A FRENCH GENERAL
A HERO OF IRELAND
Général Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.
By Stephen Dunford, Chairman – In Humbert’s Footsteps Association
Bi-Centenary of Battle of New Orleans commemorates an Irish connection with a difference.
First published in Summer 2015 issue.
At noon on 8 January 2015, a freezing, though sunny Louisiana Thursday, a very special ceremony took place in the grounds of St. Louis Cemetery, No. 1, 425 Basin Street, New Orleans, the final resting place of French Général Jean Joseph Amable Humbert. The ceremony which formed part of the commemorative and historical re-enactment event surrounding the bi-centenary of the Battle of New Orleans (24 December 1814 – 8 January 1815), centred on the official unveiling of a plaque to the aforementioned Général Humbert. In his short life Humbert was a daring man and a distinguished French Revolutionary General, intrepid commander of his own epochal expedition to Ireland in 1798, the year since known as ‘the Year of the French’ and later, a courageous defender of New Orleans in 1815.
In Ireland we associate General Humbert with the 1798 Rebellion and the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In the West he is remembered for landing with a French Army on 22 August 1798 and establishing the first Republic in Ireland ‘The Republic of Connaught’. Following General Humbert’s defeat and surrender at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford on 8 September 1798, the French soldiers of his small Franco-Irish army were transported to Dublin. There the principal officers were placed in what was at the time, the best hotel in the capital, the Mail Coach Hotel, Dawson St, later the Hibernian Hotel. Humbert was described by a resident as: ‘rather a handsome man, polite in his address and much more externally polished than the Generals Sarrazin and Fontaine’. It is recounted that while staying in the Dublin hotel Humbert often appeared on the hotel’s balcony to the large inquisitive crowds who had gathered to get a glimpse of him, dressed it is said: ‘in a blue coat with gold epaulets, gilt buttons, and a white cashmere waistcoat, acknowledging the admiration of the crowd’.
n the aftermath of his repatriation to France, Humbert served with distinction in Switzerland, Germany, and Flanders (the Dutch speaking northern part of Belgium) before being despatched to present day Haiti. There he distinguished himself once again and was installed as Governor of Port au Prince. Just as he had previously done in Ireland, Humbert commanded in a humane manner though he was a strict disciplinarian. Following the death of his commanding officer, Charles Leclerc, and due in no small way to his scandalous affair with Leclerc’s wife, Pauline, Napoleon Bonaparte’s eldest sister, Humbert discovered himself a military and social outcast. It did not help matters with his overt support for republicanism and his public upbraiding and criticism of Napoleon.
Recalled to the colours on one occasion in 1809, when Napoleon was out of France, Humbert once more found himself fighting against the British, this time at Scheldt, where he again fought courageously and was recommended for La Légion d’Honneur. On his return to France, Napoleon refused to sanction the recommendation and exiled Humbert. Not content with keeping the fallen general in exile, it is maintained that Napoleon was also making secret preparations to have Humbert incarcerated when he received a dispatch from him requesting a passport to travel to Louisiana. Bonaparte was in Vilna facing defeat at the hands of the Russians when he received the request, and seeing this as a solution to the problem duly issued the passport, reputedly on condition that he never return to France. The historian Jacques Baeyens tells the story in this fashion: ‘The letter was placed before the sovereign July 9, 1812 at the Imperial residence of Vilna. He dictated one word ‘Approved’ to which he attached one enormous initial ‘N’ which seems to have been done with much anger that he wished to break through the paper’. Thus, it came to pass that sometime around November 1812, Jean Joseph Amable Humbert took a ship bound for America and upon arrival settled in New Orleans. Tradition maintains that much later Bonaparte supposedly cursed his sister for being the instrument through which he lost one of his best and most experienced soldiers, a soldier he could have well done with later at Waterloo.
