Prologue: The Defeat of the Past

January 1, 1815, dawned faintly through the dense fog over southern Louisiana. Six miles downstream from New Orleans, two hostile armies hid from each other in the enveloping mists. The invaders consisted of eight thousand British soldiers, some still in ships offshore, commanded by Major General Edward Pakenham. To defend the city, the United States had so far gathered no more than four thousand men under Major General Andrew Jackson. Though small by the standards of Napoleonic Europe, these were large armies for North America. A severe winter all over the Atlantic world slowed communication and made transportation difficult. Neither army knew that across the ocean, representatives of their respective countries had signed a treaty of peace eight days earlier. They did know that heavy rains had fallen on them almost every day since the British landing two weeks before and that the nights were frosty and chill. The British had to operate at the end of a tenuous supply line, without tents and on short rations. Suffering especially were the eleven hundred black colonial troops from the British West Indies. Not acclimated to winter weather and still wearing thin tropical uniforms, some of these men died of hypothermia.1

Behind the curtain of fog, each army was active. The Americans celebrated New Year’s Day with a parade review of their motley army. Jackson’s force counted but few regulars. There were Tennessee militia (the component with whom the Tennessee general felt most comfortable), Louisiana militia, mostly French-speaking, and mounted Mississippi dragoons. There was an Irish American regiment called the Louisiana Blues, and two battalions of black men, one made up of African Americans and the other of Haitian immigrants. Some of the black soldiers were slaves on loan from their masters to the army, but most of them were free men. Jackson addressed the blacks as “brave fellow citizens” and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites’. Up from their hideout at Barataria came the notorious pirate band of Jean and Pierre Laffite—who had cast their lot with the Americans after deciding that a strong presence

1. Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates (London, 1974), 258.

by the Royal Navy was not in their best professional interests. Jackson’s orders to this heterogeneous army had to be translated not only into French but also into Spanish (for Louisiana had been a Spanish colony as well as a French colony before becoming an American state) and Choctaw, the language of the Native American allies who protected his left flank. The general had assembled these mixed forces behind a parapet of logs and earth constructed along an abandoned watercourse that had once turned a mill wheel. Called the Rodriguez Canal, this served as a defensive moat in front of the breastwork. On Jackson’s right flowed the Mississippi River.2

But on New Year’s Day the invaders were even more active: They were preparing an assault on the American line. Shortly before 10:00 A.M. the

fog lifted a bit and the British artillery opened its preparatory bombardment, catching the Americans by surprise. Jackson’s headquarters building was demolished, although he and his officers miraculously escaped unhurt. Gradually at first, then with increasing determination, the American artillery replied. Each army had improvised shelters for its cannoneers from items available at nearby plantations; the Americans used cotton bales, and the British hogsheads of sugar. Neither stood up well to the test of battle. The British infantry waited, bayonets fixed, for the signal to charge. Pakenham wanted to silence some of his enemies’ guns and punch a hole in their defensive works before ordering the assault. For three hours the artillery duel went on. Eventually, with his guns’ ammunition running low, Pakenham ceased the bombardment and called off the attack. Although the British artillery was slightly superior to the American as measured by “throw weight,” the American gunners had inflicted more damage on their enemy than they sustained themselves. That afternoon it rained again.3

Pakenham decided to wait for reinforcements of men and ammunition before planning another attack. By doing so, however, he accorded Jackson the same opportunity to strengthen his army and its position. Neither general had an inclination to stand on the defensive. Both were tough, seasoned soldiers. Thirty-eight years old, Ned Pakenham had been schooled in the Peninsular War by two of the greatest generals of the age: his patron Wellington and his adversary Napoleon. Unhesitatingly courageous, Pakenham had been twice wounded in action. Andrew Jackson

2. Robert Remini, The Battle of New Orleans (New York, 1999), 25–60, 107, 124. Jackson’s proclamation “to the free coloured inhabitants of Louisiana,” Sept. 21, 1814, is in Correspondence of AJ, II, 58–59.

3. Robert S. Quimby, The U.S. Army in the War of 1812 (East Lansing, Mich., 1997), 875–78, 945.

was forty-seven and in poor health but sustained by indomitable willpower. He told how, as a thirteen-year-old boy during the Revolution, a British officer had struck him in the face with his sword. For the rest of his life, Jackson bore the scars and a bitter hatred of the British. Although he had spent time as a frontier lawyer, cotton planter, and congressman, temperamentally Jackson was always a soldier. Earlier in this war, he had distinguished himself in campaigns against the British, the Spanish, and the Creek Indians. Impatient of restraints, as a military leader Jackson relied as much upon his instinct for command as upon formal authority.

