On the morning of January 8th, 1815, the British Army clashed with a small American force led by Major General Andrew Jackson on the outskirts of New Orleans on the Chalmette Plantation. At the end of the day, the British suffered over 2,000 men killed, wounded or missing, while the victorious Americans lost only 13 dead. The men of the U.S. 7th Infantry Regiment stood alongside Kentucky militiamen, slaves, Louisiana locals, freed blacks and Baratarian pirates as they repelled the British assault. Andrew Jackson provided America with its greatest land victory of the War of 1812, secured the United States’ most significant port, and ensured American control of the Mississippi River. Numerous aspects of the events leading up to and during the Battle of New Orleans should be seen as critical to the eventual lopsided outcome. Poor British command decisions combined with Andrew Jackson’s perfectly constructed defense of the city led to the favorable American outcome.
At the beginning of the year of 1814, the British Empire had completely dedicated itself to destroying Napoleon’s army. British General Sir Arthur Wellesley was on the verge of defeating the petite leader and finally on April 14th, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the Island of Elba. This significant victory for the British meant that they could ultimately avert soldiers and military resources to the much smaller conflict taking place in the United States. These soldiers and resources were accompanied with a new military strategy. The British Parliament agreed on a three pronged attack which focused their forces in Southern Canada, the center of the Atlantic coastline, and the Gulf of Mexico. The largest field army ever assembled by the British in North America (eighteen thousand men) was poised to sweep into the northern United States in the late summer of 1814. Their advance was thwarted in an Ameican naval victory near Plattsburg at Lake Champlain, resulting in the retreat of all eighteen thousand men back to Canada. The second prong which was meant as a diversion for the northern campaign, was initially successful as the British landed unopposed in the Chesapeake Bay. Undermanned, they were able to raid and burn the American capitol of Washington and briefly enter Baltimore, before they were forced to return to their ships. These failed forays ultimately convinced British commanders to thrust the third prong of their plan at the Gulf of Mexico.
Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane was appointed commander of the North American station on April 1st of 1814. He immediately recommended to his government an invasion of the United States through the Gulf of Mexico, specifically New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley. Before he was able to embark upon this campaign, Cochrane oversaw the British invasion of Washington which was led by Major General Robert Ross with a force of thirty two hundred men. After the burning of Washington, Cochrane urged Ross to make an unorganized advance upon Baltimore. Charles Brooks in his book, The Siege of New Orleans 1961 stated that, “some felt that the fruitless attack upon Baltimore had been inspired by Admiral Cochrane’s greed”. General Ross was killed by American marksmen as he and his army approached Baltimore. Ross’ second in command recommended to Cochrane that they withdraw but the Admiral “glared so disapprovingly that he marched his army on towards Baltimore”. Cochrane’s selfish leadership and poor judgement first surfaces during this specific campaign. His best General was killed and his forces retreated back to their fleet eventually sailing to the West Indies.
The British War Office eagerly sent Major General John Keane with reinforcements to the aid of General Ross when they learned of his overwhelming success at Washington. Ironically, the order was given on the same day Ross was pointlessly slain at Baltimore on September 12th. When news reached London of Ross’ death on October 17th, the disappointed War Office decided to continue with plans to send ten thousand men and two more Generals to aid in Cochrane’s effort against the Americans. Due to this generous addition to his command, Admiral Cochrane determined that the support of Indians and the slave population would no longer be necessary to take New Orleans. The Admiral had previously proposed to Parliament that he would be able to easily overthrow New Orleans with a force of three thousand British troops, Indians, and French or Spanish locals. Famous British historian Sir John Fortescue called Cochrane’s initial plan “a piece of folly so childish that it ought to have warned the British ministers against listening to any of his projects”. Cochrane’s consistent underestimation of American troops is evident throughout his preparation for the New Orleans campaign.
The senior General the British Parliament determined to replace Ross with was Sir Edward Pakenham, son of the Earl of Longford and brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Wellesley. This would be the General’s first independent command and unfortunately for him, the structure of the campaign was solidified prior to his arrival. This left Admiral Cochrane and General Keane responsible for selecting the invasion route of New Orleans. Cochrane had previously asserted that Indian support would no longer be needed therefore a direct ship to shore route would be selected. As Cochrane and Keane narrowed their options of assault, the Bay of Barataria was strongly considered. The Island of Grand Terre located in the Bay was the settlement of Jean Lafitte and his followers which undoubtably provided the British with their best approach to New Orleans. Cochrane intended to ally with Lafitte which would enhance his knowledge of the terrain and provide even more military support. Unfortunately for the British, Lafitte saw Cochrane’s attempt to befriend him as “overbearing”. The Baratarians ultimately sided with Andrew Jackson and his dismal force of Americans. Cochrane’s haughty attitude again resulted in a factor that would eventually lead to his army’s defeat.
