|A contemporary illustration shows Red Coats reaching the barricades at New Orleans. Few did and most of them forgot their assault ladders.|
Probably the most important battle ever fought after a war ended occurred on January 8, 1815. Thousands of British troops, including regiments that had distinguished themselves in the Napoleonic Wars and elite units of Royal Marines, were shattered by murderous fire from a make-shift American breastworks manned by U.S. Volunteers, Regular Army, local militia (including units of Freemen), U.S. Navy gunners, and pirates under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson. The Battle of New Orleans was a devastating, bloody defeat for the British and a stunning American victory.
On December 24, diplomats in Ghent signed a treaty ending the War of 1812. Despite recent victories including the capture and burning of the American capital Washington by the very same troops that would be thrown into battle at New Orleans, the terms of the peace treaty were essentially a wash—largely an agreement to return to territorial boundaries and possessions as they were before the war. The British did promise to evacuate a string of forts strung across the Northwest Territories from Ft. Detroit to Mackinac Island and to withdraw their support from Native tribes waging war against settlers across the frontier. But the Americans failed to win promises to end forced impressment of American seamen, ostensibly the main cause of the war.
But there was no way to get word to the forces destined to collide at New Orleans.
Admiral Alexander Cochrane had disembarked a force of 11,000 Red Coat Regulars, Royal Marines and sailors on December 23 after American gunboats defending the approaches to the city on Lake Borgne were overwhelmed on December 16. An advance guard of 1,800 British troops reached the shores of the Mississippi River about 9 miles south of the city.
Jackson had arrived at New Orleans from Mobile on November 30 after being appointed a Major General in the Regular Army and placed in command of the military district encompassing most of the lower South. His promotion from the commanding General of the Tennessee Militia and of the U.S. Volunteers raised for the Creek War was a recognition of his success in that bloody campaign against a faction of the Creek Nation. He found former New York City Mayor Edward Livingston, who had fled to the southern city to avoid legal woes at home, was organizing militias of local residents—French and Spanish Creoles, Americans, Freemen, and even slaves. Jackson had rallied the city and began to prepare a defense.
In need of men and guns, Jackson reluctantly agreed to allow the pirates of Barataria led by the legendary buccaneer Jean Lafitte to join his forces in exchange for a pardon and amnesty from Louisiana Governor William Claiborne. Lafitte did not personally command men in the battle. He remained at Jackson’s headquarters and provided information on the land and intelligence on British movements. His brother in law, Dominique You, organized three batteries of artillery among the privateers and smugglers and his accurate, withering fire, in the battle were later commended by Jackson himself.
Ascertaining correctly that without shallow draft skiffs the British could not launch an assault on the city, Jackson began fortifying a narrow strip of land at Chalmette Plantation where he expected the British would have to advance between the Mississippi River on their left and an impassable swamp on the right. He was using soldiers and slaves procured from nearby plantations to build barricades of barrels and lumber from the city and bales of cotton dug into the mud.
Jackson was working on the defenses when he got word of the British advance on December 23. In typical aggressive manor, the General declared “By the Eternal they shall not sleep on our soil.” He organized and personally led a night assault on by 1,800 men against the ill-conceived British bivouac, taking them by surprise and inflicting serious casualties. He then fell back to his defensive line and resumed fortifications.
The British were stunned by the assault. The next day, December 24 the land commander, General Edward M. Pakenham arrived. He was outraged at the precarious position in Cochrane had placed his troops. He saw immediately that an advance along the river would expose his troops to murderous fire. He proposed an attack up the undefended Chef Menteur Road instead, but was over ruled by Cochrane, who had contempt for American military ability after his easy victories in Maryland, and insisted that if Pakenham did not attack with the army, he would take the line by himself with Marines and sailors and let the Army, “bring up the baggage.”
Pakenham ordered a strong probing reconnaissance on December 28, but by that time the earthworks along the Rodriguez Canal were nearing completion. The reconnaissance raids were easily repulsed and confirmed Pakenham’s fears. The next day the Americans began digging in artillery behind the line. Jackson installed eight batteries. His guns included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounder, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders, and a 6-inch (150 mm) howitzer. He also sent two big 24-pounders and two 12-pounders across the river under the command of Navy Commodore Daniel Patterson to provide covering fire on his flank.
On New Year’s Day Pakenham and Cochrane unleashed an intense three hour artillery barrage against the American earthworks, now called Line Jackson. The American guns responded. There was some damage to the earthworks and three guns were destroyed. Green troops holding the left of the line by the swamp actually broke and ran under the salvos—although the British commanders never knew it. A planned follow up assault was called off when the British ran out of ammunition at hand without creating substantial breached in the defense.
Still leery, Pakenham decided to delay his attack until his full effective force of more than 8,000 troops were brought up. Meanwhile Jackson continued to reinforce his earthworks and batteries. On January 8 the British general was ready. His battle plan called for his main force to advance in two columns against the American defenses. The column on the left, next to the River, was commanded by Major General John Keane and a brigade under Major General Samuel Gibbs attacked on the right next to the cypress swamp. Another brigade under Major General John Lambert was held in reserve.
