The Battle of New Orleans

Signing_of_Treaty_of_Ghent_(1812) Amedee Forestier
The Treaty of Ghent is signed. The artist beautifully captures the daggers both sides are throwing with their eyes. Photo Credit: Amedee Forestier

Around the time the Americans and the British were regrouping from the vicious night fight on December 23rd, something very funny happened. Half a world away in Ghent, Belgium, the war ended. It hadn’t been easy to herd either cat to the table to negotiate an end to fighting, but the Russians were patient mediators. James Madison had never been the largest cheerleader for the war personally, and as the British tightened the economic noose whatever taste he had for the conflict had faded out entirely. The country’s deficit had ballooned, and exports were at their lowest levels in years. He had already been forced to tell Congress that if the war went on for another year like this he would be forced to call a general draft, much to the disgust of the Federalists. More than anything else though, Madison knew the most uncomfortable truth of the war. There was no way the Americans could “win” it now. The British fleet on the coastline was a permanent sword of Damocles, and gave his enemies the luxury of striking wherever they pleased. Fortunately, the British were losing their own taste for the war.

It had taken time, but the British were also starting to feel the financial sting due to the lost markets in America. More critically the Duke of Wellington was fiercely against what he considered at best a sideshow. Offered a command in America, he had agreed that he would go if ordered, but he saw little point to it. Instead, he began to push the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, to simply restore the status quo ante bellum.[1] Liverpool and his negotiating team initially staked out a demand for an American Indian state in the Northwest, but the Americans refused to budge on ceding territory they already presumed was theirs, barring the small detail that other people were living on it at the time. Wellington bluntly pushed Liverpool’s demand aside, stating:

“I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America … You have not been able to carry it into the enemy’s territory, notwithstanding your military success and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack.”[2]

Seeing the point, Liverpool told his negotiators to drop it. Now that Tecumseh was dead, the British weren’t even sure who would have led or coordinated such a buffer state anyways, not that they had bothered to invite any Shawnee to negotiate their own future. Recognizing the olive branch, the Americans dropped their own demands for Canadian territory and eventually agreed to forget about a formal ban on impressment of American sailors. While that was nominally one of the big issues behind the war, it never really came up again. In fact, the only real concession made at all was a little over a $1 million U.S., granted to slaveholders to compensate American owners who had lost some 3,000 slaves to British inducement. On December 24th, the Treaty of Ghent was signed. The war was, on paper at least, over. But an ocean separated the good news from New Orleans, and as we’ll discuss next week, there are some signs that neither side would have cared even if they had known the war was over.

Andrew_Jackson_in_New_Orleans_1815 Library of Congress
Andrew Jackson, looking all stoic. It would be remiss of the author not to include one of the many, many, paintings that casts Jackson heroically surveying the scene. The author would also like to take this moment to state that Jackson was not a good person. Photo Credit: Frederick Coffey

Back on the banks of the Mississippi, the situation was getting worse for the British. A defensive posture in hostile country is usually a poor idea, and Jackson made it worse with every passing day. Falling back several miles, he set about turning a crossroad into something more like a medieval castle wall. For once the bayou mud was good for something, and with a little reinforcement it was built into an effective barrier. There were even ramparts for the top, and platforms were built for Jackson’s artillery behind the wall. Every day the walls got higher and stronger, masterminded by a Creole engineer who never seemed to sleep. The American militiamen also seemed to delight in sneaking up and shooting at sentries and anything else that looked at them funny. British morale kept sinking into the bayous; due to the less than friendly cannonballs the Carolina kept lobbing at them. They had tried to shift their camp away from the shoreline, but the newly arrived Louisiana’s larger guns could still reach them. It must have made for a depressing sight when Sir Pakenham finally arrived in camp on Christmas morning. George Gleig gives us an idea of what the day was like for the British:

It was Christmas-day, and a number of officers, clubbing their little stock of provisions, resolved to dine together in memory of former times. But at so melancholy a Christmas dinner I do not recollect at any time to have been present. We dined in a barn; of plates, knives, and forks, there was a dismal scarcity; nor could our fare boast of much either in intrinsic good quality or in the way of cooking. These, however, were mere matters of merriment; it was the want of many well-known and beloved faces that gave us pain; nor were any other subjects discussed besides the amiable qualities of those who no longer formed part of our mess, and never would again form part of it. A few guesses as to the probable success of future attempts alone relieved this topic, and now and then a shot from the [Louisiana] drew our attention to ourselves; for though too far removed from the river to be in much danger, we were still within cannon-shot of our enemy. Nor was she inactive in her attempts to molest. Elevating her guns to a great degree, she contrived occasionally to strike the wall of the building within which we sat; but the force of the ball was too far spent to penetrate, and could therefore produce no serious alarm.

