Victory on the 8th of January
The Battle of New Orleans was a dramatic American victory of the War of 1812. Fought before news of a peace treaty could reach the United States, this battle saved New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley for the United States and eventually propelled Andrew Jackson to the White House.
The scene of the engagement is preserved as the Chalmette Battlefield unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. It is open to the public daily in Chalmette, Louisiana, just south of New Orleans.
The Battle of New Orleans was the climactic moment, but not the end, of the British campaign on the Gulf Coast. The effort to open a new Gulf Coast front in the War of 1812 started in May 1814 when British warships arrived at the mouth of Florida’s Apalachicola River (please see Fort at Prospect Bluff and Nicolls’ Outpost).
The Royal Navy and Royal Marines soon occupied the Spanish city of Pensacola, Florida. From there they moved on Fort Bowyer at the entrance to Mobile Bay but were handed a dramatic defeat by the fort’s small garrison. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson struck against Pensacola in response and the British were forced to withdraw back to the Apalachicola. New Orleans and Louisiana, however, were already in their sites.
Possession of the Crescent City would open the door for a British advance up the Mississippi River, a move that would hem in the United States. King George III would once again control the frontier from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, British forces would gain possession of one of North America’s most important ports along with the chance to seize a fortune in cotton and other commodities.
Great Britain’s fight against Napoleon was (temporarily) over and the British were able to send thousands of the Duke of Wellington’s top troops to the United States. They were advancing on all fronts, having even seized the nation’s capital and burned the White House, which gained its name from the pain applied to cover the scorch marks from the fire.
Their next target was New Orleans. Admiral Alexander Cochrane assembled a massive naval fleet in the Gulf and General Sir Edward Pakenham was sent to command the land forces. He was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington and a military hero in Great Britain.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson was assigned by the Madison Administration to defend the Gulf Coast and became convinced after his strike on Pensacola that New Orleans would be the primary British target.
Jackson was best-known at the time for his victory over the Red Stick Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. He had no formal military training but possessed a tactical brilliance that would serve him well in the coming battle. He was a product of the frontier and was uniquely able to command not only regular forces, but militia and volunteers as well. He also bore a hatred for the British. When he was a boy during the American Revolution, a British officer had slashed his head with a sword after Jackson refused a demand to get on his knees and shine the man’s boots. Old Hickory, as he was called by his men, still bore the scars from that attack.
Jackson soon found himself with a big problem. New Orleans is surrounded by a myriad of swamps, bayous, lakes and wetlands. The British could approach via a number of ways and the American general simply didn’t enough men to guard them all. He studied the ground in person and then concentrated on the most likely avenues of approach. He also enlisted the acknowledged masters of the bayous, the brothers Pierre and Jean Lafitte (also spelled Laffite) and their crews of pirates/privateers.
The Baratarians – as the Lafittes and their crews were known – were largely of French heritage and had no love for the British. They volunteered instead to help defend New Orleans and provided Jackson with arms, ammunition and much needed manpower. Among them were excellent artillerymen.
The first attack finally came on December 14, 1814, when British barges and longboats attacked a small squadron of U.S. gunboats on Lake Borgne, a body of water east of the city that linked Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf. The American sailors fought with remarkable courage but were defeated. The victory gave the British control of the lake and several important water approaches to New Orleans.
They soon established a beachhead near the mouth of Bayou Bienvenue, a 12.1 mile waterway that led from Lake Borgne to the outskirts of New Orleans. Undetected by Jackson’s scouts, the British moved up the bayou and eventually into Villere’s Canal. This man-made waterway took them to the Mississippi River at the Villere Plantation and 2,000 men were encamped along the levee by the evening of December 23, 1814.
The British advance was commanded by Gen. John Keane, another hero of the fighting in Europe, and he probably could have taken New Orleans had he immediately advanced up the east side of the Mississippi River into the city. Instead, he ordered his men to pitch camp on the Villere and Lacoste Plantations.
Keane’s men had captured Maj. Gabriel Villere and his detachment of scouts but the major made a daring escape by leaping through a window and braving a hail of bullets. He rushed to Jackson’s headquarters in the city with news of the British arrival. The crusty American general supposedly met the news with the exclamation, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!”
A strike force was quickly assembled of regular troops, U.S. Marines, Tennessee volunteers, dragoons, riflemen, artillery and a unit of free men of color. Commodore Daniel T. Patterson ordered his men aboard the USS Carolina to cast off lines and move downstream in support of Jackson’s planned attack.
The Americans struck on the night of December 23, 1814. In one of the most daring night attacks in U.S. history, Jackson struck the British camps with 2,287 men. Patterson joined in the fight by blasting Keane’s encampments with the cannon of the Carolina and two smaller gunboats.
The night battle of the 23rd sent shock waves through the British army, which advanced courageously to meet the attack. By the time the fighting came to an end at around 11 p.m., 46 British soldiers had been killed, 167 wounded and 64 taken prisoner. Jackson lost 24 dead, 115 wounded and 74 missing in action (most taken prisoner). He did not succeed in driving the enemy from American soil but he definitely let them know that his army was there and ready to fight.
The stunning attack led to even more caution on the part of the British command, a tactical mistake that gave Jackson time to bring down more troops and begin the construction of a fortified line behind the old Rodriguez Canal north of the British encampment. The position was called “Camp Jackson” and U.S. forces – working alongside local slaves impressed for the purpose – built ramparts, firing positions, artillery batteries and other defenses along a line that stretched from the Mississippi River on the right into a dense cypress swamp on the left.
Pakenham soon arrived on the seen and conducted a reconnaissance in force on December 28, 1814. He ran into heavy cannon, musket and rifle fire from Jackson’s line. The British general realized that the Keane’s failure to advance quickly had created a difficult situation for his army. He pulled his forces back and began fortifying a line about 1.5 miles south of the American position.
Pakenham opened an artillery exchange with Jackson on January 1, 1815, but his gunners got the worst of the battle. The British had used barrels of sugar as makeshift defenses for their cannon. When American shot and shell struck these casks, sugar showered over the guns. The result was a gummy mess that caused the British rate of fire to slow and finally stop. The U.S. artillery fire had been remarkably accurate and the British officers and soldiers were slowly gaining more respect for their foes.
Jackson had 3,867 men in his front line by the evening of January 7, 1815. Among them were U.S. Army regulars, U.S. Marines, Louisiana militia (including two units of free men of color), Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen, Baratarians and even 62 Choctaw warriors. An additional 997 men were building a second line on the opposite bank of the river and around 660 soldiers were in close reserve behind Jackson’s line. The total strength of the American army on the field was 5,530 men.
The British army, however, had grown to 10,084 men and was roughly twice the size of Jackson’s force.
The main attack of the Battle of New Orleans came on the morning of January 8, 1815. With a heavy fog covering the plain of Chalmette – which separated the two lines – Pakenham ordered his troops forward. The Americans knew that something was up and strained their eyes to see through the fog. Suddenly the advancing Red Coats were fired on by Jackson’s advance pickets and not long after the entire American line erupted with fire.
The British were advancing over open ground and Jackson’s troops poured volleys of musket, rifle and cannon fire into them. The American artillery cut down hundreds of British soldiers with loads of canister (projectiles that exploded into hundreds of smaller balls when fired, much like shotgun shells). Pakenham’s columns were cut to pieces.
Some of the British soldiers did reach the U.S. line only to find that the unit with the ladders needed to scale the American fortifications was still far to the rear. General Pakenham was mortally wounded as were scores of other British high ranking officers. The attacks failed in spectacular fashion. Maj. Gen. John Lambert had commanded the British reserve when the battle started but eventually assumed the command and called off the attack.
A related attempt by a smaller British force to capture the American line on the west bank of the Mississippi started late but had more success. It was not enough. British casualties in the battle came to a shocking 858 killed or mortally wounded and 2,468 wounded. Jackson lost only 7 men killed and 12 wounded. The disparity was shocking.
Many of the British soldiers, caught in the open with no surviving officers to tell them whether to attack or retreat, had fallen face down on the ground to avoid death. Jackson watched them rise up and slowly make their way back to the British line, later comparing the sight to a vision of the Biblical Resurrection.
While Jackson saw Resurrection and glory, others saw doom in the defeat of the British. The Creek Prophet Josiah Francis and the Seminole chiefs Cappachimico and Hopoi Micco had come to New Orleans as invited guests of Admiral Cochrane. The expected to see triumphant British troops march into the city but instead witnessed a disaster even greater than the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans proved to be one of the greatest in American history. The 8th of January was celebrated as a major holiday in the United States for years to come, until the bloody days of the War Between the States (or Civil War) caused it to fade from the public consciousness.
New Orleans residents poured into the streets in celebration when news of the outcome reached the nervous city. Jackson was hailed as a conquering hero and thousands gathered for a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Louis Cathedral. A famed equestrian statue of Gen. Jackson stands before the Cathedral today, dominating Jackson Square where his victorious army paraded after the British withdrew to their ships.
The Battle of New Orleans was dramatic last display of defiance to the British Empire. It is often called the “last battle of the War of 1812” but was not. Other battles followed and there was a final confrontation on Florida’s St. Marys River in February 1815. Jackson’s victory, however, was the exclamation point to the war.
The Chalmette Battlefield is a unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and is located at 8606 West St. Bernard Highway, Chalmette, Louisiana.
The park and adjoining Chalmette National Cemetery are open 7 days each week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Please click here to visit the official park website for directions and more information.
You can drive to the battlefield via St. Bernard Highway or travel down from New Orleans on the paddlewheel steamboat Creole Queen. She departs New Orleans for the battlefield daily. Please click here for more information.
Enjoy the videos below for more on the Battle of New Orleans. The map at the bottom of the page will help you find the battlefield.