The prize for which the two armies contended was well worth fighting over. The city of New Orleans comprised the second greatest port in the United States (after New York), a position it would retain until surpassed by Los Angeles in the twentieth century. Before the Erie Canal and the railroads, New Orleans constituted the gateway to the world for the whole vast area drained by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers. The city had much more export than import trade, for until the arrival of the steamboat it was hard to ship goods up the Mississippi against the current. The census of 1810 had enumerated 24,552 people in greater New Orleans, a big city by North American standards. Cosmopolitan in composition as well as metropolitan in size, its population included French and Spanish Creoles (born in the New World of European descent), émigré French planters fleeing the Haitian Revolution, free people of color (gens de couleur), and slaves, some of whom had been illegally smuggled in from overseas. There were immigrants from many European countries and Latin America. Along the Gulf Coast lived the Acadians (the name contracted locally into “Cajuns”), French-speaking refugees from the eighteenth-century ethnic cleansing of Nova Scotia. Americans of Anglo descent comprised only 13 percent of the population of New Orleans.4The trade carried on in the great seaport included just about every agricultural and manufactured product known, and the consumer goods available made the quality of life enviable. Famous for their sophistication and attractiveness, the women of New Orleans were almost the only ones in the United States to use makeup.5 The British soldiers downstream, cold and hungry, consoled themselves with dreams of “beauty and booty” once they captured the city.

4. Wilburt Brown, The Amphibious Campaign for West Florida and Louisiana (University, Ala., 1969), 36. See also Joseph Tregle, Louisiana in the Age of Jackson (Baton Rouge, 1999), 23–41.

5. As late as 1834, an Englishwoman commented that “New-Orleans is the only place in the United States where I am aware of having seen a particle of rouge.” Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, ed. Daniel Feller (1838; Armonk, N.Y., 2000), 116.

New Orleans had been U.S. territory only since 1803, and Louisiana had been admitted to statehood as recently as 1812. Knowing that the dominant French community of New Orleans merchants and Louisiana planters despised the recently arrived Yankees, the invaders hoped to recruit the ancienne population to their cause. In fact, the Creoles were mostly Bonapartists who considered the United States a lesser evil compared to England. But Andrew Jackson did not feel altogether sure of their loyalty, which was why he imposed martial law in New Orleans on December 16. The New Year’s artillery duel, in which many of the guns were served by French-speakers, reassured him somewhat, but he remained impatient for the two thousand Kentucky militiamen floating down the Father of Waters and expected daily.6

Upon their arrival on January 4, the reinforcements proved a disappointment. Freezing in their tattered clothing, the Kentuckians lacked tents or blankets to shelter them from the elements. Worst of all, only 550 of them were armed. Because the ordnance department had been unwilling to pay enough to have supplies sent by the fastest means, their weapons and ammunition did not reach New Orleans until after the big battle had been fought. Jackson joked in disgust that it was the first time he’d ever seen a Kentuckian “without a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.”7 He equipped some of the men with miscellaneous weapons from the armory kept by the city of New Orleans against the possibility of a slave uprising. Pakenham, whose two regiments of reinforcements were meanwhile arriving, had suffered even worse from his government’s stinginess. Since the admiralty had not provided the shallow-draft vessels requested, the British had to ferry men and supplies long distances from ships to shore by rowboats—exhausting, slow work for the sailors. As a result, their soldiers suffered shortages of everything, including ammunition and food.8

Pakenham could not expect his men to endure these conditions indefinitely; he needed to break through to the shelter and supplies of New Orleans. Jackson, reading the situation the same way, resolved that if he could not defend the city, he would put it to the torch rather than let the British occupy it.9 Pakenham devised a complicated plan of attack. He would

6. Remini, Battle of New Orleans, 31, 58, 132. On the distrust between Jackson and the Creoles, see Joseph Tregle, “Andrew Jackson and the Continuing Battle of New Orleans,” JER 1 (1981): 373–94.

