IN 1814 WE TOOK A LITTLE TRIP
by Guy Miller. Vice Chair Emeritus, Chennault Aviation and Military Museum
It didn’t have to happen but it did. And it was the loser’s fault.
By August 1814 Great Britain and the United States had initiated negotiations to end what is now called the War of 1812. The British War Minister, however, did not want to miss any opportunities for gain during the negotiations. He especially wanted an opportunity to claim the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory was null and void and the land belonged to Britain. Accordingly he ordered General Sir Edward Pakenham to continue the war despite any rumors of peace.
In December the British captured five American gunboats in Lake Borgne then invaded the Louisiana coast east of New Orleans. The road to New Orleans was wide open but no reconnaissance was made to find that opportunity. Instead the British marched overland along Bayou Bienvenu and by the morning of December 23rd reached the east bank of the Mississippi about nine miles south of the city. Again the city could be taken by continuing up an undefended river road but the invaders decided to make camp and wait for the arrival of reinforcements. That same night the combatants fought on the plantation land below the city. This battle ended in a stalemate but the British were thrown off balance by the unexpected American attack. Making things worse, when the British came to the plantation home of Major Gabriel Villeré, he escaped through a window and went to warn General Andrew Jackson, commander of the American forces, of the approaching enemy and its current disposition. The failure of the British to exploit the open road opportunities gave Jackson time to harass the British while strengthening his defensive positions.
In truth, the British failure was moot because the next day, December 24th, American and British commissioners meeting in Ghent, Belgium signed a peace treaty that ended the war. In 1814 there was no method faster than crossing the ocean on a ship that could get the news to Generals Pakenham and Jackson. Not knowing the war was over, the British continued to press their assault on New Orleans.
To defend the city against Pakenham’s 8000 troops, Jackson had an army of 4732 men. He had brought or enlisted 968 Army regulars, 58 Marines, 106 Navy seamen, 1060 Louisiana militia and volunteers including 462 free blacks, 1352 Tennessee militia, 986 Kentucky militia, 150 Mississippi militia, and 52 Choctaw warriors. Deciding defeating the British outweighed “other concerns” he even accepted help from Jean Lafitte and the pirates who conducted smuggling and privateering operations out of nearby Barataria Bay. Lafitte had been contacted by the British who wanted the pirates as as allies and waterway guides. While pretending to consider the offer, Lafitte slipped away to meet with the American officials. Jackson was willing to give Lafitte and his men amnesty for past offenses in return for supplies and volunteering their artillery expertise in support of the American cause.
Jackson’s chosen location for the defense of New Orleans was the Rodriguez Canal, a ten-foot-wide water wheel stream that was connected to the Mississippi River near Chalmette Plantation.
Jackson made a defensive trench by widening the canal then used the excavated dirt to build a seven-foot-tall earthen rampart. He buttressed this with logs and large mud-coated cotton bales to protect his batteries of cannons. “Line Jackson” as it was now called stretched nearly a mile from the east bank of the Mississippi until it ended at a almost impassable swamp to the north.
The American forces split into two defensive positions. Jackson took command of the eastern bank of the Mississippi with almost 4,000 troops and 24 cannons stretched behind the rampart he had built along the canal. On the western bank of the river General David Morgan had almost 1,000 troops and 16 cannons to prevent the British from trying to cross the river and flanking the main American army. As the British probed the American defenses there were several small-scale skirmishes between the forces. One of these skirmishes on New Year’s Day turned into a significant American victory when British casualties outnumbered those on the American side by more than two to one.
The deciding battle took place on January 8, 1815. It is this day that is commemorated as the Battle of New Orleans day of victory.
The doomed British attack got underway before sunrise. On the west bank, British light troops led by Colonel Robert Rennie swarmed over an isolated redoubt. As the American defenders scattered, Rennie had barely shouted in triumph when a shot from across the river killed him. With their colonel gone his troops frantically tried to retreat but were cut down in a hail of musket balls and grapeshot.
On the British left, the attackers were stopped in their tracks by an American fusillade. British General Gibbs was mortally wounded in this attack so Pakenham attempted to rally his troops but then was also hit by an American volley. With the British commander fallen the remnants of the British force withdrew beyond the range of the American guns. Of the 3,000 British troops making the assault 2,000 had become casualties in less than 30 minutes including three generals and seven colonels.
Unable to continue, the British withdrew and New Orleans was safe. The war was over before the battle had begin but this decisive American victory left no doubt as to the strength of American resolve.