American Defences at New Orleans
Britain's goal was to capture New Orleans, Louisiana, with its vast stores of sugar and cotton, and prevent the US from using the Mississippi River to flow goods and soldiers. On 10 December, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane's fleet landed on the east bank of the Mississippi, defeating the small flotilla of American gunboats protecting the mouth of the river and under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones at the Battle of Lake Borgne. The British advance guard was 1600 men strong, but could not press the attack until the arrival of their commander, Sir Edward PAKENHAM, who arrived late due to adverse winds and thus perhaps sealed the fate of the campaign through no fault of his own. Jones's courage in the face of British superiority in numbers earned him praise and bought time for the defenses of New Orleans to be secured.
If they had pressed their advance on the 24th, the British would have found New Orleans' defences in shambles. American general and future president Andrew JACKSON had not yet solidified his defences, but on Christmas day, when Pakenham arrived to lead his troops toward battle, Jackson secured his structures and prepared for an attack. Constructed by soldiers and African slaves, Jackson's hastily made breastwork of sugar barrels, earth and a ditch that stretched out to an impassible swamp gave his men a strong defensive position to repel the British, which Jackson thought numbered somewhere near 25 000 strong. Artillery was mounted to protect the earthwork. The Americans dug in their heels and prepared for the worst as Pakenham arrived to command the British.
Pakenham was a professional soldier with a distinguished career who had seen service in North Ireland, North America and in the Peninsular War against the occupying forces of Napoleon. Pakenham arrived to command a difficult position. There had been a costly skirmish, and it was followed by a costly reconnaissance. Cochrane's forces had brought artillery at great expense and haste, but their fire could not hit the breastwork from any safe distance and they were soon destroyed by American artillery fire.
Pakenham's Attack on New Orleans
With 6000 regulars and 1000 Black soldiers from two West India Regiments, Pakenham refused to admit defeat and attempted a feint against Jackson's defences on 8 January 1815, while Colonel William Thornton of the 85th regiment crossed the river with 1500 regulars to attempt to outflank the American position. Jackson defended his position with roughly 4000 men.
Things went poorly for the British from the start. Canals dug by Cochrane's men crumbled before all the attack boats could cross. But Thornton's bold action subdued 800 Kentucky militiamen and denied them the use of naval guns, then they allowed Thornton's men to advance behind Jackson's position. Following this advance Thornton was to use artillery fire and rockets to plow into the American forces, but they were off schedule. Some officers failed to bring ladders and other resources necessary to circumvent the embankment. Muddy conditions led to a clogging of marching and firing lines, making the slow-moving British good targets for American artillery. Blood, mud, fog and confusion soon covered the battlefield. Few British soldiers managed to reach the parapet and those who did were not supported in any meaningful way, ending up being killed or captured. The two main assaults failed to make a breach to be exploited, with the Americans preparing effective rolling firing lines four men deep to keep as much concentrated fire going as possible. British ships bombarded Fort St Philip and tied down forces there for 10 days. But the tide of victory was not turning in Britain's favour.
Watching the attack going sour, Pakenham attempted to rally his troops to renew the assault, but was hit by grapeshot in the knee, and his horse was killed. More grapeshot tore through his spine and he succumbed to his wounds, at the young age of 36. As the assault waged on against the redoubtable Jackson and his men, many of Pakenham's senior officers were either killed or gravely wounded. The British suffered more than 2000 casualties trying to oust the entrenched American forces, while the Americans suffered only 71.
The British Attack on Fort Bowyer
Under the command of Major General John Lambert, the surviving and still substantial British forces retreated to their naval forces and set sail for Biloxi, Mississippi. While the campaign against New Orleans was over, Lambert wanted to continue the fight. He and his forces invested Fort Bowyer on 8 February 1815, and three days later the Americans surrendered. Lambert began to craft further operations when news arrived that the TREATY OF GHENT had been signed, informing the campaigning British that the war had been formally over since 24 December 1814! All hostilities on American soil stopped.
The Battle of New Orleans was the last major confrontation of the War of 1812. As peace returned, and the Treaty of Ghent was observed, British troops removed themselves from American soil and all land was returned. The battle is best remembered for General Andrew Jackson's stiff resistance to British incursion, and the death of the young and promising Major General Edward Pakenham, who, rather unjustly, is remembered chiefly for his failure at the Battle of New Orleans.
Author JASON RIDLER
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
British and American Gunboats in Action on Lake Borgne
Another digitized image of a painting that shows the encounter between British and American gunboats on Lake Borgne on 14 December 1814. See also the description of events and click on the icon below the image for an enlarged view. From the "Maritime Art Greenwich" website at the National Archives in the UK.
Leading Myths of the War of 1812
This article debunks some of the more outlandish myths about British and American achievements in the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
The campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans in the year 1814-1815
A searchable online copy of George Gleig's 1836 book about military battles in the final phases of the War of 1812. From Scholars Portal Books.
Battle of New Orleans
An illustrated “bird's-eye view” of British and US forces in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Click on the image to enlarge. From the NYPL Digital Gallery.
Battle of Lake Borgne
A digitized image of a painting depicting a flotilla of British barges or longboats fighting against American gun boats in Louisiana in December, 1814, just prior to the Battle of New Orleans. Click on the image for a greatly magnified view. From the website for The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812
A review of "The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812." From "The Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin."
Sir John Lambert
A profile of Sir John Lambert, who took over command of British forces in New Orleans after the death of Sir Edward Pakenham. From findagrave.com.
The Mentor: The War of 1812
Scroll down the page for illustrations from a 1916 publication depicting various encounters between British and American military officers who served in the War of 1812. The accompanying descriptions are written from an American perspective. From gutenberg.org.
Defeat of the British Army, 12,000 strong, under the command of Sir Edward Packenham
Click on the image on the right for a bird's-eye view of the Battle of New Orleans at the Mississippi River. From The Historic New Orleans Collection website.
Edward Michael Pakenham
A brief biography of British army general Edward Michael Pakenham. From findagrave.com.
The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812
A review of Robin Reilly's book “The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812.” From "The Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin."