The Battle of New Orleans
Although the Battle of Horseshoe Bend was a principal action
in the War of 1812, the Creek Wars were handled separately from
the general war effort and financed by the states of Tennessee,
Georgia, and Alabama.
Washington officials and southeastern settlers knew the British
had fueled the Creek War as a separate front against American
forces and their defeat at Horseshoe Bend meant the British
would have to try more traditional methods of warfare.
Jacksons victory, however, caught the attention of American
leaders, who were in desperate shape defending against British
attacks in the northeastern states and were considering writing
off the southern territories as a lost cause. Military leaders
knew Britains next big assault on the continent would
come from the South and they had to find a way to secure the
On May 31, 1814, they decided to call upon Tennessee General
Andrew Jackson with an official commission as Major General
in the Regular U.S. Army and placed him in command of the Department
on the South. Jackson and his men made their headquarters in
Mobile, Ala., which was then a port in dispute between the U.S.
and Spain. The Tennesseans had been handed the assignment
of warding off any British attack and protecting the southern
coast from invasion.
Jacksons command style was hard-line and often frustrating
to American officials pursuing delicate wartime diplomacy, but
his leadership abilities under fire were undeniable and that
appealed to Americas military command. He was a General
unafraid of performing menial tasks or fighting alongside of
his men in the harshest of combat. He was also well connected
in the southern frontier and knew how to cultivate reliable
intelligence sources in a region often torn between three nations.
In the fall of 1814, Jackson received word that the British
were occupying Pensacola, Fla. and establishing a base of operations.
The British force under the command of Major Edward Nicolls
had been trying to enlist the services of Pirate Jean Lafitte
and his associates. In addition, the British regulars were accompanied
by a naval fleet under Captain W.H. Percy and threatening the
gulf coast cities.
Without waiting for official word from Washington, D.C. or observing
Spains neutrality, Jackson marched 4,100 men to the city
to engage the British. On Nov. 6, he demanded the Spanish governor
surrender the city unconditionally. When the Governor denied
the terms, Jackson laid siege to Pensacola and put it to the
His attack forced the British back into their ships and off
the coast of Florida. When he hanged two British subjects he
thought were spies, American and Spanish diplomats flew into
a rage over the incident and Jackson almost lost his commission
not to mention his own head.
With the British out of Florida, Jackson could now focus on
protecting the other gulf cities. He learned, however, the British
troops were sailing for New Orleans and immediately started
marching his forces towards the city in a footrace with the
When he arrived in New Orleans on Dec. 2, Jackson found the
city unprepared to defend itself against an invasion. Intelligence
sources told him the British were mustering 10-12,000 veteran
regulars for an invasion. The highly trained and experienced
soldiers were considered the best in the world and Jackson feared
their concentration on New Orleans would overwhelm his citizen
militia-filled ranks. On the march west, The Tennessean pressed
many settlers into military service swelling his numbers, but
leaving him with a poorly trained military force.
Jackson used his authority to declare martial law in New Orleans
and began hastily building defensive fortifications at strategic
locations around the city. He put out a call for all able-bodied
men to join the defensive forces and would not take "no"
for an answer. Along with his Kentucky and Tennessee regulars,
Jacksons army was turning into a motley mix of planters,
sailors, Creoles, Free Blacks, and Cherokee.
Jackson himself took position with his men on the Chalmette
Plantation at Rodriguez Canal. The canal was twenty feet wide
and stretched across the plain from the river to the swamps.
Jackson had his men drag the canal making it deeper and threw
up a parapet behind it.
While preparing the city for attack, Andrew Jackson began forming
what many thought was an unusual relationship with Pirate Jean
Lafitte. The Pirate was regarded as one of the best smugglers
and fighters in the gulf. He was feared by all who sailed in
the region and considered notorious by merchant ship, British,
Spanish, and American captains. A price was always on his head
for some crime or grievance and his reputation became one of
his better tools. Even when innocent of the charges pressed,
his pirates background made him a natural suspect and
an easy scapegoat.
Lafitte wasnt virtuous by any means and, with his brother
Pierre in a New Orleans jail, he saw an opportunity in the coming
battle. After making some discreet inquiries, he sent a letter
to Louisiana Governor William Claiborne and put forward a proposal.
Realizing Lafittes help could prove crucial in a tight
situation, the Governor and his associates approached Gen. Jackson
asking for his support in getting the men amnesty in exchange
for their services - not only for Lafitte, but also for the
other Pirates hiding in the swamps and bayous around the city.
Jackson didnt like the idea at first, but, with his back
against the wall, he helped present the offer to then President
James Monroe, who agreed with the Governor and granted the men
Jean Lafitte and his crew immediately turned their resources
towards supplying the newly enlisted soldiers with powder, rifles,
and other needed dry goods. They also started building crude
fortifications around Barataria Bay and helping with other fortification
The British leaders were keeping up with the American activity
and making daily reports to their leaders. While Jacksons
forces were beginning their defensive operations, the British
were off of the coast of New Orleans preparing for a full-scale
assault on the gulf city.
