On December 24, 1814, American and British officials signed the Treaty of Ghent, bringing to a close the War of 1812. Unfortunately, news of the event arrived in New Orleans via a slow boat to China, reaching southern Louisiana in March of 1815. Thus, the final battle of the War of 1812 occurred on January 8, 1815, when the Battle of New Orleans erupted.
The culmination of a month-long collection of skirmishes, the Battle of New Orleans pitted US and British troops against each other in southern Louisiana. Though referred to as the “Battle of New Orleans”, the conflict actually occurred in Chalmette, five miles south of the namesake location. Led by Major General Edward Pakenham, British forces sought to control America’s inland waterways by blocking the mouth of the Mississippi River. General Andrew Jackson led the American efforts to defend the port.
The major cause of the War of 1812 was resentment on the part of Americans regarding Britain’s domination of the seas, with strong emphasis on England’s interference with American shipping and the impressments of sailors from American vessels. A less mentioned underlying cause concerned the hope of some Americans to enjoy a victorious land grab from England and Spain with respect to Canada and Florida.
In the opening days of the 1812 conflict, Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. After achieving victory in 1814, Britain was then able to turn her full attention to the war with America. Soon 20,000 British troops invaded the US on a number of different fronts – Lake Champlain, the Chesapeake Bay, the Niagara Peninsula and New Orleans.
Then a city of 18,000 individuals, New Orleans did not receive much thought by the American commanders when the invasion by British troops began. Andrew Jackson, the commanding officer of the Seventh Military District, which included Tennessee, the Mississippi Territory and Louisiana, originally envisioned Mobile, Alabama as the location the British would choose for their southern invasion point. Jackson’s thoughts would prove to be partially correct. In mid-September, Mobile did come under attack from British forces under the command of Captain William Percy and Major Edward Nicholls. The attack, however, was short lived as American troops were ready and forced the British to withdraw to Pensacola, Florida, which at the time belonged to Spain.
The events at Mobile bought Jackson a temporary reprieve and time to relocate his troops to New Orleans. While planning their defense strategy, Jackson and others knew the likelihood was strong for the British to use one of two water routes in an effort to attack New Orleans – either by sailing up the Mississippi River or by traveling across Lake Borgne to Lake Pontchartrain to enter the river. Sailing up the Mississippi, however, was the less likely British choice, due to a number of shallow spots and turns located in the river; and also the presence of Fort St. Philip and Fort Bourbon, located on opposite sides of the river.
During his preparations, Jackson’s first concern was the availability of manpower. His current collection of 1,000 regular troops and fewer than 2,000 militia would face twice as many British soldiers. Add to that, Master Commandant Daniel Patterson’s available naval force offered a miniscule flotilla, consisting of six small gunboats and two larger ships, the Louisiana, a formidable craft without a crew to operate it, and the Carolina, a schooner presently anchored in New Orleans. Eventually, Jackson was able to assemble a polyglot fighting force. Included in the collection were Native Americans, Negroes, Baratarians (pirates) who worked for Jean Laffite and two divisions of the Louisiana militia. Jackson’s actions quickly filled the minds of many Americans with loyalty questions regarding the incorporation of French-speaking Louisianans, in addition to the wisdom of arming pirates and Negroes.
Mid-December witnessed a fleet of British ships drop anchor in the Gulf of Mexico within close proximity to Lake Borgne. Due to the shallowness of the lake, the 10,000 British troops were forced to use smaller vessels to do battle with the US troops guarding the lake’s entrance. On December 14th, the two forces met. The American troops quickly became the underdogs in the skirmish, due to the tides, winds and number of British troops working against them. It required a mere two hours for the lake to fall under British control as the soldiers came ashore and began to build a garrison on Pea Island, located approximately 30 miles east of New Orleans. When news of the British accomplishments reached the city, panic set in and quickly spread throughout the state. Jackson soon declared martial law in New Orleans and called out the need for addition materials and manpower.
Simultaneous to the events in New Orleans, the British were aided by numerous Spanish fishermen who helped guide two British officials to an unguarded path which led to the plantation home of Major General Jacque Villere of the Louisiana militia. The plantation’s location placed the British within nine miles of New Orleans. On December 22nd, British General John Keane seized the plantation when he and his 1,800 troops surprised the Louisiana militia, commanded by Villere’s son, Major Gabriel Villere. Thankfully for the Americans, General Keane was unaware of the fact he could have victoriously continued his trek up the undefended river road, thereby placing his troops within cannon shot of New Orleans. Instead, the British chose to wait for reinforcements.
