Yesterday, my buddy Jeff Gill and I took a little trip down to the Chalmette National Battlefield for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. Our wives were on a day out with some girl friends, so Jeff and I had to babysit each other. So, we decided to check out the battlefield. We are both history buffs, but on the way down there we discussed that, while we both had passed the battlefield on the highway and on the Mississippi River, neither of us had ever actually visited the site itself.
For most of us, what we know about the Battle of New Orleans comes from two sources. The first is an old country song that was a no. 1 hit for Johnny Horton in 1960. We all know it and most of you probably recognized where the title to this blog comes from as soon as you read it. The other one is our history lessons in school, where the Battle of New Orleans was treated as pretty much a footnote to the War of 1812. We learned that the battle was mostly irrelevant, since the war was already over and, although it was a big victory for the Americans, it did not really mean very much. It turns out much of what he ‘knew’ wasn’t entirely accurate.
So, perhaps a ;little history lesson is in order. Louisiana became part of the United States in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson wanted New Orleans, but Napoleon wanted to sell the whole thing. So, the United States bought the entire French territory of La Louisianne’. The territory was defined as all of the land drained by the Mississippi River. Turns out that is a little over 1/3 of North America. As real estate deals goes, this one was the grandaddy of them all. Almost 530 million acres for about 4 cents and acre. Not a bad deal at all.
Statehood for Louisiana took another 9 years, until 1812. Part of the reason why was an uneasy feeling on both sides. From the American viewpoint, all other states were English speaking, predominantly Protestant, and the free people were overwhelmingly white and descended from English settlers. Louisiana was different. Its people were French speaking Catholics. They were a mix of French, Spanish, Creoles and Free People of Color, almost all whom had previously been subjects of not one, but two European kings. They doubted their loyalty. They looked at Louisiana like you would a crazy cousin with an unclear progeny. You did not know what they are going to do and, despite what you have been told, you are still not sure who that boy;s daddy really is and if he is really one of us.
From the perspective of the Louisianans, the Americans were a backwards people who spoke an uncivilized language. And they were like that cousin at a family reunion. They knew what everybody was saying about them and had serious concerns that if a fight or feud broke out, that the rest of them would actually be willing to get their knuckles bloody to defend us. Such was the relationship between Louisiana and its sister states in 1812.
The decision for the United States to declare War on Britain in 1812 was not an easy call. The United States was barely 25 years old and was taking on the richest and most powerful nation on earth. The causes of the war and its history prior to 1814 are too complicated to go into here. But, suffice it to say that it was like the littlest kid in school deciding he was tired of being bullied and taking on his principal tormentor. A gutsy but not necessarily smart move. President Madison probably realized this when he had to flee Washington, as the British Army officers ate all the food in the White House and then burned the place down.
By the end of 1814, Britain had defeated Napoleon in the Seven Years War and had a large and experienced army and navy with nothing to do. So, they decided to send them to America and try to capture New Orleans. There were a lot of reasons why the British decided on New Orleans. But mainly they looked at New Orleans and understood what everyone else, from Iberville and Beinville to President Jefferson, also understood. If you controlled New Orleans, you controlled the Mississippi; and if you controlled the Mississippi, you controlled the interior of the United States and everything west of the Appalachian Mountains.
To lead their campaign, the British selected General Sir Edward Packenham, an experienced and capable soldier. Packenham was a professional, well educated, experienced and connected. He was also a gentleman, and was knighted by the English Crown with the The Honourable Order of the Bath. He had capably led troops against Napoleon during the Seven Years War. He was the brother in law of the Duke of Wellington, who finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
To defend New Orleans, the Americans chose General Andrew Jackson. Everything Packenham was, Jackson was not. He was born a poor farm kid, was self educated, had no formal military training and his previous combat experience was limited to commanding militia fighting renegade Indian tribes. And, he was no gentleman. Jackson was a dueler and a brawler, who did not suffer personal insult well. In fact, when he arrived in New Orleans in December, 1814, he was still nursing broken bones and open wounds sustained in a brawl, apparently also involving firearms as well as fisticuffs, in Nashville a month earlier.
When Jackson arrived in Louisiana, there was distrust on both sides. The Americans were not sure the Louisianians would fight for their new country. The residents of New Orleans were not sure that America would actually commit troops to battle to save their homes from Great Britain. Fortunately for both sides, Jackson’s first act upon arriving in the city was to mount a French Quarter balcony to address the citizens. He told them that he could not guarantee that the British would not occupy New Orleans, but he could promise them that they would only do so over his dead corpse. The people of New Orleans knew that President Madison had sent them a man who was not afraid to fight and they responded. They were in for the long haul, ready to be on the team.
