Humbert, Jean-Joseph Amable (1767–1823), French general, was born 22 August 1767 in the parish of Saint-Nabord, outside Remiremont in Lorraine, France (later in the Vosges department). He was the eldest of the six children of Jean-Joseph Humbert, a farmer and trader, and his wife, Catherine (née Privat) (d. 1770). He attended the parish school, but preferred reading about famous battles in the library of the local canoness, whose lands his father farmed. In 1788, with other local men, he narrowly escaped arrest after refusing to oblige a hunting party wishing to exercise seignorial rights. Humbert left for Paris, moving in 1789 to Lyons, where he worked as a trader. He served briefly in the National Guard after the beginning of the revolution in July.
Returning to the Vosges, he traded in horses and rabbit skins, until he volunteered for the new 13th battalion of the Vosges in August 1792. Quickly revealing leadership qualities, he was promoted captain on 11 August, and second lieutenant-colonel four days later. After taking part in General Kléber's Rhine campaign, the 13th battalion was ordered to the Vendée to suppress the Chouan counter-revolutionary insurgency. On 9 April 1794 Humbert was promoted to lieutenant-general and charged by General Lazare Hoche (1768–97) with conducting negotiations with Chouan leaders behind enemy lines. He established his reputation for bravery and guerrilla-type warfare in July 1795 when he helped Hoche crush an English-backed force of French royalists who had landed at Quiberon Bay.
Various plans were then devised to send raiding parties, made up of ex-convicts and undesirables, to the British Isles to unleash havoc in revenge. In the spring of 1796, as Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) was negotiating with the French authorities, Humbert submitted a plan to trigger a chouannerie in Ireland. In December 1796 he sailed with the French expedition to Bantry Bay under Hoche's command, leading the Légion des Francs. Unable to land, the French fleet returned home, and Humbert's ship, the Droits de l'Homme, was intercepted off Brest on 13 January 1797 by two British frigates. After a fierce night battle, it was wrecked, but Humbert survived.
During the coup d'état of 18 fructidor (5 September 1797), which purged royalist elements within the Directory, Humbert led the Légion into Paris. In 1798 he was appointed commander of one of three small expeditionary forces to Ireland. Fearing the abandonment of the expedition because of logistical difficulties, Humbert rashly decided to sail without waiting for the others. Leaving from Rochefort, his ships carrying about 1,000 men evaded a Royal Navy squadron, and on 22 August anchored off the Mayo coast at Kilcummin, hoisting British flags as a ruse. The nearby town of Killala was quickly taken, and headquarters set up in the ‘castle’ of the local protestant bishop, Joseph Stock (qv). The latter's eyewitness narrative vividly describes his interaction with the French general. Stock thought that Humbert lacked the polish of a gentleman, but praised his firm command of his troops. Humbert issued a proclamation calling on the Irish to join him. Several hundred did, but he had a poor opinion of their ability as soldiers, and they in turn resented his attempts to subject them to strict military discipline. He commenced his advance inland on 25 August with about 800 Frenchmen and a detachment of Irish levies. After brushing aside the local yeomanry at Ballina, he headed for Castlebar, which he reached on the 27th after a gruelling overnight march, intending to catch the defending forces commanded by Gen. Lake (qv) off guard. These 1,700 men were mainly inexperienced militia, fencibles, and yeomanry, most of whom panicked and ran after a determined French assault.
With most of Mayo now under French control, on 31 August Humbert set up the Republic of Connacht with John Moore (qv) appointed as president. Humbert, with no sign of another French landing, pressed on to Sligo, and defeated crown forces at Collooney on 5 September. However, this victory cost him precious men and ammunition and he turned south at Dromahair, hoping to link up with insurgents at Longford and Granard, and then march on Dublin. By this time Lord Cornwallis (qv), viceroy and commander-in-chief, had assembled a force of 25,000 men, part of which he assigned to Lake who began a relentless pursuit of Humbert. The Franco-Irish army was eventually cornered at Ballinamuck on 8 September 1798, and conceded defeat after a brief fight.
Most of the Irish levies were slaughtered, but the French prisoners were well treated; the officers were fêted in Dublin, where Humbert allegedly made some scathing criticisms of his Irish allies. He did, however, attempt to prevent the execution of Irish officers such as Bartholomew Teeling (qv) and Mathew Tone (qv). Humbert and his officers were soon exchanged and on arrival in France claimed that the United Irishmen had misled the French government by overstating Ireland's readiness for a mass uprising. Nevertheless, Humbert was determined to lead another expedition to Ireland, and in January 1799 requested a force of 12,000 men. The following year further pleas, citing the discontent arising from the act of union, were in part motivated by Humbert's contacts with Irish exiles in Paris, and he argued that the experience of the 1798 campaign should not be wasted. He advocated gathering the United Irishmen in France (estimated at close to 1,200) to form an Irish legion, which would end their constant petitioning to the government for relief.
Humbert, identified with Jacobin opponents of First Consul Bonaparte, received no response. In late 1801 he was assigned to the Santo Domingo expedition under the command of General Leclerc to regain control of the island from the rebel leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. Humbert's division recaptured Port-au-Prince, but Leclerc's campaign was fraught with internal wranglings and poor strategy, which Humbert openly criticised. There were also unfounded rumours that he had an affair with Bonaparte's sister and Leclerc's wife, Pauline. Sent back to France in October 1802, he was stripped of his rank on 13 January 1803. Humbert continued to associate and plan with United Irish exiles in Paris but eventually retired to Brittany, and his persistent and increasingly desperate requests for reinstatement were ignored. Though forced to accept the humiliation of a retirement pension in 1806, Humbert was called up in the levy triggered by the English expedition on the Escaut in Belgium. His bravery in this campaign earned him a recommendation for the Légion d'honneur by Henry Clarke (then French minister for war), endorsed by three marshals of the empire, but refused by Napoleon.
Humbert was eventually granted permission to emigrate to the USA, anticipating further chances there to fight the English, and arrived in New Orleans in 1813. Involved for a time in the buccaneering activities of the Lafitte brothers, he then formed a foreign legion and distinguished himself at the battle of New Orleans in January 1815, being highly praised by General Andrew Jackson. After a brief involvement in the Mexican rebellion of 1816, for which he raised 1,000 volunteers, and further adventures, he returned to New Orleans. He never married and lived out his final years teaching French and drinking heavily. He died of dysentery 2 January 1823 in New Orleans, and was buried the next day with military honours in the cemetery of Saint-Louis parish.
Historians differ as to Humbert's ability as a general, but few doubt his courage or tenacity. In Ireland he fought well with modest resources, and gave a serious fright to the British authorities. For these efforts he perhaps deserved better: writing to Napoleon in 1812 he described himself as ‘the first, the only French general to have skirmished with the English on their own territory’ (Vincennes, 482 GB/84d). However, once he had alienated Napoleon, politically and personally, his French military career was effectively at an end. His reputation further suffered from being portrayed as the lovestruck hero in Ponsard's fictitious melodrama, Le Lion amoureux (1866). A street is named after Humbert in Remiremont, and in Ireland he is commemorated by a bronze plaque in Ballina, a bust and park in Killala, and the Humbert Summer School founded in 1973. A bust in the NMI may have been inspired by the only known living portrait of him, an engraving by François Bonneville (c.1801) in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.