THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (December 14-December 20, 1814)

December 14, 2014 at 10:59 pm 1 comment

Prelude to New Orleans.

U.S. Navy gunboats battle scores of oar-powered Royal Navy barges on Lake Borgne, Louisiana. Painting by  Thomas Horbrook courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy via Wikipedia.

U.S. Navy gunboats battle scores of oar-powered Royal Navy barges on Lake Borgne, Louisiana.
Painting by Thomas Horbrook courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy via Wikipedia.

Most Americans know little about the War of 1812, except, maybe for the Battle of New Orleans – thanks to two movies (in the 1930s and the 1950s) and the popular song recorded by Johnny Horton in 1959.

“The Battle of New Orleans” was written by Jimmy Driftwood, an Arkansas high school history teacher in 1936, to make learning history more palatable for his students. But at 4GWAR we’ve come to learn that there was no single battle of New Orleans but a series of engagements on land and water between mid-December 1814 and early January 1815.

This week’s post marks the bicentennial of the first engagement, on the swampy waters of Louisiana’s Lake Borgne (thanks to years of erosion, a lagoon now instead of a lake).

December 14

The Americans spot British warships just outside Lake Borgne southeast of New Orleans on December 13. Entry to the lake is guarded by five small U.S. Navy ships — gunboats really — with the awe-inspiring names of Number 5, Number 23, Number 65, Number 162 and Number 163. They are manned by less than 200 sailors under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones. The lake waters are too shallow to accommodate the 50 warships of the British fleet which arrived a few days previously from Jamaica. So the British pile 1,200 sailors and Royal Marines into 45 longboats and barges, most armed with a cannon in the bow, and row furiously at Catesby Jones’ flotilla.

The lieutenant orders his tiny fleet to withdraw to the Western side of the lake to block a channel into Lake Pontchartrain and lure the British boats under the guns of a small U.S. strongpoint, Fort Petites Coquilles. But in the early hours of December 14, the wind dies and the ebb tide pushes the Americans the wrong way, leaving them becalmed as the faster moving longboats and barges approach.

Map of Battle of Lake Borgne (Courtesy of National Park Service)

Map of Battle of Lake Borgne
(Courtesy of National Park Service)

Beyond the protective range of the Fort Petite Coquilles’ guns, Catesby Jones decides to fight anyway. His U.S. ships open fire around 11 a.m., taking a heavy toll on the open boats, which are firing back. Eventually the British swarm the American ships, clamber aboard and after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, capture all five ships. The Americans suffer six killed and 35 wounded (including Catesby Jones). The toll is even greater for the British: 94 killed and wounded.

The British are now even closer to New Orleans, although the 8,000-man attack force will have to be ferried by rowboats from the entrance of Lake Borgne some 36 miles to the far Western shore where a makeshift British base is set up in an unhealthy, marshy area for the big push against New Orleans about 15 miles away.

*** *** ***

With the loss of the Lake Borgne flotilla, Major General Andrew Jackson has lost his “eyes” on the lake approaches to New Orleans. But that same day, he receives word from Major General William Carroll that he is in Natchez (Mississippi Territory) heading for New Orleans with about 3,000 Tennessee militia and 1,400 muskets and ammunition. He is accompanied by more than 100 Mississippi dragoons under Major Thomas Hinds. On December 20, Brigadier John Coffee arrives from Baton Rouge, Louisiana with some 1,200 mounted infantry. Carroll’s troops arrive the next day. It’s beginning to look like Jackson will have enough troops to hold off the British after all.

Please click on the photos to see a larger image.

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Entry filed under: Army, National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lucy Zabarenko  |  December 15, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Good morning John,

    Great communique this a.m. The Yanks always seem to inflict the greater casualties. Are the Brits weighed down by those silly uniforms? And only 1 typo. Yeah! Love, L.

    Reply

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