The Battle of New Orleans
Once more the Creoles sang the “Marseillaise.” The invaders hovering along the marshy shores of Lake Borgne were fourteen thousand strong. Sir Edward Packenham, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington, and a gallant captain, was destined to lead them. Gibbs, Lambert, and Kean were his generals of division. As to Jackson, thirty-seven hundred Tennesseeans under Generals Coffee and Carroll, had, when it was near Christmas, given him a total of but six thousand men. Yet confidence, animation, concord, and even gaiety, filled the hearts of the mercurial people.
“The citizens,” says the eye-witness, Latour, “were preparing for battle as cheerfully as for a party of pleasure. The streets resounded with ‘Yankee Doodle,’ ‘La Marseillaise,’ ‘Le Chant du Depart,’ and other martial airs. The fair sex presented themselves at the windows and balconies to applaud the troops going through their evolutions, and to encourage their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers to protect them from their enemies.”
That enemy, reconnoitring on Lake Borgne, soon found in the marshes of its extreme western end the month of a navigable stream, the Bayou Bienvenue. This water flowed into the lake directly from the west — the direction of New Orleans, close behind whose lower suburb it had its beginning in a dense cypress swamp. Within, its mouth it was over a hundred yards wide, and more than six feet deep. As they ascended its waters, everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, stretched only the unbroken quaking prairie. But soon they found and bribed a village of Spanish and Italian fishermen, and under their guidance explored the whole region. By turning into a smaller bayou, a branch of the first, the Mississippi was found a very few miles away on the left, hidden from view by a narrow belt of swamp and hurrying southeastward toward the Gulf. From the plantations of sugar-cane on its border, various draining canals ran back northward to the bayou, offering on their margins a fair though narrow walking way through the wooded and vine-tangled morass to the open plains on the river shore, just below New Orleans. By some oversight, which has never been explained, this easy route to the city’s very outskirts had been left unobstructed. On the 21st of December some Creole scouts posted a picket at the fishermen’s village.
The traveller on the New Orleans & Mobile Railroad, as he enters the southeastern extreme of Louisiana, gliding along the low, wet prairie margin of the Gulf, passes across an island made by the two mouths of Pearl River. It rises just high enough above the surrounding marsh to be at times tolerably dry ground. A sportsmen’s station on it is called English Look-out; but the island itself seems to have quite lost its name. It was known then as Isle aux Poix (Pea Island). Here on December the 21st, 1814, the British had been for days disembarking. Early on the 22d General bean’s division re-embarked from this island in barges, shortly before dawn of the 23d captured the picket at the fishers’ village, pushed on up the bayou, turned to the left, southwestward, into the smaller bayou (Mazant), entered the swamp, disembarked once more at the month of a plantation canal, marched southward along its edge through the wood, and a little before noon emerged upon the open plain of the river shore, scarcely seven miles from New Orleans, without a foot of fortification between there and the city. But the captured pickets had reported Jackson’s forces eighteen thousand strong, and the British halted, greatly fatigued, until they should be joined by other divisions.
Not, however, to rest. At about two o’clock in the afternoon, while the people of the city were sitting at their midday dinner, suddenly the cathedral bell startled them with its notes of alarm, drums sounded the long roll, and as military equipments were hurriedly put on, and Creoles, Americans, and San Domingans, swords and muskets in hand, poured in upon the Place d’Armes from every direction and sought their places in the ranks, word passed from mouth to mouth that there had been a blunder, and that the enemy was but seven miles away in force -“sur l’habitation Villere!” – “on Villere’s plantation!” But courage was in every heart. Quickly the lines were formed, the standards were unfurled, the huzza resounded as the well-known white horse of Jackson carne galloping down their front with his staff -Edward Livingston and Abner Dincan among them – at his heels, the drums sounded quickstep and the columns moved clown through the streets and out of the anxious town to meet the foe. In half an hour after the note of alarm the Seventh regulars, with two pieces of artillery and some marines, had taken an advanced position. An hour and a half later General Coffee, with his Tennessee and Mississippi cavalry, took their place along the small Rodriguez canal, that ran from the river’s levee to and into the swamp, and which afterward became Jackson’s permanent line of defence. Just as the sun was setting the troops that had been stationed at Bayou St. John, a battalion of free colored men, then the Forty-fourth regulars, and then the brightly uniformed Creole battalion, first came into town by way of the old Bayou Road, and swept through the streets toward the enemy on the run, glittering with accoutrements and arms, under the thronged balconies and amid the tears and plaudits of Creole mothers and daughters.
Night came on, very dark. The Carolina dropped noiselessly down opposite the British camp, anchored close in shore, and opened her broadsides and musketry at short range. A moment later Jackson fell upon the startled foe with twelve hundred men and, two pieces of artillery, striking them first near the river shore, and presently along their whole line. Coffee, will six hundred men, unseen in the darkness, issued from the woods on the north, and attacked the British right, just as it was trying to turn Jackson’s left – Creole troops, whose ardor would leave led them to charge with the bayonet, but for the prudence of the Regular officer in command. A fog rose, the smoke of battle rested on the field, the darkness issued, and all was soon in confusion. Companies and battalions – red coats, blue coats, Highland plaidies, and “dirty shirts” (Tennesseeans), from time to time got lost, fired into friendly lines, or met their foes in hand to hand encounters. Out in the distant prairie behind the swamp forest the second division of the British corning on, heard the battle, hurried forward, and began to reach the spot while the low plain, wrapped in darkness, was still flashing with the discharge of artillery.
