- 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
He had made a reconnaissance in force, which, apart from its cost in lives, should have proved to him that Jackson’s troops in their entrenchments were likely to fight well. He had made a feeble attempt to use siege methods, which had met with the failure it deserved, considering the comparative resources available to him and to Jackson. Yet on January 8, when he found that his plan for turning Jackson’s flank by the river crossing had not been carried fully into effect, he flung his main body forward in an attack which seems to us to have been hopeless from the start. The alternative was to hold back until the flanking movement should take effect. He might be judged to be too hotheaded to do so. On the other hand, daylight was increasing and his plan would be revealed. Prompt action by Jackson might balk the flanking movement. Jackson might send sufficient troops over the river to overwhelm the British detachment. He might have, concealed and waiting for this moment, a naval force that could cut it off completely. The British main body, warned and in position for an attack at dawn, would certainly cool off if kept waiting most of the day as the flanking movement developed; meanwhile Jackson’s main body would have that time to make final arrangements for his reception. A cautious general might still wait and see what happened across the river; a very cautious one might abandon the plan altogether and try to think of a fresh one—a movement against Fort St. Philip, for instance, which, by its threat of freeing the river to the British navy, could hardly fail to bring Jackson out of his entrenchments to relieve the place.
In Pakenham’s judgment it was a case of now or never as regards the present plan, and he chose now rather than never. He might be lucky. The Americans might flinch. They had offered almost no resistance at Bladensburg. Pakenham forgot, or discounted, the fate of the reconnaissance in force and of the siege operations. It was proved that very afternoon that American militia could still run away, when his flanking force overran the batteries across the river. An assault might succeed; to abandon an offensive at a moment when the Americans might perhaps be looking over their shoulders would make him the laughingstock of the British Army, and that was not a thought that could be endured by Wellington’s brother-in-law, the not very distinguished divisional general. He gave the order for the attack.
That the attack failed was not to be wondered at. A frontal advance over open country against infantry in adequate numbers, entrenched and with their flanks secure, was doomed to failure unless the defenders flinched or unless overwhelming artillery preparation breached the line. The Americans did not flinch, and the artillery preparation was inadequate. No further explanation is necessary, and no excuse for the British failure need be put forward—Napoleon’s comments on Masséna’s failure to break the British line at Busaco, to the effect that in open country attacks against infantry lines do not succeed without artillery preparation, are perfectly applicable to Pakenham’s advance. The British, naturally, put forward excuses. The British army had been laboring desperately hard for three weeks, bivouacking in the open in detestable weather. The Jamaican battalions, accustomed to the climate of their tropical island, had not been able to endure the icy Louisiana rain. Pakenham mistimed his attacks; the changes in command unsettled the army—there was some truth in all these assertions, but they were not necessary, any more than it was necessary for the Americans to attribute the repulse to the superlative marksmanship of their troops.
It remains to call attention to the fact that the British army, after its bloody repulse, remained on American soil for ten whole days and finally withdrew without losing a single man more; Jackson’s inactivity is inexplicable. Had the war continued for long he might have paid a heavy price for it because the British army, allowed to depart unmolested, pulled itself together in the fashion that has always distinguished British armies and was promptly reemployed, making use of the mobility conferred upon it by sea power. With a sudden pounce it leaped upon Fort Bowyer, the scene of an earlier repulse, and compelled the surrender of the place after a brilliant and vigorous attack. Jackson must have felt some regret at having written a letter the previous November saying that he felt sure that ten thousand men could not take Fort Bowyer. Less than ten thousand men had taken it now, and the British army was in a position to menace Baton Rouge as Jackson had always feared. The military historian, although not the humanitarian or the citizen who cherishes AngloAmerican friendship, might regret that the interesting new situation was not allowed to develop. As it was, Fort Bowyer fell on the day that the news of the Treaty of Ghent reached America.