A Borgne Out Conclusion

As the British fleet closed in on New Orleans, Commodore Patterson planned the naval defense. Aware that the British were flying somewhat blind on the terrain, the Americans positioned five gunboats and two smaller schooners within the relatively shallow Lake Borgne, south and east of the city.[1] Borgne was something of a lock in the naval key, as it guarded Lake Pontchartrain. When the British spotted the gunboats and moved to engage them, several of their ships promptly grounded. Realizing his larger ships couldn’t maneuver on the water, Cochrane piled around 1,200 marines and sailors into a fleet of 42 longboats and sent them in to swarm the Americans.

LouisianaAndFlorida
This map offers a sense of perspective on Lake Borgne and its importance to New Orleans. Almost makes one wish for a fleet of willing pirates with boats helping out. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

On December 14th the American gunboats met this Lilliputian flotilla at the Battle of Lake Borgne. Aware that his men had been rowing for hours to get into position, the British commander Lieutenant Nicholas Lockyer ordered the longboats to stop just out of range and eat their lunch. It was both a morale booster for the British, and a psychological blow to the Americans, who wouldn’t dare break formation to engage. When his men had eaten their fill, the British rushed the gunboats. The battle was a brief but violent two hours. Both Lockyer and the American Commander Thomas ap Catesby Jones were wounded badly as Lockyer led the charge onto Jones’ gunboat.[2][3] While the Americans quickly blew up what they could, all five of the gunboats were in British hands. Jackson was understandably furious. He now had no eyes on the Lake, and with the seized gunboats, the British could now land their men within striking distance of the city. The only good news was that the schooner Carolina and the sloop Louisiana had been tucked safely up river. A trump to play later, but for now, Jackson had no way of stopping the British.

Of course, while Jackson could do little, the weather could do an awful lot to make that landing as unpleasant as possible. Now in midwinter, the bayous were freezing cold and wet. Even with the new gunboats, the British still had to row all 11,000 soldiers, their equipment, any ammunition, cannon, literally everything, from ship to shore. It is a testament to the stubbornness war and military discipline inspires in humankind that this operation happened at all. Though complaining and cold, the British navy rowed the army to land.

Amazingly, the British picked the best possible spot along Lake Borgne. Landing on Pea Island, a British vanguard under the command of General Keane began to march up the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Thus far they had made their advance completely undetected.[4] Marching towards the city, Keane called halt about nine miles away, with the river to his left, cypress swampland to his right, and the Rodriguez Canal ahead of him. There were sensible reasons for Keane to feel cautious. The captured American sailors had drastically inflated the size of Jackson’s force in their interrogations, and Keane had no artillery, no backup, and no intelligence on the American positions. As it happened though, New Orleans was effectively unguarded at the time. Jackson was frantically mustering his troops, and had sent off an urgent request to John Coffee to get to New Orleans as fast as he could. But Keane didn’t know that. Instead, he opted to deploy his men and set up camp while the rest of the army came up behind him. There would be fatal consequences for Keane’s chosen location.

What would have happened if British forces had stormed New Orleans? Later asked by an aide, Jackson responded, “I should have retreated to the city, fired it, and fought the enemy amidst the flames…I would have destroyed New Orleans, occupied a position above the river, cut off all supplies, and in this way compelled them to depart from the country”.[5] He would destroy the board rather than lose this deadly game.

Night Battle New Orleans Benson Lossing
A good map of Keane’s position, prior to Jackson’s hard left hook on December 23rd.

Fortunately, Keane had stopped, and Jackson’s blood was boiling. When he heard the British had landed and were camped out on a nearby plantation, he exclaimed happily, “I will smash them by God!” Jackson couldn’t wait for this.[6] Cobbling together a force of 2,000, he moved fast towards the British position on December 23rd. Like a burglar wearing wooden shoes, Keane was laboring under the delusion that his location was still unknown. When his men spotted a ship sailing by them on the Mississippi, Keane took it for one of the merchant vessels that constantly plied the river. It must have seemed a little suspicious when the ship stopped just out of musket range as evening rolled in. As night crept closer, the 14 guns on the Carolina opened up. The British camp at once transformed into a scene from hell. Cannon rounds thumped through the tents and ripped men into shreds. As the British rubbed sleep from their eyes and scrambled for their weapons, Jackson attacked. Napoleonic battlefields were by their very nature chaotic. Gunpowder weapons produce thick clouds of smoke, especially when hundreds of them are going off at once. Bright uniforms were borne from the necessity of determining who was friend or foe in the hazy clouds circling these charnel houses. Night battles were far worse. Not only was there no real way to see who was an enemy, both sides were speaking the same language, barring the French Creoles on the American side. Units broke up quickly, and wild melees broke out as men literally ran into their enemies. Men frequently shot their friends. By dawn Jackson’s men broke off. The British had held their ground, but they were now understandably wary of the man commanding their Americans. They remained where they were, setting the stage for the final battle for the city.

 

[1] Including the gloriously named Schooner, USS Tickler. Opinion is also split on whether Patterson was a brilliant tactician for choosing this location, or a blooming idiot for handing the British the kind of shallow draft boats they needed for a landing. The blog somewhat agrees with the latter school.

[2] Keyes, P. 2015. Patterson’s Mistake: The battle of Borgne Revisited. Historiaobscura.

[3] Lockyer was probably the only living commander from the New Orleans expedition to both survive, and keep his reputation intact. With an upper lip so stiff it could crush granite, he even filed his after action report a few days later from his hospital bed as he recovered from three gunshot and cutlass wounds. He wrote his own name into the list of those “severely wounded”.

[4] Sensibly, Keane ordered his men to round up any settlers they encountered.

[5] Remini 2001

[6] Ibid.

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