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.
In his biography of Jackson, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” Jon Meacham noted the memoir of Mrs. Eliza Williams Chotard Gould, a witness to the events. He wrote: “On the eve of the battle, from a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, the women in tears, Jackson 'expressed his regret at our alarm, insisted that we were in no danger, that the American arms would be victorious and the British whipped back to their vessels,' Mrs. Gould recalled. 'His confident manner and expressions ... dissipated for a time our distress.' Jackson's men, she said, 'were the most splendid horsemen I ever saw.’ ”
Going into battle, Jackson was outnumbered nearly two to one. The British attacking force consisted of more than 8,000 crack British troops, while the American force boasted somewhere around 4,000, many of who were Native American allies. The British, however, needed to cross an open field to get to the American position and then cross the canal and climb the parapet. As the British began their advance, the American heavy guns began firing.
In his book “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times,” biographer H.W. Brands wrote, “The destructive effect of the American fire on British soldiers in the open field was appalling. The American gunners aimed low, and each round cut a bloody, gaping hole in the redcoat ranks. No army, it seemed, could endure such carnage. But the British did, to the amazement of the Americans. ... The British left made the swiftest progress. One especially intrepid company reached the redoubt, where they engaged the Americans in hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet fighting.”
The British left succeeded in pushing the Americans out of their position, heartening their comrades, though Jackson quickly ordered a counterattack that forced the British back. In other places along the line, lack of British preparation resulted in deadly setbacks. The British had not adequately stocked ladders with their assault force, ensuring that once the men got to the redoubt, they had no way of mounting it easily.
As the British were being slaughtered as they attempted to climb the earthworks, many redcoats turned and fled. Trying to save his army from stagnation or rout, Pakenham rode forward in an attempt to rally his troops. An American musket ball wounded him in the knee and killed his mount. Finding another horse, Pakenham was hit again while leading the charge, this time fatally.
Brands wrote: “Pakenham's charge to the front had inspired his men, and now his death disheartened them — and cheered the Americans, who could see him fall. The Americans were additionally encouraged — and the British further disheartened — when two other British generals, Samuel Gibbs and John Keane, went down.”
Without leaders, confusion began to reign in the British ranks, and the redcoats began to retreat. The fallback was not a rout, however. Elements of the British army moved forward, as though preparing for a renewed assault, in order to cover their comrades' retreat. The Americans, preparing for another action defending the redoubt, did not pursue. When the smoke had settled, however, the battle appeared to be a major American victory.
Meacham wrote: “The British lost nearly 300 men, with another 1,200 wounded and hundreds more taken prisoner or missing. Only 13 Americans died, with 39 more suffering wounds. 'It appears that the unerring hand of providence shielded my men from the powers of balls, bombs and rockets, when every ball and bomb from our guns carried with them the mission of death. ... I never had so grand and awful an idea of the Resurrection as on that day,' Jackson recalled.”
Though the War of 1812 had already ended at the time of the Battle of New Orleans, the engagement did have great significance. Firstly, the battle made Jackson a national hero and catapulted him into the national political spotlight. A Tennessean, he would be the first president of the United States who was not a Virginian or from Massachusetts.
More important, however, was the sense of unity and patriotism that followed the battle. Prior to and during much of the War of 1812, sectional differences still highlighted the American landscape. People considered themselves New Englanders, Southerners or Westerners (Americans living west of the Appalachian Mountains). During the war, some New Englanders had considered seceding from the Union, as had some Kentuckians and others.
The victory at New Orleans proved such a distinctive American achievement that many Americans shrugged off the regional identifications and proudly claimed a stake in this American military victory. In a very real way, this “unnecessary” battle proved an important tool in American unification at a critical time in our nation's history.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org