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Victory at New Orleans
Andrew Jackson won a stunning victory over a veteran British army that would eventually propel him to the White House
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
That commander at the moment was an admiral, Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had for several months held something like supreme command in the war with America and who now, with the retreat of Prevost from Plattsburg, had the direction of the entire olfeusivc that England contemplated, so much so that his instructions were drawn up in consultation with Casllcrcagh, ihc foreign secretary. Castlereagh was consulted because, from the point of view of one section of the Cabinet, this offensive was to be launched for the purpose of inducing America to end the war which she had entered upon unnecessarily and without provocation: if common sense woidd not lead her to agree to a peace which everyone desired and needed, the only course of action left open was to make the war so unpleasant for her that she would be forced to make peace even against her will. Castlereagh, from this point of view, had to decide whether the sort of conquest contemplated would be sufficient to win the Americans into the right state of mind. Therewas another section of the Cabinet—representing a section of the public—which was still bent on conquest for its own sake or in revenge for what much of England still considered an unprovoked attack or as an object lesson to the rest of the world regarding what could happen to any power that might flout England’s command of the sea. It was to these views that Cochrane himself inclined, and his feelings were strengthened by a personal animosity that might perhaps be traced back to the death of his brother at Yorktown more than thirty years ago.
It must be remembered that these two sections of the Cabinet were composed of sincere and patriotic men; there was a large section of the British public, with no voice in the Cabinet, which merely desired peace, even at the price of concessions if necessary, and was willing to admit at least that the war had been brought about as much by the provocative British attitude as by American touchiness. But the war parties —the moderates and the intransigents—were in control with Cochrane as their chosen instrument, and the instructions to Cochrane expressed the feelings of both sections. First, Cochrane was specifically ordered to gain command of the mouth of the Mississippi to exert pressure on the United States, and next he was to seize some important possession with a view either to permanent conquest or for use as a bargaining counter in exchange lor peace. With these instructions before him Cochrane coidd meditate on the other aspect of the problem which Jackson was considering.
The order to obtain “command of the embouchure of the Mississippi” was a little unnecessary; the British blockade closed the river effectively enough, so that the cotton which cluttered the wharves of New Orleans awaiting export was down to six cents. The “important possession” could only be New Orleans, with as much more of Louisiana as he could seize. Already, while he was still in the Chesapeake, Cochrane had sent subordinates to explore the possibilities of the Gulf Coast. One of his captains had made contact with the Creek Indians; a British colonel had been deputed to attempt to rouse, train, and arm Indians, Spaniards, and French; and a British squadron had attacked Fort Bowyer, commanding the entrance to Mobile Bay. These slight efforts came to nothing. Jackson’s victories, and the peace he dictated, left the Indians unwilling to move, while the attack on Fort Bowyer was broken off after a British frigate ran aground and was burned by her own captain. In any case the home government discountenanced any offensive launched from this direction, and probably wisely. A British army landing somewhere to the westward of Pensacola and attempting to push through to the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, relying on Indian co-operation but without transport (it was a supremely difficult problem to carry horses in large numbers any distance at sea) would probably have met the same fate as Burgoyne’s army long before. Even if it did not, even if it reached the Mississippi in fighting condition, it would be likely to have before it still a long, tedious, and doubtful campaign before capturing New Orleans. Lack of transport and lack of roads in the back country practically dictated the final decision to strike at New Orleans as directly as possible. It was odd that anything else was ever contemplated, seeing how brilliantly successful had been the Washington campaign, when in eleven prodigious days the British troops marched over a hundred miles, fought a battle, occupied Washington, and re-embarked, while enabling the navy to secure the vast plunder of Alexandria.
So Cochrane was committed to a sudden stroke upon New Orleans, quite obviously. Yet to Jackson it was not obvious at all. He did not appreciate the limitations ol that otherwise fine fighting organisation, the British Army. Under his leadership his militia had marched freely about in the back country, with only minor difficulties regarding supply, and it did not occur to him that the enemy could not do the same. He did not attach enough importance to the profound difference in training between a Tennessee woodsman and a redcoat infantryman. Up to the very eve of the attack Jackson was confident that the British would land some distance from New Orleans and would march on Eaton Rouge, and this conviction gave the British the same sort of advantage that the Allied Army in 1944 enjoyed as a result of Hitler’s certainty that the main blow would be struck at the Calais coast. The minor British activities at Bowyer and elsewhere earlier in the year seemed to Jackson confirmation of his theory.