British General Sir Edward Packenham was in command of the invasion
force. He was an experienced campaign officer and a brother-in-law
to the Duke of Wellington. Packenhams mission was to take
the city of New Orleans and secure the Mississippi Valley. While
American diplomats were in Belgium trying to broker peace between
the two nations, Britain had made it clear to them that they
questioned American claims to western Florida and the Louisiana
Purchase. They implied the newly acquired territories were the
result of American annexation and were not legal possessions
of the United States under colonial law.
The British General held Jackson and his militia army in contempt.
He considered them an undisciplined lot incapable of taking
orders and devised a plan of attack based upon his judgment
of the forces against him. On Dec. 14, Packenham landed his
forces on Chandeleur Island at the mouth of Lake Borgne. Upon
entering the lake, the British ran into six American gunboats.
American naval tactics at the time had been employing a successful
guerilla policy of hit and run attacks.
Faced with the British ships the American gunboats, under
command of Lieut. Thomas Catsby, were not in a position to outrun
them and formed into a flotilla where they began firing on the
British. In the skirmish, 980 British seaman and marines attacked
the small force, but Catsby and his men made it an expensive
engagement. Seventeen British soldiers were killed outright
and 77 were wounded. American losses were six killed and 35
wounded. The destruction of the American gunboats were devastating,
however, and gave Britain naval superiority in the gulf
leaving America with only two ships to defend against the invasion.
With the gunboats out of commission, Packenham began disembarking
his soldiers. The British started preparing for the attack while
Packenhams reinforcements continued to arrive on the coastal
On shore, General Jackson was starting to find himself running
short of needed supplies and forced to use cotton bales to build
his fortifications. The British gun batteries were beginning
to fire into the defensive positions on a regular basis and
harassing American efforts to secure the city. Minor skirmishes
with the British were becoming more and more frequent around
New Orleans and the Tennessean knew the time of the battle was
By Jan. 7, 1815, 12,000 British regulars were prepared for the
attack on the City of New Orleans and pulled into position at
Rodriguez Canal to begin their assault.
General Packenham moved 1,200 troops under Col. William Thornton
to attack the American works on the west bank defended by Col.
David Morgan and Daniel T. Pattersons battery. Packenham
himself decided to assault Jacksons lines and ordered
General Sir Samuel Gibbs to attack on the right.
At most, American forces numbered around 5,000 men and Jackson
had stretched them thinly at the defensive positions counting
on the marksmanship and discipline of his regulars to compensate
for the difference.
The New Orleans volunteers and the men Jackson had pressed
into service were on his left side under the leadership of Pirate
Jean Lafitte. Gen. William Carrolls brigade of 1,414 Tennesseans
defended the center and 1,327 men held the right. Kentucky General
John Adairs brigade of 325 men were held in reserve.
On Jan. 8, 1815, the British finally advanced on New Orleans.
General Gibbs troops marched headlong into the American
guns. The biggest battle of the War of 1812 was underway. Jacksons
men showed their experience and discipline remarkably well.
They held their fire until the British troops were on top of
them and then let loose a volley that broke their line and sent
the British running in retreat.
Upon receiving reinforcements, they again marched towards the
Americans and were repulsed. Gen. Packenham was incredulous
at their failure to take the American line. He reformed the
men once again and led the third attack himself. Through the
smoke and haze of the battlefield, an American rifleman caught
sight of the British General and fired. Packenham fell dead
in front of his men followed by General Gibbs, who was killed
British command then fell on Maj. General John Keane. His division
attacked Jacksons right line near the river, but was slaughtered
by the Tennesseans and Gen. Keane severely wounded. British
command structure then fell to Maj. General John Lambert, who
instantly put out the order to withdraw the troops.
Unknowingly to Lambert, the British had a breakthrough on the
west bank as Col. Thornton routed Morgans troops forcing
Patterson to spike his guns. The break in the American lines
allowed the British to advance up the river a mile behind Jacksons
lines. The General was in a precarious position, but Lamberts
sudden withdrawal from the field also recalled Col. Thornton
and his men, who could have subjected Jacksons rear position
to a sweeping fire that would have destroyed his ranks.
Jacksons devastating victory over General Packenham and
his 12,000-man force stunned Europe, Britain, and even American
military leaders. With little training, supplies, and outnumbered
more than 2-1, the frontier army had adapted and defeated the
most powerful military force in the world.
After the battle, a truce of two days was declared so the armies
could gather and bury their dead. Artillery fire continued until
the Jan. 18, but the whole British Army suddenly withdrew to
a fortified position at the mouth of a bayou and then reembarked
in their ships off Chandeleur Island.
