January, 1815: Battle of New Orleans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

For more than two years, Louisiana lay on the fringe of the southern theater of the War of 1812. The campaigns were waged in Spanish Florida, where U.S. troops seized Mobile, and in the Mississippi Territory, where frontiersmen fought Creek Indians. The British blockade brought commerce to a standstill at New Orleans, but before late 1814, the war did not otherwise threaten its polyglot population. Engaged in a vast struggle with Napoleon’s France, Great Britain could barely spare enough troops to defend Canada against U.S. attack, and the British War Ministry dismissed early proposals to capture New Orleans.

For more than two years, Louisiana lay on the fringe of the southern theater of the War of 1812. The campaigns were waged in Spanish Florida, where U.S. troops seized Mobile, and in the Mississippi Territory, where frontiersmen fought Creek Indians. The British blockade brought commerce to a standstill at New Orleans, but before late 1814, the war did not otherwise threaten its polyglot population. Engaged in a vast struggle with Napoleon’s France, Great Britain could barely spare enough troops to defend Canada against U.S. attack, and the British War Ministry dismissed early proposals to capture New Orleans.

The British Plan

Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in October, 1813, allowed the British to begin consideration of large-scale operations against the United States. When Napoleon’s abdication in April, 1814, released substantial British forces from European commitments, preparations began in earnest to tighten the blockade of the United States, raid the Atlantic coast, and invade northern New York from Canada. In July, the War Ministry decided to attack New Orleans and subsequently appointed Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross to command the expedition. The secretary for war, Earl Bathurst (Henry Bathurst), explained the purposes of the invasion to Ross in September: to obtain command of the mouth of the Mississippi River and deprive trans-Appalachian Americans of their link with the sea; and to occupy a valuable land possession whose restoration would improve the terms of peace for Great Britain, or whose cession by the United States could be exacted as the price of peace. Bathurst gave Cochrane and Ross discretion to strike at New Orleans directly from the Gulf of Mexico or overland from Mobile, and he instructed Ross to aid the Creoles if they desired to reattach themselves to Spain. At the time, Cochrane and Ross were raiding the Chesapeake Bay area, but New Orleans was their next target.

Contemporary engraving of the Battle of New Orleans. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Cochrane believed that American Indians, slaves, and pirates who sheltered at Barataria, an island in the swamps off New Orleans, would assist a Gulf coast invasion directed against New Orleans. Operating under orders Cochrane issued before the War Ministry’s decision, his subordinates occupied Spanish Pensacola in August and began to organize and arm natives and escaped slaves. In early September, the British made overtures to the Baratarians and prepared to attack Mobile, but their efforts came to nothing.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was major general of the Tennessee militia when he defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in March, 1814, and seriously weakened their ability to continue fighting. Two months later, Jackson was appointed federal commander of Military District Number Seven, which included the Mobile-New Orleans area, as well as the U.S. Army in the Southwest. Fully aware of British activities, he went south in August to strengthen Mobile’s defenses, sever remaining British and Spanish connections with the Indians, and secure the coast against invasion. In mid-September, his forces defeated the British attempt on Mobile, which had been made without the Baratarians, who showed no signs of cooperating. In early November, Jackson expelled the British and Indians from Pensacola.

Ross’s death near Baltimore in September dealt British fortunes another blow. The ship carrying Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, Ross’s successor, was slow in crossing the Atlantic. As a result, he was not with Cochrane’s mighty invasion fleet when it sailed from its Jamaica rendezvous into the Gulf of Mexico in late November, nor when Cochrane’s sailors overcame U.S. gunboats at the mouth of Lake Borgne, in December. Cochrane had decided to attack New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico by sailing through Lake Borgne.