7. Brown, Amphibious Campaign, 133–34; Jackson quoted in Reilly, British at the Gates, 287.

8. Quimby, U.S. Army, 814–15.

9. Remini, Battle of New Orleans, 98.

ferry a substantial force under Colonel William Thornton across the Mississippi to capture the American guns on the right bank and turn them onto Jackson’s own lines. At the opposite end of the battlefield, he would send some of his West Indians and other light infantry to infiltrate the swamps and turn the American left flank. Simultaneously he would mount two assaults across the Chalmette plantation against Jackson’s main line of defense. To get across the Rodriguez Canal and over the parapet, each assault would be led by troops carrying fascines (bundles of sugarcane to fill up the ditch) and ladders. It was a plausible plan on paper. Coordinating it all in practice was highly problematic.

The attack on the west bank of the Mississippi got under way late because of the difficulty of transporting troops across the river. On the east bank, the most important of the assault forces had trouble locating the fascines and ladders to use. The commander of the unit assigned to place them, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins, felt his men were being sacrificed on a suicidal mission, and in his resentment neglected to follow orders and ascertain where the equipment was kept. Perhaps Mullins’s suspicions were justified: Because his troops were Irish, they might have been thought expendable. (The other unit assigned to place fascines and ladders was West Indian.) But his neglect of duty was clearly wrong and cost his cause dearly.10

At dawn on Sunday, January 8, Pakenham learned of both potential problems with his plan but gave the signal to attack anyway. Having canceled the New Year’s Day offensive, he was in no mood to delay further. If he moved out promptly, the morning mist would still provide some cover for the advance. Pakenham had gambled with risky assaults in the Peninsular War, and they had paid off. This time he made the wrong decision.

The main attack, on Jackson’s left center, became hopelessly snarled by the failure of Mullins’s 44th Regiment to have the fascines and ladders ready. Men arriving at the canal were mowed down by canister and grapeshot while waiting to cross. A few heroes swam the canal and managed to climb the parapet by using their bayonets, only to be captured or killed when they got over. Meanwhile, the attack through the swamps was frustrated by Tennesseans and Choctaws familiar with the terrain. The assault on Jackson’s right, where West Indians carried the fascines and ladders, achieved initial success but was left unsupported. In a final mistake, Pakenham shifted the 93rd Highlanders from following up this penetration of the American line into a futile and costly attempt to help the stalled attack on Jackson’s left. What he lacked in judgment the British

10. See Quimby, U.S. Army, 895–900.

commander tried to make up in bravery. Wounded twice and with his horse shot from under him, Pakenham insisted on being helped to mount another. From his saddle he waved encouragement to the Highlanders; a moment later a round of grapeshot wounded him mortally.11 Two other British generals and eight colonels also died in the attack. The battle had turned into another Agincourt, with Americans playing the role of the English archers and the British themselves cast as the gallant but luckless French knights. Within a few minutes the British lost 251 killed, 1,259 wounded, and 484 missing. Most of the missing were taken prisoner. When the Americans lifted their fire, some of the men on the ground hesitantly rose with their hands up. Other prisoners were wounded men whom the Americans collected after a temporary truce was agreed. Jackson’s army lost but 11 killed and 23 wounded.12

Ironically, Colonel Thornton’s attack on the other side of the Mississippi, despite its delay, overcame the Kentucky militia and captured the artillery there (too late to affect the main battle). The poorly armed Kentuckians had only just reached the position they were expected to defend, and they behaved the way American militia units often behaved in the War of 1812: They ran away. Jackson made plain his fury at them in his official report to Secretary of War James Monroe. “The Kentucky reinforcement, in whom so much reliance had been placed, ingloriously fled.”13

Thornton’s success might have opened up a route to New Orleans if the British had had any stomach for more fighting. But General John Lambert, who succeeded to the British command, declined to exploit the opportunity and chose to evacuate his exhausted and by now dispirited expeditionary force to its ships.

Some of his officers urged Jackson to take the opportunity to counterattack. But for once Old Hickory declined to take the offensive. He had saved New Orleans and was content to leave well enough alone. Jackson owed his victory in large part to good fortune and British mistakes. He decided not to press his luck. Jackson recognized the limitations of his untrained militia. Under his inspirational leadership, they had performed well alongside artillery and behind a parapet. He would not risk them in the open field against professional soldiers.14

With the battle over, Jackson ignored his promise to secure equal

11. Reilly, British at the Gates, 300.

12. Some sources give British dead as 291; see Quimby, U.S. Army, 906.

13. Quoted in Remini, Battle of New Orleans, 162.

14. For a judicious estimate of Jackson’s generalship, see J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War (Princeton, 1985), 498.