Whilst we were thus sitting at table a loud shriek was heard after one of these explosions, and on running out we found that a shot had taken effect in the body of an unfortunate soldier. I mention this incident because I never beheld in any human being so great a tenacity of life. Though fairly cut in two at the lower part of the belly, the poor wretch lived for nearly an hour, gasping for breath and giving signs even of pain.[2]

Horrible sights like that must have been an hourly occurrence in the British camp. Most galling to them, at least one of the Louisiana’s rounds had smashed into their field hospital. As Pakenham took in the camp, the men, the muck, the veritable Berlin Wall springing up ahead of him, and the ships on the river, he seriously considered abandoning the whole operation then and there. Knowing that would have been tantamount to career suicide, he decided to soldier one. If this was going to work, step one meant doing something about the ships on the river. Fortunately, he and Keane had the tools on hand for the job.

An 1815 painting by one of the Creole Engineers does a good job of capturing the Battle. Photo Credit: Jean Hyacinth de Lacotte.

The Carolina never saw it coming. The day after Christmas Pakenham’s men quietly set up a furnace and began to heat cannon rounds. It had meant hauling eight massive guns from Cochrane’s ships over 60 miles, but it was worth it. In the era of wooden ships, hot shot is king. Heated until the iron glowed almost cherry red, these cannon rounds were fire starters. Before the Carolina could fire off more than a few responding rounds she had caught fire and soon exploded when the flames reached the magazine. The only good part for the Americans was the British failure to knock out the Louisiana, and the only fire the hot shot started had been put out quickly. They would come to regret that.

While they reeled, Pakenham followed this up with a full scale attack on the wall the next day. A few details became immediately apparent. The first was that the Louisiana was going to be a problem. Over seven hours, the Louisiana poured 800 rounds into the British advance. One shell took out 15 men. The second was that the American wall was very well built. The mud simply absorbed the shock of cannon balls, receiving little damage. Nose sufficiently bloodied, Pakenham adjusted the morning’s action from “assault” to “reconnaissance in force”, that sounded a little more tactful. Something would have to be done about the artillery the Americans had.

The following day under the shrieking sounds and infamous red glare of their congreve rockets the British launched a barrage aimed at the American guns. The resulting duel was a massive one, but unsuccessful for the British. The problem was again rooted in the landscape of Louisiana. Physics dictates that every force brings about an equal and opposite reaction, an immutable law that caused many British guns to fire, then sink deep into the mud with the recoil. The Creole engineers and the black slaves actually doing the building knew the ground better. The Baratarians also proved their worth, responding coolly under fire with deadly accuracy. The duel was another loss for the British.

United States Army Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans. Incidentally, Pakenham’s intelligence had mistakenly led him to launch an attack on the strongest point in the American line. Photo Credit: United States Army

On January 8th, Pakenham decided to throw fate to the wind and try for the assault anyways. He threw in a few wrinkles, ordering some men to cross the Mississippi on his left and attack Jackson’s western line, but mostly it was going to be a straightforward frontal assault.[3] It was a disaster. The few men who reached the walls found themselves facing a mixed army of 5-6,000 pirates, French Creoles, Chocktaws, Creeks, freed blacks,[4] and furious Americans, all of whom laid on a withering rate of fire. Those who survived the horror of cannon shot from both the batteries and the Louisiana could look forward to grapeshot, then finally the muskets and rifles of their foes at the wall. As one American captain put it, “they fell like the very blades of grass beneath the scythe of a mower”.[5] The few who made it to the ditch below the ramparts quickly realized that poor logistics meant they were missing even a ladder to help them crest the wall. One officer who made it to the top on the backs of other men bellowed for the Americans to surrender, only to be greeted with a howl of laughter. No one could follow the man up. Pakenham tried to rally his men, pushing his reserve forward in a column for one final march through the harsh terrain. Then a round of grapeshot ripped through his legs and horse. A second round followed up as he tried to hobble to his feet, shredding his groin area. The only mercy is to say that Pakenham died swiftly.[6] In less than 30 minutes, the British had lost 2,000 men killed and wounded, a punishing figure and by far their highest of the war. The Americans had just 81 casualties. Though it was pointless strategically, Jackson could now claim to have ended the War of 1812 on a high note for the Americans.

[1] Beardsley, F. War of 1812 Ends, but Fighting Continues. Voice of America.

[2] Gleig 1826.

[3] This was actually the only part of the assault that met any luck at all. Starting late, they actually crossed the river and overpowered the American trenches, before falling back as the rest of the attack faltered.

[4] A depressing and all too American wrinkle to this part of the story. While Jackson had promised both land and bonus pay to the freed black soldiers, they received neither after the fighting was done. Instead, fearing that they would lead a slave revolt, they were “encouraged” to leave the city.

[5] Remini 2011

[6] Another instance where a general’s final words were either exhorting the men to push forwards, or “ouch”.


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