Humbert played an active role in the Anglo-American Wars fighting on the American side. Once again this fine soldier brought honour to himself, most notably in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans, where on several occasions, as commander of a crack corps of Creole marksmen, he again found himself facing the British Army. A peculiar circumstance of the Battle of New Orleans was that Humbert again encountered Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham (brother of Kitty Pakenham, wife of the Duke of Wellington) who had formerly been an officer in General Lake’s army in Ireland in 1798. Escaping a brush with death at Ballinamuck, he survived that day and later on was present at the French surrender. Unfortunately for Pakenham, this time he was not so lucky and he was killed during the Battle of New Orleans. It is claimed that Pakenham had been promised an Earl’s coronet as the reward for his expected conquest of Louisiana. The lore of New Orleans claims that Humbert was amongst the party who, for the trip home, placed Pakenham’s corpse in a cask of brandy, so that it could never be said that the general was not returned home in good spirits.
Feted and celebrated as a champion by the people of New Orleans, Humbert came to the attention of Major General Andrew Jackson, the ‘Hero of New Orleans,’ who would later become President of the United States. It was Jackson who later referenced Humbert’s war record stating: ‘General Humbert who offered his services as a volunteer; has constantly exposed himself to the greatest possible dangers with characteristic bravery’. Later, Robert Rimini, Jackson’s biographer wrote of Humbert declaring that he: ‘performed any number of strange, possibly mad and undoubtedly heroic acts in the name of freedom’.
Général Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, ‘Hero of Castlebar and New Orleans,’ was a dashing champion on two Continents, a man whose life was packed with adventure, and of whom it was said that: ‘he cared nothing for his skin and little for his life’. He passed his latter days earning a meagre living teaching fencing and languages at a local French College, he also gave instruction in the science of applied mathematics, a subject for which he had a great passion. A proud old soldier, Humbert became one of the city’s most colourful celebrities and was noted at a memorial service for Napoleon which was held in the St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans as: ‘General Humbert the Republican Lion of year’.
Unfortunately, alcohol was to play a major part in the latter years of General Humbert’s life and unsurprisingly this abusive lifestyle took its toll on his health. Général Jean Joseph Amable Humbert died prematurely of an aneurysm in bed at his home at 186 Casa Galvo Corr, Espana, on January 2nd, 1823. Neither honoured nor rich his body was not discovered until the following day.
Général Humbert was granted a funeral commensurate with his former position and reputation. The entire Corps d’élite of the Louisiana Legion formed his guard of honour and a huge concourse of citizens turned out to pay their final tribute to him. One of the chief mourners was his great friend and another equally colourful character ‘The Bosswoman’ – Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. His headstone bore the epitaph ‘Humbert Général Républicain Francais’. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the nineteenth century the St. Louis cemetery was reduced in size along one side so that the street could be widened, during which Humbert’s tomb was dismantled. In the process of rearrangement, all the exhumed skeletons (including Humbert’s bones which were intact) were consigned into a common resting place and forgotten, except that is for Humbert’s skull, which was saved and preserved by a Major W.M. Robinson, who later became city editor of the New Orleans Picayune.
The ceremony held 200 years later was attended by the French Consul in New Orleans, Grégor Trumel and the Honorary Irish Consul, Chief Judge James McKay. Both men delivered orations, after which messages of support and goodwill were read from Mayo County Council and the Mayor of St. Nabord, Humbert’s birthplace. Fashioned in bronze, the plaque was worded and erected by the Co. Mayo historical association, In Humbert’s Footsteps, and the French re-enactment group, Association ème Bataillon de Chasseurs des Montagnes. Spokesperson for In Humbert’s Footsteps, Stephen Dunford said that: ‘It was an honour for In Humbert’s Footsteps to have played such a significant role in the erection of this plaque on behalf of the people of Co. Mayo. I hope that this long overdue recognition for General Humbert in his final resting place in New Orleans will lead to the setting up of new historical and commercial links between Louisiana and Mayo. I look forward to seeing visitors from Louisiana in Mayo in 2016 when In Humbert’s Footsteps will be staging a series of cross-county historical living history events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising and its connections with Humbert and 1798’.
In Humbert’s Footsteps has staged the largest and most spectacular series of Napoleonic living history re-enactments ever seen in Ireland. The winner of the ‘National Gathering Event of the Year’ in 2013, In Humbert’s Footsteps also took place in 2015 and to date re-enactment events have taken place in six centres across Co. Mayo including: Kilcummin, Killala, Ballina, Lahardane, Castlebar and Swinford.