General Andrew Jackson commanding at the Battle of New Orleans. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Jackson had arrived in New Orleans on December 1 and proceeded to block all invasion approaches, but through a subordinate’s negligence, one approach was left open. On December 23, the vanguard of British troops landed, advanced along unprotected Bayou Bienvenue, and emerged from the swamps on the east bank of the Mississippi, fewer than ten miles below the city. Jackson responded quickly. That night, he attacked the British camp, inflicting many casualties and throwing the invaders off balance. When Pakenham arrived on Christmas Day, he found his army in cul-desac. On its right were cypress swamps; on its left were two U.S. warships and the Mississippi River; and in front, Jackson’s small but growing army was constructing a mud and log breastwork on the narrow plain of Chalmett, barring the way to New Orleans.

Attempting to regain the advantage, the British destroyed one of Commandant Daniel T. Patterson’s ships on December 27. In the following days, they suffered serious reverses: the U.S. troops turned back a reconnaissance-in-force on December 28, 1814, and won an artillery duel on January 1, 1815, thwarting Pakenham’s attempt to breach the breastwork. The only remaining alternative was a direct assault. Pakenham developed his plan: One large column would attack the U.S. center at the edge of the swamp; a smaller column would assault the U.S. right; a third would support one of the other two according to developments; a small force would attack the weak U.S. positions across the river; and the rest of his approximately ten thousand redcoats, some of whom were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, would form the reserve.

At daybreak, on Sunday, January 8, Pakenham gave the signal to advance. Waiting for the attack was a heterogeneous collection of about five thousand defenders—Louisiana Acadians; Anglo-Saxons; Creoles; free men of color: Baratarians, Choctaw Indians, and French émigrés; Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee militia; and United States Marines, regulars, and sailors. Only portions of the line were directly engaged, but the terrific fire from their artillery, muskets, and rifles cut down Pakenham’s troops as they advanced through the mist across the rain-soaked field. Pakenham was killed while desperately urging his men on. Shortly afterward, his crippled army withdrew. The partially successful attack on the west bank came too late to affect the outcome of the great assault. American casualties totaled 71 (of whom only about a dozen were killed), while British losses in the fighting that Sunday were 2,057. In the campaign that was launched on December 23, British dead totaled more than 2,400.

Because of the apparent impregnability of Jackson’s lines and a shortage of supplies, the British leaders decided to retreat. The withdrawal went unimpeded, as Jackson decided against allowing his relatively undisciplined and heterogeneous collection of troops to attack what was still a trained army; they remained behind their lines until the British had disappeared. Pakenham’s forces moved through the swamp to Lake Borgne and then to Pea Island. On January 27, the remainder of the now half-starved British troops were gone from the Mississippi delta. In a face-saving move, Cochrane attempted to level Fort St. Philip near the Gulf; failing that, his fleet sailed away to attack Fort Bowyer at Mobile. After its fall, official news of the Treaty of Ghent—signed on December 24, 1814—reached the armies. In mid-March, the fleet returned to England.

On January 23, Jackson marched into the city of New Orleans with his troops, welcomed as a hero. However, he continued to maintain martial law until the middle of March and required the volunteers to remain under arms in the militia until he received official word of the signing of a treaty. As a consequence, the Louisiana Senate, when listing the officers to whom they extended official thanks, omitted Jackson’s name.

The Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle in the War of 1812, constituted a British tragedy, inasmuch as it was fought two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had brought the war to a formal close. Nevertheless, although the bloody engagement did not play a role in the outcome of the war, the battle made Andrew Jackson a national hero.

The battle’s consequences stretch beyond Jackson’s role. One must address the question of British goals in a war that they certainly provoked, but that was started by the United States. First, the British aimed to limit U.S. settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. To do so, they wanted to create an American buffer state in the region beyond Ohio. Their second goal was to assuage the fear of U.S. aggression into Canada, a fear with some merit. Further, by annexing Louisiana, they could prevent communication of the west with the sea. Along with Spanish claims to Florida, this would serve to block U.S. expansion.

Pakenham arrived in the United States with instructions to “rescue” Louisiana; he brought with him a complete governmental staff, with himself appointed as governor. Although the Treaty of Ghent was signed, it was not to take effect until ratified by all concerned. In the meantime, Pakenham would have control of Louisiana, an eventuality interrupted by his defeat and death.

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