Battle of New Orleans, The [Laws A7]
DESCRIPTION: American troops under Andrew Jackson easily repulse the British attempt to capture New Orleans. After three unsuccessful charges, the British are forced to retire.
EARLIEST DATE: 1935 (Brewster in SFQ 1)
KEYWORDS: war battle
Jan 8, 1815 - Battle of New Orleans. Although a peace had already been signed, word had not yet reached Louisiana, which Pakenham sought to invade. Andrew Jackson's backwoodsmen easily repulsed Pakenham's force; the British commander was killed in the battle.
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Laws A7, "The Battle of New Orleans"
Botkin-TreasuryMississippiRiverFolklore, p. 560, "The Battle of New Orleans" (1 text, 1 tune)
DT 380, BATNWOR2*
cf. "The Hunters of Kentucky" [Laws A25] " (subject)
cf. "The Battle of New Orleans (II)" (subject)
cf. "Pakenham" (subject)
cf. "Jackson's Victory" (subjet)
NOTES [1677 words]: Not to be confused with the Jimmy Driftwood song of the same name. - PJS
For the general background of the final campaigns of the War of 1812, see the notes on "The Siege of Plattsburg."
The force which attacked New Orleans had previously been involved in the Chesapeake campaign; see the notes to "The Star-Spangled Banner." The British thought to send them to Louisisana in no small part because they thought the French and Spanish residents would be unhappy with the Americans running things (Hickey, p. 204). They don't seem to have done much to take advantage of that, though, and Robert Ross, who was initially supposed to command the attack, had been ordered not to make any substantial promises to the locals (Hickey, p. 205). It was one of many advantages the British voluntarily handed over to Andrew Jackson, the American commander on the Gulf of Mexico.
Jackson had had a difficult time in the War of 1812; he had been loosely connected with Aaron Burr's sort-of-rebellion, and the administration distrusted him (Borneman, p. 136) and tried to keep him in the background. The Seventh Military District, which he commanded, consisted of Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi Territory, and the lands of the Creek Indians (Patterson, p. 115) -- a backwater. But he got lucky: That put him in the right place at the right time to fight the Creek War (for which see "Andrew Jackson's Raid"), and after that, he was too politically significant to be shuttled aside. When the final thrust of the war began, it came in Jackson's district.
Jackson wasn't the greatest strategist; when the British force headed for New Orleans, he was convinced it was heading for Mobile, and tried to distribute his forces accordingly (Borneman, p. 265. To be sure, the British had made an earlier probe at Mobile, which was easily repulsed; Hickey, p. 206). Fortunately, Jackson's subordinates resisted his plans, which in the end saved him a great deal of trouble. When the British arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi, Jackson's forces were scattered -- but the British were slow to attack, and Jackson was able to concentrate. Jackson also did a good job of instilling discipline into the disastrously disorderly Appalachian militia, though it took several executions to bring it about. (As it was, most of those famous "Hunters of Kentucky" would break when they first faced British troops in December.) Plus he fortified the city and its approaches, something which had been neglected until then (Hickey, p. 206).
The British failure was one of those things that was no one person's fault. The campaign had begun as early as November 26, 1814, when British Admiral Alexander Cochrane set sail from Jamaica (Borneman, p. 276). He had with him a new Army commander; the veteran Robert Ross, who had done an excellent job, had been killed in Maryland. His replacement was Sir Edward Pakenham, Wellington's brother-in-law Patterson, p. 60), a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars whose record as a subordinate had been good (Hickey, p. 208) but who was new to the Americas and whose command experience was limited. And the weather was generally to prove terrible, much debilitating the attackers (Hickey, p. 209).
The biggest single problem was logistic. The British fleet was not really equipped for Louisiana operations -- it needed shallow-bottomed vessels to maneuver in the marshes, and it didn't have them. This closed off some of the best routes into New Orleans. (There were three basic routes to New Orleans: By shallow boat across Lake Ponchartrain, by ship up the Mississippi, and by land across the Plain of Gentilly. The lack of boats closed off Lake Ponchartrain, and there were enough forts along the Mississippi that the admirals didn't want to try that. That left Gentilly, which unfortunately for the British was both marshy and narrow).