Jackson was also a doer. The next day he started scouting locations south of the city, looking for a place to make his stand. He finally settled on plot of land about 8 miles down river which, at the time was known as the De Chalmette Plantation. Although he did not have a military education, Jackson recognized good ground when he saw it. It was a flat plain, hemmed in by the river on one side and an impenetrable swamp on the other. He had his engineers blow holes in the bayou levees further south, the make sure that the British line of march brought them right to his defensive line. He also set his troops to work digging out an old waterway known as the Rodriguez Canal, which cut across the field perpendicular to the river. The spoil was used to build a fortification 4 1/2 feet high. The canal and the berm was an obstacle to the British infantry and the back side provided a fortification for the Americans. The fortified earthwork quickly became known as Line Jackson.
So, the battle line was set. On the British side, there were 15,000 well equipped, battle hardened professional troops, fresh from defeating the French. They were commanded by professional officers and had artillery support. On the American side, Jackson’s army, if you could charitably call it that, numbered about 4,500. It consisted of about 900 army regulars and 1500 militia volunteers from Tennessee and Kentucky. The rest was a mishmash of New Orleans elite, free men of color, Choctaw Indians, a few sailors and Marines and a bunch of pirates.
When Jeff and I approached the battlefield and turned off St. Claude Avenue and drove toward the Visitors Center, the thing that struck me first was how small the place really was. I have been to other battlefields, like Gettysburg, Port Hudson and Vicksburg, and they are expansive. Distances are measured in miles and some engagements where fought out of sight and out of sound of each other. Not so at Chalmette. Line Jackson runs only about 700 yards from the river to the swamp, a little less that half a mile. It is flat and open, with no natural features or cover. The best way I could describe it would be if you drove up Hwy 16 to Mr. Alton Easterly’s front pasture, and put 20,000 men with rifles and cannon in there and let them fight. It is that compact.
There is something special to me to go to a place where history took place and be able to walk around and see it yourself. We started our tour at the river levee, where the River Road used to be located. The plantation house is still standing. Prior to the battle, Jackson used it as his headquarters.
This picture is from the east porch, facing Line Jackson. Probably old Andy Jackson himself stood here on the morning of January 8, 1815 and had this same view, before he mounted his horse and took up position with his troops.
(Of course, those cars wouldn’t have been there, but you get the idea)
We continued walking east. The picture below is from the right end of the American line, near the river. This spot is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, that little bit of water is all that is left of the Rodriguez Canal. More interesting is that everyone knows the story about Jean Lafitte and his pirates fighting in the battle of New Orleans. This spot was the location of Batteries 2 & 3. It was an important spot, since it anchored Line Jackson on the river end of the line. It had to be held at all costs. Batteries 2 & 3 where were Jackson placed the Barratarians and their cannons, under the command of Lafitte’s brother, Dominique You.
You might be wondering, “Where was Battery Number 1?” Jeff and I did too. It turns out that it was on the West Bank of the river. Jackson placed cannons salvaged from a grounded U. S. Navy warship and placed them and their gunners on the opposite bank, where they could put enfilade fire on the British troops. Capturing those guns was a major part of Packenham’s battle plan, one which did not work out so well. More on that later.
The center section of Line Jackson. The black cannon is a 32 pound naval gun that was brought ashore from a U. S. warhip. This was Batteries 4 & 5.
This is the far right of Line Jackson. The cannon is that the location of Battery 6. The is the location where Packenham made his main attack and where the heaviest fighting of the day took place.
The main battle began shortly after daybreak on January 8, 1815. Packenham knew that a full on frontal assault would not work. So he spent several days shelling line Jackson. It did not do much good. By the time the British ran out of ammunition, Jackson had only lost a couple of cannons and suffered a handful of casualties. Packenham had another trick up his sleeve. He knew he needed to capture Jackson’s artillery on the West Bank, both to protect his troops and to use those cannons against the flank of Line Jackson. He sent Colonel William Thornton and the 85th Regiment out the night before to capture those cannons. Unfortunately for the British, Thornton’s troop ran into remarkably bad luck. They had tried to dig a canal to get their boats to the river, whose banks collapsed and the dam constructed to divert the river into the canal failed. This meant that Thornton’s men had to drag their boats through deep mud. Once they were able to launch their boats, they misjudged the current of the river, which carried them swiftly downstream. By the time they were able to turn around, get to the West Bank and march on Battery Number 1, they were 12 hours behind schedule. They were able to capture the guns, but by that time the battle was all but over.
The British were also relying on two things that proved to be untrue. First, the were contemptuous of Jackson’s ragtag troops and assumed that as militia, they would always do what militia did; they would run when fired upon. Secondly, Packeham believed that his troops would be able to approach closely to the American line before they came under effective fire. He was wrong on both counts.
