“Col. Smiley, from Bardstown, was the first one who gave us orders to fire from our part of the line; and then, I reckon, there was a pretty considerable noise… Directly after the firing began, Capt. Patterson, I think he was from Knox County, Kentucky, but an Irishman born, came running along. He jumped upon the brestwork (sic) and stooping a moment to look through the darkness as well as he could, he shouted with a broad North of Ireland brogue, ‘shoot low, boys! shoot low! rake them – rake them! They’re comin’ on their all fours!’
This was the scene as described by an unknown eyewitness to the Battle of New Orleans which took place on today’s date, January 8 in 1815. The battle was the most impressive land victory of the war and a very unlikely victory at that. A rag tag group of men, as raw and roughly hewn and diverse as America herself was and would become: regular army troops, local militia, Tennessee volunteers, freed black men, Indians, even a company of Pirates under the command of Jean Lafitte. Commanded by the charismatic General Andrew Jackson, this odd collection came together behind newly constructed breastworks to defeat some of the finest veteran troops that the British had. Ironically however, this victory would come after the war had already ended.
The United States Sputter and Blow It From 1812-1814
The War of 1812 was about as ill-conceived and pointless a war as the United States has ever been a part of. It began as tempers on both sides of the Atlantic boiled over as a result of the British practice of stopping American merchant vessels on the oceans of the world, taking some of the American sailors prisoner and impressing them into service in the British Navy. The war began with several abortive invasions of Canada. The quality of the
Americans as soldiers improved through- out the conflict, but unfortunately the quality of their commanders did not. It continued on with a British invasion of Maryland wherein the Brits captured and sacked Washington D.C. on August 25, 1814 (above). Only the small but brave U.S. Navy kept the war from becoming a total disaster, with victories on Lake Erie and in individual actions between warships. But with their defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the Brits were able to devote their full resources to their war with the U.S., planning a southern strategy. Their hope was to capture New Orleans and close off the vital U.S. commerce from the Mississippi River.
The Campaign and Battle of New Orleans
The U.S. government dispatched the hard-fighting General Andrew Jackson (pictured, above) to the scene to organize a defense of New Orleans. He arrived on Dec. 2, 1814 to find a city whose populace was nearly in a state of panic about the approaching British forces. But Jackson, who had won fame with his successful pressing of the Indian wars in Florida, was not one to panic. He organized his defenses along a small strip of land across the likely British invasion path south of the city. Using the dry Rodriguez Canal as his line of defense across a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and some of the swamp lands to the north, Jackson had barricades made of mud and cotton bales. He utilized whatever reliable forces that he could find. He had regular U.S. Army Troops as well as his own Tennessee volunteers. He also used about 62 Choctaw Indians lead by Chief Pushmataha, and some 43 Pirates lead by the infamous buccaneer Jean Lafitte to whom he had promised a pardon in return for his help in this emergency. All told, Jackson was able to muster about 4,000 men. Arrayed against this were 11,000 of the finest veterans of the Napoleonic Wars whom the Brits could assemble, commanded by General Edward Packenham, a relative of the Duke of Wellington.
“Scarcely a ball passed over or fell short of its mark…”
General Packenham evidently had a fairly low estimation of his enemies and their abilities as soldiers, because his plan of attack was essentially a straightforward frontal assault of the American positions. He did attempt to soften up their defenses with artillery bombardments on December 28 and January 1, but the cotton bales mostly absorbed this ammunition. The attack which commenced on that morning was a slaughter pen for the Brits. Lines of red coats were mowed down one after the other as they marched straight into the teeth of the American guns. As remembered by one British soldier:
“That the Americans are excellent marksmen, as well with artillery as with rifles, we have had frequent cause to acknowledge; but perhaps on no occasion did they assert their claim to the title of good artillerymen more effectually than on the present. Scarcely a ball passed over or fell short of its mark, but all, striking full into the midst of our ranks, occasioned terrible havoc. The shrieks of the wounded, therefore, the crash of firelocks, and the fall of such as were killed, caused at first some little confusion; and what added to the panic was, that from the houses beside which we stood bright flames suddenly burst out. The Americans, expecting this attack, had filled them with combustibles for the purpose, and, directing against them one or two guns loaded with red-hot shot, in an instant set them on fire. The scene was altogether very sublime. A tremendous cannonade mowed down our ranks and deafened us with its roar; whilst two large chateaux and their outbuildings almost scorched us with the flames and blinded us with the smoke which they emitted.”
The British Force is Decimated
The final casualties for the Brits that day were huge: over 2,100 men were killed or wounded, as opposed to a mere 7 killed and six wounded on the American side. Among the Brits killed were General Packenham himself (pictured, above ). The unknown American quoted above surveyed the field at the battle’s end:
“When the smoke had cleared away and we could obtain a fair view of the field, it looked, at the first glance, like a sea of blood. It was not blood itself which gave it this appearance but the red coats in which the British soldiers were dressed. Straight out before our position, for about the width of space which we supposed had been occupied by the British column, the field was entirely covered with prostrate bodies. In some places they were laying in piles of several, one on the top of the other.”
In less than one hour the British force had been decimated. The Brits withdrew from Louisiana altogether, boarded their ships and returned to Europe to face the threat of a resurgent Napoleon who had escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, and was re- installing himself as the Emperor of France. As to the Battle of New Orleans, it would have spelled an end to British designs on the Mississippi, but a Treaty of Peace had been signed at Ghent (above) in the Netherlands, ending the war. But the Battle did, in addition to salvaging the reputation of American arms on land, put an end to any lingering hopes of British recovery of her North American colonies.