and any hot liquids from burned flesh or blood could pour down the victim’s face and into his eyes. Then after the tar cooled and solidified, it was ripped off the head violently, ripping off hair and skin and in effect scalping the victim. This too was a form of punishment or torture to extract information. It was also alleged that rape by the British soldiers against Irish civilian women occurred. In the British view the Irish Rebels were traitors and did not deserve legal protection.

Pitchcapping, torture of Irish
civilians by the British
Photo Wikimedia Commons

These horrors continued in Ireland as the British rounded up the leaders of the rebellion.

The only thing that could save the Irish now was immediate military assistance from a powerful ally.

Continue reading at Part 2 of 2.

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. Did Pakenham or Jackson speak the Gaelic language?

  2. Hi. I do not know if Pakenham or Andrew Jackson spoke Gaelic. Pakenham might have heard a few words and phrases from the local Irish since he was raised in Ireland. But he was an elite English aristocrat, so it is unlikely that he spoke Irish Gaelic to any large degree.

  3. Andrew Jackson was born in South Carolina and lived in Tennessee. He would probably not have heard Gaelic there, but both of his parents were from the North of Ireland. It is possible that they knew some Irish Gaelic words and phrases and passed them on to Andrew. But I do not know for sure.

  4. Ironically the footsoldiers of the North Cork Militia who suppressed the Wexford 1798 rising were gaelic speakers.