Soldier, Lothario, Filibuster: General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert
General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert is one of those larger than life characters thrown up by the French Revolution. A passionate republican who led a failed invasion of Ireland, a ladies’ man who romanced Napoleon’s sister, an aide to Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, a would-be invader of Mexico, and an associate of the pirates Laffite – there are so many tales about Humbert that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. This, as best I can determine, is his story.
From rabbit-skin seller to soldier
Jean Joseph Amable Humbert was born near the village of Remiremont in northeastern France on August 22, 1767. (1) His mother, Catherine Rivat, died in 1770. His father, a merchant and farmer named Jean Joseph Humbert, remarried the following year.
Though Humbert received only a rudimentary education, he learned how to read and write and apparently displayed boldness from an early age. According to one anecdote, on a winter’s day when several neighbours had gathered at his father’s house, young Humbert said, “An old rabbit is passing nearby. I’ll go and get it for you.” He went out with his father’s shotgun. Less than ten minutes later he returned stained with blood, holding an enormous rabbit by the ears. The gun had failed, so Humbert had jumped on the animal and killed it by hand. (2)
At age 17 Humbert left home to work for a merchant in Nancy, who dismissed him for misconduct. He then worked at hat factory in Lyon and was fired for “moral depravity.” (3) He apparently showed an
early disposition to pay undue attentions to the fair sex, and his handsome face and lithesome figure had stood him in good stead in these matters. (4)
Humbert turned to trade. He bought the skins of rabbits, goats and other animals in the villages of the Vosges region, and sold them to glove and legging factories in Lyon and Grenoble.
Sometime after the start of the French Revolution in 1789, Humbert abandoned his business to enlist in a volunteer battalion of the Vosges. By 1794 he was a brigadier general. An ardent republican, Humbert was sent to put down the royalist revolt in the Vendée. In July 1795, he assisted General Lazare Hoche in successfully repelling a British-assisted invasion of emigré troops on the Quiberon peninsula.
The Irish invasion
In December 1796, Humbert was part of a French expedition commanded by Hoche that attempted, but failed, to land at Bantry Bay in Ireland with the aim of launching a rebellion against British rule. In 1798, Humbert – now a general of division – had the opportunity to try again. He was given command of a force sent to support an Irish rebellion that had broken out in May of that year. On August 22, General Humbert landed with about 1,000 French soldiers at Killala Bay.
Humbert’s was a bold but wild experiment, but still it evinced the daring character of the adventurer. He had encountered difficulties that would have disheartened a soldier less enthusiastic. To land with 1,200 men, in a country in full military occupation – as Ireland then was – without money, necessaries, or any resources but what chance and talent gave, proved, indeed, that the French general was no common soldier. (5)
Joined by local rebels, Humbert met with initial success in the Battle of Castlebar. He established the “Republic of Connaught.” Humbert hoped to take Dublin, but was defeated by a much larger force led by British General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Ballinamuck on September 8.
According to Irish Bishop Joseph Stock:
Humbert…was himself as extraordinary personage as any in his army; of a good height and shape, in the full vigour of life, prompt to decide, quick in execution, apparently master of his art, you could not refuse him the praise of a good officer, while his physiognomy forbade you to like him as a man. His eye, which was small and sleepy (the effect, probably, of much watching), cast a side-long glance of insidiousness and even of cruelty – it was the eye of a cat preparing to spring upon her prey. His education and manners were indicative of a person sprung from the lowest orders of society, though he knew how (as most of his countrymen can do) to assume, where it was convenient, the deportment of a gentleman. … His passions were furious, and all his behaviour seemed marked with the characters of roughness and violence. A narrower observation of him, however, served to discover that much of this roughness was the result of art, being assumed with the view of extorting, by terror, a ready compliance with his demands (6)
Saint-Domingue and Pauline
General Humbert and his men were repatriated to France in exchange for British prisoners of war. After a stint in the Army of the Danube, Humbert was sent on the unsuccessful 1801 expedition to Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) under General Victoire Leclerc to put down a slave revolt. On the voyage across the Atlantic, Humbert was rumoured to have had an affair with Leclerc’s wife, who was none other than Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte.
