THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (January 4-January 10, 1815) Part I
New Orleans: The Last Battle.
PART I of Three Parts. Prelude to Battle
December 28-January 1
Enraged and embarrassed by their failed December 28 attack on Andrew Jackson’s defensive line along the Rodriguez Canal, the British are making plans for one final grand battle to take New Orleans (only 9 miles away) and crush the Americans’ will to continue fighting. Apparently, they don’t know much about the lean, hawk-faced major general from Tennessee.
When worried New Orleans politicians ask Jackson what he would do if the British broke through his lines, he snarled that if the hair on his head knew his plans he would cut it off. To an aide he confides he would retreat, set fire to the city and fight the enemy “amidst the surrounding flames.”
While the British take days to bring up more men and heavy guns for the final assault, Jackson is using the time to strengthen the mud and log rampart facing Chalmette plantation where the British are camped. The “canal,” really a dry ditch runs nearly a mile from the Mississippi River on his army’s right to woods and cypress swamps on its left.
Jackson also sets up eight gun batteries along his line with a total of 14 guns, ranging from a 6-inch howitzer to a Navy 32-pounder. The batteries are manned by U.S. Army artillery men, Navy gunners, U.S. Marines, Creole volunteers – many of them veterans of Napoleon’s Grande Armée – and seasoned gunners from Jean Lafitte’s pirate/privateer crews.
Jackson’s defense line curls around like a fish hook once it hits the swamps – to avoid being flanked by the British. While this work goes on, Choctaw Indians and Tennessee sharpshooters sneak out at dusk to raid British outposts, killing or capturing luckless sentries and stripping them of their weapons and ammunition.
Jackson has also sent 400 men, mostly from the Louisiana militia, to defend a small battery of cannons on the West side of the Mississippi aimed at the area in front of the rampart to catch any advancing British troops in a cross-fire with the guns on the rampart. Later, Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson, the American naval commander at New Orleans, sends two more guns from the U.S.S. Louisiana to the marine battery to pepper the British camp with harassing fire.
Meanwhile, the British have brought up 30 heavy naval guns from their fleet anchored off Lake Borgne in the Gulf of Mexico, rowing them across the lake and then dragging them though the bayous to the British camp.
Under cover of night on December 31, the British begin setting up the heavy guns in three fortified positions. American sentries hear the British soldiers and sailors digging out on the dark but can’t see what they’re doing. A fog at dawn January 1, 1815, obscures the British strong points just 300 yards from the American defenses.
At the urging of local gentry, Jackson calls off work on the defenses for New Year’s Day and a grand review of all units in full uniform starts up. The British hiding in their fortified artillery batteries can hear fiddle music, drums and bugles coming from the American lines. Visitors from New Orleans have come to see friends and relatives among the American defenders and to witness the review.
Then at about 10 a.m. the fog lifts and the British guns open up, sowing confusion among the troops and panic among the civilian spectators. Jackson and his staff are finishing breakfast at headquarters in the Macarty plantation house when British shells nearly demolish the building. Jackson and company manage to escape unharmed, then restore order and get the American guns firing.
For nearly two hours the American and British blast away at each other. The Americans have fewer, less powerful guns but the gunners and the riflemen protecting them surprise the British with their accuracy. In their haste to take the Americans by the surprise when the fog lifted, the British gunners got the range wrong. Most shells sail over the American lines, striking civilians who have taken refuge farther back. The British cannon balls that do hit the American line sink harmlessly into the mud rampart. The American fire is more telling and five British guns are disabled and most of the gun crews killed or wounded by “Yankee” riflemen. By 3 p.m. the British cease firing and abandon their positions. They abandon the remaining cannon under heavy sniper fire. Surprisingly, the Americans make no effort to seize or spike (make useless) the British cannon. The king’ forces lose 44 dead and 55 wounded to the American gunners. The American losses are far less, 11 dead, 23 wounded – most of them civilians. Major General Edward Pakenham, the British commander, calls off a planned attack since the American rampart is relatively unscathed although three U.S. guns have been damaged and two ammunition wagon was struck and blown up.
American spirits rise with the arrival of more than 1,500 volunteers from Kentucky. But the reinforcements are in tatters after marching through rain, mud and cold from Natchez in Mississippi Territory. Also, about two thirds of them have no guns.
The citizens of New Orleans and surrounding Louisiana parishes raise $16,100 to clothe the frozen Kentuckians, making pants, shirts, coats and waist coats for their protectors. The 550 Kentuckians that do have weapons are sent to bolster Jackson’s right flank, where the ditch and rampart reach the cypress swamps. This is also where the Tennesseans and Choctaws have been raising cain with the British at night. The Indians alone have killed or wounded 50 men.
British spirits lift when reinforcements arrive in camp. Two regiments totaling 1,700 men boost the British invasion force – soldiers, sailors and Marines – to between 7,000 and 8,000. Most accounts put Jackson’s forces at somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000.
With these added troops, Pakenham decides to launch a two-pronged attack on Jackson from both sides of the river on January 8, 1815.
Tomorrow — New Orleans: Day of Battle
Entry filed under: Army, National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: Army, Battle of New Orleans 1814-1815, Ma. Gen. Andrew Jackson, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, Navy, Special Operations, Topics, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 in Kentucky, War of 1812 in Louisiana, War of 1812 in Tennessee, War of 1812-Choctaw Indians.