On January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had ended two weeks before, but not for the British and American troops in New Orleans. These men had no idea about the end of hostilities with the Treaty of Ghent, and the bloody battle was about to commence.
The two sides signed the peace agreement in Ghent, Belgium on December 24 where they had been negotiating since the disastrous British defeat on Lake Champlain in September. There an invading British force was forced back into Canada.
But in the slow breaking news of the day, no word reached New Orleans in time. As a result, the massive loss of life, especially on the British side was completely unnecessary and obviously had no bearing on the outcome of the war. It was a sad, side note to events, although the US victory by Jackson was a big morale boost for the American public that had gotten so much bad news during the war, including the burning of Washington D.C.
Buildup and Early Skirmishes: The British plan was to cut off New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase away from the United States. They were trying to move on New Orleans undetected by the pirate Jean Lafitte warned the US and Jackson.
The British captured Lake Borgne early in December when they sent a flotilla of small gunboats on to the lake to sweep aside a smaller US gunboat group which opened up avenues to them.
Just before Christmas, the British moved to just south of New Orleans and established a force on the Mississippi River. The road to New Orleans was wide open and the city, at the time was not defended, but General John Keane halted and decided to stop and wait for reinforcements.
The British in the battle were led by General Edward Pakenham. He had a nearly 3-1 advantage in troops and had at his disposal nearly 14,500 troops. The Americans under Jackson had just 4732 of which just over 1000 were regular soldiers or Marines, the rest were militia from Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi as well as a handful of Choctaw Indians and some of Lafitte’s pirates.
Jackson did emplace eight powerful artillery batteries in his positions. Pakenham wasn’t pleased with the way his troops were aligned and wanted to advance up the Chef Menteur Road as his invasion route but that was shot down by Admiral Cochrane. He was supremely over-confident and thought that the veteran British soldiers should easily sweep aside the rag-tag army of militia that Jackson arrayed in front of them. He told Pakenham, that if the army didn’t destroy Jackson, his sailors would.
The main force of the British army arrived on New Year’s Day. They then began a three-hour artillery duel with the American batteries. The British fire was very effective and they silenced or put out of action many of the American guns. But at a crucial time, the British artillery ran out of ammunition. As a result, Pakenham canceled the attack, not knowing that the left side of the American line had broken and ran during the bombardment. Had they attacked then, victory was all but assured.
Battle Begins on January 8: The Americans under Jackson had constructed three lines of defense. His first line was four miles from New Orleans and had strong earthen breastworks for his artillery. It stretched along the Rodriguez Canal. The line stretched from the river to a swamp.
Pakenham’s plan was to attack the first line and turn the flank on the artillery which will then be turned on the American lines. It was a two-pronged assault which was supposed to be supported along the river by riverboats which cut a canal to get to the river. But as the attack was supposed to begin, the canal collapsed, causing the British troops to drag the boats thru the heavy mud. It set their advance back.
The British began their assault in a thick fog which shielded them from view. But fortune was on the side of the Americans. As the British assault neared the main American defensive positions, the fog lifted, putting the British troops in the open and they were subjected to accurate, withering artillery fire.
Compounding the British woes, was the fact the troops under LTC Thomas Mullins,(44th East Sussex Regiment of Foot had forgotten the ladders to cross the canal and climb the earthworks. As the British advanced on the right, a combination of grapeshot from the artillery and very accurate fire from the Kentucky and Tennessee marksman were decimating the forces to their front.
Most of the senior officers were dead, the troops were hugging the ground, unable to move. Just a handful of men made it to the top of the parapet at the American positions but were either quickly killed or taken prisoner. Pakenham and his second-in-command, Major General Samuel Gibbs, were fatally wounded, shot off their horses by grapeshot artillery rounds fired from the earthworks.
The British charged three times and on the third finally made it to the top of the earthworks. But once again they were repulsed with heavy losses. The battle was over in less than 30 minutes. In that short amount of time, the British losses were appalling. In just a few minutes, according to Jackson’s staff, the British lost 700 killed, 1400 wounded, and 500 prisoners, a total loss of 2600 men. American losses were slight, 55 dead, 185 wounded and 93 missing. The British claimed their losses were much lower.
The British decided to withdraw and they gradually pulled back before going back on ships and setting sail for Mobile Bay, Alabama on February 4. The actually had begun the attack on Mobile Bay when news of the peace treaty reached them. The troops then set sail for their bases in the West Indies.
It would be the last time the British and Americans were at war with one another. Now the two countries are the closest of allies, having fought two World Wars at each other’s side as well as the latest Global War on Terrorism.
Illustrations: National Archives.