I write this blog entry in hopes that someone can shed light on some historical folklore that has been passed through for generations, and is a long-held anecdotal story about General Packenham and the journey of his body back to England for proper burial after his death at the Battle of New Orleans.
By way of background, when he landed at the Villeré Plantation to lead a British invasion of the important trading port of New Orleans, he was appalled by Andrew Jackson’s decision to send troops in the middle of the night to raid the British camp. Preferring what he thought to be more noble warfare of open field sieges, he arranges his men to attack New Orleans in two flanks in early January 1815. Underestimating the power of the American guns, this decision turns out to be disastrous. In the 30-minute Battle of New Orleans, Pakenham was first hit by grapeshot, killing his horse and wounding him in the knee. As he was helped to his feet by his senior aide-de-camp, Major Duncan MacDougall, Pakenham was wounded a second time in his right arm. After he mounted MacDougall’s horse, more grapeshot ripped through his spine, fatally wounding him, and he was carried off the battlefield on a stretcher. He was laid beneath the oaks which today still bear his name. His last words were reputed to be telling MacDougall to find General John Lambert to tell him to assume command as well as “Tell him… tell Lambert to send forward the reserves.” As we all know, the British army suffered a colossal defeat, simply capping England’s larger defeat in the War of 1812.
It is well-know that soldiers who died in combat during that time in history were buried on the field of battle, but English tradition called for the bodies of fallen generals to be transported back for proper burial. We also know that Packenham’s body was “pickled” in a rum cask and loaded onto a ship headed for England in the spring of 1815, but this is where the story takes a turn….is it folklore, or is it true? Read on.
Researching what is available on the internet acknowledges the rum cask that held his body was “mishandled” during the journey, but so far, that is all I have been able to find. The story I have heard repeatedly is that the ship encountered a strong spring storm, possibly an early tropical system, and sustained enough damage that the captain put into port on the southeastern coast somewhere; some say it was Charleston, others say Savannah. Regardless, ship captains in those days had a wide latitude of authority, and they could barter a portion of their ship’s cargo to pay for the shipyard repairs. It was in this bartering confusion that the rum cask is said to have been mishandled.
Apparently, sometime later while the ship was still in port undergoing repairs, the cask found its way into a seamen’s bar frequented by local prostitutes. As the barkeep poured from a newly tapped cask, the seamen spit out the rum as being rancid. In an angry mob scene, as the folklore holds, they swung an ax at the cask of bad rum, busting it open, and Packenham’s body flowed out onto the floor of the bar. Apparently the fright was so intense, seamen and prostitutes alike were seen jumping out of windows and pushing through doors to escape the grim scene.
Packenham’s body was placed in a new rum cask, re-loaded onto the ship, and sent back to England. History acknowledges that he was given a proper burial at the Pakenham family vault in Killucan in County Westmeath, Ireland. A statue in his memory was erected and sits at the South Transept of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Who knows if this folk tale is true? Please join the conversation if you can add to, or corroborate, this piece of folklore.