The engagement was soon over, without special results beyond that prestige which we may be confident was, at the moment, Jackson’s main aim. Before day he fell back two miles, and in the narrowest part of the plain, some four miles from town, began to make his permanent line behind Rodriguez Canal.
Inclement weather set in, increasing the hardships of friend and foe. The British toiled incessantly in the miry ground of the sugar-cane fields to bring up their heavy artillery, and both sides erected breastworks and batteries, and hurried forward their re-enforcements. Skirmishing was frequent, and to Jackson’s raw levies very valuable. Red-hot shot from the British works destroyed the Carolina; but her armament was saved and made a shore battery on the farther river bank. On New Year’s day a few bales of cotton, forming part of the American fortifications, were scattered in all directions and set on fire, and this was the first and last use made of this material during the campaign. When it had been called to General Jackson’s notice that this cotton was the property of a foreigner, – “Give him a gun and let him defend it,” was his answer. On the 4th, two thousand two hundred and fifty Kentuckians, poorly clad and worse armed arrived, and such as bore serviceable weapons raised Jackson’s force to three thousand two hundred men on his main line; a line, says the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, “the very feeblest an engineer could have devised, that is, a straight one.”
Yet on this line the defenders of New Orleans were about to be victorious. It consisted of half a mile of very uneven earthworks stretching across the plain along the inner edge of the canal, from the river to the edge of the wood, and continuing a like distance into the forest. In here it quickly dwindled to a mere double row of logs two feet apart, filled in between with earth. The entire artillery on this whole line was twelve pieces. Put it was served by men of rare skill, artillerists of the regular army, the sailors of the burnt Carolina, some old French soldiers under Flaujeac one of Bonaparte’s gunners, and Dominique and Beluche, with the tried cannoneers of their pirate ships.
From battery to battery the rude line was filled out with a droll confusion of arms and trappings, men and dress. Here on the extreme right, just on and under the levee, were some regular infantry and a company of “Orleans Rifles,” with some dragoons who served a howitzer. Next to them was a battalion of Louisiana Creoles in gay and varied uniforms. The sailors of the Caroliisa were grouped around the battery between. In the Creoles’ midst were the swarthy privateers with their two twenty-fours. Then came a battalion of native men of color, another bunch of sailors around a thirty-two-pounder, a battalion of St. Domingan mulattoes, a stretch of blue for some regular artillery and the Forty-fourth infantry, then Flaujeac and his Francs behind a brass twelve-pounder; next, a long slender line of brown homespun hunting-shirts that draped Carroll’s lank Tennesseeans, then a small, bright bunch of marines, then some more regular artillery behind a long brass culverine and a six-pounder, then Adair’s ragged Kentuckians, and at the end, Coffee’s Tennesseeans, disappearing in the swamp, where they stood by day knee-deep in water and slept at night in the mud.
Wintry rains had retarded everything in the British camp, but at length Lanibert’s division carne up, Packenham took command, and plans were perfected for the final attack. A narrow continuation of the canal by which the English had come up through the swamp to its head at the rear of Villere’s plantation was dug, so that their boats could be floated up to the river front close under the back of the levee, and then dragged over its top and launched into the river. The squalid negresses that fish for crawfish along its rank, flowery banks still call it, “Cannal Packin’am.” All night of the 7th of January there came to the alert ears of the Americans across the intervening plain a noise of getting boats through this narrow passage. It was evident that the decisive battle was impending. Packenham’s intention was to throw a considerable part of his force across the river to attack the effective marine battery abreast of the American line, erected there by Commodore Paterson, while he, on the hither shore, unembarrassed by its fire on his flank, should fall furiously upon Jackson’s main line, in three perpendicular columns.
But the river had fallen. Colonel Thornton, who was to lead the movement on the farther bank, was long getting his boats across the levee. The current, too, was far swifter than it had seemed. Eight priceless hours slipped away and only a third of the intended force crossed.
A little before daybreak of the 8th, the British main force moved out of camp and spread across the plain, six thousand strong, the Americans in front, the river on their left, and the swamp-forest on their right. They had planned to begin at one signal the three attacks on the nearer and the one on the farther shore. The air was chilly and obscure. A mist was slowly clearing off from the wet and slippery; round. A dead silence reigned; but in that mist and silence their enemy was waiting for them. Presently day broke and rapidly brightened, the mist lifted a little and the red lines of the British were fitfully descried from the American works. Outside the levee the wide river and farther shore were quite hidden by the fog, which now and then floated hitherward over the land.
Packenham was listening for the attack of Colonel Thornton on the opposite bank, that was to relieve his main assault from the cross-fire of Paterson’s marine battery. The sun rose; but he heard nothing. He waited till half-past seven; still there was no sound.
