THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (December 21-December 27, 1814)
Scouts inform U.S. Army Major General Andrew Jackson that British troops are marching from Lake Borgne to New Orleans and he heads South with two under strength U.S. Army infantry regiments, the 7th and 44th, 1,000 Tennessee and Mississippi state militia, 300 New Orleans volunteers, a rifle company of about 60 sharpshooters, a battalion of free black men and 28 Choctaw Indians warriors — about 2,000 in all. Jackson also orders the 230-ton schooner, U.S.S. Carolina mounting 14 cannon, to sail down the Mississippi River to the bank opposite where about 1,900 British troops are camped for the night. In the growing darkness the British think the Carolina is one of their own ships, allowing it to get within range.
Jackson decides to launch a night attack as fog rolls in, vowing the British “shall not sleep on our soil tonight.” At 7:30 p.m. the Carolina opens up on the British camp, sending the troops scattering in confusion. Next, Jackson’s troops open fire with muskets and rifles, killing several British soldiers. Units on both sides dissolve in the fog and confusion as small groups fight desperate hand-to-hand battles with swords, bayonets, knives, fists and muskets used as clubs.
After the fighting ceases, the Americans discover they have lost 213 killed and wounded, while the British count more than 260 killed and wounded in the nearly four-hour battle.
On Christmas Eve, British reinforcements arrive before dark by row boats that have traveled 36 miles from Pea Island in Lake Borgne to a strip of land between the bayous, in cold rainy weather. The invasion force now totals nearly 6,000. They have no tents to shield them from the dispiriting weather. Two West Indian regiments without winter clothing lose about 100 men — dead and gravely sick — to the elements. The acting commander, Major General John Keane, decides to wait for the new commander, Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham to arrive. Pakenham finally catches up with his command, the next day, Christmas 1814.
The American army withdraws to a new position about 10 miles from New Orleans on the Mississippi River behind the Rodriguez Canal, a ditch four feet deep and 10 feet wide that runs at a right angle about three-quarters of a mile from the Mississippi to a cypress swamp. Jackson orders his men to dredge and deepen the ditch and use the debris to build a rampart of the side closest to New Orleans. Slaves are sent out from the city o do much of the dirty work and spare the soldiers’ energy for the fighting to come. Like so many civil engineering projects in the early days of the Republic, the defenses of New Orleans rested largely on the labor of men who were not free.
Meanwhile, 4,800 miles (7,725 kilometers) away, British and American peace negotiators have reached agreement on ending the war. The Treaty of Ghent essentially returns things to how they were before Congress declared war on Britain, the legal term is status quo ante bellum. No mention is made of the impressment of seamen from U.S. ships, on of the key catalysts of the war. The British relinquish their plans for an Indian buffer state between the Old Northwest (today’s Upper Midwest) and British holdings in Canada. The United States did not conquer Canada and Great Britain did not hem in the United States between the Atlantic and the Mississippi.
In the painting below, Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier, the head British negotiator, shakes hands with his opposite number, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Quincy Adams.
Pakenham orders eight cannon and a heavy mortar brought up and emplaced on the riverbank opposite the Carolina, which has continuously bombarded the British . Shortly after 7 a.m., the guns fire with heated shot to set the pesky schooner afire. Most of the ship’s crew are pirates/smugglers from Jean Lafitte’s stronghold in Barataria Bay east of New Orleans, which is a bit ironic since the Carolina demolished Lafitte’s base in September, when the Americans feared the pirates would join forces with the British.
After two rounds of cannon fire, the Carolina catches fire. The captain orders the crew to abandon ship and at 9:30 a.m. the ship blows up. Built in Charleston, South Carolina and commissioned in June 1813, the Carolina spent her short service years based in New Orleans — patrolling the Gulf against the British and chasing pirates in the Caribbean. Her loss leaves only the smaller U.S.S. Louisiana to block access to New Orleans via the twisting Mississippi.
Jackson orders the Louisiana — farther up river but still within range of the British guns — to be moved, but the wind and current made sailing upriver impossible. So 100 Baratarian pirates rowed out to the stranded vessel, attached hawsers to the Louisiana while under fire and hauled her to safety. Only on cannon ball struck the ship’s deck.
Entry filed under: Army, National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, Special Operations, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions, Unconventional Warfare. Tags: Army, Indians in War of 1812, Navy, Night fighting, Topics, Treaty of Ghent, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 in Louisiana, War of 1812-African-Americans, War of 1812-Choctaw Indians.