Contemporary historical artist Don Troiani never disappoints. Here he has re-created part of the British attack on New Orleans on January 8, 1815. This axis of advance was on the extreme right side of Andrew Jackson's defensive line. The objective was a redoubt the Americans had built forward of their own lines to allow flanking enfilade fire against the British troops at the canal. Led by Colonel Robert Rennie, his Fusiliers and Highlanders withstood withering fire while advancing, scaled the ramparts and gained the top of the redoubt. One of the first on top was Colonel Rennie, who had just enough time to shout encouragement to his men below before being killed in a hail of gunfire from three sides. With their commander dead and the rest of the British force being slaughtered before their eyes, the survivors of the 1200 man attack ran for their lives. The Battle of New Orleans was actually a two month long campaign fought along the Gulf coast from mid-December 1814 to mid-February 1815. The battle on January 8 was the main battle of the campaign, but there was heavy fighting both before and after it.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the American Revolution officially came to an end and the United States came into its own. It would take another six years to write and ratify a Constitution and elect a President. The world didn't wait that long to test the new nation. America was immediately confronted by old and new adversaries on all sides - on both land and sea.
Spain claimed the land west of the Mississippi River. It was as big as the new United States and included the important port city of New Orleans. They also laid claim to the desert southwest and California. Canada was a solid British possession to the north and they also claimed the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon). The British and the Spanish were both in Florida. All of them were in the Caribbean. There was disputed territory on both the northern and southern borders. The new country was surrounded by world powers that were constantly at war with each other. Despite all that, the U.S. remained neutral while actively seeking to increase its territory, trade and influence.
The biggest threat to America was the British Empire. Despite the loss
of the American colonies, they were still the world's dominant
superpower. Peace treaty notwithstanding, the British continued to work
against their former colonies. Constantly at war with various European
coalitions, the British had neither the resources or the money to fight
another war in North America. Instead, they aided and supplied Native
Americans on the western frontier (the Ohio-Indiana border) and the
southern border (Alabama and Georgia). On the high seas, the powerful
British Navy ruled supreme.
The first 30 years after the American Revolution (1783-1812) were chaotic and dangerous, but the American experiment with a representative democracy began to work. Four Presidents were elected during this period - Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.
Also working were American ingenuity, entrepreneurship and expansion. 1794 - Eli Whitney's cotton gin. 1801 - the first suspension bridge and the first fire hydrant. 1803 - the Louisiana Purchase. 1807 - Robert Fulton built a paddle wheel steamboat and started commercial service up and down the Hudson River. 1808 - the lobster trap, still in use today. During these three decades, the new United States Patent Office issued 1,855 patents for new ideas. That's a drop in the bucket today, but it was huge back then.
Exploration of new territories was a national obsession, even if they didn't belong to us yet. Thomas Jefferson sent the Army on major multi-year expeditions of discovery. The most famous was the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which explored the Louisiana Purchase and went all the way to the Pacific Ocean from 1804-06. Captain Zebulon Pike led several explorations of the west in 1806-07, including the recording of the Colorado peak that bears his name. **Historical footnote: Pike was a General in the War of 1812. He was killed leadng his troops at the Battle of York (Toronto) in April 1813.** It was the beginning of the "mountain men" era. In 1807, John Colter - a real life Jeremiah Johnson - became the first white man to see the Yellowstone Basin and the Grand Tetons. Hunters, trappers and explorers began to head west. Settlers and traders followed. America was on the move.
Each of the Presidents during this time had to deal with military matters, provocations and - in some cases - disastrous defeats. On November 4, 1791, near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio almost 1,000 American soldiers were killed in a battle with the Shawnee. This was the Battle of the Wabash. It literally killed half the standing American army at that time and almost five times as many men as Custer would lose at the Little Bighorn 85 years later. George Washington's presidency was only a year old.
From 1798-1800, John Adams fought a "quasi war" with the French, as the U.S. Navy engaged French warships that were seizing American merchant vessels. Ironically, the British helped during this undeclared conflict by selling munitions to the U.S. and allowing American merchant ships to join their convoys for safety. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson led America's first fight against Muslim terrorists - the Barbary pirates in North Africa - on both land and sea. This became the Marine Corps' "Shores of Tripoli".
In 1812, James Madison and the Congress declared war on Great Britain.
During the war, Madison would have the dubious distinctions of being the
first President to be under enemy fire while in office and watching the
British burn Washington D.C. **Historical
footnote: The second and last POTUS to be under fire while in office
was Abraham Lincoln. On July 12, 1864, he rode up to Fort Stevens,
which stood on the ground 1/2 mile south of Walter Reed Hospital in
Silver Springs, MD. The fort was under attack by a 10,000 man
Confederate army commanded by Jubal Early. Their mission was to attack
and plunder a weakly defended Washington D.C. They had been delayed en
route by the Battle of Monocacy Junction, which bought time for the
defenders of the capital. The hastily reinforced fort stood in their
way and repelled the attack in a two day battle. At one point, Lincoln
climbed on top of a parapet to get a better view. Legend has it that
Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes told him "Get down, you idiot". Maybe,
maybe not but it's a great story. Fort Stevens Park has a plaque at the
location where Lincoln made his move to watch as history tried to
The USS Constitution batters the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil on December 29, 1812. American frigates drew blood early and often as they prowled the high seas. In the "Quasi-War" with the French, fighting the Barbary pirates and taking on the British fleet, the world soon learned to respect the fighting ability of this new U.S. Navy and her embarked Marines. In fact, the British Admiralty issued orders that no British warship should engage in one-on-one combat with the Americans.
By the end of Washington's first term, it was apparent that another war with Europe was on the horizon, a war for which the United States was wholly unprepared. There was no standing Navy. The Continental Navy and the Corps of Marines that served in the Revolutionary War had been disbanded. The American Army had an authorized strength of 3,300 men but were manned in much smaller numbers. Training, equipment and leadership were sorely lacking. Lastly, the U.S. coastline of 3,700 miles along with its cities, ports and harbors were totally undefended. A lingering suspicion of professional standing armed forces was still strong but global threats and realities won the day. In 1794, Washington began the difficult and expensive process of re-arming America.
Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794. This established a permanent Navy and authorized the construction of six frigates. They were fast, manuverable and heavily armed, mounting up to 60 cannons on two decks. They were (in order of launch) the USS United States, the USS Constellation, the USS Constitution, the USS Congress, the USS Chesapeake and the USS President. By early 1800, all six were at sea. All of them would draw blood before and during the coming war. In addition to these six frigates, shipyards furiously converted sloops, brigs and schooners to men-of-war.
That same year, construction began on a series of coastal forts. In the decades to come, fortresses would line the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Several of these forts would see action in the War of 1812.
In 1795, the Army got a new rifle. The federal arsenals at Springfield, MA and Harpers Ferry, WV rolled out the Springfield Model 1795 musket. A muzzle loading .69 caliber flintlock, it weighed 10 pounds and was five feet long without its 16 inch bayonet. With a smoothbore (no rifling) barrel and no sights, it had an effective range of less than 100 yards. Despite its limitations, it was better than many foreign rifles and was the U.S. service rifle for decades. Federal arsenals produced over 150,000 of them. With modifications, they were in use until the end of the Civil War. **Historical footnote: The 1795 Springfield lives on today as the crossed rifles of the Army Infantry branch insignia and embossed on the Combat Infantryman Badge.**
In 1798, the former Continental Marines were reincarnated as the United States Marine Corps and made a permanent force in the American military.
Washington's re-armament program was just in time as the world was spinning out of control. By the turn of the century, most of Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean basin and Russia were involved in a series of cataclysmic wars fighting Napoleon that didn't end until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Hostilities spread to the high seas, where European navies and their mercernary pirates intercepted American merchant shipping to cut off the flow of goods to their enemies.
America's stated policy of neutrality was ignored and overwhelmed. The
British wrought the most havoc. Their Navy had 1,000 ships and over
100,000 sailors. In the first decade of the 19th century, they seized
over 1,000 American merchant vessels. They also aggressively kidnapped
thousands of American sailors to serve on His Majesty's ships to replace
personnel losses from the Napoleonic Wars. This tactic - known as
"impressment" - was one of the main triggers of the War of 1812. During
that same first decade, the Navy and the Marines saw much combat on land
and sea, earning the respect and fear of their enemies. A larger US Army
fought Indians, manned forts and secured borders. Strong fortifications
were built. Despite some successes, the cumulative impact of a decade of
depredations on the American economy was devastating. So was their
standing in the international community, which viewed the new country as
a weak upstart not to be taken seriously. In Washington D.C., the war
drums began to beat.
An excellent overview map of the War of 1812. The Americans are blue. The Brits are red. The map nicely supports the narrative below and should keep you oriented as to times, dates, places and events.
On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war on the world's biggest superpower. Despite some improvements in the military, they still weren't ready. The chain of command was shaky, war stocks were non-existent and a clear strategy had never been articulated. It wasn't universally popular, either. New England threatened to secede from the union over the conduct of the war.
The War of 1812 wasn't a big war in terms of combatants or casualties. The number of American soldiers, sailors and Marines killed and wounded totaled about 6,000 in 2 1/2 years. Almost 1,000 of those would occur in one battle - Lundy's Lane on July 25, 1814 overlooking Niagara Falls. However, the physical scale of the war was breathtaking. There was fighting from Montreal to Mobile and from New York to New Orleans. Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain and the Atlantic Ocean were also major battlegrounds.
In the history books, it only gets a couple of pages. However, for us history buffs and battlefield fanatics, it was a big war full of things never seen before or since. These included naval engagements on the Great Lakes, large land battles at Niagara Falls and the burning of Washington, D.C. It also gave us a national anthem, a new found respect in the world and a future President.
America went to war with two very flawed planning assumptions. One was
that the state militias would be a capable fighting force in large land
offensives. The other was that Canada would welcome American troops as
liberators. These were proven wrong in the first months of the war when
the U.S. invaded Canada at Queenston Heights, Ontario and was decisively
defeated. The Canadians, with their small British garrisons and Indian
allies, fought ferociously. The American militias did not and on more
than one occasion, refused to join the fight at all. Fortunately for the
U.S., the British regulars were committed to the war against Napoleon
and were not fully engaged in this new North American war. If they had,
it would most likely have resulted in a very painful and humiliating
American defeat. As it turned out, the U.S. had a year to make
adjustments and learn on the job. It was only a matter of time before
the British war machine joined the fray.
The main theaters of the land war for the first two years were the Canadian border and Great Lakes regions. From Detroit to Montreal, the U.S. made repeated incursions into Canada to seize territory. They met with limited success. As for the British/Canadian coalition, there was no attempt to make inroads into American territory. They picked off a few outposts, but conducted very aggressive delay and defend operations. Time and again in the first year and a half of the war, they thwarted American forays into Canada.
The Americans were quick learners, though. During this time, Americans
discovered combined arms warfare. Naval support on the Great Lakes,
artillery, cavalry and infantry were used together effectively in
several major battles. Properly led and equipped, the militia performed
well. However, poor leadership, poor planning and plain bad luck
continued to plague the Americans and nullified many gains made on the
ground. The brightest star was the U.S. Navy. They swept the Great Lakes
of British ships and out fought them at sea. Throughout the war,
American seamanship and gunnery wreaked havoc on the British and kept
the U.S. in the fight. In response to this new reality, the British
transferred ships from France to America and established a blockade of
the entire east coast. Ports were locked up tight. Even the best of the
American Navy couldn't fight their way out against a whole squadron of
war ships. American ships found themselves confined to port much of the
time. As 1813 morphed into 1814, the net result of all this was a
This watercolor by Edward Tufnell depicts the action in the Battle of Lake Champlain on September 11, 1814. The U.S. Navy squadron under Commodore Thomas Macdonough defeated a British squadron commanded by Captain George Downie, thwarting a British advance south from Canada. It shows the 26 gun sloop USS Saratoga (left) and the 20 gun brig USS Eagle (right) engaging the 37 gun frigate HMS Confiance (center) which was also the British flagship. The Confiance had a decided advantage in size and firepower. However, it was brand new and untested. Downie had assumed command only days earlier and he sailed with a pick up crew that included a lot of soldiers. Macdonough used superior seamanship and gunnery to outwit and outgun the Confiance. He knew that once a ship was in the lee of the harbor entrance, manuvering with sail was difficult. So he anchored his ships in the lee and let the British come to him.
