Author's Note: This past January I happened to find myself in the City of "N'Orlons" and managed a visit to the Chalmette Battlefield — the site of Gen. Andrew Jackson's decisive victory in 1815 over a British expeditionary force intent on capturing this strategic city. Fortunately for me, my visit coincided with the 186th anniversary of the battle, and to celebrate the occasion the National Park Service was sponsoring a variety of interpretive programs, including demonstrations of weaponry and military camp life. And wouldn't you know that one of the reenactment units on hand to participate in this event was the King's own 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders. Now, it just so happens that one of the members of this distinguished unit is our very own Michael Gjerde — NWC president extraordinaire (aka FM Blücher of the Prussian Army). So double my pleasure, not only did I get to tour this small but well-preserved battlefield and soak up the history brought to life by the demonstrations and reenactors, but I also got to meet and talk to another distinguished member of the NWC. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for that night's camp revelry, but Mike did later comment to me that the regimental chorus, bolstered by a spot or two of some good scotch whiskey, performed quite admirably for their 'American' counterparts.
The following history borrows heavily from the NPS brochure.
The Battle of New Orleans was perhaps the most significant land victory by American forces during the War of 1812. Lasting less than 2 hours, with the major fighting confined to about 30 minutes, the battle was a horrific defeat for the British. In that short time span, the British attacking force suffered more than 2,000 casualties (291 killed, 1,262 wounded, 484 missing), including their commanding General and several other senior officers. In contrast, the Americans reported only 71 casualties (13 killed, 39 wounded, 19 missing). Though some have argued that the Battle of New Orleans was inconsequential (since an end to the war had already been negotiated in Europe prior to the battle), had the British won on January 8, 1815, the history of the western world could in fact have turned out much different. The victory preserved America's claim to the Louisiana Territory, prompted a wave of migration and settlement along the Mississippi River, and restored American pride and unity after the humiliating capture of Washington, D.C. by British troops earlier in the war.
Although the United States had declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the war was pursued half-heartedly by both sides and action remained limited until Napoleon's defeat in May of 1814. The defeat of France freed thousands of battle-tested British troops for service against the United States. The British planned a three-pronged offensive against the United States, the first via Lake Champlain, the second through the Chesapeake Bay, and the third, on the Gulf Coast. The first thrust ended when Commadore Thomas MacDonough defeated the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Champlain in September 1814. The second was turned back about the same time at Baltimore with the successful defense of Fort McHenry (although not before the British had captured Washington and burned the White House and Capitol). The third strike began in late fall when 10,000 British troops under the command of 36-year-old Major General Sir Edward Pakenham arrived off the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Their objective was the capture New Orleans. If they could capture that key port city, they could control the Mississippi River Valley — the key commercial artery for nearly all of the western United States. The capture of this strategic port would also be a major diplomatic bargaining chip at peace negotiations that were already being planned.
Defending New Orleans were about 5,000 militia and volunteer soldiers under 47-year- old Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. On December 14, 1814, the British captured American gunboats on Lake Borgne, clearing away the initial obstacles in their approach to the city. Marching overland, Pakenham then captured the Villere Plantation on the east bank of the Mississippi River, nine miles (14.5 kilometers) below New Orleans, on December 23rd. With their base of operations secure, the British were ready to advance on the city itself. However, in a daring attempt to halt their advance, Jackson led 2,000 troops in a night attack on the British forces around Villere Plantation. Although the British were initially taken by surprise, they quickly regrouped despite the confusion. The battle eventually ended in draw and Jackson withdrew a few miles to the north, establishing a defensive line behind the Rodriguez Canal which formed the boundary between the Chalmette and Macarty Plantations.
The Chalmette and Macarty plantations assumed strategic importance because they marked the most narrow strip of dry land (about 1000 meters) between the east bank of the Mississippi River and an impassable cypress swamp. There was no way around the American position. Additionally, the stubbled sugar cane fields that characterized the plantations provided an excellent field of fire for American artillery and small arms. After the night attack by Jackson, the British paused their advance and waited for reinforcements. Jackson's men used this time to widen and deepen the canal, which ran east to west from the cypress swamp to the Mississippi River, and partially filled it with water. Behind the canal they built a rampart of mud and timber about shoulder height and thick enough to withstand a cannon shot. The rampart shielded 8 artillery batteries holding about 13 guns, the largest of which was a 32-pound naval gun salvaged from an American schooner. Then, they waited.
Major General Pakenham first tested the American line on December 28th with a probing infantry attack and then again on January 1st of the new year with an artillery bombardment. Neither effort was successful and he knew he must either withdraw, risking demoralization and a counterattack, or mount a full-scale assault on Jackson's line. Trusting in his officers and confident in the superiority of his battle-hardened veterans, he instinctively chose to attack.
