Yesterday in class, while lecturing on the War of 1812, I was cataloging the many and varied sins of General Dearborn. William Dearborn had been a true hero of the Revolutionary War, but 30-odd years after witnessing the surrender of Cornwallis, he was no longer fit for military duty. I was describing him as old, decrepit, and obese...when it suddenly occurred to me that I am exactly the same age as General Dearborn had been when he failed to adequately defend Detroit.
Well, the years were harder on a man back then than they are today. Nowadays, men age like the finest cognac. Two centuries ago, men aged like milk.
None of my students will remember General Dearborn. But I am pretty sure that ten years from now, if you ask any of them about General Pakenham--they will absolutely remember him. They probably won't remember that I said most of the story was apocryphal, but at least they will remember something. Students, like everyone else, remember only the things that interest them.
It was 1815, and British General Pakenham was leading the attack on New Orleans. The city was being defended by Andy Jackson and one of the strangest armies in military history: Tennessee backwoodsmen, Choctaw Indians, slaves, assorted men swept up from the floors of bars, and Jean Lafitte's pirates. Technically, these men were known as "Irregulars", but in truth, they probably qualified as "Odds".
When the two armies met, the much larger British army fired its new Congreave's rockets at Jackson's men. General Pakenham expressed surprise that such undisciplined and unprofessional troops didn't panic in the face of the frightening new weapons. What Pakenham didn't know was that the defenders were a hell of a lot more scared of Andy Jackson than they were of British fireworks.
When the battle was over, the British were defeated, Jackson's men still held their lines, the war was over...and Pakenham was dead.
Pakenham had had a distinguished military career, so his body couldn't be simply left on foreign soil. His body was disemboweled, and was carefully packed in a barrel of rum. Actually, to get his body to fit in the barrel, his head had to be temporarily cut off. (After last week's blog, I'm a little loath to mention this fact for fear that you might think that beheading is going to turn into some kind of a trend in this blog. Honest, I promise not to lop off any more heads for at least another month.)
Pakenham was shipped home, his head was reattached, and he was buried on the family estate in Ireland. That is the end of the story...but not the end of the legend. In one version of the tale, it was a long and difficult voyage back home. The sailors on the ship soon ran out of their accustomed daily grog ration and drilled a small hole into the cask in order to siphon off a little of the rum through a straw.
This practice was called "sucking the monkey" and seems to have originated from British sailors drilling a hole in a coconut, draining out the coconut milk and replacing it with rum. Have you ever noticed that the three dark spots on the top of a coconut look a little like a monkey's face? The word coconut even comes from a 16th century Portuguese word for head.
Another version of the Pakenham legend has the barrel being lost during the shipment home and ultimately being sold to a plantation in South Carolina. The barrel was tapped for a large party and enjoyed by all present. ("I do declare! This rum has a fine body and a good head.") When the barrel was empty of rum, the owners wondered why it was still so heavy. When they opened the barrel, the discovery broke up the party.
Nor is Pakenham the only British military hero attached to such a grotesque tale. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British navy destroyed or captured most of the combined navies of France and Spain. The architect of this monumental victory was Admiral Horatio Nelson, who unfortunately did not survive the battle.
Preservation of cadavers, was a science that would not exist until the 1860's, when the sheer number of men killed during the American Civil War prompted the development of what came to be known as "embalming science." Until then...the bodies went into barrels of spirits.
Nelson was placed in a barrel of brandy. The barrel was lashed to a mast and guarded by the ship's marines until the ship arrived in Gibraltar. There, the barrel was drained of the brandy and refilled with wine. The barrel was opened in England and the admiral's body was placed in a lead casket, which was placed inside a wood casket made from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient, then buried in St. Paul's inside a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey.
But those are just the facts--here is the legend: during the voyage home, sailors drained the brandy and consumed it. When the cask arrived in London, the brandy was found to be considerably less than full. To this day, brandy is sometimes referred to as "Nelson's blood" and to the men in the British Navy, the phrase "tapping the admiral" means to obtain an alcoholic drink by theft.
Actually, history is full of such legends. There is an Arab story from the 13th century in which treasure hunters found a sealed jar of honey in a tomb under the Egyptian pyramids. After enjoying a leisurely meal from bread dipped into the honey, naturally, at the bottom of the jar, they discover the preserved body of a child.
I'm not going to tell my students any of these other stories, I still have hopes they will remember a little of the real lectures.