A Critical Analysis of British Tactical Failure at The Battle of New Orleans by Captain Bobbie L. Ragsdale
The battlefield today in 2008. 32 pounder from the Carolina.
The rampart was reconstructed in 1964.
On the 23d of December, 1814, at half past 1 o'clock in the afternoon, the sentry at the door of General Jackson's headquarters on Royal street in New Orleans, announced the arrival of three visitors who had just come galloping down the street in great haste, and desired an immediate audience with the General. These visitors were Major Gabriel Villere, Colonel De la Ronde and Mr. Dussau de la Croix. They brought the stirring news of the approach of the vanguard of the British army, which was at that hour encamped on the Villere plantation, nine miles below the city. These troops included many seasoned units of the Duke of Wellington's army, considered the best in the world. Jackson was astounded the British could reach so far without discovery. What Jackson would do next would decide not just the fate of New Orleans, but that of the war and quite possibly the continued existence of America.
The War of 1812, with the British blockade and American embargo had been an economic and military disaster for the Americans. Goods were rotting on the wharves and the government had defaulted on its debt. States in New England were openly discussing succession and making a separate peace with the British. American invasions of Canada had been repulsed and far from annexing Canada now large parts of Maine were under British control. Even Washington had been taken and burned.
View of the American rampart or parapet and the Beauregard mansion, built in the 1840's. Jackson's headquarters was in the MaCarty house (where the present day Chalmette Slip is now), behind the rampart.
The British never recognized Napoleon as a legitimate ruler and deemed the sale of the vast Louisiana territory to the United States to be fraudulent. Louisiana must be returned to Britain's ally Spain, the former owner, or if Spain was too weak after the European conflict to administer it, be given the Britain . After taking New Orleans, the British planned to head up the Mississippi Valley to join troops coming down from Canada . Then, the Americans would be surrounded and as Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary and the architect of the Louisiana invasion, put it , would be "...little better than prisoners in their own country." This would probably bring about the end of the fledgling 30 year old republic with its outlandish idea of a democratically elected government, the only one of its kind in the world.
Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822)
British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Lord Castlereagh, who was banqueting in Paris at the time the news of the burning of Washington was received, exultingly and openly boasted that it would not be long before Louisiana and the Mississippi River would become the conquered province of Great Britain ! So certain were the British of success that a small army of administrators were sent along with the fleet. British speculators had brought ships to carry away the booty of New Orleans, estimated to be worth 14 million dollars. Latour Historical memoir of the war in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-15 .
The British knew the New Orleans invasion was in the works when its commissioners left for Ghent to meet with the Americans for peace negotiations. A victory such as the one anticipated would allow the British to dictate peace terms. A neutral Indian state buffer was to be created and territory in the Great Lakes were to be added to Canada. Perhaps a new British colony could be established in Louisiana or New Orleans at least could be detached to the empire, giving the British a stranglehold on the Mississippi. The price of peace could have been ceding the Louisiana Purchase territory to the British, setting up a Louisiana "India."
"Mr. Clay, one of the Commissioners of the Treaty of Ghent, had but little faith in the honor of the British Government, knowing that its treaty obligations were never respected whenever conflicting with its interest and policy. He is said to have expressed the belief that, if General Jackson had been defeated at New Orleans, with the Mississippi River in possession of the British fleet, England would no more have hesitated to nullify the Treaty of Ghent than she did the Treaty of Amiens with Bonaparte. It is fair to presume, therefore, from the great effort that England made for the conquest of Louisiana, that if the British flag had ever once floated over New Orleans it would never have been hauled down without a struggle." The history of the wonderful battle of the brig-of-war General Armstrong with a British squadron, at Fayal, 1814 Samuel Reid, 1893
British uniforms of the War of 1812
The Battle of New Orleans was the last major battle of the War of 1812, which was declared on June 16, 1812. The decisive American victory at New Orleans restored American confidence in their new republic after the burning of Washington and other defeats in the war. It made Jackson a popular hero and made him the first populist president. The battle is largely forgotten in England, a sideshow overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars.
The British did not really accept the fact of American independence and felt if it weren't for the threat of Napoleon, would had dealt with the upstart republic already. The British were also irritated that the Americans did not join them in the war against Napoleon, and viewed the Americans as cowardly and greedy war profiteers. Stopping and searching American ships to impress English sailors ( and sometimes Americans as well ), a major cause of the war, showed the contempt for which they held the Americans.
A share of the booty from the rich city of New Orleans could set an officer up with a nice estate and soldiers could count on a nice payday as well. This lure made the British put up with awful conditions: a long 36 hour, 60 mile row from the fleet, camping out in cold, wet conditions and bravely marching into a maelstrom of withering fire. The women of New Orleans took to carrying daggers after hearing the tales of looting and raping that occurred after battles in such places as Hampton, Virginia on June 26, 1813 by British soldiers.
