The Battle of New Orleans
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Andrew Jackson would grow up to be a President of the United States of America and the founder of the Democratic Party. Along the way he would murder many of his fellow men and live a life of depravity unmatched, so far as we know, by any other American President.
Continued from General Jackson Captures Pensacola
The British won the War of 1812. The U.S. attempt to conquer Canada had been thwarted. On December 24, 1814 the peace Treaty of Ghent was signed between Great Britain and the United States of America. The British promised to return the black slaves they had freed (just as they had at the end of the Revolutionary War). Both nations were to return what that had achieved by military efforts, which mainly meant the British returned large areas they had captured along the Pacific Coast and the Great Lakes, and in Maine.
The treaty negotiations had long been underway, but neither the British invasion of New Orleans nor the American defense of that city had been called off. General Andrew Jackson assumed the the British fleet would attack at Mobile, Alabama, then march over land. The British commander, Sir Alexander Cochrane, sailed out of Jamaica on November 27th, intent on a direct route to New Orleans. Andrew Jackson was traveling to the city at the same time, but not leading his army there. It was thought that many of the inhabitants might prefer British or Spanish rule to remaining in the United States. Jackson's presence was to bolster morale, but his trip also allowed him to observe what he thought would be the British invasion route if they were not stopped by his army concentrated at Mobile.
Arriving December 1st, Jackson set about studying the local topography, which had been inadequately mapped for his military purposes. There were at least six reasonable approaches the British might take to New Orleans. Jackson ordered more patrols to detect any British advance, and ordered additional small gun emplacements to be made at key points. When British ships were first spotted on December 10th, Jackson believed it was a feint, and that the attack would still be upon Mobile.
The General was surprised to learn on December 15, 1814 that the first battle had already been fought, and won by the British. They had set out with 42 longboats onto Lake Borgne and defeated five American gunboats, then set up a garrison 30 miles east of New Orleans. The full invasion force consisted of about 10,000 men. Jackson had about 1000 regular troops and 2000 militia members nearby. Reinforcements were called for from Mobile and other points, martial law was declared, and all local men drafted into the militia. The pirate Jean Laffite was accepted as an ally. John Coffee arrived with 800 men on December 20th, having marched them over 135 miles of difficult terrain in three days. By coincidence 3000 troops from Tennessee arrived a few hours later.
Not being sure of the route the British would use for an attack, at first Jackson kept the bulk of his troops in New Orleans itself, ready to march out in whichever direction was necessary. On December 23rd, however, Jackson learned the British had already reached a point eight miles from town, having evaded the American defenses by wading through swamps and then capturing a dozen American soldiers. Then the British, some 2000 strong, halted, waiting for their own reinforcements.
Andrew Jackson ordered an attack as quickly as troops could be assembled, gathering a few more than the British had encamped. The schooner Carolina added supporting fire. Jackson's attack began at 7:30 PM, catching the British by surprise. Both sides fought vigorously, if unevenly, in the darkness. Captured British prisoners told Jackson of 3000 reinforcements on their way. The General was worried the British might have split their forces. He decided to withdraw, before dawn, to the Rodriguez Canal [actually, a dry ditch], to prepare a better defense. Morning of the 24th, the British troop strength had risen to 4,700. Had they immediately pressed the attack, it is doubtful Jackson's under two-thousand men could have prevented them from reaching New Orleans.
The American troops worked furiously to erect a dirt rampart behind the canal, while the British organized themselves for the attack. Major General Edward Pakenham arrived to command the British troops and with plans to become governor of Louisiana. Their first need would be to take out the American ships Carolina and Louisiana. In the battle of the 24th the Americans had superior artillery. Now the big guns were ordered from the British fleet. On the 27th the British fired on the Carolina, and blew her up. But the Louisiana, with her precious artillery, escaped out of range of the British guns.
On the morning of December 28th the British attacked with spectacular but mainly harmless Congreve rockets and made some probing attacks with troops, but were driven back largely by the guns of the Louisiana. The Americans, as days passed, accumulated pieces of artillery and strengthened their fortifications. More British troops also arrived, and more heavy pieces of artillery were dragged through the swamp. On New Year's Day there was an artillery battle, which the Americans got the worst of.
The main battle took place on January 8, 1815. Prior battles had been on the east side of the Mississippi River. Now the British had dragged boats across the swamps to their new position, perhaps to go west around Jackson's fortifications. Jackson had just five hundred soldiers under David Morgan on the west bank. Early in the morning, seeing the British preparing boats to attack him, Morgan begged for more troops. Jackson decided to keep all his troops against the main British attack. Jackson had over five-thousand men defending his fortifications.
The British attack went wrong from the start. The plan was to cross 1400 soldiers under Thornton to the West side where they would overrun Morgan's unreinforced position, seize American artillery, and turn it on Jackson's rear. But the crossing came five hours late and at only half strength. Keane was to lead 1200 towards Jackson along the river bank, with Gibbs leading 2100 men to the main attack near where the fortification ran into the woods, deemed the Americans' weak point. Coffee's men, at Jackson's left flank (furthest from the river, by the swamp) would be occupied by a regiment of West Indians firing from within the woods.
The plan was to fight in the dark hours before dawn, when Jackson's well-fortified sharp shooters' impact would be minimized. It was well lit and a breeze blew away the fog by the time the attack began. Keane attacked first, and his troops marched bravely forward even after coming under a wilting barrage of bullets while still 400 yards from Jackson's line. American cannon fire produced so much smoke that the riflemen could not aim accurately. Jackson ordered the cannons to cease. As the smoke cleared the British were running forward less than 300 yards distant. Even Brit-hater Jackson could not but admire the courage and discipline of these British soldiers. The American fire was well orchestrated, with three ranks altering firing and loading their rifles.
But at last the British line broke. Officers rode forward, but their men were in retreat. Now the Ninety-Third Highlanders were charging Jackson's center. Again American rifles killed or wounded them long before they could reach the fortifications. Other British troops pressed from the rear, and one group under Major Wilkinson made it to the dry canal, then a few to the rampart itself. But Wilkinson was shot as he reached the American line. A second attempt along the river advanced all the way to the American line, but no further. Pakenham, wounded three times and dying, ordered the reserves to attack, but Lambert, now in charge, saw that would simply be a waste of men. He ordered the British to withdraw.
On the west of the river it was a different story. Under-fortified and under-manned, Morgan was forced to retreat. The British plan to turn artillery against the Americans on the left bank was foiled only because the American artillery officer spiked his guns before abandoning them. Four hundred American troops were now ordered by Jackson to cross to drive back Thornton's victorious troops. They refused to fight. Andrew Jackson believed that if the British attacked either from or along the west bank, he would no longer be able to hide behind fortifications.
But General Lambert was unwilling to take that risk. He withdrew his troops on the west bank, and prepared for an orderly retreat back to his Navy.
As glorious as Americans like to make the Battle of New Orleans, it was essentially a draw. In the history of war attacking well-fortified troops is no easy task. The British expected to take heavy casualties, and their battle plan was sound. Had they started on time, in the dark, they would have given the defenders a far harder time. Jackson showed good military leadership in realizing this type of battle would be won as much with shovels of dirt as with rifle and cannon. In retrospect he should have reinforced his position on the west bank, but in the end the loss there was compensated by the loss of the British on the east bank. For the British Empire it was a minor incident; just 291 British soldiers died in the main battle.
Deaths from unnecessary wars are always sad. In this case, the peace treaty had already been signed, so the British would have had to give back New Orleans even if they had defeated the Americans in battle.
Main source: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James, Bobbs-Merrill company, 1938.
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