Victory at New Orleans


On August 24 and 25, 1814, British forces were in full possession of Washington; from August 29 to 31 other forces held Alexandria. From September 11 to 14 they were feeling out the defenses of Baltimore. Then the greater part of them vanished out of sight; once the British ships were over the horizon there was almost no means of knowing where they were and far smaller means of knowing what they intended, for by this time the blockade of the Atlantic Coast was highly effective, and there were few ships to bring in news even of the outside world, certainly not of the movements of the British lleet. No one could even be sure that any further offensive movement was meditated, but it was the duty of the American government to act on the hypothesis that the enemy would attempt to do all the harm possible —and that implied that British movements must be foreseen and guarded against.

America’s darkest hour had both come and gone, but while the one fact was apparent the other was not. The same clay the British forces had begun their move on Baltimore, Macclonough had won his victory on Lake Champlain, putting an end to any possibility of secession on the part of the New England states. The same month Armstrong was expelled from the Cabinet and James Monroe assumed the duties of secretary of war in addition to those of secretary of state and began vigorously to strengthen American defenses, not flinching from the contemplation of the possibility that the war might continue for many more years. But the Hartford Convention still lay in the future; the British Navy held undisputed mastery of the sea, and apparently the British Army could be recruited to any extent and employed freely in any quarter of the globe. Not even a shrewd individual like Monroe could guess at the increasing hollowness of the secession movement, nor (handicapped as he was by slow and inadequate communications) could he know that the rapidly detei iorating European situation was certain to handicap the British effort across the Atlantic. He had to set himself to defend his country against a tremendous and possibly mortal thrust, a thrust, moreover, which he had to parry blindfold, as it were, thanks to the advantage conferred on the British by the command of the sea.

Yet he could be reasonably sure, with winter at hand, that the thrust would be delivered at least south of Cape Hatteras, and most likely farther south still. Here his commander in chief was the junior major general in the United States Army, appointed by Armstrong to fill the vacancy made by Harrison’s resignation. Even Armstrong had been unable to leave neglected the victor of Talladega and Horseshoe Bend when victories on land had been so markedly absent. There could be no doubting Andrew Jackson’s loyalty, which was more than could be said of some of the generals; nor could there be any doubts regarding the loyalty of the militia of the West, on whom he would have to rely for half his force at least. Monroe added Kentucky and Georgia to Jackson’s Seventh Military District which already included Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi Territory, and scraped together the preposterous sum of $100,000 which might confer a certain degree of mobility on his general and, perhaps most important of all, entrusted to him some of the precious Regular Army to supply a solid nucleus to his otherwise volatile forces. Then the Secretary of War and his general could await the British onslaught with patience—if such a quality could be expected of such a general.

Their position could be compared with that of Hitler and von Rundstedt in 1944. The general objective of the enemy was obvious, but there was room for endless doubt as to the method he would adopt to achieve it. Jackson could be reasonably certain that New Orleans was the ultimate goal of the British; the disappearance of the British forces from Bermuda could only indicate a concentration in the Caribbean, and the indications were confirmed by rumor. In that case he need not worry about a serious attempt upon the coast of Georgia; in the same way Hitler early decided that Norway was in no danger and that the Channel coast would be the point of attack. But exactly where would the blow be struck? Jackson could speculate about this from one point of view, while the British commander could speculate about it from another.