THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (January 18-January 24, 1815)
Where are the British?
All is quiet outside the small American fort at a bend in the Mississippi River 80 miles south of New Orleans. The cannon fire has stopped after nine days of shelling from a small British naval task force anchored downstream.
The siege of Fort St. Philip is over and the five-ship British squadron sails downstream January 18 to rejoin the rest of the British invasion fleet at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Like Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the garrison of Fort St. Philip has persevered under heavy bombardment and outlasted the British. Unlike Fort McHenry, however, no song like the “Star Spangled Banner” emerges from this little-known engagement – although the U.S. flag over the fort is shot down and replaced under heavy fire by a U.S. sailor who climbed to the top of a new flagstaff to unfurl the Stars and Stripes.
Upstream, Major General Andrew Jackson is worried the British may attack again despite their heavy losses on the morning of January 8. From his headquarters in the battered but still standing Macarty Planation He orders a constant cannonade to harry the British camp at the Villere Plantation nearly two miles away.
Some of Jackson’s subordinates, especially the commanders of his small cavalry and dragoon detachments want to mount a counterattack. But Jackson opts to stand pat, mindful that the enemy still has more than 5,000 experienced troops to his barely 4,000-man force scattered over a wide area around New Orleans.
The British soldiers, sailors and Marines still on U.S. soil are battle-tested veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Jackson’s army is a pick-up force of regular Army infantry and artillery, sailors from the Navy and local merchant ships, a small contingent of U.S. Marines, Jean Lafitte’s pirates, Choctaw Indians, New Orleans volunteers (black and white) and militiamen from Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee – many of them ill-trained and poorly armed. Jackson wonders if the British are changing tactics and preparing to attack from the north. Or have they found a different way through the swamps to attack him from behind? Jackson orders his cavalry and scouts to learn what the British are planning. Reinforcements are sent to other possible approaches to the city.
Meanwhile, British Major General John Lambert – pretty much the last man standing among the senior British commanders after the disastrous assault on Jan. 8 – meets with his officers that night to assess their situation: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing; morale low after weeks of cold rainy nights in the Louisiana swamps with the Tennesseans and Choctaws sneaking out of the dark to kill and capture sentries; no shelter and little food available from a supply line that stretches over a nearly two-day slog through the swamps and bayous back to a fleet blocked by sandbars from getting any closer.
Lambert decides further assaults on New Orleans’ defenders are futile and so he orders the invasion force to withdraw back to the fleet. Like George Washington’s evacuation of Brooklyn Heights in 1776, it’s a masterful withdrawal under difficult conditions without tipping off the Americans.
It takes nine days for the British to prepare a way through swamps infested with alligators, snakes and quicksand. Wide ditches and streams in the cypress swamps have to be bridged with branches and reeds because there aren’t enough trees for lumber. On the night of the 18th, the withdrawal begins, moving the wounded, weapons and remaining supplies to the fleet. Ten heavy guns have to be abandoned. Once through the swamps the troops have to wait on the shore of Lake Borgne for the Navy to row them out to the fleets. Each trip takes hours.
On the morning of January 19, peering through his spyglass on the top floor of the bomb-shattered Macarty mansion, Andrew Jackson notices a strange lack of activity in the British camp. A cavalry patrol reports back that the British have departed.
The Americans discover the British path of retreat late that night and some enterprising Louisiana militiamen begin ambushing the slow moving longboats transferring the British troops. Forming small convoys of rowboats to fend off the Americans slows the evacuation process to a crawl as do high winds and rough seas. By January 24, some British units are still waiting and starving on the lakeshore.
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: Andrew Jackson, Army, Battle of New Orleans 1815, British Army in War of 1812, Marine Corps, Navy, Topics, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 in Louisiana, War of 1812-Choctaw Indians, winter warfare.