When the British fleet entered the calm of the lee, they started drifting towards the Americans who were primed and ready. For two hours, the three ships launched broadside after broadside at each other at ranges as close 25 yards. Downie was killed in the first few minutes. Macdonough was wounded several times but stayed in the fight. The ships tore each other to pieces. Rigging, masts, anchors had all been blown away. Most of their guns were wrecked. Casualties were frightful and the decks were slick with blood. At 1030, Macdonough performed an old seadog sailing manuever called "kedging". By pulling on an anchor, he was able to turn his ship 180 degrees in place and bring his fresh side to bear. The Confiance tried the same thing but couldn't pull it off. The Saratoga opened up with fresh broadsides and the Confiance was unable to respond. Taking on water fast with a dead captain and a landlubber crew, she struck her colors. The Americans had a great victory.
The Napoleonic Wars ended in March 1814. Great Britain turned its attention to this upstart war against their Canadian provinces. In the spring and summer of that year, the British sent hundreds of ships and thousands of battle hardened troops to America. At the same time, peace negotiations began in Ghent, Belgium in July. Both sides were looking for a way out, but progress was slow. Ironically, the reasons and conditions stated in the Declaration of War no longer existed. With the defeat of France, Britain was no longer interfering with commerce or impressing sailors. The vision of an American Canada was long gone.
The British went on offense and took the war to the United States. They never had any intentions of trying to conquer and occupy their former colonies. Instead, they wanted to deliver a beatdown the Americans - and the world - would never forget. If they picked up some new territory along the way - say, New England for instance - that was OK too. It would give them something to bargain with in peace talks.
Their main campaign was in upstate New York in September of 1814. Its objective was to capture Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and threaten New York City via the Hudson River Valley. This would also cut off New England and upstate New York. This large area was the industrial, whaling and shipping center of the United States. Its loss would be catasrophic. This was their main effort, with a fleet of warships built on the lake and 10,000 troops marching down from Canada. If successful, it may well have re-drawn the map of the Unites States.
First ground contact happened on September 3. The British were advancing overland from Champlain, NY to Plattsburgh down the west side of the lake, a distance of 21 miles. The American commander had ordered that the enemy not have a moment's rest. The militia men harassed them unmercifully for four days and inflicted many casualties. They tore up bridges, downed trees across roads and directed constant sniper fire on the column from all directions. The British finally took up seige postions outside Plattsburgh, which had been evacuated, on September 7. The next four days went back and forth with snipers and artillery active on both sides. The much larger British force was being stymied by the unconventional tactics of the Americans but were tightening the noose around Plattsburgh. The British lake squadron finally set sail on the morning of the 11th. This was to be the knockout punch - a combined land and water attack. It ended with a decisive American victory. The American fleet, waiting in Cumberland Bay, won the battle on the lake. Meanwhile, the land assault was not going well either. When the British commander heard of the fleet's loss, he ordered a withdrawal. Taking Plattsburgh without controlling the lake would have cut off the force and led to disaster, especially with winter coming on.
This Battle of Lake Champlain effectively ended the war in the north. Once again, the U.S. Navy carried the day. A century later, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both wrote extensive naval histories that included the War of 1812. They both concluded that the Battle of Lake Champlain was the most important battle of the war because it saved New York and New England and preserved the northern border.**Historical footnote: The Battle of Lake Champlain is also called the Battle of Plattsburgh. This very strategic area on the northern border was the scene of heavy fighting in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War as well as the War of 1812.**
At the same time, a supporting campaign was underway. Commanded by Admiral Alexander Cochrane, a powerful British fleet and its embarked army sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to attack Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Landing the troops at Benedict, MD on the Patuxent River, they marched the 50+ miles to the D.C. area in four days in 100 degree heat. The Americans had time to throw together a hasty defense at Bladensburg, MD, just east of the city. President James Madison and other prominent officials came to watch, a decision they soon regretted. The Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814 was a complete rout. The Americans were soon running for their lives with the Brits in hot pursuit. British infantry entered the city and headed straight for the White House. They found dinner on the table - still warm - and helped themselves. Then they torched the place. Looting and burning continued through the night. It must have been an amazing spectacle. **Historical footnote: On the afternoon of the 25th, the D.C. area was hit by a rainstorm of biblical proportions. Torrential downpours, violent lightning and tornadoes on Capitol Hill killed more British soldiers than the defenders did and doused the fires that were burning out of control. The stunned British force limped out of town and back to their ships, only to find that they too had been damaged. Since that date, there have only been seven tornadoes recorded in Washington, D.C. The last one was in 1995.**
The White House burns on the night of August 24, 1814. The fire was fully extinguished by a providential rain the next day. All that was left was a burned out shell. The Capitol building, the Treasury building, the Navy Yard and more suffered the same fate. When Congress reconvened, they seriously considered moving the U.S. capital back to Philadelphia but ultimately decided against it. This was the low point of the war for America.
With the American capital in ruins, the British set their sights on Baltimore, a major port and industrial center. Their advance was delayed due to storm damage and heat. The defenders made the most of the time lag. Additional artillery batteries were built along the shoreline and landside defenses were strengthened. On September 11 - the same day as the Battle of Plattsburgh - the British flotilla sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore Harbor. It ran smack into Fort McHenry, one of the coastal forts built a decade earlier. In front of it were 22 ships sunken to make the harbor impassable to large British ships-of-the-line. The British naval bombardment commenced at maximum range on September 13, 1814 and lasted 25 hours. The next morning, the American commander ran a 42 ft by 32 ft U.S. flag up the flag pole in a show of defiance.
The action in Baltimore was observed by Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key, who was on a British ship negotiating a prisoner exchange. After the battle, he wrote a poem called "The Defence of Fort McHenry", which later was put to music and called "The Star Spangled Banner". **Historical footnote:The tune for the Star Spangled Banner was an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven". It became the national anthem by Congressional resolution in 1931.**
There is an overlooked and untold aspect to the British naval attack on Baltimore. There was also a major land attack. Commanded by Major General Robert Ross, the British landed 5,000 troops east of Baltimore and moved towards the city. Unlike Bladensburg two weeks earlier, they ran into well prepared defenses and stiff resistance. This two day action is called the Battle of North Pointe and it happened at the same time as the Fort McHenry bombardment. Unable to break through the American defenses on land or sea, Cochrane's armada left the Chesapeake Bay. Their next campaign would be New Orleans.
This was the first of a string of unforced errors and key losses that would plague the British in the months to come and change the course of the war. Their biggest loss in Baltimore was Major General Ross, who was killed by a sniper. Ross would have been the commander of the New Orleans invasion army. His replacement, Major General Edward Pakenham, didn't arrive until Christmas. By then, the invasion plan had been decided and the first battles fought. Would having Ross the whole time have made a difference? We'll never know, but it's an interesting "what if".
British had drawn blood but had been fought to a standstill. In the
fall of 1814, peace negotiations got more serious. After the
destruction of their capital, the Americans had come roaring back with
a string of improbable victories.In Europe, Napoleon was back and on
the move. British political and military leaders advised the Crown that
it wouldn't be a good idea to have another war start in Europe with a
large part of the King's military in North America. Both sides dropped
major demands but obstacles remained. The war became a chess match,
with both sides manuevering for a position of advantage in the end
game. The British would make their end game moves in the swamps and
bayous of the Gulf coast. Their targets were New Orleans and the
An annotated map of the campaign area. Key places, dates and events are found below in the narrative. This link will take you to a full size map. It opens in new window.
The Battle of New Orleans was actually a full campaign with a series of land and sea battles along the Gulf Coast from mid-December 1814 to mid-February 1815. There were eight major battles and untold numbers of smaller engagements. British campaign planning started in August of that year. The Gulf campaign was supposed to be part of the British three-pronged grand strategy of taking the war to America. Then, the first two campaigns in New York and the Chesapeake Bay ended badly and peace negotiations intensified. Great Britain went all in for the Gulf Coast. They wanted to capture the port of New Orleans and seize control of the Mississippi River. From there, they could move up river, box in the U.S. from the west, halt the western migration, plunder the Louisiana Purchase, strengthen ties with the Native Americans and cut deals with any country it wanted. If successful, it's very likely they had no intentions of turning them back over at the end of the war.
New Orleans was not an easy target. The bayou country of the Mississippi delta region has to rank as some of the most inhospitable territory on the North American continent. New Orleans, then a small city of about 8,000, was 80 miles up the river and guarded by an endless shifting labyrinth of cypress swamps, channels, islands and sand bars. To a military force used to fighting in Europe and the northeastern United States, on lakes and oceans, it must have seemed like another planet. Ground attacks would be confined to relatively narrow fronts and heavily channelized. Attacks along multiple axes would be almost impossible to coordinate and support. Logistical support and communications would be long, slow and ponderous. Naval forces trying to fight upriver could be easily stymied.
From a tactical standpoint, the whole area definitely favored the defense and local knowledge was a huge plus. The only way to effectively attack in a region like this is to get as close to an objective as possible using a water approach, land a ground force, fight the land battle - then do it again for the next objective. Without local knowledge or accurate maps - or even with - thorough and detailed reconnaissance is critical.
The terrain was only one of many things the British would have to
contend with. For most of the war, British leadership on the field of
battle had been much stronger than the Americans and had been a factor
in many victories. That would not be the case here. The British were
facing their worst nightmare - an intense, hot-tempered, British-hating backwoods Irishman
from Tennessee named Andrew Jackson.
This 1910 painting by Edward Percy Moran is probably the most recognizable work of art from the War of 1812. Although it has some historical flaws, it portrays perfectly the image the public had of Andrew Jackson. Jackson led from the front and was always in the thick of things. He was decisive, forceful and ruthless, showing courage under fire on many occasions. This was never more evident than at the battle on Chalmette Plantation on January 8, 1815 which is the action depicted in this painting. Attacked by a British army that had defeated Napoleon less than a year earlier, Jackson's men slaughtered them by the hundreds in an epic 25 minute battle. The Americans had less than 100 casualties. It was the most lopsided victory of the war for either side.
Andrew Jackson is the most iconic figure and recognizable name from the War of 1812. The youngest son of Irish immigrants, his father died three months before he was born. His oldest brother Hugh died fighting in the Revolutionary War in June, 1779. In 1781, at the age of 13, Andrew and his older brother Robert were captured by the British while serving as couriers for the Continental Army. They were harshly treated and almost starved to death. Both contracted smallpox and Robert died from it. Jackson's mother died that same year from cholera while treating POW's on a British prison ship in Charleston Harbor. Orphaned and alone at 14, Jackson blamed the British and hated them for the rest of his life.
By 1812, the 44 year old Jackson was a successful, self-made man. He was a prosperous planter, land speculator and politically connected lawyer. By the time war broke out, Jackson had already served as a county solicitor, U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator - all from Tennessee. In 1801, he was elected commander of the Tennessee state militia with the rank of Colonel, winning by one vote.
Jackson and the southeastern U.S. missed the first year of the war. That changed in 1813 when the territory of present-day Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia became embroiled in a regional Indian conflict called the Creek War. The Creeks, the Cherokee and the Choctaw tribes lived in peace with white settlers for years. As more settlers poured in, a faction of the Creeks called the Red Sticks began advocating violence against them. The Cherokee and Choctaw wanted no part of it and neither did most of the Creeks. Egged on and supplied with guns by the British and Spanish in Pensacola, the Red Sticks began raiding frontier homesteads in the spring of 1813 and by summer, it had become a brutal backcountry war.