But the key to the success of the operation was an attack on Commodore Patterson’s battery across the river. Colonel William Thornton and 850 men were to cross the river hours before the main assault and quickly close in on the battery, hopefully taking it by surprise. They were then to turn the guns and rake Jackson’s line from the flank, which would have had devastating consequences. But Thorton and his men were delayed. A canal dug by Royal Navy sailors to expedite the attack collapsed and the men had to drag their boats through the mud to get to the river. The attack began 12 hours late, almost at the same time the two main columns began to advance on the east side of the river. Although Thorton would eventually succeed in taking Patterson’s battery, it was too late to be put to use—the main battle was already lost.
The main assault began before day break under cover of a thick fog. But when the sun came up, the fog burned off and the columns were exposed to the American artillery. British senior officers were bravely, if foolhardily, leading the attack from the van, most on horseback and fully exposed to the withering fire. One by one they went down killed or wounded creating confusion. As the attack on the right struggled to the canal in front of the American lines, it was discovered that the scaling ladders and fascines—bundles of sticks and straw to be laid down to create firm footing on swampy ground—had been forgotten. As the troops next to the swamp floundered, their commander, Gibbs was killed.
Seeing the distress of the other column, Keene led an oblique maneuver over the open ground between the columns with a regiment. Brave, but foolhardy, the maneuver exposed his troops to prolonged devastating fire. Keene was severely injured.
Colonel Rennie, in command of the remaining troops in the left column led by a Highland regiment by the river, did manage to capture a forward American redoubt. But the American 7th Infantry, a Regular Army outfit, emerged from the line and counter-attacked. Within half an hour Rennie was dead, most of his troops dead or injured the redoubt was recaptured.
Two main assaults on the right were repulsed as grape shot tore through the ranks. Pakenham was un-horsed and killed. A handful of troops did reach the American breastworks, where they were mauled. With all of their senior commanders out of commission and with no orders to either renew the attack or retreat, the men stayed on the field, most of them in formation, as they were ripped to pieces by American fire. After an additional 20 minutes of slaughter Lambert finally came up and took command. He saw that the situation was hopeless, despite getting word that the cross-river battery had finally been taken, and ordered a general retreat.
It was not only a humiliating battlefield loss, it was costly. That day the British reported 2,042 casualties with 291 killed including Pakenham and Gibbs, 1,267 wounded including Keane, and 484 captured or missing. By contrast Jackson’s command had 71 casualties with 13 dead; 39 wounded and 19 missing.
The next day, January 9, Cochrane began a naval attack on Fort St. Philip which protected New Orleans from an amphibious assault from the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. The American garrison held out for ten days. Discouraged, Cochrane finally decided to sail away from New Orleans, his prize denied him.
By the time they sailed away on February 5, the British losses for the whole New Orleans campaign were 386 killed, 1,521 wounded and 552 missing, a casualty rate of nearly 20%—twice the 10% losses that define being decimated.
Cochrane, however, wasn’t done. On February 12 he attacked and captured Ft. Brower at the entrance to Mobile Bay. He was preparing an assault on the port city when word finally arrived of the peace treaty. Reluctantly, he re-embarked his troops and sailed for home. Which was probably a good thing for him. The aggressive Jackson was preparing an overland march from New Orleans and planned to lay siege to the British in Mobile and destroy the Army there.
Had things gone differently, treaty or no treaty, the British would have been hard to dislodge form New Orleans, and would have had little impetus to speedily abide by provisions in the treaty calling for the evacuation of the forts in the Northwest Territories or suspend aid to native tribes. In fact, since the treaty never mentioned the disposition of territory in the southwest or American claims to the Louisiana Territory, they could have claimed that they were not required to surrender the key port city at all.
As long as the British held New Orleans, they could effectively strangle American Western expansion because new settlers on the frontier could find no way to get their crops and goods to market. The British could hold out there, but the Americans would be compelled to raise a new army and attempt to retake the city overland in a new war. Alternatively they could use the city as a bargaining chip for other concessions—perhaps continued sway over those northern forts, or a surrender to American claims on the Pacific Coast.
America, except for grumpy, Federalist New England, wildly celebrated the victory. It boosted national moral after the humiliating defeat at Washington, and helped begin to forge a new sense of nationalism. With New Orleans secure and the British out of the Northwest—although it took nearly two years for them to evacuate all of those forts—western expansion was guaranteed. Within thirty years all of the land east of the Mississippi would be settled and prosperous and the trans-Mississippi West including Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa would cease to be frontier. Eastern Native American tribes, with the exception of the Seminole in Florida and a few small, scattered bands would be either destroyed of brutally relocated to Indian Territory or lands west of the Missouri. As the New Englanders had feared, much of the expansion came with the creation of new slave states and territories. The power of the South was enhanced and sectional tensions over the extension of slavery and other issues would become an open sore.
Not the least of the outcomes of the Battle was the rise in fortunes of the victorious commander. Andrew Jackson was hailed as a hero. He would go on to other adventures, including unauthorized forays in Spanish Florida. After being defeated in 1828 by John Quincy Adams by a vote in the House of Representatives to break an Electoral College failure to elect a President in the multi-candidate election, Jackson would go on to win two terms in the White House on the crest of a wave of Democratic populism. As President he would simultaneously vigorously prosecute the Indian Removal policy while defying Southern attempts to assert the power to nullify national law.
And all of that was plenty of consequence for a battle without a war.