Meanwhile the Americans lay in their long trench, peering over their sorry breastworks, and wondering at the inaction. But at length Packenham could wait no longer. A British rocket went up near the swamp. It was the signal for attack. A single cannon-shot answered from the Americans, and the artillery on both sides opened with a frightful roar. On Jackson’s extreme left, some black troops of the British force made a feint against the line in the swamp and were easily repulsed. On his right, near the river, the enemy charged in solid column, impetuously, upon a redoubt just in advance of the line. Twice only the redoubt could reply, and the British were over and inside and pressing on to scale the breastwork behind. Their brave and much-loved Colonel Rennie was leading them. But on the top of the works he fell dead with the hurrah on his lips, and they were driven back and out of the redoubt in confusion.
Meantime the main attack was being made in the open plain near the edge of the swamp. Some four hundred yards in front of the American works lay a ditch. Here the English formed in close column of about sixty men front. They should have laid off their heavy knapsacks, for they were loaded besides with big fascines of ripe sugar-cane for filling up the American ditch, and with scaling ladders. But with muskets, knapsacks and all, they gave three cheers and advanced. Before them went a shower of Congreve rockets. For a time they were partly covered by an arm of the forest and by the fog, but soon they emerged from both and moved steadily forward in perfect order, literally led to the slaughter in the brave old British way.
“Where are you going? ” asked one English officer of another.
“I’ll be hanged if I know.”
“Then,” said the first, “you have got into what I call a good thing; a far-famed American battery is in front of you at a short range, and on the left of this spot is flanked, at eight hundred yards, by their batteries on the opposite side of the river.”
“The first objects we saw, enclosed as it were in this little world of mist,” says this eye-witness, “were the cannon-balls tearing up the ground and crossing one another, and bounding along like so many cricket-balls through the air, coming on our left flank from the American batteries on the right bank of the river, and also from their lines in front.”
The musketry fire of the Americans, as well as the artillery, was given with terrible precision. Unhappily for the English they had singled out for their attack those homely-clad men whom they had nick-named the “Dirtyshirts,” – the riflemen of Kentucky and Tennessee – Indian fighters, that never fired but on a selected victim. Flaujeac’s battery tore out whole files of men. Yet the brave foe came on, veterans from the Cape of Good hope and from the Spanish Peninsula, firmly and measuredly, and a few platoons had even reached the canal, when the column faltered, gave way, and fled precipitately back to the ditch where it had first formed.
Here there was a rally. The knapsacks were taken off. Reenforcements came up. The first charge had been a dreadful mistake in its lack of speed. Now the start was quicker and in less order, but again in the fatal columnar form.
“At a run,” writes the participant already quoted, “we neared the American line. The mist was now rapidly clearing away, but, owing to the dense smoke, we could not at first distinguish the attacking column of the British troops to our right. . . . The echo from the cannonade and musketry was so tremendous in the forests that the vibration seemed as if the earth were cracking and tumbling to pieces. . . . The flashes of fire looked as if coming out of the bowels of the earth, so little above its surface were the batteries of the Americans.”
Packenham led the van. On a black horse, in brilliant uniform, waving his hat and cheering the onset, he was a mark the backwoodsmen could not miss. Soon he reeled and fell from his horse with a mortal wound; Gibbs followed him. Then Bean was struck and borne from the field with many others of high rank, and the column again recoiled and fell back, finally discomfited.
“Did you ever see such a scene?” cried one of Packenham’s staff. “There is nothing left but the Seventh and Forty-third!”
“They fell,” says another Englishman, ” like the very blades of grass beneath the scythe of the mower. Seventeen hundred and eighty-one victims, including three generals, seven colonels, and seventy-five lesser officers, were the harvest of those few minutes.”
At length the American musketry ceased. Only the batteries were answering shot for shot, when from the farther side of the Mississippi came, all too late, a few reports of cannon, a short, brisk rattle of fire-arms, a hush, and three British cheers to tell that the few raw American troops on that side had been overpowered, and that Paterson’s battery, prevented from defending itself by the blundering of the militia in its front, had been spiked and abandoned.
The batteries of the British line continued to fire until two in the afternoon; but from the first signal of the morning to the abandonment of all effort to storm the American works was but one hour, and the battle of New Orleans was over at half-past eight. General Lambert reported the British loss two thousand and seventeen; Jackson, the American at six killed and seven wounded.
From the 9th to the 18th four British vessels bombarded Fort St. Philip without result; on the morning of the 19th the British camp in front of Jackson was found deserted, and eight days later the last of the enemies’ forces embarked from the shores of Lake Borgne.
The scenes of triumphant rejoicing, the hastily erected arches in the Place d’Armes, the symbolical impersonations, the my rinds of banners and pennons, the columns of victorious troops, the crowded balconies, the rain of flowers in a town where flowers never fail, the huzzas of the thronging populace, the salvos of artillery, the garland-crowned victor, and the ceremonies of thanksgiving in the solemn cathedral, form a part that may be entrusted to the imagination. One purpose and one consummation made one people, and little of sorrow and naught of discord in that hour mingled with the joy of deliverance.