The U.S. government had no resources to send to the region, so the settlers had two options - leave or fight back. Those who stayed banded together and built forts, usually simple stockades with a blockhouse. Local militias augmented the defenses the best they could. One of these forts was Fort Mims, near present-day Tensaw, AL. It was named for Samuel Mims, a wealthy farmer who owned the land it was built on. On August 30, 1813, a force of 1,000 Red Sticks overwhelmed the tiny fort. Resistance was ferocious. Historians estimate the Red Sticks suffered 300 casualties. After the two hour attack, the enraged and vengeful Red Sticks spent hours butchering 500 people. It was the largest and most brutal Indian massacre in American history. **Historical footnote: Fort Mims has been restored as a county park in Baldwin County, AL. Click here to read about the massacre.**
The Fort Mims Massacre forced the federal government to get involved. Enter Andrew Jackson. With orders from Washington, D.C. he mustered and commanded a force of 3,300 men, mostly state militia augmented by a regiment of Army regulars and 500 Cherokee Indians. His mission was to destroy the Red Sticks. Jackson chased them for months, unable to force them into a decisive engagement. On March 27, 1814 - just nine months before New Orleans - Jackson cornered them up against the Tallapoosa River near present-day Dadeville, AL. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, his force killed 800 Red Sticks in a five hour battle with a loss of 50 of his own men. It was the largest loss of Indian life in one battle in American history. Two hundred Red Sticks escaped and fled to Florida, where they would fight in the First Seminole War several years later. Jackson would be a key leader in that war too. **Historical footnote: The Horseshoe Bend Battlefield is now a National MiIitary Park. You'll find it about 12 miles north of Dadeville, AL.**
The Creek War victory gave Andrew Jackson national recognition and a
commission as a Major General in the regular army. He was a hero when
the nation needed one. He had fighting instincts, was brave in battle and tough on his men, who respected him for it. They
nicknamed him "Old Hickory". The press and the public loved it. Jackson
would be a national figure for decades to come, all the way to the
White House in 1828. But first, he had business to attend to with his
friends the British in New Orleans.
Fort Bowyer is long gone but the details of the fort and the battle are still with us. The fort had an odd shape, basically a triangle with a rounded bottom facing the water. That bottom was 400 ft long. The two sides were 60 feet long and joined at a bastion. Two hundred army regulars with at least a dozen cannon occupied and repaired the fort. The diagram shows the flow of the battle on September 15. This was one of the few times in U.S. history where a shore battery sank a ship.
Two days later and a thousand miles south of Cochrane's debacle at Baltimore, Britain's bad karma continued. This time, it was in Mobile, AL. A British squadron of four warships and embarked troops had been detached from Cochrane's fleet weeks earlier and was in Pensacola Harbor, which was Spanish territory. They were there to pave the way for the invasion of New Orleans and prepare the battlefield. The first step of the invasion plan called for the capture of Mobile for use as a base of operations. With its sheltered harbor and strategic location, it would give them a lot of options on both land and sea.
Mobile was one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate in the entire continent. The French, the Spanish and the British had been passing it around for 200 years. On this particular day, it belonged to the Americans who had just taken it from the Spanish. Standing in the way of the British attack was Fort Bowyer, a log and dirt fort built a year earlier on a sandy spit commanding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The latest information they had was that Fort Bowyer was in disrepair and weakly defended. Unbeknownest to them, Jackson was already in Mobile and had reinforced it with more artillery and army regulars.
Expecting an easy victory, the British attacked Fort Bowyer at 1600 on September 15, 1814 with a naval bombardment and a ground attack on the landside approaches. A three hour battle ensued that was as furious as any action in the war.The defenders fought back ferociously, repelling the ground attack and sinking the British flagship HMS Hermes. American casualties were light. Jackson listened to the battle from Mobile with more defenders, unsure if the fort would survive. When word of the victory reached him, he personally congratulated all the defenders and promoted them. The stunned British limped away, victimized - again - by their own hubris. Their campaign plan was already going sideways.
**Historical footnote: The victories at Plattsburgh on September 11, Baltimore on September 13-14 and Mobile on September 15 stunned the British and buoyed the Americans. Three major victories in five days over 1,200 miles apart and all of a sudden, it was a different war. This momentum gave the U.S. a much stronger position at the Ghent peace talks, which would have been unthinkable just three weeks earlier while Washington was burning.**
White-walled Fort San Carlos and red brick Fort Barrancas, guardians of Pensacola Bay. The city, which was once miles to the left, is now all around them. Just above the forts is NAS Pensacola. Barrancas came 40 years after Jackson's Pensacola raid. Fort San Carlos is referred to today as the Spanish Water Battery. When it was built in 1787, the shoreline was where the treeline is in the photo.
After securing Mobile, Jackson marched on Pensacola FL. He had no orders or authorization to do so. Technically, the U.S. and Spain were at peace and Spain had declared neutrality. However, during the Creek War, Jackson had seen for himself that the British and the Spanish were arming and supporting the Red Sticks. Now, the British were in Pensacola trying to create an alliance with Spain, the Creeks, the Seminoles, free blacks, smugglers and anyone else who would support them. With the loss at Mobile, the British wanted to use Pensacola as a base of operations. Jackson wasn't having any of it. He marched a 4,000 man army across the panhandle to the northern outskirts of Pensacola. Upon arrival, he sent an ulimatum to Spanish governor Gonzalez Manrique - stand down, quit interfering and get rid of the British - or we will. Manrique refused.
The next day, November 7, Jackson attacked Pensacola from two directions. The 500 Spanish defenders in Fort San Miguel waited in vain for supporting fire from the British warships in the harbor. When it didn't happen, Spanish resistance collapsed and Governor Manrique surrendered the city. Jackson spared the city but destroyed the fort. He then turned his attention to Fort San Carlos, a harbor fortification several miles away occupied by the British. At dawn the next morning, the city awoke to a shattering explosion. The British blew up the powder magazine at Fort San Carlos and sailed away. A sizeable contingent of the Spanish defenders went with them. Jackson returned the now defenseless city to the Spanish with an admonition along the lines of "Don't make me come back here". With Mobile and Pensacola gone, Admiral Cochrane would have to conduct a totally sea-based operation into the trackless Mississippi River delta. **Historical footnote: Thirty years later, the U.S. built a brick fort on the bluff above Fort San Carlos. That became Fort Barrancas. The two positions were joined by an underground stairwell. Fort San Carlos is still used to refer to the old Spanish section of the fort, however it is most commonly called the Spanish Water Battery. The cannon there were mounted close to the shoreline so they could skip round shot off the water and into ships.**
Jackson headed for New Orleans, using the trek as a reconnaissance in an area he had never been. Now 47, Jackson was gaunt and weak after a year of little sleep and food. His hair had turned steel gray and his skin was jaundiced. Nevertheless, he kept up a frantic pace and seemed to be everywhere.
An illustration of a longboat, the same kind used by the British in the Battle of Lake Borgne. It was a general purpose boat carried by all ships in the Age of Sail. They were part ferry, part landing craft and part gunboat. Notice anything peculiar in the illustration? The rowers should be facing the other way.
He arrived in New Orleans on December 1 and found a city that was preparing to surrender rather than be destroyed in an invasion. Many people thought the British would never mount an attack. There were few men under arms and no defenses had been constructed. The city fathers made it clear they had no stomach for a fight. The forceful Jackson convinced them otherwise. The call went out for every able bodied man to take up arms and Jackson sent couriers requesting reinforcements from nearby states. He spent a week reconning the area with his chief engineer and a local architect, who had detailed maps. Jackson had a good eye for military terrain and he devised his defensive plan during this week. Defensive preparations began immediately. Gun positions were built. Waterways were obstructed. An effective intelligence capability was deployed using local fishermen, pirates and light cavalry. Jackson kept a large force in reserve in Baton Rouge as a hedge against an overland attack from the north. To guard the eastern approaches, he deployed gunboats in a line across Lake Borgne, the main water avenue of approach from the east.
Despite all the preparations, Jackson still didn't know when and where the British attack would come. His biggest fear was that they would pop up somewhere unexpected and so close he couldn't respond in time. Or worse, he'd respond but it wouldn't be the main effort and they'd get hammered from another direction. He had to spread out his forces to cover all the possible avenues yet retain enough combat power to respond quickly to an incursion. It was a real balancing act and he obsessed over it constantly. The city elders at one point asked Jackson what he had planned if the British got to the city. He responded that he would set the city on fire and fight the British brick by brick among the flames. No one had any reason to doubt him.
New Orleans was infested with spies and traitors who provided decent intelligence to the British and would have gladly guided them into the city. That is, in fact, exactly what happened. That, combined with an uncharacteristic oversight by Jackson, almost ended in catastrophe for the Americans.
Admiral Cochrane's invasion fleet arrived at the barrier
islands off the coast of Louisiana on December 8. Fresh from a refit
and reinforcement at Kingston Station in Jamaica, it was a huge force.
Led by his flagship HMS Tonnant, an 80 gun
ship-of-the-line, his fleet had 50 ships of various types, including 12
transports for the 5,000 embarked invasion troops. Over the past
several months, Cochrane had been forced to deliver a string of bad
news to the British Admiralty - Baltimore, Mobile, Pensacola. He needed
a victory badly. They
dropped anchor at Cat Island about 80
miles due east of New Orleans. This was last deep water anchorage
before entering the river deltas. There they debarked the troops to
prepare for the amphibious attack. The
conditions were horrible. Constant cold wind and rain with night time
temps below freezing created a witch's brew of muck and misery. There
was no escape or respite from it. The Brits soldiered on and final
invasion preparations began. First on the list was to clear out the
A drawing of the Battle of Lake Borgne. It's on display at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA. Despite outward appearances, the British longboats have all the advantages here - speed, manueverability, firepower, manpower and sheer numbers. The imposing looking American ship which is about to get shellacked is a Jefferson gunboat, one of five in the battle. Nicknamed "Jeffs", they were championed by President Thomas Jefferson as his vision of a small, inexpensive, shallow draft vessel that could defend America's rivers, ports and harbors. They were typically 50 feet long, 18 feet wide, mounted 2-3 guns and crewed by 20 men. It was propeled primarily by sail but also had oars - except you couldn't shoot and row at the same time. The guns made them top heavy. They were easily broached and worthless in the open ocean. They didn't even have names. They were numbered. On this day, numbers 5, 23, 156, 162 and 163 were in action. Jeffs were junk and hated by their crews, but the Jefferson administration cranked them out as fast as they could. When the U.S. declared war against Britain in June of 1812, the American Navy had seven frigates, four schooners and 170 Jeffs to face the 1,000 ship open ocean Royal Navy. After this battle, it was 165 Jeffs.
The word "lake" has a very different meaning in bayou country. Instead of an enclosed body of fresh water, a bayou lake is a tidal estuary that serves as a natural buffer between the fresh water Mississippi River and the salt water Gulf of Mexico. One of these is Lake Borgne. Instead of sailing 80 miles up the river to the city, you can pass through Lake Borgne, land at Bayou Bienvenue and take the levee road into the city, which is about 10 miles away at that point. It's that way now and it was that way 200 years ago. Navigating the lakes is tricky. They are shallow and unpredictable. The average depth of Lake Borgne is about 10 feet, but if the winds and the tide are right, you can walk across it (not that you would want to do that). Here, the big ships of the British fleet were useless, which is why they had no part in the battles to come. The naval actions in New Orleans would be fought by small gunboats and armed longboats, the riverine swift boats of their day.
