Andrew Jackson, Preview 2


The Battle of New Orleans Continued

[For the first part of this excerpt from Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson see Andrew Jackson, Preview 1: The Battle of New Orleans]

“On December 13, scouts spotted the British invaders proceeding from the Gulf of Mexico toward Lake Borgne, just west of the city. Three days later, Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans. His own command still numbered, at most, seven hundred, and there was no sign that reinforcements would arrive before the British did, and so the American general improvised. Upon arriving in New Orleans Jackson had sneered at the Baratarians as ‘hellish banditti,’ but now he struck an alliance with Lafitte. Over the objections of local slaveholders, Jackson also organized two battalions of free black soldiers; and a small contingent of loyal Creek Indians also joined the American side. Finally, on December 20, Jackson’s old friend General John Coffee arrived with a little more than six hundred veterans, including cavalry; the next day, fourteen hundred Tennessee recruits under another old friend, newly elevated Major General William Carroll, marched into town, as did more than one hundred Mississippi dragoons under Major Thomas Hinds. As they swarmed through the streets of New Orleans, the Americans at least resembled a credible fighting force. But unlike his forays against the Creeks, Jackson would have to fight a defensive battle – and this time his army would be gravely outnumbered.

“On December 23, Jackson received two agitated Creole messengers who informed him that the British were closing in without resistance. Jackson calmly offered his visitors some wine, thanked them for their intelligence, and then reportedly swore: ‘I will smash them, so help me God!’ Jackson redeployed his main force five miles east of the city, behind an old millrace. The British repeatedly bombarded Jackson’s forces in an effort to soften them up. Dug in behind mud ramparts, sugar barrels, and cotton bales, the Americans, aided by fire from the Louisiana, a ship anchored in the Mississippi, withstood the assaults. By the morning of January 8, more than two thousand Kentucky militiamen had arrived, although only one-third of them carried guns. Jackson now had about four thousand men on his front line with only about another thousand in reserve. Less than a mile to the east were three columns of British regulars and a regiment of conscripted West Indians – a grand total of more than five thousand troops, most of them hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, with another five thousand held in reserve. Their commander was Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. At dawn, a British Congreve rocket soared above a cypress swamp to the left of Jackson’s line, signaling the start of Pakenham’s assault.

“The Americans were lucky as well as skillful. Pakenham had hoped to seize the opposite bank of the Mississippi, outflank Jackson, and pin down the Americans with crossfire. But the river would not cooperate, and plans to ferry over fifteen hundred troops in barges had to be drastically scaled back. Meanwhile, the British Forty-fourth Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullens was positioned to spearhead the British attack by carrying ladders and sugarcane bundles that the main force would later use to scale Jackson’s breastworks. Only when Mullens’s men were in attack position did they realize that they had left the ladders and cane bundles behind. By the time the redcoats retrieved their equipment, the battle was well under way.

“Despite these mishaps, some major deployment errors by Jackson might still have handed victory to the British. Although a smaller number than Pakenham had expected, five hundred British troops under Colonel William Thornton did cross over to the western bank of the Mississippi, and easily dispersed the token American defense force (its weakness the result of what might have been a critical misjudgment on Jackson’s part). Thornton’s men rushed to the American batteries where they could rake Jackson’s troops undisturbed. But Thornton’s men had actually landed well to the south of where they had intended, and arrived in position too late in the battle. On the eastern bank of the river, meanwhile, Jackson had left the American line nearest the Mississippi vulnerable, and early in the fighting a brigade of the Ninety-third Highlanders, commanded by Colonel Robert Rennie, managed to gain the top of the ramparts overlooking the canal. American artillery and marksmen let loose a volley that cut down Rennie’s front ranks (including Rennie himself), but the rest of the Ninety-third’s column, under Major General John Keane, might easily have breached Jackson’s line. Instead of following Rennie’s lead, however, Keane’s Highlanders stuck to their original orders from Pakenham and veered toward the center of the field that lay before them. There, with their bagpipes blaring, they were butchered, along with Pakenham’s main column. Behind their embankments, Jackson’s motley collection of resisters – most effectively twenty cannon crews – poured volleys of grape, canister, and rifle fire into the advancing enemy.

“By eight in the morning, less than two hours after it had begun, the shooting stopped. Jackson walked from position to position congratulating the soldiers, as the army’s band struck up ‘Hail Columbia.’ Then the Americans looked out over their fortifications.

“The heaps of fallen British stretched out unbroken for as far as a quarter-mile. ‘The slaughter was shocking,’ John coffee said after he had regained his composure. Eerily, while the battle smoke cleared off, there was a stirring among the slain soldiers, as redcoats who had used their comrades’ bodies as shields began arising out of the gore. Even Jackson was shaken: ‘I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day,’ he later recalled. By one account, the British lost nearly three hundred killed and more than fifteen hundred wounded – all told, roughly 40 percent of Pakenham’s attack force. American casualties that day totaled, according to Jackson’s report, just thirteen killed and thirty-nine wounded. The disparity was almost impossible to comprehend.

“As a strategist and tactician, Jackson had met his match in Sir Edward Pakenham. The Americans’ slowness in massing their forces below New Orleans and their failure to secure the western bank of the Mississippi might easily have proved disastrous. Jackson, refusing to acknowledge any blunders on his own part, blamed the near-disaster on ‘[t]he want of discipline, the want of Order, a total disregard to Obedience, and a Spirit of insubordination’ supposedly displayed by the beaten soldiers. But Jackson’s unswerving confidence had emboldened both the citizens of New Orleans and his own soldiers when they had seemed doomed. He had handled the fighting on the east bank expertly. Staving off the temptation to mount a risky counterattack, he had thrown the redcoats back to Lake Borgne. Two weeks after the battle, they headed back out to sea.

“A month later, in early February, news of the outcome in New Orleans finally reached Washington – followed, just a bit more than a week later, by the news that on Christmas Eve, while Jackson’s forces were digging in for combat, the British and Americans had signed a peace treaty in Ghent. By the time Jackson won his triumph, the war had been formally over for two weeks. Yet the irony did nothing to diminish the public exaltation . . . . President Madison sent General Jackson a special commendation. Congress unanimously passed a lengthy resolution of thanks and ordered a gold medal be struck in his honor. The city of Washington, still climbing out of the ashes, erupted with delight, as did cities from Philadelphia to Nashville. Newspapers printed testimonials from Jackson’s men attesting to their general’s leadership and bravery

“Old Hickory, although a physical wreck, basked in the adulation. He had risen from next to nothing to become the most renowned American general since George Washington – the greatest hero of what some were calling the second American Revolution.”

Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] Continued Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Today in Presidential History: Johnny Horton EditionNew Orleans is a Great Place for a Drug Conference – It’s In Urgent Need …“Old Hickory” – (American Minute-Today in history)Harvard president wins $50,000 book prize Published in: […]

  2. Would love to use your material as the textual information to support a power point presentation about the Battle of New Orleans. I am with the VFW – Post 3650, Riverdale, GA and we are attempting to build a collection of ppt’s to present to groups and students in schools within our geographic area. We want history to come alive for both adults and children.

    Thank you for the great re4source you have provided

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