SPIRIT OF THE OCCASION
by Mike McCormack AOH NY State Historian
In 1798, the United Irishmen attempted to free their native land. Upon the stage of that rebellion, several characters played out their parts little knowing that they would meet again, with different results.
The successful start to the rebellion took place in Wexford, but was brutally crushed by British forces. Theobold Wolfe Tone, one of the primary leaders of the United Irishmen, had secured the promise of French aid, but the French forces, under General Humbert, arrived too late and too far north to help Wexford. Their landing in Mayo however, rekindled the fire of rebellion and the Irish and their French allies began to again to capture town after town – this time in Ireland’s west. The British decided to give their recently disgraced Lord Cornwallis one more attempt at redeeming the reputation he had lost in 1781 to General George Washington’s revolutionary forces in America. Cornwallis came to Ireland with a huge army, determined to win. One of his staff of officers was a Captain Packenham. By sheer force of numbers, Packenham overwhelmed the French and Irish at a place called Ballinamuck, where he ceremoniously tore off General Humbert’s epaulets and took his sword on the field of battle. He then separated the Irish from their French allies and put the Irish to the sword, while the French looked on in horror. Then Humbert and his French army were expatriated back to France in disgrace. Humbert reported his failure to a furious Napoleon and eventually was retired. He left for one of France’s distant colonies – thus came General Jean Humbert to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Five years later, in 1803, America purchased Louisiana from France, and Humbert, who had ended up in a French section of the city, decided to remain. Less than 10 years later, America found herself fighting England once again in the War of 1812. America again emerged successful, but this time one of the leading British Generals was none other than former Captain Packenham. As the second son of an English peer, Packenham was not entitled to share in the family estate, so he chose the military as a career. This was an acceptable course since it was customary for Generals to amass their fortunes from the spoils of vanquished cities. When it seemed that England was losing the war before Packenham had been able to loot a prosperous American city, he sailed his army toward the prize of America’s south – New Orleans – hoping to make his fortune there. England surrendered before Packenham’s army reached the Crescent City, but that didn’t stop Packenham. He was as determined as he had been 14 years earlier at Ballinamuck and he attacked New Orleans.
America’s military commander learned of the plans and set to oppose him. Unknown to Packenham, the American General he would face, was the son of Irish immigrants who had been forced to flee Ireland by the Crown – General Andrew Jackson. Also unknown, but equally significant, was that one of the Aides that General Jackson had enlisted in his Campaign was none other than retired General Humbert, whose sword Packenham had taken at Ballinamuck. Jackson had given Humbert a chance to redeem his honor.
The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, and resulted in a sound defeat of the British. However, Packenham himself was killed in the action. In celebrating their victory, Jackson and his Aides de Camp toasted their fallen enemy and decided to expatriate the British soldiers, as the French had been expatriated after their defeat in Ireland, but what to do with the remains of General Packenham. It was too late to disgrace him for he was dead; and since they were all honorable men, they would have to ship his remains home unmolested. It was then that Jean Lafitte, a local pirate who also served as an Aide to General Jackson, came up with the idea that made General Humbert smile. They packed his corpse, for the trip home, in a cask of New Orleans Brandy so that it could never be said that the general was not returned home in good spirits.