At 1100 on December 14, 1814, the two forces met head-on. The American squadron had eight boats under sail mounting 23 guns and manned by about 200 men. The British had 42 longboats each propelled by 10 oarsmen. They had started rowing from Cat Island 36 hours earlier. Each longboat had a small cannon in the bow and together they carried 1,000 sailors and Royal Marines. The wind was still and the water calm, giving the longboats much more speed and maneuverability. The fighting was close. Several longboats would swarm a gunboat, firing the whole time until they got close enough for boarding. A quick hand-to-hand fight finished it off. Captured gunboats were immediately turned against the others. The Americans, unable to run or manuever, stood their ground and blasted several longboats out of the water. After a 90 minute battle, Jackson's gunboat squadron was wiped out. The British captured four gunboats, 142 sailors and the closest water approach to New Orleans. Despite the British activity, Jackson still didn't know if this was the start of the main attack or a diversion.
The loss on Lake Borgne was a wake up call for New Orleans. The British were coming. Jackson declared martial law and ran the city as a military camp. Men volunteered in droves, were recruited with bonuses or were simply drafted into service. The defenders of New Orleans were as motley a bunch as has ever been on an American battlefield. Soldiers, sailors, dock workers, farmers, merchants, plantation owners, the city elite, frontiersmen, Creoles, Choctaw and Cherokee Indians and free blacks all rallied to the cause. Jackson called in his reserve from Baton Rouge. Two thousand militia men from Kentucky and Tennessee, commanded by Colonel John Coffee, showed up unexpectedly and threw themselves into the fray. Many of them were free blacks and Indians recruited by Coffee. Several hundred of them had deadly accurate Kentucky Long Rifles, which would take a fearsome toll on the British in the coming days. Jackson even cut a deal with local pirate leader Jean LaFitte and his brigands. They knew these waters better than anyone and were handy with their weapons. When all was said and done, Jackson could muster almost 10,000 men. The entire city contributed money, goods and weapons. It was a remarkable accomplishment in such a short time. They still didn't have any firm indicators of where or when the British attack would come, so Jackson spread out his troops and aggressively patrolled. He didn't know it yet, but he had left his back door wide open.
The victory on Lake Borgne had the opposite effect on the
British. After sweeping the U.S. Navy off the local waters, they were
confident that Jackson's "dirty shirts" had no chance against an all
out attack from a British army. This feeling was reinforced when two
British officers undertook the hazardous mission of doing a recon of
the battle area. Disguised as fishermen with local sympathizers as guides, they came ashore at the western edge of Lake Borgne, crossed
Bayou Bienvenue and moved along the east bank river road. They got to
within five miles of New Orleans and reported back that the route was
unobstructed and undefended. Given Jackson's intensity and
thoroughness, it's hard to believe that he missed this highway right
into the city but there it was. Admiral Cochrane jumped on it. The British started moving ashore on
This photo from the Louisiana Digital Library is the last remaining section of the home at Jacques Villere's plantation, Conseil. It was taken in the 1930's. This was the British headquarters for their New Orleans campaign and the site of heavy fighting during Jackson's night attack on December 23. This is also where the British vanguard captured the 30 militia men on the morning of December 23 and from which Gabriel Villere escaped and warned Jackson. There's an interesting side story to that. Gabriel was a Major in the Louisiana militia, which his father commanded. He was sent to Conseil to establish an outpost and build a defensive position. He never took action because he didn't want to dig or fight on his own land. Besides, he figured only a fool would attack from this direction. So he and the boys hung out until they got captured. History has not recorded what Jacques and Jackson had to say to Major Villere. The home is long gone. Heavily damaged in the fighting, it was rebuilt and remained in the family until the Civil War. It fell into disrepair at the turn of the century and burned to the ground shortly after this photo was taken. In fact, the entire plantation is now underneath Kaiser Aluminum.
After the death of General Ross in Baltimore, command of the embarked army passed to his second-in-command, Brigadier General John Keane. Admiral Cochrane requested Major General Edward Pakenham as the new commander. It took weeks for the request to get to England and weeks for Pakenham to reach the fleet. Weeks turned into months but decisions had to be made and plans needed to take shape. Keane was in a tough spot. Interim commanders are basically caretakers and are understandably reluctant to make big and bold decisions. We don't know what the dynamic was between Cochrane and Keane, but an Admiral in search of redemption is a formidable obstacle for a lowly Brigadier. No matter what Keane might have proposed, Admiral Cochrane had the final say on all plans. Maybe Keane played it safe and just did what he was told rather than have an Admiral and a Major General mad at him. If Ross or Pakenham had been there from the start, the British plan may have been very different. There were other options available, but the open route to their objective was too good to pass up. Admiral Cochrane decided the ground course of action and handed it over to Keane.
The operational challenges encountered by the British almost defy description. In letters, personal memoirs and battlefield reports, both officers and enlisted men describe the transition ashore as the hardest and most miserable thing they had ever done. They had to row or drag everything across Lake Borgne on longboats or anything else that would float. That was the easy part. Since they had no barges or flatboats or maps, they had to manhandle everything through several miles of bayou swamp, mud and critters. The biggest challenge of all was the tons of artillery and all that went with it, especially ammunition. Initially, cannons had to be disassembled, carried piece by piece and put together at their base camp. On December 23, 1814, the British advance guard of 1,600 men, commanded by Brigadier Keane, arrived at the plantation of Jacques Villere on the east bank of the river. A long time resident, Villere was a Major General in the Louisiana militia and was in New Orleans with his troops. **Historical footnote: Jacques Villere and his men fought with distinction at New Orleans. In 1816, he was elected the second Governor of Louisiana.**
His plantation, called "Conseil",
was the farthest the two British recon men had gotten. It became the
British base of operations. The conditions here were just as bad as
their encampments at Cat Island and Pea Island. Conseil was little more
than a huge bog. The senior officers moved into the plantation house
but everyone else lived, ate, slept and fought through mud, freezing
nights and battalions of mosquitoes. The plantation was split by a
man-made ditch called the Villere Canal which ran from the bayou swamp
to the river. These canals were used on plantations to run water mills,
water livestock and hide smugglers. After the initial death march through
the swamp, the Royal Navy found a route that allowed them drag or pole
boats to the swamp end of the Villere Canal. The British force grew
steadily through the day on the 23rd and they expanded their encampment
to the neighboring Lacoste plantation. Nevertheless, the undefended
invasion route had turned into a nightmare. The entire force was
soaked, cold, mud covered and completely exhausted. Nevertheless, they
were in high spirits. Campfires were built, giving them warmth and hot
food for the first time in days. They were finally ashore and had
achieved complete surprise. Tomorrow, they would make short work of
these ragtag Americans.
The entire battle of New Orleans was fought on a strip of land along the Mississippi River about two miles long and no more than a mile wide. The main battleground was even smaller - a rectangle of sugar cane fields on Chalmette Plantation 700 yards long and 500 yards wide. The entire area shown here was within range of Jackson's land artillery and his gunboats. The plantation names are forever linked to the battle and are presented here for reference and illustration. Although some structures survived the battle, no trace of any remain except the ruins of the De la Ronde House. In fact, most of the plantation grounds themselves are long gone. For more details, here's a link to an interactive Google Earth KMZ file which will allow you to pan in and out. Each of the thumb tack icons had information attached to it. After opening the KMZ file, right click on any of them to find out more.
The layout of the plantations went back to the early 1700's. Each owner got a frontage on the river and land that extended back into the swamps and bayous. Plantation linear dimensions were measured in "arpents", which equals 190 feet or 58 meters. By default, plantations got 40 arpents inland. The number of arpents on the river was a matter of price, influence, inheritance and/or luck. The largest plantation was De la Ronde, which had a river frontage of 22 arpents. The smallest was Rodriguez, which had five arpents. The arpent measures were used in Louisiana until the 1970's.
Another great painting from Don Troiani. This a very accurate portrayal of the Battle of Villere's Plantation on the night of December 23, 1814. The Americans had a distinctive fighting style that differed greatly from the European armies. One of the biggest differences was the Americans fought at night. The British, under General Keane, had just arrived hours earlier and were caught completely flat-footed here. To their credit though, they responded effectively and forced Jackson from the field. Troiani conveys the closeness and the chaos of the fighting. The "dirty shirts" earned a grudging respect from the British that night. Some historians believe this battle was the key to victory at New Orleans. It bought Jackson several days to prepare defenses. Had he not damaged and slowed down the British and if they had attacked in force the next day, they would have been fighting in the streets of the city on Christmas Day. It's also worth noting that after this night, there were no fires in the British encampment. They became targets for cannons, snipers and tomahawks.
When British troops came into Conseil, they caught flat-footed a group of 30 militia men and took them all prisoner. One of them, Villere's son Gabriel, got away and sounded the alarm all the way to "Old Hickory" himself. Surprised at the sudden close appearance of the enemy where he didn't expect them, his nightmare scenario was unfolding. The decisive Jackson wasted no time. Telling his staff "The British are here and we must fight them tonight", he issued attack orders. It would be a night attack from two directions with 2,000 troops and naval gunfire support from two heavily armed warships. He hoped to get around the British force and pin them up against the river. Scouts reported on the British build up all day but Jackson wasn't yet convinced this was the main effort. He held back the bulk of his troops just in case. As darkness fell on the 23rd, the spent British troops huddled around their numerous campfires. Jackson figured they would never expect him to attack - and he was right.
Winters on the bayou can be miserable. The damp cold chills to the bone. Thick fog rolls in and covers everything like a wet blanket. It can cut visibility down to zero. Intense light sources - sun, moon, fires, lamps - can be almost extinguished. It even muffles sounds that would normally be easily heard. So it was on the night of December 23, 1814 at Villere's plantation. Even with a bright 3/4 moon above the fog, the British pickets had trouble seeing the USS Carolina drift slowly down the river. A 15 gun schooner, it moored near the opposite bank directly across from Conseil less than 200 yards away. Word got around and soon the top of the levee was lined with British soldiers trying to hail this mystery ship, thinking it must be one of theirs. Likewise, they had no idea the USS Louisiana, a sloop-of-war mounting 24 guns, had also drifted downriver and anchored about a mile upstream. They had no inkling that over 2,000 "dirty shirts" were closing in from two directions, with Jackson in the lead.
At 1900, the Carolina opened up with her 9-pound and 12-pound guns. The grapeshot and canister rounds cleared the top of the levee. More rounds impacted around the campfires and all Hell broke loose. The first broadsides from the Louisiana's 24-pound guns arrived seconds later.The British were caught completely by surprise. They had no defense against the steel raining down on them and no way to stop it. Hugging the levee, hunkering behind trees or leaping into the canal, they found whatever cover they could.
The bombardment went on for 30 minutes, during which time Jackson's force closed the remaining distance and added two 6-pounder field guns of their own to the shelling. Placed on the road on top of the levee, they poured accurate short range fire into the British. Before the naval fires lifted, the Americans came up over the river bank and slashed into the British encampment. For the second time in 20 minutes, they had been caught unawares, only this time, they could fight back. As they rose to meet the threat from the river, the other half of Jackson's force slammed into them from the swamp behind them. The size of the encampment stopped their encirclement manuever. A wild melee ensued with 4,000 men fighting at arms length in a box-shaped battle area about 500 yards on a side. It was brutal - knives and tomahawks against swords and bayonets.
The fighting lasted 90 minutes. By then, it became apparent to Jackson that were a lot more troops there than he thought. Reinforcements had arrived steadily through the day and even during the battle. The British had their problems in the bayou, but when it came to fighting, they were no slouches. They rallied under the most extreme circumstances and fought well. It was time for the "dirty shirts" to get of Dodge. Using the two 6-pounders and a contingent of Marines to cover the withdrawal, Jackson pulled his men out. They moved quickly to the Rodriguez Canal and set up for a counter-attack which never came. The British encampment was in shambles and General Keane decided not to press his luck. By midnight, all was quiet.