One of the things we know that may not be so about the battle is Jackson telling his men “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. While he might have encouraged his less experienced troops not to waste their ammunition, he did not have to do the same thing with the mountain men or the Barratarians. The Kentucky/Tennessee volunteers were expert shots, armed with Kentucky long rifles, which were much more accurate than the standard military muskets of the day. Likewise, Lafitte’s men owned their livelihood, and even their lives, to their ability to accurately fire cannon from a moving ship at other moving ships. The net result was that after the battle, numerous British officer recalled that almost as soon as Packenham fired a rocket to signal the beginning of the attack, they came under accurate and murderous rifle and cannon fire from opposite ends of Line Jackson.
Packehham’s battle plan on the East Bank was simple. He sent one column of troops down the River Road to pin down and capture Jackson’s right flank and, possibly get troops behind Line Jackson. The main body of his force would attack the line on Jackson’s far left, closest to the swamp, breach the fortification and sweep the Americans from the field.
That was the plan, but it did not go quite like that. Packenham did not count on the bravery and tenacity of Jackson’s troops or the run of bad luck that hit him during the battle.
As the attack progressed, Packenham realized that the resistance on Jackson’s left was heavier that anticipated. He sent word to the River Road troops for the 93rd Sutherland Highlander Foot Regiment to turn and move across the field to support the attack on the left end of Jackson’s line. As their officer pulled them out of line, formed them up and prepared to move, he was shot dead. The Highlanders were well disciplined British troops. They did not have orders to move out and they did not have orders which would allow them to withdraw. So, they just stood there. Apparently for some minutes, before another British officer saw them, realized what was going on and, taking command, ordered the forward. Unfortunately, in the interim, many of the had been shot down.
Another thing that Packenham did not count on was his own troops getting in his way.. If the British attack was successful, they would have to have a way to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Lt. Col Thomas Mullins was sent ahead with the 44th Foot Regiment, with ladders and bundles of sticks to fill the canal and scale the wall. Perhaps because of the darkness and fog, coupled with fire from the American lines, the 44th stopped to get their bearings. In doing so, they were right in the way to block and disrupt Packenham’s main assault. The effect was so disrupting that upon his return to England, Col. Mullins was court- martialled.
Packenham’s attack was falling apart. He had taken heavy casualties and many of his high officers were dead, including Gen. Gibbs, leading the main attack on his right and Col. Rennie. leading the River Road attack on his far left. His troops were the ones starting to break and run Packenham probably knew that the battle was lost. But he was an officer and a servant of His Brittanic Majesty the King and he felt honor bound to try to rally his troops. He mounted his horse and rode forward, encouraging his men. As he did so, he was hit with a round of grape shot from the American cannons, which killed his horse and wounded him in the right leg. Undaunted, he borrowed a horse from his aide, and as he attempted to re-mount, was struck again in the chest, fatally wounded.
I took this shot from the British side of Line Jackson. This may have been the last sight Packenham, and many other English troops, saw that day.
Both Packenham and his second in command, General Gibbs, were dead, along with many other officers. Once again, the remaining British troops, having no orders to either continue the advance or retreat, stood out in the open and were shot apart with grapeshot from Line Jackson. After a few more minutes of slaughter, General Lambert assumed command. Realizing that further attempts would be both futile and costly and ordered a withdrawal. And so, in less than 45 minutes, the battle was over.
The British had suffered over 2000 men killed or wounded, including Packenham, Gibbs and one other British General. Jackson’s casualties: 3 cannons, several horses, no Americans killed and around 20 wounded. It was a resounding American victory. The British withdrew, buried their dead and left the continental United States for good. Even their dead didn’t stay. Packenham and Gibbs were packed in barrels and sent home to England for burial. I got a message from Jeff this morning. He discovered that the other British dead were buried south of the battlefield near a spring. A few years later, the river flooded and washed away all the British graves and their corpses.
On the American side, the battle saved New Orleans and, 13 years later, propelled Jackson to the White House. It ensured America had a port on the terminus of the Mississippi, allowed commerce from the trans-Appalachian region and fueled settlement of the American West. It was the first victory over a European power since Independence. It gave a very bad bloody nose to the British empire. and showed the world that the United States was not a nation to be bullied or trifled with. And, most of all, it united Louisiana with the rest of the United States in a way that would never waiver. Both sides found out that the other was worthy of respect and that original American or Louisiana Creole, we all had skin in the same game.
It is a great story. Unfortunately, what most of us know about it is from a corny old song that starts out;
In 1814 we took a little trip, along with General Jackson down the mighty Mississipp;
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we fought the bloody British at the town of New Orleans.
But, even that is a good story. The song was written by an Arkansas school teacher named Jimmy Driftwood, as a way to teach history to students was both funny and cultivated curiosity. While it does that, unfortunately it becomes for many of us all we know about the Battle of New Orleans. But, there is so much more to the story.
Line Jackson looking west from the Swamp end toward the river and Jackson’s headquarters.
This is Jeff, standing on top of Line Jackson near Battery Number 5, on the far left end. Who knows, maybe 200 years ago on that day, Ole Andy Jackson himself stood in the same place !