rewards for the black men who had stood with him at the barricade. Besides twenty-four dollars cash, each soldier was supposed to receive 160 acres of public land, but forty years later, the black veterans were still trying to get their land claims honored. The slaves among them had been returned to their owners, who were not bound by any promises made.15

On the other hand, Jackson showed solicitude for those masters whose slaves had escaped and taken refuge with the enemy. He repeatedly demanded that the departing British army return them. General Lambert, to his credit, refused and took some two hundred self-emancipated people off to lives of poverty but freedom in Bermuda.16

If history were a novel, this episode would end with the dramatic repulse of the invaders on January 8. In real life the British did not abandon their campaign against New Orleans. The day after the great land battle, their fleet sailed up the Mississippi and bombarded Fort St. Philip at Plaquemine for the next nine days, hoping to force a passage, but to no avail. General Lambert’s army, having rejoined its ships and recovered its resolve, sailed off to Mobile Bay and there resumed the offensive. After taking Mobile they would be able to march westward to the Mississippi and cut off New Orleans from the north. On February 11, Fort Bowyer, guarding Mobile Bay, surrendered to the British. The city of Mobile would surely have fallen, but the next day news finally arrived that a peace treaty had been signed on December 24. In the language of boxing, Mobile was saved by the bell.

Six months after the Battle of New Orleans, the Irishmen of the 44th Regiment redeemed their military reputation at Waterloo. But Thomas Mullins was court-martialed and cashiered.17


What did the American victory really mean? The Battle of New Orleans had been fought after the treaty of peace had been signed. Technically, the war ended only with the exchange of treaty ratifications, but in fact the armies ceased hostilities as soon as they learned of the treaty itself. Had

15. See Donald Everett, “Emigres and Militiamen: Free Persons of Color in New Orleans,” Journal of Negro History 38 (1953): 377–402; James Horton and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty (New York, 1997), 186; Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (New York, 2001), 7–8.

16. Reilly, British at the Gates, 320–21; The Papers of Andrew Jackson, ed. Harold Moser et al. (Knoxville, Tenn., 1991), III, 290, 316–17.

17. It is remarkable how many high-ranking officers on both sides in the War of 1812 were court-martialed for incompetence or cowardice: Other British officers included Generals Procter and Prevost; on the American side, Generals Hull and Wilkinson.

news of the treaty arrived soon enough, the battle would not have been fought. The bloodshed at the Battle of New Orleans was a particularly tragic result of the slowness of communication at the start of the nineteenth century. In fact, the slow pace at which news crossed the Atlantic had been responsible for the war in the first place: When Congress declared war on Great Britain, June 18, 1812, its members did not know that two days earlier Foreign Secretary Castlereagh had announced in Parliament that the Orders in Council restricting American commerce would be suspended.18

In an effort to endow the Battle of New Orleans with strategic significance, Jackson’s admirers later claimed that if the British had won the engagement, they might have revoked the Treaty of Ghent by declining to exchange ratifications and seeking a more advantageous settlement.19 In

fact, no such meaning can be derived from the bloodshed of January 8. The prince regent ratified the treaty as soon as he received it and dispatched the ratification to Washington without waiting to hear the outcome of the campaign in the Gulf of Mexico. Far from planning any alteration in ratifying the treaty, Prime Minister Liverpool worried that the other side might “play us some trick in the ratification of it.”20 Hence the quick British ratification. A more plausible possibility is that if the British had captured either Mobile or New Orleans, they might have turned the places over to the Spanish. Neither Britain nor Spain recognized the legality of the Louisiana Purchase, since France had violated the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800) by selling Louisiana to the United States. The American occupation of the city and environs of Mobile rested on nothing more legitimate than a military seizure from the Spanish in 1813, so the British would have been legally justified in returning them to the Spanish governor at Pensacola. Yet there is no direct evidence the British had such an intention, and they did not deliver Fort Bowyer on Mobile Bay to the Spanish at the conclusion of hostilities. Instead, the evidence suggests that the British were principally motivated to capture New Orleans by the prospect of plunder, and that their occupation of the city, if it had been achieved, would have been short.21

18. Madison later confirmed that the declaration “would have been stayed” if he had known about the British concession; Donald Hickey, The War of 1812 (Urbana, Ill., 1989), 42.

19. Some historians have repeated the claim; see Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 1801–1815 (New York, 1968), 281.