Jackson had achieved complete surprise but not the one-sided rout he was hoping for. It had been a costly fight for both sides - 400 casualties for the British and 200 for the U.S. - and Jackson had to withdraw to preserve his force. However, he bought the time he needed with a little help from the British interim commander. The attack destroyed the British camp and rattled General Keane to the point of inaction. The "dirty shirts" could fight. Reports from spies and prisoners about thousands of them anchored by strong defensive positions seemed to be true. Caution became the order of the day. Their undefended route was gone and so was their momentum. Before daylight, the Americans were working furiously on their defenses and hoping the British would hold off for a couple more days. Brigadier Keane obliged them.
Meanwhile, as the clock rolled over to Christmas Eve in New
Orleans, it was 0700 in Ghent, Belgium 4,800 miles away. In a couple of
hours, Great Britain and the United States would sign the Treaty of
Ghent ending the War of 1812.
A reconstruction of Line Jackson at Chalmette National Battlefield. This image was taken from the right side of the line near the location of the forward bastion. The river is behind the camera. The cypress swamp (or what's left of it) is in the distance. The treeline follows the approximate route of the British main attack against Jackson's left flank. The remains of the Rodriguez Canal can be clearly seen. This is the actual trace of the canal and the only original feature left on the battlefield. The open ground in front of the line looks much as it did then - wide open and devoid of cover or concealment. Advancing across the open against fortified artillery, it became a giant kill zone for the British. Jackson showed them no mercy.
The Americans kept up the pressure on the thoroughly rattled British. The Carolina and Louisiana lobbed harassing fires all night and continued through Christmas Day. American snipers preyed on anything they could draw a bead on. With their Kentucky long rifles resting on a bale of cotton, they could nail a target consistently at 200 yards and as far as 400. Their favorite targets were the officers, which the British found appalling. The Cherokee and Choctaw lent their tomahawks to the mayhem. **Historical footnote: The standard British infantry rifle was the Brown Bess musket. It had no sights and an effective range of about 50 yards. Standard tactics with the Brown Bess were massed volley fire by ranks followed by a bayonet charge. Although on par with the U.S. 1795 Springfield, it was totally outclassed by the Kentucky Long Rifle. The British found themselves at a distinct disadvantage when the shooting started in New Orleans.**
Jackson ordered the construction of three defensive lines in depth between the British and the city. The invasion route they were defending was narrow and wide open - perfect for the kind of defense Jackson was building. The forward line would be at Chalmette Plantation just upriver from Conseil. Dubbed Line Jackson, it was anchored behind the Rodriguez Canal to the front, dense cypress swamp on the left and the Mississippi River on the right. In front of the canal on the right side of the line next to the river, a bastion was built. This would enable guns to fire down the front of the American defenses and parallel to them. He also ordered the construction of a strong battery directly across the river on the west bank to defeat an attack on that side and provide additional fire support for Line Jackson.
While the British worried about getting their heads blown off, the Americans worked at a furious pace in full view of them. Rich, poor, black, white, Creole, Indian, regulars, militia, pirates - it didn't matter. Jackson had them all working. They built ramparts of logs and mud with loopholes for artillery. The Rodriguez Canal, immediately in front of the line, was deepened and widened. Then it was filled partway with water and anything else they could throw in to impede movement across. The mud from the canal went up into the breastworks. When it was done, the combined depth of the canal and the height of the ramparts became a slimy, slippery wall 12-15 feet high.
and children worked equally as
hard preparing food, blankets, clothing, bandages and other essentials
for the coming battle. They tended to the sick and wounded. They also
collected up all the ironware they could find. Nails, door hinges,
horse shoes, broken tools, chain links and more were piled up at the
artillery positions to be stuffed into cannon barrels and fired at
advancing infantry. This particularly nasty and effective type of shot
was called "langrage" or "scrap shot". It was used extensively in naval
battles to shred the sails and rigging of an enemy ship, but it was
just as effective shredding men.
A National Park Service photo of the Louisiana bayou. Battle hardened or not, the British army had never fought in a place like this. Unfortunately for them, the Americans had.
On Christmas Day, 1814, 37 year old Major General Sir Edward Pakenham (PACK-in-um), the hero of Salamanca and brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, arrived at Villere Plantation to the cheers of soldiers and the roar of cannons. Called "Ned" by family and friends, Pakenham was a proven and competent officer who had seen extensive combat in the Napoleonic Wars. Many of these soldiers had fought with him and Wellington against Napoleon. To them, this was a sure sign that things would quickly get moving again. With his combat record and powerful connections, Pakenham was destined for great things. He arrived expecting to be shortly escorted into New Orleans to claim his prize, but his command euphoria was shortlived. At first incredulous, then angry, he soon realized what a wretched state of affairs he had inherited.
Jackson had chosen his defensive terrain wisely. His line was anchored on the right by the Mississippi River and on the left by the bayou. His gunboats owned the river and his soldiers routinely moved through the bayou to attack and harass the British. Between those two anchors, his line was only 700 yards wide - not nearly wide enough to support a fully deployed European army. Pakenham realized they would have to attack in columns, negating much of the intimidating pageantry that was a big part of Napoleonic warfare. The British supply lines were extended and slow. They had no artillery that could reach Jackson's line or his gunboats and they were terribly short on artillery rounds.
The British troops in New Orleans were not amateurs or raw recruits. They were the best the British had, battle hardened by years of combat all over Europe. The senior enlisted men and the officer corps had been in continuous combat for a decade or more and many had served with Sir Edward. Now he was looking at a tired and dismal force. In the last two weeks of December, it was unseasonably cold and rained almost constantly. By day, they were targeted by snipers. At night, it was tomahawks. The two gunboats - Carolina and Louisiana - were still in the river and still shelling them. There were no fires allowed at night, little if any shelter and cold rations every meal. Meanwhile, the Americans continued to improve their defenses knowing that the British couldn't do much about it. They had big fires at night, lots of food and a seemingly endless supply of artillery ammuninition.
After just a few days of this, British morale reached rock bottom. Soldiers started deserting in large numbers, handing Jackson an unexpected bonanza of intelligence in addition to what he was getting from his scouts, spies and POW's. Most significantly, he could see it with his own eyes from the roof of his headquarters at the Macarty plantation home. It was right on the river and just behind the Rodriguez Canal. With a surveyor's telescope, he could see everything the enemy was doing at the downriver plantations. He had plenty of information about the enemy in front of him, but he wasn't yet convinced that this was the main effort.
General Pakenham's initial (and tactically correct) reaction was to withdraw the whole force and start over. Andrew Jackson's aggressiveness and General Keane's hesitance had made this attack plan a loser. Admiral Cochrane said no. It was taking too much time as it was. He opined there was nothing wrong with the British position and the Americans would never stand up to an all out attack. To emphasize his point, he told Sir Edward that if he wanted to pull out his army, Cochrane would go ashore with his sailors and they would take New Orleans. After that throwdown, Pakenham went back to the bayou to get things moving. The first order of business was to bring up some decent artillery and get rid of the American gunboats.
Artillery was the deciding factor at New Orleans, especially on January 8 at Chalmette. But in the days before that, there were three other engagements where both sides lambasted each other. British artillerymen were among the best in the world, but American artillery carried the day in all three. This photo, taken at the battlefield, shows part of the reason why. In the Age of Sail, it was a common tactic to have shipboard artillery taken ashore and used as land batteries. Notice the difference between naval artillery and army artillery. Naval artillery is built for use on wooden decks to be fired in a specific direction with the other guns on deck. The small wheels and massive frame are built for that. Most of the British artillery in the New Orleans campaign came from the fleet warships. The small wheels sank into the mud before the first round was fired and the recoil drove it in even further. It was a major undertaking to get it back in firing position, affecting accuracy and rate of fire. Army artillery, on the other hand, with its large wheels and smaller frame is more manueverable, easier to aim and can be manhandled fairly easily. If army cannon get stuck in the mud, you simply wheel them out. The Americans had a mix of army and navy cannons, but as you can see, they built solid platforms under them. The British were plagued by artillery problems throughout the campaign and it cost them dearly. **Historical footnote: The plantation home in the background is the Malus-Beauregard Mansion built in the 1830's. It's owned by the Park Service and can be visited with the battlefield. It has no connection at all to the battle.**
Pakeham's Chief of Artillery was Lt. Col. Alexander Dickson. He was one of the most experienced and capable artillery officers in the British army. He had served as Wellington's artillery chief throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the Peninsular Wars and in other far-flung places like Egypt. Wellington assigned him to Pakenham's staff for the New Orleans campaign.
His first assignment on the ground at New Orleans was to destroy the USS Carolina and USS Louisiana. Anchored in the river, they had been shelling the British for four days. With the boats still active, an assault across the plantations to the Rodriguez Canal wouldn't stand a chance. Dickson had heavy artillery brought up including a furnace for hot shot - red hot shells that could destroy a ship with one well placed round. While the Navy was rowing and dragging them from 30 miles away, the soldiers began building a battery on the east bank of the river after dark on the 26th.
At 0200 on the 27th, Dickson's men fired up the furnace and started heating up the shot for the biggest guns they had - two nine pounders. By daybreak, the entire battery was ready. In addition to the nine pounders, there were four six-pounders, two 5.5 inch howitzers and one 5.5 inch mortar. The six pounders would fire grape and canister while the howitzers and mortar dropped cold shot and explosive rounds.
At 0700 on December 27, the British artillery opened fire. It was over quickly. The wind was calm and the current strong, preventing the Carolina from moving. The gunners were accurate and the hot shot did its job. The second round of hot shot went into the ship's hold amongst the powder magazines and started a massive fire that couldn't be contained. The crew of the Carolina abandoned ship yet somehow managed to rescue two of their 12 pounder guns. At 0930, the USS Carolina disintegrated in a massive explosion. The crew and the guns they salvaged made their way up the west bank and joined the fortification being built there.
After dispatching the Carolina, Dickson's gunners began firing on the Louisiana. It too was stuck in place by wind and current. From his rooftop vantage point, Jackson watched it all happen and had already ordered rowboats out to the trapped ship to tow her out of harm's way. Over 100 men, many of them Jean Lafitte's pirates, rowed under fire as if the devil himself were after them. One round landed on the deck of the Louisiana but soon she was safely out of range.
The British finally had a check mark in the win column, but it was a shallow victory. If they had fired on the Louisiana first, they could have sunk her and then dealt with the Carolina. As it was, they gave Jackson enough time to get his largest gunboat out of range. The Louisiana would wreak havoc on the battlefield in the coming days.
Re-enactors firing Congreve rockets.
Military rockets were first used in China in the 12th century, 200 years before the first artillery piece was created. Rockets never really caught on in western armies. They went all in for artillery due to its accuracy and lethality. However, rockets were a mainstay in eastern armies, especially India. Rockets had several advantages over conventional artillery. They were light, cheap and had longer range. Since they were recoilless, they could be fired from any platform including small boats. While they were of limited use against strong fixed point targets, they were used very effectively against massed troops, cavalry and larger area-type soft targets.
The psychological effects of rocket fire were un-nerving to say the least. Their flight paths were loud, fiery and erratic. You could hear and see them coming but didn't know where, when or how it would strike until it did. Disciplined, experienced troops learned to deal with them and didn't pay much attention. Inexperienced troops found them terrifying. So did horses. One of the best use of rockets was to break up cavalry charges by spooking the mounts. It was one of the first terror weapons. The British had been on the receiving end of rocket fire for years in India.
Between 1767 and 1799, Great Britain fought four wars in southern India called the Mysorean Wars. Mysore was a Kingdom near the end of the Indian Peninsula and was aligned with the French. The British considered them a clear and present danger to the empire in that part of the world and they were constantly in conflict. The battles of these wars sometimes involved tens of thousands of men on both sides. In every battle, the British found themselves under intense fire from Mysorean rockets, which rained down on them. The British ultimately won all four wars and greatly reduced the size and influence of Mysore. However, they did lose several major battles and rocket fire was a factor.
With each successive war, the rockets became better and better. When the last war ended in 1799, the British took hundreds of rockets back home and embarked on a crash program to develop their own. The result was the Congreve rocket, named for its inventor William Congreve, who developed and patented his design with his own money. By 1805, Britain had rocket artillery. They employed it successfully in the Napoleonic Wars, opening a rocket race among all the combatants.