Andrew Jackson may have breathed a quick sigh of relief with this event, due to the fact the time the British spent waiting for reinforcements offered him the opportunity to rally the troops and prepare for a surprise night attack. The sloop Louisiana was quickly manned and the guns from both that ship and the Carolina provided Jackson needed support from the river. In addition, American troops rapidly assembled an earthen defense four miles south of New Orleans, along the Rodriguez Canal. Historian Wilburt Brown later labeled Jackson’s efforts, “the most decisive single factor in the campaign”. The preparations served to boost the American morale due to the fact they resulted in the British suffering numerous injuries and an unexpected setback.
Finally convinced the Americans had no intention of going away quietly or quickly, on Christmas Day Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Pakenham arrived at the Villere plantation. He ordered the artillery to attack the American ships which were stationed opposite the British camp. This resulted in the Carolina being set afire and sunk. The Louisiana, however, was moved upriver, out of range of the British guns.
The assault by General Pakenham continued at dawn on December 28th as he sent two columns of troops towards the Rodriguez Canal. This time, the Americans came out the victors as they attacked the British with an unexpectedly high quantity of artillery fire. Over the next three days, British troops utilized night landings in an effort to bring ashore heavy cannons and ammunition in preparation for a major attack.
The British began the new year of 1815 by opening fire against the Americans at 10:00 a.m. Following three hours of fighting, however, the Americans probably gave thanks for the black-eyed peas they likely had at breakfast that morning, due to the fact their artillery victoriously separated the British gunners from their weapons.
Though forced into a temporary retreat, General Pakenham did not give up the fight. Back at it on January 8th, he launched an all-out attack on the Americans. Though small, sideline skirmishes occurred, with Pakenham’s main objective, an attack on the earthworks built to protect New Orleans on the Mississippi’s east bank. He knew the greatest portion of Jackson’s strength was encamped on the American right, so he concentrated on the center and left side of Jackson’s line.
Pakenham began his attack under cover of darkness and fog. What he had not been able to factor in, however, was the fact that as the British closed in on the American line, the fog lifted, exposing his troops to the US artillery. Due to the fact the British had massed themselves into a confined space; they stood little chance to escape the American’s grapeshot and musket fire. When the smoke finally cleared, the Americans looked out at what they originally thought was a field of blood, but later discovered the area covered with a massive number of red-coated British casualties. Among the casualties was a vast majority of high-ranking British officers, including General Pakenham himself. His death left General John Lambert in charge of leading the surviving British troops in retreat. The Battle of New Orleans culminated with 2,000 British casualties. Of that, 278 were dead, 1,186 were wounded and another 484 were either captured or missing. For the Americans, 13 died, 39 were wounded and 19 went missing.
As the British began to leave New Orleans, they faced new challenges. The quantity of boats available accommodated only half of the troops. This forced the British to leave half their army behind as they built a rough road to Lake Borgne over the next nine days. On January 18th, the British silently moved out in the night, leaving their campfires burning in an effort to deceive the Americans.
Following the battle, Andrew Jackson stated, “The unerring hand of Providence shielded my men.” Jackson’s reputation across the nation was quickly enhanced and played a large part in his arrival in the White House as the seventh President of the United States. Though Jackson may have gained a glowing reputation elsewhere, his name continued to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of New Orleans residents, especially the French Creoles. On March 13th, Jackson finally lifted his order for martial law after receiving official word of a peace treaty. In retaliation, the Louisiana legislature rejected the idea of including Jackson’s name on the resolution they wrote to thank American troops for their efforts in defending New Orleans. Additionally, federal judge Dominick Hall fined Jackson $1,000 for refusing to end the strict control he placed on the city.
In 1851, New Orleans’s bitterness towards Andrew Jackson ebbed as they renamed Place d’Armes “Jackson Square”. Five years later, an impressive sculpture of Jackson, created by Clark Mills, was placed in the center of the square. In 1907, a federal park preserved the Chalmette Battlefield as part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve.
When the larger picture was taken into consideration, however, the victory served as a catalyst for American nationalism. US citizens for only a few years, Louisianans proved their loyalty to their new mother country.