The Battle of New Orleans on Jan 8, 1815 was a major British defeat in which a British army of around 10,000 with around 8,000 deployed was repulsed by an American force of around 3,000. The Battle left nearly 300 British dead and 13 Americans killed. This was a small battle compared to those in the Napoleonic Wars, but large for North America at the time.
To take New Orleans looked deceptively easy, in reality, it was not. New Orleans was surrounded by swampy morass with narrow roads leading to it, which could be defended easily, if the defenders had enough warning. The key to taking New Orleans was to move fast and to attack from different directions to keep the defenders guessing. To move soldiers into position required a grueling 40 mile row from the British disembarkation point. Steamed powered warships were not to come into use till the 1840's, so the British couldn't steam up the Mississippi River as the Union navy would in 1862. To sail up the twisting Mississippi would have been dangerous, with becalming winds and sandbars . The mouth of the river is generally less than 14 feet deep, too shallow for the powerful British ships of the line. The British did try this starting the day Jan. 8th battle, but were repulsed by the forts on the river.
American uniforms of the War of 1812
The British, after defeating Napoleon in 1814, were able to send much more men and material to the American theater. The British Commander of the North American station, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane, a proud, stern, domineering Scot, planned to finish his operations in the Chesapeake where Washington had been burned and turn the British attention to the Gulf coast, capture New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley, the grand strategy devised by Lord Castlereagh. The plan was to capture Mobile, march along the coast to Baton rouge, and from there seize New Orleans, then march up the Mississippi Valley. Cochrane's superiors, the Lords Commissioner of the Admiralty, approved of the plan.
HMS Victory an example of a British ship of the line of the era
The British troops under Keane from the Chesapeake rendezvoused with a force of British veterans from Europe in Negril Bay, Jamaica. This impressive fleet of over 60 ships, one of the largest amassed since the Spanish Armada made up of triple decked, 80 gun ships of the line, such as Cochrane's flagship the HMS Tonnant (captured from the French, Francis Scott Key wrote the American national anthem on her decks during the bombardment of Baltimore ), armed troops transports, frigates and sloops of war.
Here Cochrane awaited the squadron of Captain Robert Lloyd with HMS Plantagenent and two other ships, which were delayed at the Battle of Fayal in the Azores fighting American Clipper General Armstrong for about two weeks and delayed the British fleet longer in Negril Bay, giving Jackson time to reach New Orleans .
Cochrane departed November 26, before Pakenham and the remainder of the British forces had arrived to try to arrive in New Orleans before Jackson . Cochrane's planned for Gen. Robert Ross, who had taken Washington, to command the land forces, but his death at the hands of a sniper in Baltimore required him to replace Ross with Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, brother of the wife of the Duke of Wellington. At the age of 37 he was considered one of the best officers in the army.
Proclamation by Edward Nicholls of Aug 29, 1814
In August 1814, Cochrane sent Lt. Colonel Edward Nicholls to Pensacola in Spanish held Florida an established a base with 2 ships and 100 troops and issued proclamations that all slaves who joined him would be free and Indians would regain their lands.This was a clear violation of Spanish neutrality. However, the Spanish expected an American invasion at any time for armed the Red Sticks and other Indians against the U.S. The British tried, yet failed to take Mobile in Sept. Cochrane felt the fort defended Mobile was weak and sent a small force of 225 marines and Indians and naval squadron. One of the ships, the Hermes ran aground and the attack was called off. This was a costly defeat, since the land route from Mobile was the best invasion route. Jackson invaded Florida with a force of 4,000 regulars and Indian allies and reached Pensacola, which was defended by only about 500 men. Jackson attacked the town on Nov 7th and quickly seized the Spanish forts defending the city, forcing the British to sail away . This seriously disrupted the British plans for the Gulf and forced the British to target New Orleans directly, putting the British at a distinct disadvantage. By attacking overland and attacking New Orleans from the north with a British fleet off the coast it could be cut off from supplies. Now a frontal attack through swampy south Louisiana would be needed. Jackson departed Pensacola and returned to Mobile on November 19 and departed for New Orleans on November 22.
Captain Lockyer arrived off Grand Terre , the privateer base of Jean Lafitte in August, and delivered a letter from Colonel Nicholls whichoffered $30,000 and other inducements for permission to Barataria as a point of invasion and to use the Baratarians as guides to attack the city. Lafitte met the British officers himself and had a cordial dinner with them on his base and left them with the impression had agreed and needed two weeks to set his affairs in order. He decided to double cross the British and inform the Americans, which the British discovered when they returned two weeks later. Another avenue of invasion was out for the British.