The first use of Congreve rockets in the War of 1812 was at the Battle of Lundy's Lane on July 3, 1814. The most famous use of them came on September 13, 1814 during the seige of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. When Francis Scott Key penned the line "...and the rockets' red glare" in the Star Spangled Banner, he was writing about Congreve rockets launched at the fort by British warships.
In the Don Troiani picture at the top of this page, the artist has vividly and accurately portrayed Congreve rockets being used at New Orleans.
Confident that he had regained his lost momentum, Pakenham re-organized his force into two brigades and prepared for more action. The plan was to do a reconnaissance-in-force to test Jackson's defenses and resolve. If successful, they could exploit a breach in the line and turn it into a full out attack.
The British had to advance in column. There wasn't enough frontage to fully deploy in ranks and files. The left column, led by Major General Keane, would advance along the river bank. Pakenham and his staff would accompany them. The right column, commanded by Major General Gibbs, would advance along the edge of the swamp. Pakemham had determined that this was the weakest point in Jackson's line. The ramparts were low and thin. The water table was so high that building a solid position was next to impossible. The defenders of this section of the line, inexperienced and poorly trained local militia, spent much of their time in knee deep water. At the last minute, Jackson pushed a six pounder down to the left to cover the approaches from the swamp. It was crewed by Lafitte's buccaneers, who staved off a disaster in the coming battle.
As soon as darkness fell, Pakenham moved his troops forward into the Bienvenue and Chalmette plantations. They pushed American pickets off their position, then moved 10 artillery pieces along the river. When preparations were complete, the British troops hunkered down in place and tried to get some rest. The Americans had other ideas. Described by the British as villains, devils and barbarians, the Americans gave the Brits no rest. Small groups of frontiersmen and Indians spent the night killing pickets and harassing eveyone else. Nobody got any rest.
The next day - December 28 - dawned crisp and sunny. It was the first decent weather they'd had for two weeks and spirits were high. Pakenham, still convinced that these "rabbit hunters" were no match for a British army, planned to put on a full display of military precision, discipline and force. To punctuate this shock and awe, he introduced a new weapon to the New Orleans campaign - the Congreve rocket. These had been in use by the British for 10 years on the battlefields of Europe. Crude and innacurate, they were capable of great damage when launched in sufficient numbers at a large target. Much of their effectiveness came from the terror they caused to people on the receiving end of them. Their loud, fiery and erratic arc could break the spirit of an enemy and had often done so. Pakenham was sure that would be the case here.
Jackson watched from the roof of the Macarty house as the British formed up and began to move. His line was as ready as he knew how to make it. Unbeknownst to the British, Jackson now had 24 guns manning the line and a half dozen more on the Louisiana. She was now an anchored battery that could range the entire battlefield on the British left flank. Jackson's guns were crewed by Navy gunners, Army artillerymen and Lafitte's pirates. Behind the ramparts waited 2,000 riflemen in ranks of four so that someone was always shooting.
Pakenham's army moved forward. Drums, fifes and bagpipes played. Flags and colors flapped in the breeze. Breastplates and bayonets glimmered in the sunlight. Reds, greens, golds and tartans marched in step towards Line Jackson.
British artillery opened up trying to punch a hole in the line, but the ramparts absorbed the worst they had. Waves of Congreve rockets arced toward the Americans. Un-nerved at first, they soon realized they weren't much of a threat. Despite their experience on European battlefields, much of the British fire was wildly inaccurate.
When the British formations were 500 yards from the Rodriguez Canal, all of Jackson's guns fired as one. That was the end of Pakenham's display of military might. Jackson's artillery crews were fast and accurate and they showed no mercy. From two directions, they poured withering fire into the British and took out their artillery. The display of shock and awe became an every-man-for-himself struggle to survive. The left column hit the deck and stayed there. So did General Pakenham. It was only after dark that survivors could slink back to safety. They hadn't even gotten within musket range.
Meanwhile, on the British right flank by the swamp, Gibbs' column was having some success. Dense smoke covering the battlefield partially screened their movement. They got within rifle range of the line and kept moving. The militia defenders headed for the hills. Lafitte's gunners held them at bay until General Coffee charged forward with several hundred Tennesseans to restore the line. If Gibbs had been more aggressive, he might have breached the American defenses. In the chaos of the battle, he decided that this was only a reconnaissance and it was time to withdraw. Using the swamp as cover, they managed to extricate themselves back to friendly lines. Coffee's sharpshooters chased them all the way.
The USS Louisiana distinguished herself on this day. Under fire from British artillery for seven hours, she sustained only minor damage while firing over 800 rounds into the river bank attack column. Afterwards, Jackson had her guns taken ashore where they reinforced both the east and west bank. Then she was anchored several hundred yards upriver, out of the battle but useful as a decoy for the thoroughly shaken enemy.
The operation had been a disaster for the British but Pakenham was undeterred. Rather than take the American line by storm, he decided to lay siege to it and tear it apart like a walled fortress. For that, he needed bigger guns and more of them, along with a lot of ammunition. While the army re-fitted, the Royal Navy began the backbreaking task of bringing large cannon from the warships to Pakenham's batteries.
A 24 pounder on display.
Immediately after the failure of the British attack on December 28, General Pakenham ordered more heavy guns brought in from the fleet - 30 in all. This was much easier said than done. First of all, the guns were 80 miles away at the fleet anchorage at Cat Island. Each gun would have to be rowed from the ship to the beachhead on Lake Borgne then dragged through the bayou swamp to Villere Plantation - at night. The 18 pounder guns weighed 4,500 pounds. The 24 pounders weighed 5,500. They also had to bring tons of ammo ashore - enough for a six hour bombardment. A typical naval gun fired a round every three minutes or 20 per hour. 20 x 6 hours x 30 guns equals 3600 rounds of ammuntion plus powder and other tools for the gun. It was a mammoth undertaking, but somehow, they got most of it done. By New Year's Eve night, the soldiers, sailors and Marines had brought ashore ten 18 pounders and four 24 pounders along with ammo and support. Including the guns already there, Pakenham had his 30 guns. Now all he had to do was move them within range of Jackson's lines and try to be discreet about it.
After a brief flirtation with victory on December 27, Wellington's finest were right back where they started. They were in a lousy situation but Pakenham, egged on by Admiral Cochrane, was determined to see this through. He still couldn't grasp the notion that these Americans might be well led and could really fight.
Jackson had his own dilemma to worry about. Throughout the battle, he couldn't shake this nagging feeling that the British were up to something and he'd missed it. He'd already been surprised twice - both times on December 23. The British had shown up unannounced and undetected at Villere Plantation that morning only a half day's march from the city. During his night attack that same night, his raiders found themselves entangled with many more troops than expected. Jackson's attack plan fell apart and he was lucky to preserve his force. But this - this was just too easy. The British were just sitting out in the open absorbing all the mayhem he could dish out. There were other attack options and an entire fleet nearby to do them with. Was it a ruse? Were the British sacrificing themselves here to draw him out and then attack from another direction? Jackson didn't know but he was determined to be ready for anything. So he kept his lines tight and didn't sally forth in any great numbers. If the British wanted to keep marching across a narrow strip of open ground into his guns and sharpshooters, who was he to argue?
That is exactly what General Pakenham had in mind. After the failure of his "shock and awe" demonstration on the 28th, his plan was - more shock and awe. For three days Royal Navy sailors and Marines manhandled ashore ten 18 pounders, four 24 pounders and tons of ammunition. Combined with the guns already in camp, Pakenham had 30 guns with enough rounds for a sustained six hour bombardment. The worst part of the journey - through the swamp - was done at night to avoid detection.
Meanwhile, Jackson's men strengthened their line. The weak left flank was built up and manned by his best fighters - General Coffee's Tennesseans and their long rifles. More naval guns were brought ashore from the Louisiana, reinforcing both the east and west bank positions. Cotton bales, which had caught fire in the last battle, were removed from the line and replaced with logs and mud. During the day, the Americans would elevate their guns for maximum range and shell the British at random. The Louisiana did the same thing from the river. The British couldn't muster a response.
All of this happened in full view of both sides. The two camps were only about two miles apart, however, the activities in those camps could not have been further apart. Behind Line Jackson were fires, shelters, music, laughter and lots of good food. They had a new found swagger and confidence that goes with winning. The spell of the invincible British Army was broken. They were kicking the living daylights out of the Brits and having a good time doing it.
The British camp was in bad shape. There was no music, no fires, no shelters. The soldiers were eating horse flesh. And that wasn't the worst of it. The daytime harassing fires were bad enough, but at night American hunting parties came calling.
Jackson wasn't about to commit large numbers of troops on another raid in front of the lines, but he knew that an offensive mindset is part of good defense. Every night, small groups of Americans went forward of the lines. The No Man's Land between the two camps, along the swamp and along the river bank became hunting preserves for Jackson's men. Nobody in the British camp was safe, especially the pickets and skirmishers that were nearest to Jackson. Dozens were killed or captured and desertions skyrocketted. A British soldier could eat horse meat before getting his throat cut or he could surrender, answer a few questions and have some decent chow. Tough choice.
Re-enactors shooting six pounders in battery fire.
Unlike modern artillery, the cannons of the Napoleonic era were used as direct fire weapons no more than a couple of hundred yards from the target. The smoke and fire from these weapons could obscure an entire battlefield creating difficulties for targetting and adjusting fire. Here we see an example of that, with just one round from three cannons. Now imagine 30 of them in line being fired as fast as they can be reloaded for three hours. Then further imagine another line of 30 guns firing back at them from 500 yards away. That was the order of battle for the artillery duel on January 1, 1815. It was as savage an artillery engagement as has ever been seen on a battlefield.
After dark on New Year's Eve, 1814 Pakenham got things started. For once, the weather was in their favor. It was a cold. clammy night and thick fog covered the entire area. He moved 1,000 troops to within 500 yards of Line Jackson. Then half of them stacked arms and began building redoubts for the British artillery. The water table was too high for digging, so they built them above ground out of whatever they could find. One thing in abundance on the plantations was barrels of sugar. These were stacked in three semi-circular walls reinforced with mud, logs and whatever else they could find. The batteries were positioned relatively close together starting at the river so they could concentrate their fire at a specific point in the American line. The battery closest to the river had hot shot ready for the Louisiana when it appraoched. No firing platforms were built. The heavy guns began to sink in the mud as soon as they were positioned. They finished in the early hours of of the new year and waited for dawn.
American pickets were driven off their line in the initial troop movement and reported hearing digging and pounding noises throughout the night. There was no response from Jackson's officers. They couldn't see anything and noise was deceptive in these conditions. Who knew what the Brits were doing and who cared? If they come at us again, we'll beat them like a drum. Besides, it was New Year's Eve and there was partying going on. Fires, music and carousing entertained the Brits and covered their activities.
At dawn, the fog was so thick, it limited visibility to 50 feet. Pakenham waited. The area behind the Rodriguez Canal slowly came alive as the Americans nursed hang overs and got ready for another day. To everyone's surprise and delight, Jackson decreed a holiday, along with a parade and pass in review on the grounds of the Macarty Plantation. The city fathers along with citizens rich and poor came to watch it.
The fog began thinning at 1000. When it did, the British were greeted by an amazing sight. People in dress uniforms, plumed hats and fine clothes were standing practically elbow to elbow behind Line Jackson and they didn't seem to have any idea that in the clearing mist were 30 British guns aimed right at them. Pakenham gave the order and all 30 guns plus two batteries of Congreve rockets fired at once.