On January 8, 1815, Pakenham committed 5,400 soldiers to a frontal attack against the American position. The plan was to send two columns against the Jackson's position. The left column, the Third Brigade, led by British General John Keane, included elements of the 95th Rifles, the 7th Regiment of Foot (Royal Fusiliers), the 93rd Foot (Sutherland Highlanders), and the 1st West India Regiment. Keane's brigade was to play a largely diversionary role, attacking along the extreme right of the American position. It was hoped that the column's advance along the river bank would protect it from the Americans' artillery and rifle fire until they could get close enough to charge the enemy works. The main attack was targeted against the American left flank at the far eastern portion of the field near the edge of the cypress swamp. This column, the 2nd Brigade, was led by General Samuel Gibbs (see map) and included the 44th Regiment of Foot (East Essex), the 4th Foot (King's Own), and the 21st Foot (Royal Scots Fusiliers). Light troops, including units of the 95th Foot (Rifles) advanced through the swamp itself to protect the right flank of the main attack. The 44th Regiment was to lead the column, carrying ladders and fascines to bridge the canal and scale the rampart. A third brigade, commanded by General John Lambert, served as a reserve.
As the two assaulting columns began their advance, the fog that had so far shrouded the sugarcane fields began to lift. A withering fire from Jackson's artillery and small arms began to tear through the British ranks. Gen. Gibbs' brigade came under tremendous fire from Gen. John Coffee's Tennesseans holding the American left flank. The British attack stalled and many of the officers, including Gen. Gibbs, were killed trying to rally their troops. The British regulars did not break, however, and continued to push closer to the rampart shielding the Americans.
"About sunrise the whole British army was in motion... And on they came as steady as on dress parade... Three times they recoiled and were rallied again by their officers, who led them up to our entrenchments..." Journal of American Volunteer M.W. Trimble
On the British left, near the river, Gen. Keane's columns was faring somewhat better. Col. Robert Rennie led his troops in a desperate charge against a small redoubt directly in front of the Rodriguez Canal and after some brutal hand-to-hand combat, cleared the redoubt and gained the top of the main works before being repulsed. Col. Rennie was killed in the fighting atop the works.
Seeing the main attack falter, Gen. John Keane attempted to come to Gibbs' aid. From his position along the riverbank, Keane ordered his reserves, the 93rd Highlanders, to march diagonally across the field and assist in the main attack. This movement exposed the regiment to a raking fire from the American line that inflicted frightful casualties, including the wounding of Gen. Keane. About this time, Gen. Pakenham, himself, rode forward to rally his men for another attack only to fall, mortally wounded. Like the previous attempts, the final rush to the mud rampart also proved futile in the face of the devastating American fire. With their momentum spent, and almost leaderless, the British troops returned to their lines. The Battle of New Orleans had ended in a decisive victory for the Americans.
The next day, the American engineer, LaTour, recorded: "The bodies of all the British who had died on our side, were delivered to the enemy, on the advanced line of our posts and his; they were received by British officers and buried. On beholding the remains of the three officers killed on the redoubt, and particularly those of Colonel Renee, the British soldiers could not forbear to manifest strong emotions of admiration and grief..."
The British dead were buried in a mass grave on the southern edge of the battlefield. A Mississippi River flood subsequently disinterred most of those buried and redistributed their remains throughout the delta. The bodies of Generals Packenham and Gibbs were eviscerated and packed in casks of rum for the journey home to England. They were both buried (and can still be found) in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. General Keane eventually recovered from his wounds. General John Lambert returned to Europe in time to participate in the 1815 campaign against Napoleon. June 18th found him in command of the Château de Hougoumont at Waterloo. American Major-General Andrew Jackson became a national hero and served as the 7th President of the United States (1829-37).
On January 18th, the British retreated to Lake Borgne, ending the Louisiana Campaign.
Control of the Mississippi River valley would remain with the Americans. The Battle of
New Orleans was the last land battle of the War of 1812. Ironically, the battle was fought
after the two sides had negotiated a settlement of the conflict in Ghent, Belgium. The
treaty, known as the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24th. The Battle of New
Orleans also marked the last time the United States and Britain fought as enemies.
(Actually, there was another 'last' battle; after the British left New Orleans, they sailed east along the Gulf Coast and captured a fort that guarded Mobile, Alabama -- that would make Mobile, Alabama the last battle of the war. Also, technically, the war was not yet over. Even though the treaty was negotiated prior to the Battle of New Orleans, it had not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate. It actually took several more months before the War of 1812 was officially over.)
The Chalmette Battlefield of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is located in St. Bernard Parish on the east bank of the Mississippi River, six miles from the heart of New Orleans. Information can be obtained at www.nps.gov/jela or you can phone them at 504-589-4430, or write: Chalmette Battlefield, 8606 West St. Bernard Highway, Chalmette, LA 70043-4204. If you ever happen to be in New Orleans, especially during the anniversary weekend, I heartily recommend a visit.