Thomas Jackson’s Eventful Life

By Eamonn O’Keeffe

Son of a Walsall bucklemaker, Thomas Jackson (1785/6-1859) guarded King George III at Windsor Castle and Weymouth while serving in the Staffordshire Militia before losing a leg as a Coldstream sergeant during the 1814 storming of Bergen-op-Zoom.

Forced to retire from his trade as a plater due to old age and ill health, Jackson composed an account of his military adventures in 1846, intending to leave ‘a record of my history’ for the benefit of his children and their descendants. However, with the assistance of a local Yeomanry officer and the financial generosity of his ‘fellow townsmen’, Jackson was able to publish his Narrative the following year.

‘The Attack on Bergen-op-Zoom’. From James Grant, British Battles on Land and Sea, Vol. II. (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873)

The result is a remarkable but largely unknown account of life in the Napoleonic-era British army. Indeed, until now, the Narrativehas never been reissued since its initial printing 170 years ago; only a handful of original copies survive in university and research libraries in the United Kingdom and North America.

Yet despite its relative inaccessibility, numerous past historians have recognised the Narrative’s value; excerpts of Jackson’s prose, including his evocative descriptions of barrack-room life, have frequently been quoted in histories of the Napoleonic-era British Army. Australian scholar Neil Ramsey, who examined scores of British soldiers’ narratives in a recent monograph on military memoirs, singled out Jackson’s story as meriting ‘far wider attention as one of the most harrowing accounts of war’s miseries to be written in the nineteenth century’.

My interest sparked by scattered quotations in secondary works, I perused the Narrative during a visit to the British Library and soon chanced on Jackson’s fulsome description of John Lyster, the Staffordshire Militia’s veteran drum-major. Owing to my longstanding interest in military music, I immediately connected this detailed pen-portrait with a painting held by the National Army Museum in Chelsea, ‘The Staffordshire Militia on parade at Windsor Castle’ – the same image which now graces the book’s cover. Pleased though I was to have identified the drum-major featured in the painting, I could not help but conclude as I perused the memoir that Jackson’s lively account of his ‘eventful life’ deserved a far wider audience.

Although he played no part in the more famous Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns, Jackson’s memoir has much to offer students of military and social history, offering rare insight into militia service, military medicine, and life as a Chelsea pensioner. Indeed, Jackson provides one of the most detailed personal accounts available of the post-war experiences of a Napoleonic-era British veteran. While most military memoirs end with news of peace or discharge, Jackson goes on to chronicle his subsequent work as a coal merchant’s clerk, schoolteacher and plater in Walsall, describing his struggles raising a family amidst economic turmoil and cholera outbreaks.

‘The halt, c. 1815’ depicting the Coldstream Guards. Watercolour by Orlando Norie, 1854. (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection)

Editing and annotating Jackson’s Narrative was a challenging yet rewarding task, requiring both command of the historiography of the relevant regiments and campaigns as well as detailed primary research. Recourse to the Staffordshire Militia and Coldstream muster rolls held at the National Archives in London enabled me to trace Jackson’s military career, while church records, censuses and local directories afforded insight into the author’s family and civilian life. This new edition of Jackson’s Narrativeincludes annotations throughout to correct errors, clarify unfamiliar terms, and identify the people and places mentioned in the text. Extensive footnotes also provide supplementary information to place the account in its proper context, unravelling the intricacies of the English militia system and the vicissitudes of the 1813-14 Low Countries campaign. Carefully chosen illustrations complement the Narrative‘s text while a series of maps helps readers follow Jackson’s home service, his experiences abroad in the Low Countries, and the 1814 storming of Bergen-op-Zoom.

‘The Upper Ward – Windsor Castle’. Print from W.H. Pyne, The History of the Royal Residences, Vol. I. (London: Dry, 1819)

Thomas Jackson’s account offers fresh and often sharply critical insight into life in the ranks. While many other soldier-memoirists recounted their wartime adventures with pride, his Narrative is tinged with bitterness and disillusionment. Despite glamorous descriptions of pomp and circumstance at Windsor Castle, the Narrative soon takes a darker turn, offering gut-wrenching descriptions of the bungled assault on Bergen-op-Zoom, the amputation of Jackson’s right leg and his subsequent year-long convalescence.  Embittered by the loss of a limb, the veteran ultimately felt degraded for having been a soldier, convinced he had been cast off by an ungrateful nation with a pittance for a pension. He recounts with obvious indignation the callous insults that greeted him on his return to Walsall in 1815. ‘Serves him right’, cackled a group of idling locals as they gaped at the homecoming soldier, limping along with his new wooden leg. In their eyes, Jackson was a fool to have ‘gone for a soldier’ in the first place.

Jackson’s account, often charming and enlightening, is an invaluable historical source and an eminently worthy addition to the canon of Napoleonic-era rankers’ memoirs. But ultimately the Narrative is one war amputee’s intensely personal tale of suffering and survival – a sobering reminder of the brutality of war and the human costs of conflict.

Narrative of the Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson: Militiaman and Coldstream Sergeant, 1803-15 (From Reason to Revolution) is available to order here.

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