The Americans were caught with their feet planted. Chaos, blood and bedlam canceled the parade. The first target was the Macarty house. Jackson barely escaped and the house was heavily damaged. This was the high point of the campaign for the British. If they had had an infantry assault ready to exploit the chaos, they might have carried the day - but they didn't. Pakenham hadn't planned for that. The bombardment would have been much more effective if they had fired grapeshot and canister into the milling crowd - but they didn't. They didn't have any. All the ammo from the fleet was round shot used to batter walls and hulls. Once again, as they had done before on December 23 and 28, they let the Americans off the hook. It would cost them dearly.
For ten minutes, they fired unanswered but their euphoria was short lived. The heavy guns buried themselves in the mud. After the inital salvos many of the rounds went arcing way over the target. The rounds that did impact on Line Jackson did little damage. They were firing at close to maximum range and the round shot wasn't explosive. With their energy spent, most of the rounds that hit simply stuck in the mud or slid down into the canal. **Historical footnote: Naval engagements in the Age of Sail were very close range. Broadsides were typically fired at 50 yards or less. Lord Nelson, the heart and soul of the British Navy even today, wanted closer than that. He wanted the ships almost touching each other. Firing from 500 yards away was not in his playbook.** Re-loading became slow and laborious. All this - and the Americans weren't even shooting back yet.
On horseback, General Jackson rode up and down the line like a man possessed giving orders, shouting encouragement and cursing the British. Given his obsession with not being surprised again, it's hard to believe he allowed himself to get caught like this - but he did. Led by the officers and pirate captains, the Americans got their head in the game and manned their guns. Smoke obscured the battlefield but the American gunners had done something the British had not. They knew the ranges of the entire battlefield and patiently started bracketing the British guns to zero in on them. Once they got the range settings, the British got pounded. In addition to the round shot, the Americans fired grape and canister to take out gun crews, who quickly learned three things about sugar barrels. They didn't stop anything. Sugar burned. Sugar fouled the guns, especially if it got into the touch hole. Throw in some water and soon everything and everybody were covered with a sticky syrupy goo.
The British had bigger guns and more of them, but Jackson had better position, better protection, solid firing platforms and a seemingly unlimited supply of artillery rounds. The deciding factors in the battle were the speed and accuracy of Jackson's gun crews. They were magnificent. For three hours, the two lines blasted away at each other. Around noon, British fire slackened noticeably and by 1300, it was all over. Besides the catastrophic damage they suffered, they ran out of ammunition. Pakenham withdrew, leaving his destroyed guns and dead gunners among the ruins of his redoubts.
When the smoke cleared, the extent of the damage became obvious and it was shocking to both sides. All the sugar barrel redoubts had been destroyed. Many guns were torn apart or damaged beyond repair. Dead artillery crews - or parts of them - lay among the ruins where they died fighting at their posts. The British left behind five serviceable guns. When Jackson didn't retrieve them, the Brits went out into the killing field that night and brought them back to fight another day.
Jackson's army suffered relatively little damage, which was amazing given how the duel started. When they realized the extent of their victory, they broke into song and dance with fiddles and horns, putting on a show for the thoroughly defeated and humiliated British. Pakenham was out of ideas and his troops were out of everything, including fighting spirit. Jackson wondered if they would be back or if there was still some secret plan being slowly unveiled. Both commanders had much to think about. In the meantime, battle preparations continued.
A National Park Service map of Jackson's defensive line on January 8. It was a motley crew with black, white, old, young, regulars, militia, pirates, native Americans, frontiersmen and more in the fight and taking it to the best army in the world. Pakenham aimed his attack columns at the two ends of Jackson's line, figuring they would be the most vulnerable. They thought wrong. Jackson had his best fighters there. The F.M.O.C. battalions were Free Men of Color. These were units of free blacks, immigrants from the Caribbean and others who volunteered to fight. Over 600 in number, many of them had served in French colonial military forces. All together, Jackson had 4,000 defenders on this line and in reserve.
The next day, Jackson was back in his perch on top of the Macarty house. It had been wrecked by artillery but was still standing. Seeing no activity on the British side, he dispatched scouts and patrols to check other avenues of approach that might be utilzed by the British. All reported back that there was no enemy activity anywhere else. The British force in front of them was the main invasion force and had been all along. Jackson began developing final defensive plans against an attack he knew was coming.
The defensive parapets were strengthened, especially on the left flank into the swamp. Jackson put his best soldiers - Coffee's Tennesseans - there supported by Lafitte's gunners. More guns and troops were sent to the west bank. Their mission was to support the defenders of the Rodriguez Canal with enfilading fire against the British flank from across the river. Little thought was given to defending the west bank guns from a ground assault on that side and it almost resulted in disaster.
Sir Edward noticed early on that the west bank gun position was not well developed. If they could capture it, they could turn Jackson's artillery against him with a devastating enfilade fire of their own. This two-pronged assault started to come together with the January 4 arrival of 2,000 British reinforcements commanded by General John Lambert. Pakenham's force was now close to 10,000 men of which 6,000 would carry out the upcoming attack.
He organized his force into four brigades. One brigade of 1,400 men led by Colonel William Thornton would cross the river at night and attack along the west bank. They would seize the American guns and turn them on Line Jackson by first light. Then two brigades would attack in column across the Chalmette plantation fields and breach Jackson's defenses. General Keane with 1,200 men was on the left guiding along the levee road. General Gibbs with 2,200 troops was on the right following the treeline. This was the main effort. A fourth brigade of 1,700 men commanded by General Lambert would be held in reserve to exploit any break through. It was a classic European-style scheme of manuever. If it had gone as planned, it probably would have worked. It's biggest flaws were timing and the bayou, which fought them every step of the way. The west bank had to be taken before the east bank attack started. Otherwise, Gibbs and Keane would be marching into a meat grinder.
Jackson kept a constant watch on the British with his scouts and his telescope. Work continued along the line. More guns were added. Snipers and cannons kept up their long range harassment of the enemy, who had pulled back almost two miles from the Rodriguez Canal. Jackson also received reinforcements. General John Thomas arrived with 2,000 Kentucky militia but it did little to bolster the defenses. Only 1/3 of them were armed and almost all of them lacked clothes, shoes, blankets or any sort of military equipment. They were cold, wet, starving and exhausted. The city turned itself inside out to arm, clothe and provision these scarecrows. The ones with weapons were put on the line. The rest were used as working parties on the reserve line a mile back and across the river on the west bank position.
For several days, all seemed quiet on the British side. In fact, they were frantically working 24x7. More artillery was brought up. Lambert's 2,000 reinforcements had to be ferried ashore, each carrying an artillery round. The Villere Canal was widened and cut all the way to the river. The long boats and barges to carry Thorton's west bank attack force would come up the bayou and float through the canal to the river. It wasn't going well but on January 6th, they started dragging the first boats through the canal towards the river. This activity was hard to hide. Upon spotting it, Jackson knew immediately what was going on. He ordered more troops across the river, which turned out to be about 400 of the Kentucky scarecrows. General Morgan, the commander of the west bank battery, re-positioned several guns to face downriver instead of across it and a defensive trench was hastily dug. However, it was too little too late and not nearly enough to take on the force that was headed their way.
This is the killing field that Pakenham's army had to cross in broad daylight. Keane's highlanders crossed it diagonally from right to left and would have been heading straight for the camera. It's a miracle anybody survived.
Pakenham planned to attack the west bank the night of the 6th and Line Jackson at first light on the 7th. When the boats got bogged down, he moved it all back a day and battlefield preparations began in full view of Jackson. The entire British force moved up towards Chalmette. A heavy line of pickets was deployed only 500 yards from the American line. Colonel Dixon placed artillery on the river bank and brought forward more guns to emplace at night in their old sugar coated redoubt. Jackson himself watched as the British soldiers built scaling ladders and bundled stalks of sugar cane into fascines. These would be used to cross the moat and scale the walls. After dark, there was constant activity on the British side, including the construction of new artillery positions on the same place as the old ones.
Knowing that a major battle was in the offing, Jackson spent the night of the 7th checking his lines. The Americans had a strong position manned by 4,000 troops and 15 cannon ranging in size from 6 pounders to a monstrous 32 pounder in the center. Morale was high and the force was confident, ready to finish this thing.
On the British side, Pakenham's complex plan was already coming apart. Thorton's brigade finally shoved off eight hours late at 0300, but with only 400 of his 1,400 men. That's all they had boats for. The river current grabbed them immediately and swept them almost two miles down the Mississippi before they landed on the west bank. They were already supposed to be on the objective and here they were four miles downriver from it.
As the first streaks of gray appeared on the eastern horizon, Colonel Dixon informed Sir Edward that only half the artillery was in place. The bayou mud had made it impossible to move up everything in the time allotted. By this time, the attack columns were forming up and moving towards the line of departure. As Pakenham was making a final round of the main attack force, General Gibbs told him that their lead elements had left behind the ladders and fascines needed to breach the American line. More time was lost retrieving them and the attack started without them.
At this point, Pakenham still had the option of calling off the attack. What was supposed to be a supported attack in low light was now an unsupported frontal assault in broad daylight across 500 yards of open ground. Impatient, angry and still smarting from two previous defeats, he decided to go for it. He ordered the signal to begin the attack.
A National Park Service graphic of the British attack. It is superimpposed over the current features of the park. The distance from the monument straight across to the cemetery road is a little over 600 yards, so this is the entire battle area. Notice the symbol for Jackson's HQ - the Macarty House. It was re-built after the battle and changed owners several times before burning down around 1900. Its site is at the bottom of the Chalmette boat slip. There's no real concensus on where General Pakenham was killed but most reports have him much closer to the ramparts than indicated here.
Shortly after 0700 on Sunday, January 8, Andrew Jackson's forces were greeted by a most impressive sight. Out of the rapidly dissipating fog 500 yards away appeared 4,000 British troops moving across the open fields. They marched as if they were on parade with colors unfurled accompanied by drums, fifes and bagpipes. At 400 yards, American artillery opened up with salvos of shell, shot and canister rounds. The west bank battery joined in. The British attackers were decimated by fire from two directions. Large groups of soldiers simply vanished. Others took their place, reformed their units and continued to move forward.
On the British left along the river bank, Colonel Robert Rennie led the lead elements of General Keane's attack force. Rennie advanced rapidly, rolling up American outposts and capturing a forward redoubt immediately in front of Line Jackson. He had just enough time after he mounted the top to shout encouragement to his men before he was shot dead. The rest of his force broke and ran, being pursued by fire all the way. Dozens of bodies littered the levee road.
On the British right, General Gibbs' force was being annihilated. Still, on they came. At 200 yards, Jackson's riflemen joined the slaughter. In front of Gibbs' advance, Coffee's 1,000 Tennesseans were formed up in four ranks which rotated on and off the line for firing and reloading. A relentless storm of musket fire further decimated Gibbs' soldiers. They kept coming, some of them on all fours.
Back on the British left, General Keane saw that Gibbs was faltering. He ordered his column of 900 Highlanders to move from the levee diagonally across the battlefield to support Gibbs. They were blown to bits by artillery. Of the 900 men, 600 became casualties. General Keane was severely wounded and carried out of the fight. They were not yet in rifle range when they hesitated then turned and fled.
Also seeing that Gibbs was in trouble, General Pakenham streaked across the battlefield on horseback to rally the attackers. By the time he got there, the rout was on. With most of their officers dead, leaderless British soldiers could no longer withstand the Hell that was all around them. Pakenham and Gibbs both tried in vain to rally the troops and both were killed doing so. It became an every-man-for-himself bugout. They ran into the swamp or fled back to the rear. Some played dead. Others simply curled up in the fetal position.
In the center of Line Jackson, small groups of British soldiers made it to the Rodriguez Canal. They leapt over the ditch and began clawing their way up the slope with their bayonets. One British officer, Lt. Lavack of the 21st Fusiliers, made it to the top of the parapet, where he demanded the surrender of the Americans. He was taken prisoner. The rest were killed or wounded.
