On Jan. 8, 1815 — 199 years ago this week — Andrew Jackson successfully defended New Orleans from a British attack. Because of the limits of communication of the day, the battle was fought two weeks after the War of 1812 had ended.
The War of 1812 had begun as a result of many factors, not the least of which was lingering resentments on both sides from the American Revolution. One of the major factors, however, was the Royal Navy's policy of impressment. Essentially, as war raged between Britain and Napoleonic France in the first decade of the 19th century, Britain's navy lacked manpower for its vast fleet. It became common for the Royal Navy to stop and board American vessels and kidnap American sailors, claiming them to be British subjects who still owed their allegiance to the crown.
These and other factors led the American Congress to declare war on Britain in June 1812. The next few years saw largely inconsequential fighting as the bulk of British forces were tied up in Europe and American invasions of British Canada failed repeatedly. In August 1814, as the Napoleonic Wars appeared to be over, the British launched an assault that led to the burning of Washington, D.C., in which many important buildings, such as the White House and the Library of Congress, were put to the torch.
As sensational as the attack was, it held little strategic gain for the British. War weariness affected the United States, and the American economy continued to decline as a result of the war. Both sides were ready to talk.
As the great powers of Europe met in late 1814 in Vienna to discuss the fate of Europe after Napoleon, so too did diplomats from Britain and the United States meet in Ghent, Belgium, to discuss an end to the war. Perennial presidential hopeful Henry Clay and future president John Quincy Adams represented the United States at the negotiations, and on Christmas Eve 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed.
The treaty, like the war itself, accomplished little for either side in terms of geopolitics. In fact, with the Treaty of Ghent, both sides essentially accepted the status quo ante bellum.
As these negotiations were taking place in Europe, however, both American and British forces were preparing for battle in North America, each eager to strike a blow that would enhance the diplomats' hand at the negotiating table. As a sizable British naval force began assembling in the Gulf of Mexico, it looked as though the British would hit one of the Gulf states.
Leading the British forces was Sir Edward Pakenham, a brother-in-law to the famed Duke of Wellington and a veteran commander of the Napoleonic Wars. The American commander was Andrew Jackson, a general who had proven himself in battle against Native American forces allied to the British. Taking command of local militias, Jackson prepared for the British assault.
Jackson believed that New Orleans was the likely target of the British attack. Controlling the mouth of the Mississippi River, the port of New Orleans had been a vital part of America's trade network since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and even before when it had been in French and Spanish hands. If the British took the city, not only would American prestige suffer a blow, but there also would be severe economic consequences for the new republic.
In mid-December, the British fought several engagements as they began the process of landing troops at Pea Island, nearly 30 miles east of the city. As more British troops arrived in the following weeks, Jackson began to fortify their most likely route of advance, building a high earthwork along a canal running from the east bank of the river and fortifying it with heavy guns. By Jan. 8, Pakenham was ready for his assault.