battle_of_new_orleans_moran

A painting by Edward Percy Moran that depicts a somewhat historically inaccurate view of the Battle of New Orleans.

The Battle of New Orleans was the last major battle to take place during the War of 1812. Two years into the war, toward the end of 1814, Britain began to focus their attention on the Southern port city of New Orleans. New Orleans was a promising target for the British army because it was the entrance to the Mississippi River and by it, the heart of America’s inland shipping and transportation.

Having been defeated at the Battle of Baltimore in September, British Admiral Alexander Cochrane focused on repairing his fleet and sailing his 8,000-man force south, where they eventually anchored in the Gulf of Mexico. Several missteps by the American forces under General Andrew Jackson allowed the British troops to land a few miles south of the city. Before launching their full attack on New Orleans, however, the British were forced to wait for the arrival of General Pakenham.

New_Orleans_Map_18th_Century

An 18th century map depicting the area surrounding New Orleans. The British made land by winning a preliminary victory over the American fleet on Lake Borgne.

While the British waited for their General, the Americans busied themselves with the construction of earthworks to fortify their positions. They made heavy use of the Rodriguez Canal as a fortification, in front of which they placed several artillery batteries. The American force digging itself in was only 4,700 strong compared to the 8,000-man British force, but Jackson did have the support of warships in the Mississippi River, including the USS Louisiana, the USS Carolina and the Enterprise, along with the pirate Jean Lafitte and his Baratarians. On New Year’s Day 1815 the two sides exchanged artillery fire, but the battle would not be joined until 8 January 1815.

Early that morning, General Pakenham ordered the attack, and thus began the Battle of New Orleans. The bulk of his force was aimed directly at the earthwork defenses of the Americans, but the main attack was supposed to follow a flank attack by a British contingent. The flank maneuver was delayed by conditions that hampered the British from crossing the Mississippi, and the main attack was forced to begin alone. Though the British advance began under the cover of darkness and fog, they were quickly exposed to fire from the American earthwork line and decimated thereby. The British won a handful of small victories on the field of battle, but the Americans were quick to push back any advances.

battle_of_new_orleans

A painting by Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte, a member of the Louisiana Militia who participated in the battle. It was painted by him after the victory based on his sketches made at the scene.

The only true success won by the British on the day was due to the delayed flank maneuver. British Colonel Thornton had managed to ferry his 780-man force across the Mississippi River and to attack one of the artillery batteries possessed by the Americans. His force was able to easily overrun the battery, but after the main British force had been defeated, Thornton received orders to withdraw from his small victory. At the end of the Battle of New Orleans, the British had suffered 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including Generals Pakenham and Gibbs), 1,267 wounded and 484 captured or missing. The Americans, ensconced in their fortified earthworks, had suffered only 71 casualties.

Only three days after losing at the Battle of New Orleans, the British concluded that it would be too costly to continue the campaign against New Orleans and Louisiana. The American General Andrew Jackson received great acclaim after winning the victory at New Orleans. The victory by a greatly outnumbered force served to make Jackson a national hero and eventually helped propel him to the American presidency. “The 8th of January” became a traditional American fiddle tune, honoring the date of the battle and the victory led by General Jackson. (listen to a 1941 version of ‘The 8th of January’ in the audio player below)

The Battle of New Orleans is also notable for the fact that it was fought entirely after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. The treaty itself had been signed in the Flemish city of Ghent (thus the treaty’s name) on 24 December 1814. It had been ratified by the British on 30 December, but the slow communication of the day resulted in news of the treaty not reaching New Orleans until after the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The American Senate did not ratify the treaty until 18 February 1815.