Seeing that the main effort was floundering, General Lambert began to move forward with his reserve. They started taking casualties almost immediately as well as running into bloody, terrified soldiers in full retreat. As the extent of the disaster became apparent, he halted his advance and started to consolidate what was left. There had still been no activity on the west bank and no one knew where Colonel Thorton was. It was time to cease the attack and reorganize for another try at the Americans another day. He ordered a retreat. He was now the commander of a beaten army.
This rectangle of sugar cane field 700 yards long and 500 yards wide had become Hell on earth. Smoke entombed the entire battlefield. The roar of cannons and muskets were intermingled with the shouting of orders and the shrieks of the wounded. Entire regiments had disappeared. But the worst was yet to come.
Contemporary historical artist Dale Gallon gives us an excellent look at the fighting on January 8 in his work "The Cotton Balers". Here regular Army soldiers of the 44th Infantry Regiment and their pirate gunners hold the line against the attacking British near the center of Line Jackson.
It was over in 25 minutes. The Americans stopped shooting because there were no targets left. As the smoke lifted, the extent of the carnage became all too evident. The entire battlefield was covered with bodies, limbs, heads and entrails - all of them British. Also covering the field were tattered red coats and tartans along with weapons and equipment. No longer a smooth flat sugar cane field, it was torn up as if a plow had gone through it. The cries of the wounded drowned out everything.
On the British side, two Generals, seven Colonels and most of the officer corps were dead. Of the 3,000 soldiers that began the assault on the east bank, over 2,000 were dead, wounded or missing. When the shooting stopped, over 400 British soldiers stood up in the field of battle and surrendered. American casualties numbered 13 - six killed and seven wounded.
The British still had one card to play. As both sides tried to comprehend the bloodbath before them, Colonel Thorton finally arrived at the west bank battery and easily captured it. Hearing the sounds of battle, Jackson realized this could be real trouble. He had been warned about the vulnerability of the west bank batteries but had not reinforced them. Now there was the distinct possibility of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If those guns were turned against him, he would have to vacate the Rodriguez Canal and the British still had enough troops to exploit and pursue.
Jackson's luck held. Thorton was killed in the assault. The carnage on the east bank was clearly visible. As they prepared to carry out their mission, they found that the captured guns had been spiked and the powder thrown in the river. As they attempted to salvage something, Colonel Dixon arrived with orders from General Lambert to retreat. By noon, the Battle of New Orleans was over. Jackson's victory on this day was total but he still faced a powerful and dangerous enemy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that the battle on the fields of the Chalmette Plantation effectively ended the British campaign for New Orleans. But on the afternoon of January 8, 1815, nobody on either side knew what would happen next.
Desperate after yet another defeat, Admiral Cochrane wasn't ready to sail away just yet. With the army decimated and its leaders dead, he decided to take his fleet into the fight and sail 80 miles up river to attack New Orleans. His biggest ships wouldn't clear the bottom, but the smaller ones could. Standing in his way - besides the river - was Fort St. Phillippe 30 miles upstream. Originally built by the Spanish, occupied by the French and abandoned by the Americans, it commanded a key turn in the river called the Plaquemines Bend. At the start of the campaign, it was empty and falling apart. Jackson reinforced it with almost 400 troops and 40 guns, including 29 24pounders plus howitzers and mortars. Directly across the river they built Battery Jackson to catch the attacking ships in a crossfire. The fleet fired their first rounds on January 9th. For 10 days, the two sides blasted away at each other with the British getting the worst of it. Finally, they had had enough. The fleet withdrew.
That afternoon, American and British soldiers both ventured out on to the field to recover the wounded. Those picked up by Jackson's men were carried into the city and cared for by citizens in private homes. The British moved their wounded to the De La Ronde plantation home. Regardless of which side, the numbers were overwhelming and the wounds were ghastly. Amputations and infection killed many of the wounded. Although the numbers have never been quantified, it must have been in the hundreds.
The next day, a truce was called to recover the British bodies, which were already starting to bloat and decompose. They were buried in shallow mass graves which quickly filled with water. Soon there were body parts sticking up above the ground and the stench, which lasted for weeks, reached New Orleans. The remains of those British dead are still part of the earth today at the Chalmette National Battlefield.
The Generals and Colonels who were killed were eviscerated and sealed up in casks of rum to be transported home for burial.
General Lambert had a major task on his hands - a tactical withdrawal while in close contact with the enemy. His force had been brought in piecemeal by boat. If they went out the same way, they risked annihilation. He was rightfully concerned that as his force shrank, Jackson would move in for the kill. Jackson had no such intentions although his officers argued forcefully for it. He saw no reason to hazard his force to inflict more casualties on a beaten enemy. Nevertheless, the British force still outnumbered his and they had a powerful fleet to back them up. He maintained a strong defensive posture, continued harassing fire around the clock and kept pushing out patrols and scouts. His "hunting parties" were out again only this time it was to pass out leaflets and encourage British soldiers to desert. Dozens did.
On January 9th, Admiral Cochrane finally did what he should have done weeks earlier. He got the fleet involved. His goal was to penetrate 80 miles up the Mississippi to the Rodriguez Canal and the city itself. His biggest men-of-war wouldn't clear the channel but he had plenty of smaller craft that would. His immediate objective was Fort St. Phillippe about 30 miles upriver. When the British first arrived, it had been a broken down, undermanned fortification. Jackson had reinforced it and it was now a very formidable riverside bastion. Cochrane's gunboats bombarded the fort for ten days without results. They sailed away and abandoned the scheme.
During those 10 days, General Lambert prepared for his retrograde. Still occupying the Villere Plantatiion, he wanted to get everybody down to the beachhead quickly, so they built a road through the bayou. The weather was miserable. Much of the road was nothing more than bundles of reeds and sugar cane stalks thrown into the water. On the night of February 19, they made their move. First the wounded, then supplies then the regiments moved out down the nine mile road to the shore of Lake Borgne. The cannon were spiked, broken up and left behind. Campfires were left burning and uniforms stuffed with straw were positioned as decoy sentries.
The "road" came apart almost immmediately. The movement became a 12 hour death march with an untold number of soldiers drowning or disappearing in quicksand. By morning, Lambert's force was at Lake Borgne. They set up a perimeter and waited for the rowboats to take them 30 miles to the fleet anchorage.
The British had executed a textbook retrograde under fire. Jackson had no inkling that this was happening until the next morning. Sentries reported that birds were pecking at the faces of the British pickets. Patrols went out and discovered the British had vanished. Jackson heavily reinforced the west bank and kept his troops on a war footing. This was an increasingly difficult task since the town was already celebrating the defeat of the British.
The British weren't quite done yet. It took seven days to get Lambert's men embarked on the ships. Weather, a lack of boats and pirates forced significant delays. During that entire time, the men lay out in the worst of weather conditions with little food or sleep expecting Jackson's men to pounce on them at any second. Once onboard the ships, they waited while fierce storms kept the fleet at its anchorage. Finally, on February 6 - a month after the debacle at Chalmette - the British fleet left the delta.
On February 8 they sailed into Mobile Bay, where it had all started eight weeks earlier. The troops disembarked on Dauphine Island at the mouth of the bay. They killed every animal they could find and ate it. On February 9, General Lambert attacked Fort Bowyer in force from all sides. The fort surrendered on the 12th. Cochrane and Lambert dreaded facing the music for their disastrous results, so they decided on Mobile as a consolation prize. From there, they could attack overland with a re-constituted force and take another crack at New Orleans.
Two days later, the HMS Brazen arrived with dispatches from London. The Treaty of Ghent had been signed and ratified by both sides. The war was over. The British were ordered to abandon or surrender any American territory or property they had and sail to the nearest British naval station. On February 15, 1815, the pride of Wellington's army left for home.
The ruins of Fort St. Phillippe. After the War of 1812, the U.S. greatly strengthened the defenses of the Mississippi delta region. Battery Jackson became Fort Jackson and other forts were built at Lake Borgne and key waterways all over the area. Some of them are still around. Some have disappeared. Others are wasting away. Fort St. Phillippe is one of them. It saw action during the Civil War but was unable to withstand the seige by the Union Navy and their rifled cannons. The Union captured New Orleans early in the war. Fort St. Phillippe is on private land but people with boats land all the time. There are no land approaches and the structure is very unstable and dangerous as well as a haven for the critters of the bayou. A better bet is Fort Jackson right across the river, which is in good shape and is a state park.
Of all the battles and places I have written about, this one was the most educational and absorbing. Like most people, I always thought the Battle of New Orleans was a one day fight after which the British went home. Even the National Park Service follows that line. This page was planned to be relatively short but come to find out that it was a brutal two month campaign with battles that rivaled anything in the Napoleonic Wars for brutality and slaughter. So I kept reading and researching, making two visits to the battlefield along the way. I wish I had known then what I know now. It would have made the visits much more interesting.
The National Park Service has done a great job of preserving and restoring the battlefield despite the fact that industrial development has plowed under many of the key areas. In addition, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina but is now back better than ever. The battle area of January 8 looks much as it did on that day. Ships now dock at the Chalmette Slip, where the Macarty House once stood.
A couple of thoughts come to mind. The British blew it big time. This was a winnable campaign, but rookie mistakes, a lack of initiative, the bayou and plain bad luck all ganged up on them. At the root of this was a typical British contempt for their opponents which their military history has seen time and again. History is replete with "what ifs" and this campaign was full of them. IF General Ross had not been killed at Baltimore ... IF General Keane had advanced on New Orleans on December 23 ... IF General Pakenham has chosen to fight somewhere else ... IF the navy had fought their way up the Mississippi in the vulnerable early days ... IF the main attack on January 8 had focused on the west bank IF, IF, IF - then the British might have celebrated the holidays in New Orleans.
The decision by General Pakenham to attack on January 8 after the plan had fallen apart has to rank as one of the most grievous command decisions ever. Attacking into the teeth of Jackson's defenses for a third time is inexplicable and revealed deep flaws in Pakenham. He was certainly a capable field officer but as a campaign commander, he showed himself lacking. There were better options available. Unfortunately, repeated suicidal charges were a mainstay of military tactics until the middle of the 20th century. Chalmette was a preview of what was to come.
Jackson had his problems too but weak kneed leadership wasn't one of them. His tactics, use of terrain and aggressiveness kept the British army constantly off balance and ultimately carried the day. However, he did get caught with his feet planted several times but was able to react and adjust effectively. His worst decision was his failure to recognize the threat from the west bank on January 8. It could have cost him the city, but the British didn't execute well enough to pull it off. In short, Jackson was good but he was also lucky. That's a tough combination to beat.
Paddlewheel riverboats drop the gangplank at the battlefield on a regular basis.
For two centuries, historians have argued about the significance of the Battle of New Orleans. Some say it was unnecessary. Others say it was irrelevant since the war was already over when it was fought. Still others say a British victory at New Orleans would have changed the shape and future of the continent. After writing this page, I put myself in the last category. This was a major, strategic campaign initiated by the British to seize and hold territory. They viewed New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase as ill-gotten American gains that were fair game to the victors. What form would their spoils have taken? New Orleans British Crown Colony? New Canada west of the Mississippi? Hard to say but a quick look at a map shows that if you own the Great Lakes and the Mississippi delta, you own the river. Would they have given it back? I say no.
Up to this point, the war was a stalemate. The Americans had started this thing against the world's biggest superpower and were lucky to be getting out of it without the concessions of a loser. New Orleans changed everything. The shellacking of the British army was heard around the world. Even though the victory had no impact on the negotiated peace treaty, it thrust the United States on to the world stage as a power to be reckoned with. Much of the peace treaty left things to be settled later by joint commissions. The U.S. now negotiated from a position of strength. More than 30 years after the American Revolutionary War, old antagonists like the British, French, Spanish and others finally, if begrudgingly, admitted that America was on the rise and not to be trifled with. That's why the War of 1812 has been called the Second War of Independence. It wouldn't have happened without Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
I hope you enjoyed the write up. Feedback - good or bad - is always welcome.
Semper Fi...Out here...Boris