The Admiral’s tactical and political mistakes are thought to have been a product of his extraordinary taste for plunder. This was first evident when Cochrane needlessly advanced toward Baltimore solely, “because of the loot known to be there”. General Sir Arthur Wellesley shared the same opinion in regards of Cochrane’s aspirations at New Orleans, “plunder was its object,” and “the Admiral took care to be attended by a sufficient number of Sharks to carry the plunder off from a place in which he knew well that he could not remain”. Although Wellesley most likely never intended for these lines from his letter to be made public, it gives crucial insight into Cochrane’s reputation among his most respected counterparts. The previously critical historian Sir John Fortescue also commented on the intentions of Cochrane, his heritage and the agenda of the Royal Navy. In 1899 Fortescue ascertained regarding New Orleans, “prize money had for nearly two centuries been the motive for all amphibious operations recommended by the Navy” and “if any naval officers had shown stronger lust for prizes than others, they were the Scots; and all three of the Admirals engaged in this expedition were Scotsmen.” No matter Cochrane’s nationality, the evidence supplied agrees with the Admiral’s greedy ways.
The British command determined that the best route to New Orleans would be via Lake Borgne to the east of the city. The advance body of the expedition moved to Pea Island, in the mouth of the Pearl River, near which Cochrane considered a vulnerable shore. From there the British force penetrated the Bayou Bienvenu waterway which led them to a good road which ran adjacent to the Mississippi River. General Keane had his doubts about this approach to the city and when he expressed them to the Admiral, Cochrane “browbeat” him into the final decision. At this point General Pakenham finally arrived to assume command of his infantry on the outskirts of New Orleans. Historian Alexander Walker claimed that Pakenham was unhappy with the position of his troops and considered a withdrawal. Walker again claims, using actual dialogue, that Cochrane shamed Pakenham into not retreating and said the sailors would take the city while, “the soldiers brought up the baggage”. The young Pakenham whom most likely wanted to preserve his honor in the eyes of the aged Admiral, decided to continue with Cochrane’s plan of assault.
General Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans has been deemed as perfect among scholars of the subject. His men defended earthworks extending from the Mississippi River to the edge of a dense swamp. Jackson extended his defensive line further towards the cypress swamp moments before the British assault. Famous Baratarian pirate leader Jean Lafitte originally recommended this move to Jackson as he foresaw a potential British sneak attack. Had there not been American soldiers there to repel this faction of the British assault, their defensive line could have been outflanked and eventually overwhelmed. This one aspect of the battle is the only facet which the Americans could have possibly made their one blunder. Luckily for Jackson, troop placement was the largest tactical decision he had to make. The actual defense was very straightforward and it seemed that any unorganized band of men would have been able to thwart the British assault that day. Accordingly, British General Pakenham was killed, General Keane was severely wounded, two Major Generals were killed along with, eight colonels, six majors, eighteen captains, and fifty four lieutenants.
The defeat of the British at the battle of New Orleans was strategically and geographically inevitable. Rushed and rash decisions made by Admiral Cochrane severely deflated any chance of a British victory. It is more prudent to examine British faults than American success. Andrew Jackson’s plan was very straightforward, while the British had multiple options leading up to the battle. This moment in American history should be seen as a turning point and some scholars classify it as a defining moment of national character.
John K. Mahon, British Command Decisions Relative to the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana, (Winter 1965) 53-73.
2 Charles B. Brooks, The Siege of New Orleans (1961). 104
3 Charles B. Brooks, The Siege of New Orleans (1961). 56
Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army (13 vols., London, 1899-
1930), X, 150-51
5 John K. Mahon, British Command Decisions Relative to the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana, (Winter 1965) 70
6 Charles B. Brooks, The Siege of New Orleans (1961). 104
7 Wellington to Longford, May 22, 1815, Louisiana Historical Quarterly, IX
(January, 1926), 8
8 Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army (13 vols., London, 1899-
1930), X, 150-51
9 Charles B. Brooks, The Siege of New Orleans (1961). 203
10 Alexander Walker, Jackson and New Orleans, 212
John K. Mahon, British Command Decisions Relative to the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana, (Winter 1965) 70
Brooks, Charles. The Siege of New Orleans. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961.
Brown, Wilburt. The Amphibious Campaign for West Florida and Louisiana, 1814-1815: A Critical Review of Strategy and Tactics at New Orleans. University of Alabama Press, 1969.
Brooks, Charles. Review of The Amphibious Campaign for Florida and Louisiana 1814-1815: A Critical Review of Strategy and Tactics at New Orleans at the University of Alabama, by Wilburt Brown. 1969.
George R. Gleig, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans 1814-1815 (London, 1827)
Mahon, John K. British Command Decisions Relative to the Battle of New Orleans. Louisiana, (Winter 1965)
Mahon, John K. Review of The Battle of New Orleans, by Robert Remini. 1999
Owsley Jr., Frank. The Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1980.
Owsley Jr., Frank. Review of The Amphibious Campaign for Florida and Louisiana 1814-1815: A Critical Review of Strategy and Tactics at New Orleans at the University of Alabama, by Wilburt Brown. 1969.
Remini, Robert. The Battle of New Orleans. New York: Viking, 1999.
Walker, Alexander. Jackson and New Orleans. New York: J.C. Derby, 1856
Wellington to Longford, May 22, 1815, Louisiana Historical Quarterly, IX