The Sad Fate of Wellington’s Brother-in-Law

Two weeks ago Linda Pennell entertained us with a description of the Battle of New Orleans, the battle and the song, on the 200th anniversary of the event. The comments it drew included a link to Lonnie Donegan’s British version of the Johnny Horton song.   If you listened closely to the lyrics you heard “Pakenham said we could take ‘em by surprise…” “Wait! Who the heck is Pakenham?” asked the Americans.

General Sir Edward Pakenham, by Martin Cregan

Major General Sir Edward Pakenham was, of course, the British General at New Orleans. He was also a Member of Parliament, a distinguished veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, and the brother-in-law of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. A much-respected professional soldier, he deserves to be remembered for more than the defeat, a pop song, and being pickled in a barrel of rum.

Ned Pakenham got his commission as an officer at sixteen. Like Wellington, he came from a prominent Anglo-Irish family. He apparently rose from lieutenant to captain to major within six months. He served against the French (and his fellow Irish) in Ireland during the rebellion of 1798, and later joined in the wars against Napoleon on the continent. He commanded a battalion as a lieutenant colonel at the Battle of Copenhagen at age 29.


Elizabeth (nee Hay) second Duchess of Wellington by J.R. Swinton, 1850

By 1810 he had risen to adjutant-general and fought in Spain and Portugal along side his brother-in-law. He commanded a regiment early in the campaign and a division at Salamanca. He led with particular distinction at Fuentes de Onoro. For his service he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He had been wounded twice and was by all reports well liked and respected by the officers and troops.

After Napoleon’s surrender in April 1814, Pakenham’s sister Kitty became a duchess when Wellesley became the Duke of Wellington. Pakenham himself returned home and prepared to take up a seat in Parliament. He does not appear to have had any interest in joining the fight in America and may, in fact, have opposed British involvement in it. That fall, however, he was appointed to replace Sir Robert Ross as commander of the North American Army. (Ross had been killed in the fighting near Baltimore in September.)

Pakenham hoped to arrive before the troops went ashore, but was delayed by adverse weather. He arrived at his new command on Christmas 1814 after the British advance guard had already reached nine miles from New Orleans but failed to press its advantage while waiting for their commander. The delay famously gave Jackson time to build up New Orleans’s defenses and solidify his alliance with Jean Lafitte.

Pakenham, faced with fait accompli and with less than two weeks to prepare, attacked on

The Death of Sir Edward Pakenhamby Felix Darley (public domain)

The Death of Sir Edward Pakenham by Felix Darley 1860

January 8, 1815. The British suffered crushing defeat, taking over 2000 casualties to the Americans’ 71. Pakenham apparently did not lead from behind. He rode out to rally his troops; grapeshot killed his horse and wounded him in the knee. He mounted another and was wounded again. A third shot killed him; he died on the field. His heart was removed and buried in Chalmette, Louisiana. His body was shipped home in a barrel of rum to be buried on his family’s estate in Ireland.

Then as now controversy about Pakenham’s culpability for the loss raged. His own officers praised him. Wellington defended him, blaming the British admiral on the scene, Sir Alexander Cochrane instead. He wrote, “We have but one consolation, that he fell as he lived, in the honourable discharge of his duty and distinguished as a soldier and a man. I cannot but regret that he was ever employed on such a service or with such a colleague. “

Americans, of course, rejoiced. There are at least two points of view in every story. Novelists get to choose which ones to promote.

For more information see:

Pakenham’s Orders

National Park Service on Pakenham

NOLA History: Edward Pakenham and the Battle of New Orleans