Admiral Cochrane sailed from Negril Bay with an armada of 50 ships, the mood lighthearted and merry. Many of the officers had brought their wives along.
A complete civil governmental staff, with printing presses, were with them as well, to rule over 'the Crown Colony of Louisiana.' The British troops were composed of veterans from the war with Napoleon and the invasion of Washington and considered the best in the world. The American commander, Andrew Jackson had used up almost all of his ammunition and most of his flints in the Creek War (1813-14), which was effectively ended at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814 in central Alabama. The Baratarians under Jean Lafitte supplied the powder,flints,cannon balls and ship cannister.
Map of New Orleans area in 1815. Bayou Bienvenu can be seen to the right of New Orleans
Cochrane arrived at the Chandler Islands on December 8. He had proposed to attack New Orleans through Lake Pontchartrain and landing at Bayou St.john, just North of New Orleans, but the needed shallow draft ships he ordered for this operation did not arrive did not arrive. The shallow pass to the lake, the Rigolets, required such boats. He and his officers then decided to land his forces on Bayou Bienvenu on the western end of Lake Borgue. From here it was hoped the troops could advance before a defense could be mounted. The armada then anchored near Cat Island near the mouth of Lake Borgue, about 70 miles from New Orleans. This was as close as the heavy ships and transports could go. The troops would have to be ferried from Cat Island to Pea Island at the mouth of the Pearl River just east of the Rigolets, a distance of 30 miles. From Pea Island the troops would have to be rowed another 30 miles to Bayou Bienvenu.
The Americans had 5 gunboats in the lake, which would have to be destroyed before the troops could be landed. These were defeated in a battle on Dec 14. This was a disaster for Jackson. Now he had no way of knowing where the British would land.
The British, expected to sweep aside the meager American force, seize the 'Beauty and Booty' of the rich trading port of New Orleans and with the Mississippi in their hands, separate the western states from the rest of the Union . The British expected the French and Spanish settlers and the large slave population of the sugar cane and cotton plantations, which the planned to free, would aid them in their conquest.
Ninety-third Regiment—1,100 men
Highlanders, Lieutenant-colonel Dale 1,100 by regulations, all men of this regiment had to be 6 feet or taller
Fourth Regiment—750 men
King's Own, Lieutenant-colonel Brooks
Seventh Regiment—850 men
Royal Fusiliers, Lieutenant-colonel Blakency
British Light Dragoons
Fourteenth Regiment—350 men
Duchess of York's Own Light Dragoons made up of 2 calvary squadrons Lieutenant-colonel Baker
Twenty-first Regiment—900 men
Royal Fusileers, Lieutenant-colonel Patterson
Fortieth Regiment—1,000 men
Somersetshire, Lieutenant-colonel H. Thornton
Forty-third Regiment—850 men
Monmouth Light Infantry, Lieutenant-colonel Patrickson
Forty-fourth Regiment—750 men
East Essex, Lieutenant-colonel Mullen
Eighty-fifth Regiment—650 men
Buck Volunteers, Lieutenant-colonel Wm. Thornton
Ninety-fifth Regiment—500 men
Rifle Corps, Major Mitchell
First Regiment—700 men
West India (colored), Lieutenant-colonel Whitby
Fifth Regiment—700 men
West India (colored), Lieutenant-colonel Hamilton
A detachment from the Sixty-second Regiment
Rocket Brigade, Artillery, Engineers, Sappers and Miners
Royal Marines and sailors from the fleet
Including artillerists, marines, and others, seamen of the ships' crews afloat, there were not fewer than eighteen thousand men, veterans in the service of their country in the lines of their respective callings, to complete the equipment of this powerful armada. To fight this force, Jackson would have a mixed force of regular soldiers, militia, Indians, Free Men of Color and Lafittes privateers numbering about 4,000. (source The Battle of New Orleans, by Zachary F. Smith )
The British were making objections at the negotiations to drag the process out out, counting on a victory at New Orleans .A British victory might even tip the New England states into succeeding, perhaps even ending the American 'experiment and bring the colonies back into the English fold.Louisiana was sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803 for $15 million.
In 1812, it became the 18th state admitted to the Union. Barely a month after admission, President James Madison declared war against the British. The embargo and subsequent British blockade made smugglers such as Jean Lafitte rich, but there was little action till the British planned to invade in 1814. The war had been a disaster for the Americans up to this point. The embargo and blockade wrecked the economy, the invasions of Canada had failed and Washington itself had been invaded and the White House burned . New England states were threatening succession .
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