On December 23, the British advance guard met the first American militia, and routed them. The British veterans won a quick victory (Hickey, p. 209, says that the British suffered more casualties while conceding that they held the field), but their commander, not knowing the size or location of Jackson's main force, failed to push on (Borneman, p. 277). It would eventually prove a fatal decision by the British brigade commander John Keane. A French-speaking plantation owner, who was also a militia officer, managed to escape and bring word to Jackson about the direction of the British thrust (Patterson, pp. 197-199)
It is rarely mentioned that Jackson brought up his troops that evening and tried a counterattack, which failed (Borneman, pp. 277-278, although Patterson, p. 208, observes that British casualties, mostly taken early in the attack, were slightly higher than American). Still, as general Pakenham discovered when he arrived on Christmas Day, the British troops had put themselves in something of a box: The Mississippi was on their left, the impassible swamps not-quite-connecting Lakes Ponchartrain and Borgne on their right, and the Americans in their front. There were only two ways out: To go through Jackson, or to retreat -- and, by this time, with Jackson alert to their presence, it would be much harder to mount a new attack. Still, Pakenham was not ready to give up (Hickey, p. 210).
Pakenham did his best to improve the situation. His plan did not call for a simple head-on attack. Rather, he planned to send a brigade to the west bank of the Mississippi, to take over the American guns there and use them to enfilade the American lines. He also had a regiment equipped with fascines to get his troops across the Rodriguez Canal which guarded the American front. He set up several artillery batteries in field fortifications of sugar barrels to attack the American lines. (Hickey, p. 210). And he planned to attack in darkness and fog (Borneman, pp. 280-282).
And not one of his tactics worked. The sugar barrels set up to guard the artillery were a disaster; it had been thought that sugar would be as good a protection as sand. It wasn't. The American batteries, which were emplaced in real fortifications, quickly silenced the British guns (Hickey, pp.210-211).
The lack of transport ruined the move across the Mississippi -- a canal intended to bring up boats, demanded by the navy, proved impossible to build in the mud; instead of enough boats for a brigade, the western force crossed only a few hundred men. And the Mississippi current washed them so far downstream that they were hours late. They eventually did reach and capture the American gun emplacements -- but they were few enough that the Americans managed to spike the guns, so the west bank artillery could not have participated in the battle even had they been on time (Borneman, pp. 290-291; Hickey, p. 211); in any case, they were too late.
Worse still, the regiment with the fascines needed to cross American trenches apparently disappeared for a time. Daylight on January 15 was approaching, and the key to Pakenham's assault was missing (Borneman, p. 285). Pakenham probably should have called off the assault, but he cannot have known all the details of the situation across the river -- and the cross-river raid was a trick he could probably try only once. He ordered the main attack to go ahead, somewhat late. By the time the assault was fully underway, the sun was rising. And then the fog burned off (Borneman, p. 286; Hickey, pp. 211-212).
And even the attack was botched. There were two brigades involved in the assault: Gibbs's and Keane's. Keane started late and also ended up cutting across the field rather than attacking straight on; it was slaughtered and the commander wounded. Gibbs went straight on, and found his front ranks slaughtered. Pakenham showed up, having finally found the troops with the fascines, but was wounded. He ordered up his reserves -- but, before they could arrive, he was killed. General Gibbs also fell at the head of his troops. That left no general officers in the field (Borneman, p. 289). When General Lambert arrived with the reserve brigade, he decided to rescue what he could rather than try another fatal assault. Half an hour after Pakenham had fired the signal rocket to start the assault, the battle was over (Borneman, p. 290).
With their commander and two out of four brigadiers dead or wounded, the British reports on the battle were not especially clear, but they probably suffered about 300 killed, 1300 wounded, and 500 captured. That's roughly two-thirds of the forces committed to the actual assault on the American lines, and nearly half their total force. Jackson listed his losses as seven killed and six wounded -- though, because much of his force was militia that came and went at will, he probably didn't know the exact numbers (Borneman, p. 291). And the American forces across the river had taken fifty or sixty casualties that Jackson didn't mention (Hickey, p. 212).
In partial defence of Pakenham (1778-1815), he was in a very unfamiliar situation; most of his best work had been as a staff officer, and although he had served in the line (including some time as a division commander in the Peninsular War), he didn't have any real experience as an independent commander. And this *was* the era of commission by purchase.
Had the war gone on, the British might still have done some damage. Lambert and Cochrane took their surviving forces to Mobile, and the city was in danger of falling when word came that peace had been made (Hickey, p. 214).
Of the whole affair, Morison (p. 395) concludes, "The Battle of New Orleans had no military value since peace had already been signed at Ghent on Christmas Eve, but it made a future President of the United States [Jackson], and in folklore wiped out all previous American defeats [of which there had been many, especially on the Canadian front], ending the "Second War of Independence" in a blaze of glory. The peace treaty made it clear that the war was a draw -- both sides went back to the status quo ante -- but the Americans, because they hadn't been overwhelmed, generally felt they had won. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.1
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford, 1965
- Patterson: Benton Rain Patterson, The Generals: Andrew Jackson, Sir Edward Pakenham, and the Road to the Battle of New Orleans, New York University Press, 2005
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