- Historic Sites
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
The consequence was that fackson made few preparations for the defense ol New Orleans against direct attack; his neglect was the subject of complaint by loyal spirits in the city. His troops were dispersed from Baton Rouge to Mobile, but on the other hand no one could doubt his personal activity and zeal, which he was able to infuse into the men under his command. Disaffection dared not raise its head; mutiny in the militia and treason among the civilian population stood no chance with Jackson in command. Merchants in New Orleans, aware of the details of the capitulation of Alexandria, could not hope for a similar agreement here. They would not be able to buy immunity for the city at the cost of handing over the ships in the river and the cargoes on the wharves. They faced the positive certainty that the moment capture was imminent ships and cargoes—and inevitably most of the city as well—would be ruthlessly burned, not by the British, but by fackson. It was not a prospect that appealed to them, but lew of them dared to voice their doubts or their fears, and Jackson laid a heavy hand an those who did.
Jackson’s activity found vent as well in his dash upon Pensacola—so did the aspirations he had cherished for months or for years regarding teaching the Spanish authorities a lesson. Until the news of the European peace reached Pensacola those authorities had been in an absurd position regarding their neutrality. Spain was England’s ally in the war with France, neutral in the war with America. A British ship could refresh herself at Pensacola in order to fight France but not in order to fight America. Now Spain was legally neutral, but ever since 1808 Spanish ports and facilities had been thrown open to the British, and the habits of years were not easily broken, especially in the face of overpowering strength. The British forces continued to make demands on the neutral Spaniards to the very limit of legality and beyond, as powerful belligerents have always made upon neutrals since history began. For sailing ships Pensacola might be a most convenient advanced base for operations against the delta; from Jackson’s point of view little was being risked by a blow against Pensacola—he was not uncovering too dangerously the presumed landing place ol the British—and much might be gained; and he saw to it, by the rapidity of his marches and the promptitude of his operations that no time was wasted. Militarily the blow he dealt was a blow in the air, seeing that the British had not planned to use Pensacola in the present campaign, but morally the effect was profound. It confirmed conclusively the American commander’s reputation as a man who could act boldly, assume vast responsibilities, and move rapidly—qualities not conspicuous so far among American generals—and it gave his army a brilliant and almost bloodless little success very good for its sell-confidence. Jackson’s reputation as a soldier would stand higher if he had marched to New Orleans afterward with the rapidity with which he proceeded to distribute his forces again in the Mobile and Natchez areas. He in person had not reached New Orleans at the time the British force sailed from its Jamaican assembly point.
The British army which now approached had been subjected to some vicissitudes. It had a senior officer, but it had no designated commander in chief. Ross, the victor of Bladensburg, had been killed by a sniper’s bullet. The great Wellington himself, when offered the command, had persuaded his government to withdraw the offer on the grounds that if he appeared in the field England would have to carry the war to a decisive conclusion, which he did not think possible (and frankly said so). Hill, far and away the best of his subordinates, had been named and then retained at home as the European situation grew more threatening. At long last Sir Edward Pakenham had been nominated, but until his arrival the force was under the interim command of a divisional general of no particular prestige or influence. The same threatening European situation had cut its numbers down from the 20,000 men originally contemplated to less than 10,000, and that number was only made up by including colored battalions of the West Indian Regiment and one or two units of doubtful efficiency. The smallness of the force—apart from its total lack of transport—precluded any idea of extensive or permanent conquest unless (the possibility was borne in mind but not very hopefully) its arrival stimulated a widespread and active movement of revolt among citizens and Indians. All that could be seriously contemplated was a raid of the Washington-Alexandria type, a sudden quick blow, a sweeping up of prizes and plunder, and a rapid withdrawal. It was to carry out such an operation that Cochrane (his dominating personality, vast prestige, and great seniority made him very much the senior partner in the enterprise) had to make his plans.