Castlepollard man got the better of Napoleon

One of the most esteemed generals of his age, Edward Michael Pakenham, the second son of the Earl of Longford, was born at Tullynally Castle near Castlepollard on March 19, 1778 and seemed destined to follow in the paths of his famous brother-in-law, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, but for his untimely death at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

It was all such a waste of effort and ultimately of life. The Battle of New Orleans was a great victory for General Andrew Jackson, later to become the 7th President of the United States. But news of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, which brought a three year war between America and Britain to an end, did not reach either party in time.

On the decisive day January 8, 1815 over 2,000 British troops were routed by Jacksons army, which in turn lost just eight men. It was a sad end to a distinguished career and a man regarded as one of the finest generals of his day less than three months before his 37th birthday.

Edward Pakenham joined the military in his early teens and attained the rank of major in the Ulster Light Dragoons before reaching his seventeenth birthday. He saw action in the wars which followed the French Revolution. He served in the West Indies and was part of the expedition which captured the island of St. Lucia in 1803 where he received a serious neck wound.

With the reputation of a gentleman soldier he was held in high esteem by his fellow officers and his image was further enhanced when Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, married his sister, Kitty in 1806. Though at the ceremony Wellesley, is reported to have said of his wife, who was afflicted by smallpox since he first sought her hand in marriage: She has grown ugly by Jove.

From 1810 on he served with distinction with his brother-in-law who rewarded him with the command of a brigade in the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon. The following year the quality of his leadership in battle earned him the rank of Major General.

Pakenham acquitted himself with distinction at the Siege of Bajadoz in April 1812, when taking command of the 3rd Division after General Picton was wounded. Three months later at The Battle of Salamanca, regarded as one of Wellington’s most impressive military successes, he further enhanced his reputation.

For three days the armies faced each other in parallel lines. But on noticing that a gap had opened up between the leading French divisions and those at the rear, Wellington is reputed to have said to his brother-in-law; Now’s your time, Ned .

Pakenham made the decisive break and Wellesley promoted him to be his Adjutant-General the following year. His performance at the Battle of the Pyrennes in July1813 further cemented his reputation and led to his knighthood at the age of 35. Britain and France had been at war since 1792 and in June 18, 1812 US President James Madison declared war on Britain provoked by their policy of attacking American ships and press ganging sailors into the navy.

By late 1814, the conflict was in stalemate and when General Ross was killed at the Battle of Bladensburg, Pakenham was appointed as Commander of the British troops in North America even though he was opposed to the war.

Possession of New Orleans would have given Britain control of trade on the mighty Mississippi, an important commercial highway. Pakenham arrived in Louisiana in December only to find his troops billeted in the malaria infested swamps.

Though outnumbered General Jackson hastily assembled a defence of the city with 5,000 men including regular soldiers, militia, Indians, coloured soldiers and even pirates. They built strong defensive works of logs and cotton bales and had a clear field of fire over the ground the British had to advance over. Mud ramparts were constructed to cushion the effect of cannon fire.

The British forces included American slaves, who escaped to the British side in the hope of winning their freedom. Pakenham opted to attack New Orleans from the east and the US side suffered an early setback with the loss of five gunboats in the first battle for the city in late December.

A second battle on Christmas Eve ended in stalemate with heavy casualties on both sides, but significantly diminished the British morale. Locals rallied behind Jackson. Slaves and citizens helped widen canals. The legendary Baratarian pirates offered their services to both sides, but Jackson’s promise of an amnesty for previous offences saw them throw their lot in with the home side.
On January 8, believing the heavy fog would give him an advantage, Pakenham led a final two pronged assault on the Americans positioned on both sides of the Mississippi. His failure to hold back his final assault until Colonel Thornton had taken their opponents guns ultimately led to his demise.

He was hopelessly outgunned. The American cannon were larger and better placed and their rifles were superior to the muskets of the regular British troops. In an attempt to rally his troops who had begun to retreat, he took charge of the final assault shouting encouragement to his men.
Close to the enemy line he was knocked from his horse by a cannonball, but quickly took an aide’s mount and as he charged forward, he was hit twice by bullets, once in the chest and then in the throat.

Brought to the rear, he issued an final order sending in the reserves under Major General John Lambert. Moments later he died after uttering his last words, lost for lack of courage.
Andrew Jackson, whose toughness earned him the nickname Old Hickory , later served the 7th President of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Since the Battle of New Orleans, no foreign army had attacked the US mainland.

Legend has that his heart was buried on the battlefield before his body was brought back to England in a cask of rum. There is another story which claims that the body was placed in a cask of wine which was diverted to South Carolina where contents were later served at a celebration dinner.

Other claims that the contents of the cask were consumed by the soldiers returning to England are also probably false. As the bodies of many prominent people were placed in alcohol for preservation before the advent of refrigeration, it is not surprising that many stories of people deliberately or unwittingly consuming the contents have emerged.

What is true is that the phrase tapping the Admiral meant surreptitious drinking in Royal Navy slang. Though its origins cannot be linked to a specific incident, there is no indication that the phrase was used prior to 1805. Therefore its origin is likely to connected with the return of Admiral Horatio Nelson s body and the half empty barrel found thereafter.

General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, where a life-sized statue was erected in his honour in the South Transept. He was not the most brilliant of generals, but for his achievements as an able commander in Spain, the war against Napoleon might have turned out differently for his distinguished brother-in-law, who later as Prime Minister oversaw Catholic Emancipation.

Taken from Maroon & White 2003