The Battle of New Orleans had secured American claims in the
Mississippi Valley and prevented the rich port from falling
into British hands. Americas loss in the battle was 71
dead, but the British posted a loss of 2,036 men including three
quarters of the battlefield command structure.
Throughout January, British troops and ships continued to harass
and probe the City for a weakness that could be exploited. Without
finding one, they abandoned the attack. Jackson maintained martial
law in the New Orleans until peace was finally proclaimed in
Although historians would later call the battle needless and
vain because it occurred after the Belgium Treaty, the decisive
victory for America proved to be crucial. The peace agreement
brokered in Ghent, Belgium had been signed two weeks before
the battle, but the United States Senate had not ratified the
treaty and it contained no provision for a cease-fire. In fact,
the treaty specified that hostilities were not to end "until
this treaty shall be ratified by both parties."
In fact, if Jackson had been defeated, the Senate would have
never ratified the treaty with the British occupying New Orleans
and the war would have continued.
Special thanks for this story has to go to Ranger Wanda Lee
Dickey at the Chalmette Battlefield in New Orleans for her work
in running down some needed facts and figures for the story.
"The Battle of New Orleans is an event where rumors and
myths abound," said Dickey, and the facts have gotten somewhat
confused over the years. In addition to the park and interpreters
we have here, there are a few good books that detail the Battle
of New Orleans and the men who fought it, especially the relationship
between Jackson and the other colorful figures involved."
General Jackson and Pirate Jean Lafitte were wartime allies
and didnt maintain a relationship following the war as
is often believed.
Lafitte was for the most part, he believed, a chartered privateer
working in the sometimes-hostile gulf shipping lanes. Following
the British attempt to recruit him for the New Orleans invasion
and his letter to Governor Claiborne, Lafittes brother
Pierre suddenly "escaped" from his jail cell. Newspaper
articles of the day said no one, including the jailer, knew
how he did it and no official word was ever released regarding
In any event, Jean Lafitte was regarded by most able-bodied
seaman as one of the best ships captains afloat and a
skilled leader of men. Being such, his colleagues were other
privateers and "pirates". Unlike Americas Constitutional
principals, Napoleonic laws and other European sea policies
assumed guilt by association and could legally offer rewards
for the deaths of Lafitte and other questionable privateers
working the South and Central American coasts who maintained
their associations. It was the charge that landed his brother
in jail when he was visiting his mistress.
New Orleans or the American government never forgot Jean Lafittes
efforts in the battle. The infamous Barataria headquarters of
the Pirate and his crew was eventually made into the Jean Lafitte
National Historic Park in the 1970s. Both it and the Chalmette
Battlefield are included in the Parks boundaries.
Future Tennessee Governor General William Carroll, who gave
up his business to join Jackson in the War of 1812, proved to
be one of the most extraordinary soldiers in the ranks. Historians
of the battles largely overlooked his actions at both Horseshoe
Bend and New Orleans, but his abilities and leadership were
often written about in diaries and reports of the southern campaigns.
The Battle of New Orleans virtually ended British preoccupation
with territorial claims in America proper. While intrigue and
espionage actions were a continuous threat, Britain focused
its efforts on the rich West Indies islands and its old enemies
The militia armies under Jackson proved to the British and subsequently
to the world that American firepower was not limited to a finite
number of trained regular soldiers, but to the citizenry as
well. The Tennesseans and other Southerners in the battle were
experienced frontiersmen who had often lived off the land, fought
Indians, and knew how to follow orders under fire. To European
cultures, where private ownership of arms was virtually banned
except for a chosen few, the concept of militia armies winning
against a superior trained force was unbelievable.
The Battle of New Orleans would make "Old Hickory",
as Jackson was known, a household word in America and eventually
lead him to the White House as President. The impact of the
battle and the War of 1812 is still a part of the American vocabulary.
One of the most popular mascots in American history was unknowingly
created in the War of 1812. When Army food inspector Samuel
Wilson of Troy, New York approved the barrels of salted meat
for the troops, he would stamp them U.S. (For United States)
Following British victories in the northeast where stores of
food were often captured, the British soldiers would remark,
"these victuals are from Uncle Sam". The sarcastic
remark gradually worked itself into the American lexicon, as
did the white-bearded cartoon character that went along with
it. In 1961, the United States Congress officially recognized
the top-hatted Uncle Sam and declared him the national symbol
General Andrew Jacksons victory at the Battle of New Orleans
became a fixture in American folklore and even spawned the folk
song "The Eighth of January", known by many simply
as "The Battle of New Orleans". Arkansas Folk singer
Jimmie Driftwood wrote the song as a way of teaching his elementary
school students about the battle. Both he and Country Music
singer Johnny Horton would have number one hits with it and
the "Battle of New Orleans" would become a Grammy
award winning song.
In addition, the battle pushed America into a new age and laid
the groundwork for the nations westward push to the Pacific