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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
On August 24 and 25, 1814, British forces were in full possession of Washington; from August 29 to 31 other forces held Alexandria. From September 11 to 14 they were feeling out the defenses of Baltimore. Then the greater part of them vanished out of sight; once the British ships were over the horizon there was almost no means of knowing where they were and far smaller means of knowing what they intended, for by this time the blockade of the Atlantic Coast was highly effective, and there were few ships to bring in news even of the outside world, certainly not of the movements of the British lleet. No one could even be sure that any further offensive movement was meditated, but it was the duty of the American government to act on the hypothesis that the enemy would attempt to do all the harm possible —and that implied that British movements must be foreseen and guarded against.
America’s darkest hour had both come and gone, but while the one fact was apparent the other was not. The same clay ih.it the British forces had begun their move on Baltimore, Macclonough had won his victory on Lake Champlain, putting an end to any possibility of secession on the part of the New England states. The same month Armstrong was expelled from the Cabinet and James Monroe assumed the duties of secretary of war in addition to those of secretary of state and began vigorously to strengthen American defenses, not flinching from the contemplation of the possibility that the war might continue for many more years. But the Hartford Convention still lay in the future; the British Navy held undisputed mastery of the sea, and apparently the British Army could be recruited to any extent and employed freely in any quarter of the globe. Not even a shrewd individual like Monroe could guess at the increasing hollowness of the secession movement, nor (handicapped as he was by slow and inadequate communications) could he know that the rapidly detei iorating European situation was certain to handicap the British effort across the Atlantic. He had to set himself to defend his country against a tremendous and possibly mortal thrust, a thrust, moreover, which he had to parry blindfold, as it were, thanks to the advantage conferred on the British by the command of the sea.
Yet he could be reasonably sure, with winter at hand, that the thrust would be delivered at least south of Cape Hatteras, and most likely farther south still. Here his commander in chief was the junior major general in the United States Army, appointed by Armstrong to fill the vacancy made by Harrison’s resignation. Even Armstrong had been unable to leave neglected the victor of Talladega and Horseshoe Bend when victories on land had been so markedly absent. There could be no doubting Andrew Jackson’s loyalty, which was more than could be said of some of the generals; nor could there be any doubts regarding the loyalty of the militia of the West, on whom he would have to rely for half his force at least. Monroe added Kentucky and Georgia to Jackson’s Seventh Military District which already included Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi Territory, and scraped together the preposterous sum of $100,000 which might confer a certain degree of mobility on his general and, perhaps most important of all, entrusted to him some of the precious Regular Army to supply a solid nucleus to his otherwise volatile forces. Then the Secretary of War and his general could await the British onslaught with patience—if such a quality could be expected of such a general.
Their position could be compared with that of Hitler and von Rundstedt in 1944. The general objective of the enemy was obvious, but there was room for endless doubt as to the method he would adopt to achieve it. Jackson could be reasonably certain that New Orleans was the ultimate goal of the British; the disappearance of the British forces from Bermuda could only indicate a concentration in the Caribbean, and the indications were confirmed by rumor. In that case he need not worry about a serious attempt upon the coast of Georgia; in the same way Hitler early decided that Norway was in no danger and that the Channel coast would be the point of attack. But exactly where would the blow be struck? Jackson could speculate about this from one point of view, while the British commander could speculate about it from another.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.