- 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 direct and obvious approach, up the Mississippi, was barred by forts St. Philip and Bourbon. It is significant that Cochrane contemplated no action here. Some fifty years later the offensive that the Union government launched against New Orleans hinged upon the employment of the mortars that David Porter had suggested and designed with the reduction of these very forts in mind. The passage of Farragut’s fleet up the Mississippi past the forts made the fall of New Orleans practically inevitable. Had it not been for the obstacle presented by the forts Cochrane’s squadron could have forced its way up the Mississippi and effected a similar result. In any case, until the forts were in British hands there would be no chance of bringing down the river the ships and the cotton toward which Cochrane’s covetous eyes were turned. Cochrane must have believed that once he had possession of New Orleans the forts, as utterly isolated as any place well could be, would fall of themselves. That seems the only explanation of his adoption of his plan; Cochrane had witnessed the rout of Bladensburg, and he had profited by the shameful capitulation of Alexandria. He had not yet encountered American regular troops nor the tough western militia, and he knew nothing of Jackson. It is possible also that, excellent as his topographical information was, he underestimated the difficulties of the Lake Borgne route.
To us, wise after the event, it would appear that he would have had more chance of success if he had effected a landing, either from the Gulf or in the river, close to the forts, captured them by a prompt attack, and then brought his fleet up the Mississippi. With the command of the river he could have turned any position Jackson occupied. As it was, fifteen days elapsed between his appearance at Ship Island and the arrival of his advanced guard on the banks of the river, and the alternative operation could hardly have taken longer.
Yet the expedition was most successful, from all appearances, at the start. It was three days alter the arrival of the British fleet at the entrance of Lake Borgne that Jackson first heard of it at New Orleans, and he believed this was only a feint to distract his attention from Mobile. Meanwhile, in default of further news, he spent the next four days entrenching the approaches to New Orleans via the plain of Gentilly; this was the only practicable route from Lake Borgne of which he had knowledge, while he still had confidence that the United States naval flotilla on the lake would prevent any British advance.
His confidence would not have been misplaced if the flotilla—five of Mr. Jefferson’s despised gunboats—had been employed with caution and good fortune. They could individually outfight and outsail the ships’ boats which were all the British could employ on the lake, which was too shallow for their seagoing vessels. As long as the gunboats were in existence the British could not dare to extend their operations, as they proposed to do, over a water-borne line of communications sixty miles long. From a secure base Jones, in command of the flotilla, would have been a menace they could not have ignored. But Jones ventured too close, was unlucky with the wind, and his whole force was captured, overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers; it was only then that the British ships’ boats could be employed in ferrying the British army along Lake Borgne. Six days had elapsed, but it might well have been much longer. And it was only then that Jackson decided this was no feint and summoned to his aid the forces he had left at Baton Rouge. The first of these reached him twelve full days after the appearance of the British forces, and other reinforcements came dropping down the river during the next two days to give him a respectable force in the city.
Jackson was left without information regarding British movements from the time of the capture of the American flotilla. His engineers and his scouts served him very badly. Ten thousand British soldiers disembarked at Cat Island, were ferried some thirty miles to Pea Island, restaged there (most uncomfortably, shelterless in the December rain) and then came on another thirty miles and more by land and water, taking ten days over the whole process, without any hint of all this reaching Jackson’s ears. British intelligence officers explored the country and ascertained a practicable route (barely practicable) to the banks of the Mississippi eight miles from New Orleans, and the British advance guard actually reached that spot before Jackson knew anything of what was going on. Nor would he have known even then except for a trifle of mismanagement on the part of the British. Their first troops to land had neatly captured entire the American picket watching their landing point, and then most carelessly allowed one of them to escape with the news; otherwise it seems perfectly possible that the entire British army would have assembled within a morning’s march of New Orleans without anyone there being any the wiser.