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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
The instant crisis showed Jackson at his best. Most fortunately for him the troops from up the river had arrived two days before. It was past noon on December 23 that he heard the news; by nightfall he was ready to attack, and he did so, in a scrambling and confused action fought in the dark. The attack ended in an orderly withdrawal on the part of the Americans, and the apparent result was no more than the loss of a night’s sleep on both sides. But the Americans learned from it that their general was willing to fight—if they did not know that already—and it told the British the same. Moreover, Jackson now had in his hands some dozens of British prisoners, and from them he was able to learn something of the British numbers and plans. In consequence he was able to reach the decision to entrench himself and receive the British attack on the line of the Rodriquez Canal (if line it could be called), and he could disregard the trivial feint the British made of turning his position by the Chef Menteur Road.
It may have been the night attack which deterred the British from advancing the next day—December 24—or it may have been mere fatigue, for their exertions had been incredible and their physical sufferings severe. It may have been the desire to concentrate their whole force or to bring up their artillery which had to be manhandled through miles of swamp. It may have been the fact that they expected their commander in chief to arrive, at last, next day. Most probably it was a combination of all these factors; but however it was, Christmas Eve saw the American army satisfactorily dug in, their flanks secure, their forces concentrated, and artillery in position. From that moment New Orleans might be considered safe from any direct assault along the line upon which the British were at present operating. The crisis was over; the subsequent battle was a mere appendage, an additional and unnecessary proof of all this. Two days of energetic leadership on the part of Jackson had put an end to the surprise which the British had achieved.
Yet it must be observed that Jackson failed to make certain of the command of the river. He had only two armed vessels capable of action, and, having regard to the mass of shipping in New Orleans and the number of seamen available (including Lafitte’s pirates), he should have had many more. As it was, the British contrived to catch one of his two vessels under fire of red-hot shot from a battery thrown up on the levee—not enough attention has been called to the rapidity and ingenuity with which the British constructed their furnace for heating the shot—and burned her. As a result the British, with the aid of the ships’ boats dragged with incredible labor along a muddy ditch cut through the levee, were able to challenge the American command of the river. They passed troops across, just enough to cause Jackson intense anxiety for his flank, and after the defeat they managed to bring them back again. It should have been Jackson’s force that made free use of the river; it should have been the British flank and not the American that was menaced. A small American amphibious force ranging the river and threatening a descent upon the British rear and communications would have given endless trouble to the British, but Jackson remained blind to the advantages conferred upon him by the absence of the British navy; he even employed his seamen and the guns from his one rema ininp shin in a batterv constructed on land.
The commander opposed to him merely indicated this weakness in Jackson’s plan and did not exploit it to the full—the crossing of the river was carried out by too small a body of troops and too late. This was largely the result of bad staff work; Wellington, the most successful soldier of the day, had never succeeded in creating a staff that could function without him. He was his own chief staff officer, and so good a one that in his absence British military operations suffered accordingly. Pakenham, arriving on Christmas day, might be forgiven for not creating an efficient staff by January 8. It only remains to ask and to answer the question as to why he committed his army to its fatal attack.
Pakenham was by no means the most distinguished divisional general in Wellington’s army. Hill and Graham, even Beresford and Picton, had far more brilliant records. Pakenham had led the decisive attack at Salamanca, but that was only as the substitute commander of Picton’s division. He had been a substitute commander of various other divisions in the Peninsular Campaign in Spain, but there was no legend round his name as had gathered round those of his rivals. He had been absent from the crowning victory of Vittoria—a memory that rankled. He was burning to distinguish himself, the more so as his brother-in-law was Wellington, the greatest English soldier of that generation.