Whether for this reason or for military infractions, Leclerc was not pleased with General Humbert. Accused of indiscipline, among other things, Humbert was sent back to France in September 1802, two months before Leclerc died of yellow fever. (7) In January 1803. following an inquiry, Humbert was stripped of his rank and dismissed from the army
for embezzling army rations and selling them for profit, and for having illicit relations with the leaders of the brigands. (8)
Humbert retired to the château of Crévy, near Ploërmel in Brittany, which he had acquired in 1801. There he became a farmer and a horse dealer. After being briefly recalled to service in August 1809, he was discharged from the Army of the North in March 1810 with a pension of 3,000 francs. (9)
Life in America
In 1812, Jean Joseph Amable Humbert sailed for the United States. In Philadelphia he became involved in a plot to assist Mexican revolutionaries, who were seeking independence from Spanish rule. By September 1813 Humbert was in New Orleans, recruiting for an “army” to invade Texas (then part of Mexico). The Laffite brothers and other privateers were supposed to provide the naval part of the operation. In November 1813 Humbert went to Natchitoches to continue his recruitment efforts. A number of his colleagues – veterans of earlier Texas filibustering expeditions – created a “Provisional Government of the Free Men of the Interior Provinces of Mexico,” under the presidency of Juan Picornell. Humbert was given a general’s commission and command of the so-called Republican Army of the North. Unfortunately for the republicans, Picornell soon went over to the royalist cause. Short of funds, Humbert returned to New Orleans. (10)
Though rumours spread that some 4,000 men were ready to join Humbert, in reality his supporters were far fewer. More importantly, the Spaniards knew all about the plot and so did President Monroe. Undaunted, in June 1814 Humbert sailed in an unarmed Laffite vessel to Nautla, north of Veracruz, to meet with rebel leaders. He sought a commission to legitimize his Texas plans, as well as letters of marque for the privateers. He also succeeded in raising money by selling the rebels gunpowder. When Humbert returned to New Orleans in September, he had to put his plans on hold. Pierre Laffite was in jail and the British were trying to solicit Jean Laffite’s help in their war against the United States. (11)
In preparation for the Battle of New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson gave General Humbert a volunteer appointment in the American force. On the day of the battle (January 8, 1815), when the British overran the American line on the west bank of the Mississippi River, Jackson sent Humbert with reinforcements to attempt to retake the position. The British withdrew of their own accord. This was just as well, as the American officers on the west bank were unwilling to relinquish command to a French officer.
Ten days after the battle, General Humbert advised Jackson of the opponents’ final withdrawal. The story goes that Jackson and his staff were inspecting the British position through a telescope. When Humbert was handed the spyglass and asked his opinion, he looked at the British camp and said, “They’re gone!” “How do you know?” asked Jackson. Humbert pointed to a crow who was not afraid to fly close to one of the supposed sentinels, showing it was only a stuffed uniform. (12)
Jackson acknowledged Humbert’s service as follows:
Gen. Humbert, who offered his services as a volunteer, has constantly exposed himself to the greatest dangers with his characteristic bravery. (13)
After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Humbert was well-placed to assist exiled French officers who came to New Orleans. Thanks to his introduction, Charles Lallemand and Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes sent an emissary to Mexico to explore the possibility of collaborating with the insurgents. (14) Humbert again took up the idea of an expedition to Texas. He appeared at Natchitoches with a commission as a major general. But infighting among the filibusters, as well as full Spanish knowledge of the scheme, derailed his attempts.
A visitor to New Orleans in April 1817 noted:
A gentleman of a certain age, with a powerful voice, sparkling eye and brisk action, sitting daily in front of me at table. I enquired his name and found that it was General Humbert, the terror of the Spaniards. It was this person who, in the expedition of General Hoche to Ireland, disembarked alone, at the head of the party he commanded; unfortunately he had not received a brilliant education, for which it is so difficult to find a substitute. Although advanced in years he abounds with sense, originality of idea, and an ardor for the cause which he has espoused, while his reputation for personal courage is beyond everything that can be imagined. (15)
When Pierre Laffite offered him the position of military commander of the Laffite brothers’ base on Galveston Island, Humbert eagerly accepted.
In February 1818, Humbert sailed to Galveston on the Laffites’ brig New Enterprise. Charles Lallemend was also on the ship, on his quest to establish a military colony in Texas (see my post about Lallemand and the Champ d’Asile). In an indication of the fluid loyalties of the time, the Laffite brothers, who were secret agents for Spain, planned to capture the brig and turn Lallemand and his men over to the Spaniards. The plot was disrupted by the New Orleans customs inspector, who detained the ship. (16)
While Lallemand and his companions proceeded up the Trinity River to found the Champ d’Asile, Humbert remained at Galveston, issuing privateer commissions. When the colony failed and Lallemand’s settlers returned to Galveston, Humbert helped them get back to New Orleans. “For having rendered essential services to the group,” he received a share of the money collected for the colonists by the French newspaper La Minerve. (17) Apart from this he lived on whatever he could make as a teacher, and on his pension from the French government.
The collection of this stipend, doled out to him every quarter by the French Consul…afforded him the occasion for a great official ceremony. Attired in his old costume of a General of the Republic, the same, perhaps, which he had worn on the heights of Landau or at Castlebar, with his faithful sabre resting across his arm, he would repair, erect and proud, to the consular office on Royal street to receive the pittance allowed by Bonaparte, as the price of his blood on the fields of Europe. Thence, he would gravely walk down the pavement towards his friend…and, after partaking of a glass or two of his unique ‘petit gouave,’ he would return to his humble lodgings and doff his military trappings. (18)
It’s at this stage of General Humbert’s life that he is recruited for yet another adventure in Napoleon in America.
