Two hundred years ago, yesterday, what was to be the last major battle of the War of 1812 ended with the deaths of nearly three hundred British troops, two of them generals. One of those generals, Major-General Edward Pakenham, was a highly decorated soldier who had served with distinction in the Peninsula. While there, he had also become one of the most able and trusted officers in the command of his brother-in-law, General Wellington.
The loss of Ned Pakenham . . .
Edward Michael Pakenham was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy 19 March 1778, in County Westmeath, west of Dublin. A second son, he was named after his father, Edward Michael Pakenham, Baron of Longford. His family purchased a lieutenant’s commission for him in the 92nd Foot when he turned sixteen. Within four years he had risen in the ranks and transferred to the 23rd Light Dragoons, in which regiment he served as a major while defending Ireland against the French in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Known as "Ned" to his friends, Pakenham next served as MP in the Irish House of Commons, representing his family’s borough of Longford for two years. Apparently, the young man did not much care for politics, since he served only one term in the Irish Parliament before again taking up his military career.
Ned Pakenham’s elder sister, Catherine, known as "Kitty" to her family and friends, was being courted by another member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy while he was still a teenager. Arthur Wellesley asked for Kitty’s hand in 1795, just a year before Ned got his first commission. However, his elder brother, Thomas, refused Wellesley, asserting that the young man had no prospects and was not a fit suitor for Kitty. Wellesley also joined the army and not long thereafter shipped out to India. Ned would not see him again for several years, while he continued his own military career. After his brief stint in the Irish House of Commons, Ned Pakenham’s regiment was assigned to the West Indies where he served until June of 1803, when he was wounded and invalided home.
After his recovery, Pakenham was promoted to a brevet colonel, and joined the 7th Royal Fusiliers, based at Weymouth in 1806. It was at this time that he once again became acquainted with Major-General The Honorable Sir Arthur Wellesley, when Wellesley, back from India, married his sister, Kitty. The following year, Ned was promoted to a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Fusiliers, and led his troops at the Battle of Copenhagen. In 1809, his battalion was then assigned to Martinique, where he was again wounded. After his recovery, he joined his regiment in Nova Scotia for a time. Pakenham was again promoted, this time to deputy adjutant-general, and in 1810, he joined the British army in the Peninsula, where he came under the command of his brother-in-law, now General Viscount Wellington.
General Edward Pakenham quickly became one of Wellington’s most trusted commanders. In 1811 he received a field promotion to major general and became part of Wellington’s headquarters staff. At the Battle of Salamanca, General Pakenham was in command of the Third Division, replacing General Picton, who had been severely wounded and sent home. This division had been created by Wellington himself and was known as the "Fighting Third." Wellington had great faith in the 3rd and would entrust their command only a general in whom he also had great faith. When Wellington saw the French make a blunder he knew he could exploit, he rode up to where his brother-in-law and some other commanders were conferring. To Pakenham he said, "Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill? Throw your division into column and have at them. Drive them to the devil!" Pakenham extended his hand to Wellington and said, "I will, my Lord, by God, if you will give me your hand." The brothers-in-law shook hands, then Pakenham galloped off to give the 3rd their orders. To the other officers in the vicinity, Wellington said, "Did you ever see a man who understood his orders more clearly than Pakenham?" Before the day was out, Ned Pakenham and the Fighting Third smashed the French center and the British carried the day.
General Pakenham’s field promotion to major general was confirmed in June of 1812. He continued serving in the Peninsula, participating in numerous victories against the French, including the Battle of Toulouse. At the time, everyone believed that battle to be the final battle of the war against Napoleon. General Edward Pakenham received several awards and honors. making him one of the most decorated field commanders of the war. By the fall of 1814, he was back in England, but with no command. The War of 1812 was still ongoing in America and reports reached Britain that General Robert Ross, commanding the British Army in North America, had been killed. The command was offered to Major-General Edward Pakenham, and he accepted the post. Ned would have had time to say good-bye to his sister, Kitty, who was in England. However, his brother-in-law, Arthur, had already taken up residence in Paris as the British Ambassador to France.
General Ross had led the army which burned the White House and much of Washington, D. C. By the time General Pakenham arrived in American, the army was moving south, to face the American forces under General Andrew Jackson. On 23 December 1815, the British army reached the east bank of the Mississippi River. The British made camp there, planning to wait for reinforcements. The Americans attacked that afternoon. The British held their position, but realized there would be no easy victories in their southern campaign. They did not advance until General Pakenham arrived with his troops on Christmas Day. There were a few skirmishes in the area over the course of the next few days, but no significant battles. The main British army attacked the American fortification on New Year’s Day. Though the Americans were significantly outnumbered by the British, General Pakenham was forced to call off the attack since his troops were running out of ammunition. It took another week for the remained of the British army to arrive, so it was not until Sunday, 8 January 1815 that General Pakenham was able to order a two-pronged assault on Jackson’s American line of defense.
The attack began early in the morning, under the cover of darkness and a heavy fog. But some of the British preparations did not go as planned, which delayed some of the British attack force for more than twelve hours. The fog lifted, exposing the British troops to withering fire from the Americans. When the British troops faltered, General Pakenham rode forward to rally his men. Grapeshot from American artillery shattered his left knee and killed his horse. His senior aide-de-camp, Major Duncan MacDougall, helped him to his feet, at which time Pakenham was wounded for a second time in his right arm. Nevertheless, he mounted MacDougall’s horse, but while preparing to turn back to the battle, he was struck in the spine by still more grapeshot. This proved to be a fatal wound and General Pakenham died as he was being carried off the battlefield. According to MacDougall, his last words were an order to find General Lambert, tell him to assume command and send forward the reserves. Ned Pakenham was thirty-six years old.
The Battle of New Orleans ended in a British defeat with more than 2,000 wounded and nearly 300 dead. Heartbreakingly, on 24 December 1814, the day before General Pakenham arrived at the American defenses outside New Orleans, a general cease fire had been negotiated between the British and Americans by the Treaty of Ghent. But because the treaty had not yet been officially ratified by Congress, as specified in the treaty, the two countries were still formally at war. It was not until February, several weeks after the battle in which General Pakenham was killed, that the news reached the two armies still facing each other near New Orleans. It was only then that hostilities finally came to an end.
General Edward Pakenham’s body was carried back to Ireland in a large cask of rum. He was laid to rest in the Pakenham family vault in Killucan, in County Westmeath. Neither his sister, Kitty, or her husband, were able to attend the funeral. The Duchess of Wellington was in Paris at the British Embassy when the news of her brother’s death reached her, while the Duke had already gone to Vienna to replace Lord Castlereagh at the peace talks there. The Duke of Wellington was deeply saddened by the death of his brother-in-law, a man he held in high regard, both for his character and his skill as a military commander. He said of him, "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. . . ." But the Field Marshall would have little time to mourn his loss, as within a month of the arrival of the news of Ned’s death, he received news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was making his way to Paris.