20. Lord Liverpool to Lord Castlereagh, December 23, 1814, quoted in Irving Brant, James Madison, Commander in Chief (New York, 1961), 372.

21. See James A. Carr, “The Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent,” Diplomatic History 3 (1979): 273–82.

Americans at the time did not see their great victory as meaningless. What they chose to make of it is instructive. They did not emphasize the fact that the battle had been fought after peace had been agreed. They seldom rejoiced in the multiracial, multiethnic nature of the winning army. Neither did they celebrate the technological know-how that enabled their artillery to perform so well. Instead the public seized upon the notion that western riflemen, untrained but sharp-eyed, had defeated the arrogant British. In fact, primary responsibility for the American victory lay with the artillery, not with the frontier marksmen of legend. It was the cannons that wrought most of the slaughter on the Chalmette plantation. A single noteworthy discharge from a thirty-two-pound naval gun crammed with musket balls “served to sweep the centre of the attacking force into eternity,” in the words of a British officer.22 The infantrymen in the center of Jackson’s line were under strict orders to hold their fire. Those in his army who got to use their weapons were typically armed not with rifles but with muskets or hunting pieces firing buckshot. The fog and smoke severely limited opportunities for sharpshooting. In any case, the best marksmen were not necessarily frontiersmen: A target contest between Coffee’s Tennessee Volunteers and Beale’s Rifle Company, composed of middle-class New Orleans citizenry, was won by the latter.23

The excellent gunnery that served the American cause so well at New Orleans paralleled the excellent gunnery that stood the U.S. Navy in good stead whenever the outnumbered American ships got the chance to fight the Royal Navy on equal terms. The contrast between the effectiveness of the artillery and the navy with the repeatedly disgraceful performances of the militia in the War of 1812 could scarcely be more glaring. But cannons seemed not altogether satisfactory as a patriotic symbol for the American public. Cannons were products of the industrial revolution and government-sponsored technological development. A predominantly rural people wanted heroes from the countryside. Surely it must be “the American Husbandman, fresh from his plough,” a congressional orator insisted, who had bested the best Europe had to offer.24

22. The definitive study of the effectiveness of the artillery in the battle is Carson Ritchie, “The Louisiana Campaign,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 44 (1961): 13–103; Major John Cooke is quoted on 74. See also Smelser, Democratic Republic, 280.

23. Ritchie, “Louisiana Campaign,” 71–77; John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (Gainesville, Fla., 1972), 369; John William Ward, Andrew Jackson, Symbol for an Age (New York, 1955), 26.

24. George M. Troup of Georgia in the House of Representatives, quoted ibid., 8; italics in original.

A popular song of the 1820s, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” extolled the performance of the Kentucky militia at New Orleans despite the fact that Jackson himself had criticized the Kentuckians harshly and never retracted his condemnation. Exploited for political purposes, the song perpetuated the misperception of what had happened.25 The Battle of New Orleans came to be regarded by Jackson’s many admirers as a victory of self-reliant individualists under charismatic leadership. It seemed a triumph of citizen-soldiers over professionals, of the common man over hierarchy, of willpower over rules.

The reluctance to credit the artillery with the victory partly reflected a reluctance to credit the professional servicemen, ethnic-minority city-dwellers, and pirates who manned the guns rather than the all-American frontiersmen. It also manifested a failure to foresee how much the future of the United States would owe to mechanization and government-sponsored enterprises like the federal armories that made cannons. Jackson’s admirers liked to believe theirs was a country where untutored vigor could prevail; to point out that technical expertise mattered seemed undemocratic. Their interpretation of the battle was compatible with Jefferson’s vision of “an empire for liberty” stretching to the west, a belief that the nation’s destiny lay in the multiplication of family farms and the extension of American power across continental space.

Americans agreed in rejecting the traditional class privilege exemplified by the British army and Europe in general. The Battle of New Orleans symbolized America’s deliverance from all that. The past had been defeated. But where did America’s future lie? With the individualistic, expansionist values exemplified by frontier marksmen? Or with the industrial-technological values exemplified by the artillery? Which would better serve American security and prosperity: the extension of agriculture across the continent or the intensive improvement and diversification of the economy and its infrastructure? To those great questions the rival political parties of the coming decades, Democrats and Whigs, offered sharply divergent answers.

25. See ibid., 13–16. The lyrics were written by Samuel Woodworth, author of another song of rural nostalgia, “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

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