Death and bones
Jean Joseph Amable Humbert died in New Orleans on January 3, 1823 at the age of 55 (or 67 – see footnote 1). A death notice observed:
For the last five years his mind had been disordered and a deep melancholy preyed upon his spirits, the consequence of a poverty which left not sufficient to pay the expenses of his funeral. (19)
The Louisiana Courier paid its respects as follows.
General Humbert is dead. Born for battles, war was his moment. Taken away, against his will, from that glorious career, if he committed any errors, he nevertheless always remained faithful to honor. A Frenchman and a soldier, he did religiously keep it in his heart, even among the aberrations of an ardent mind still exalted by the misfortunes of his private situation. …
In combatting among us on a soil which formerly was French and against the enemies of France, he thought he had served that country which he adored. Having witnessed his gallantry and his untainted probity, let us throw a veil on the occasional errors of his life and let us deposit some sprigs of laurel on the monument of a brave man, who died far from the theatre of his early glory, but near the spot where his courage shone for the last time. (20)
As for what happened to Humbert’s remains, according to a footnote in the History of New Orleans by John Smith Kendall (Vol. I, Chicago and New York, 1922):
He was buried in the Girod Street Cemetery. When in the 80s that burying ground was reduced in size along one side in order to widen a street, his tomb was dismantled. His skull was preserved by the late Maj. W.M. Robinson, afterwards city editor of the New Orleans Picayune. Humbert had been a prominent Mason, and this relic found an appropriate resting place in the rooms of the Polar Star lodge. The rest of the skeleton was cast into the common resting-place to which were consigned the dead disposed in the process of the rearrangement of the cemetery, and forgotten. The fate of the skull is likewise involved in mystery. – Statement of W.M. Robinson to author.
On January 8, 2015, 200 years after the Battle of New Orleans, a plaque in General Humbert’s honour was officially unveiled at New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, with the claim that he is buried there. Given the contradictions and inaccuracies I found in the sources when researching this article, the confusion over Humbert’s burial ground comes as no surprise.
You might also enjoy:
- Early sources give Humbert’s birthdate as November 25, 1755. H. Le Vosgien in Le general Humbert (Lion Amoureux): Voyage dans les vosges et notices biographiques des célébrities Vosgiennes (Paris, 1866), p. 38, insists it is August 22, 1767 and quotes from local records to that effect. Later sources tend to use this date. However, Vosgien is wrong about some other details, including Humbert’s death date, so is not necessarily an authoritative source.
- Le general Humbert (Lion Amoureux), pp. 23-24.
- Louis-Gabriel Michaud, ed., Biographie universelle, ancienne et modern, Supplément, Vol. 67 (Paris, 1840), p. 447.
- Valerian Gribayédoff, The French Invasion of Ireland in ’98 (New York, 1890), p. 37.
- William Hamilton Maxwell, History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 (London, 1871), p. 225.
- Ibid., p. 226.
- Doctor Magnac, “L’expédition du general Leclerc à Saint-Domingue,” Le Carnet, Vol. 23 (January 1905), p. 97.
- Frédéric Masson, Napoléon et sa Famille, Vol. II (Paris, 1901), p. 230.
- Hector Fleischmann, Pauline Bonaparte and her Lovers (London, 1914), p. 103.
- William C. Davis, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf (Orlando, 2005), pp. 142-145.
- Ibid., pp. 145-152.
- Oliver Dyer, General Andrew Jackson: Hero of New Orleans and Seventh President of the United States (New York, 1891), p. 243.
- Henry C. Castellanos, New Orleans as it Was: Episodes of Louisiana Life (New Orleans, 1905), p. 48.
- Rafe Blaufarb, Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835 (Tuscaloosa, 2005), p. 39.
- Edouard Montulé, A Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817 (London, 1821), p. 49.
- Louis George Spears, Galveston Island, 1816-1821: Focal Point of the Contest for Texas (Master’s Thesis, University of Texas at El Paso, 1973), pp. 116-121.
- Louisiana Courier, June 9, 1820.
- New Orleans as it Was, p. 43.
- B. Collyer, T. Raffles, J.B. Brown, eds., The Investigator or Quarterly Magazine, Vol. VII (London, 1823), p. 222.
- Louisiana Courier, January 6, 1823, p. 3.
His eye, which was small and sleepy (the effect, probably, of much watching), cast a side-long glance of insidiousness and even of cruelty – it was the eye of a cat preparing to spring upon her prey.
Bishop Joseph Stock