February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
From the beginning Andrew Jackson could not believe that a British general would be foolish enough to attempt an amphibious invasion of New Orleans. The city was essential to a British plain to remove the Americans from Louisiana and establish sovereignty “over all the territory fraudulently conveyed by Bonaparte to the United States,” but miles of thick swamps between New Orleans and the sea made it easy to defend from below. “A real military man, with full knowledge of the geography of this country,” wrote Jackson, would “cut off all supplies from above and make this country an easy conquest.”
Jackson had arrived in New Orleans in December to fortify the city’s already strong position against an anticipated attack by Adm. Alexander Cochrane, who was directing twenty-five hundred troops through Lake Borgne, directly to the east of the city. A miserable sixty-mile journey from the British fleet, during which the troops slept in rainy marshes filled with snakes and woke with their clothes frozen to their bodies, landed them on the Plain of Gentilly, nine miles from the city. Jackson descended with his entire force of two thousand men just as the exhausted British were settling in for their first comfortable night in two weeks. The British called for reinforcements to bring additional cannon from the distant fleet and for each new man to carry a cannonball in his knapsack.
Jackson’s men quickly erected log breastworks along a canal that bisected the field as it narrowed between a swamp and the Mississippi River, cutting off the only approach to New Orleans. Still, Cochrane blustered that his redcoats could dispose of any number of Jackson’s “dirty shirts.” Jackson disagreed. “I will smash them, so help me God!” Sir Edward Pakenham, the senior British general, took command of the army on Christmas Day. When the mist lifted on the morning of January 1, British artillery began throwing shells at Jackson’s fortifications. But their guns were inadequately mounted, supported in part with barrels of sugar that dissolved into a sticky muck. Twelve American guns, braced partially with cotton bales, took Pakenham’s erratic batteries apart, forcing a retreat.
A contingent of Kentucky troops arrived on January 3 to support the badly outnumbered American force, but to Jackson’s disbelief, they had no rifles. “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life,” he commented. Though his army was still outnumbered two to one, Jackson was ready for the advance when it came on January 8. British soldiers covered the plain before Jackson’s backwoods sharpshooters like an immense red carpet. The killing was ludicrously easy. The only Englishman who made it to the top of Jackson’s wall unscathed looked behind him and saw that his men “had vanished as if the earth had swallowed them up.” The British fell in whole columns under a steady barrage of American lead, and within twenty-five minutes they were in frenzied retreat. Onethird of the British force, about two thousand troops, lay in heaps before Jackson’s men. “The field,” wrote an American observer, “was so thickly strewn with the dead, that from the American ditch you could have walked a quarter of a mile to the front on the bodies of the killed and disabled.” That afternoon, as the survivors went out to the battlefield under a flag of truce to bury their dead, among them General Pakenham, they learned that the American line had lost only eight dead and thirteen wounded. Cochrane abandoned the Louisiana delta for good. By February 4, when news of December’s Treaty of Ghent reached American shores, Andrew Jackson was renowned as an American hero.