The Battle of New Orleans is the epic event that every child in Southern Louisiana learns as the most important battle ever in the Universe, where the heroic Andrew Jackson and led a rag-tag group of soldiers, Tennessee Volunteers, local Choctaw Indians, slaves, free men of color, and pirates from Jean Lafitte's Barataria against the diabolical and imperialistic British under the evil Sir Edward Pakenham, securing the future and freedom of the United States for years to come.
While the above account is quite exaggerated, this was indeed the final battle in the War of 1812, which was a stalemate for the US. However, although the US did not do so well in this war, they kicked serious ass at New Orleans on January 8, 1815. What's ironic is that the war was already over -- it had ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. However, the victory was still very important, since it is unlikely that Britain would have given up the city -- had they taken it -- without some concession. It also secured the US's claim to West Florida. The most important thing though is the fact that this was the very last time an invading army had set foot on US soil, and we sent them packing.
The Battle of New Orleans was actually a series of battles in a campaign in which the British attempted to take New Orleans, which was then the most important port in the United States, exporting massive amounts of sugar and basically the entire cotton industry of the South. These were the days when controlling New Orleans meant controlling all of North America, due to the vastness of the Mississippi River Valley.
Britain sent somewhere between 11,000 and 14,500 troops and sailors to fight in the Louisiana Campaign, under the command of Major General Sir Edward Pakenham. These men were fresh from defeating Napoleon and fighting in other campaigns in the War of 1812. They were composed of the finest white and black troops from Europe and the British West Indies. Naval forces were commanded by Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane in the Gulf of Mexico.
American forces were led by none other than Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson. Jackson was then the very dynamic and charismatic leader of the Seventh Military District, and the greatly outnumbered American forces, which only numbered between 3500 and 5000 were happy to have such a decorated leader in charge. This army was composed of militia from Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee(the famous Tennessee Volunteers), Mississippi, Jean Lafitte's Baratarian pirates, Choctaw warriors, and free blacks. Lafitte and his 'Frenchmen of Barataria' were very instrumental in providing supplies, ammunition, and intelligence for the US forces.
Major Gabriel Plauché led the Louisiana Militia, and Major Jean Baptiste Plauché commanded the New Orleans uniformed militia companies. Many of these men had previous experience fighting in Europe, Haiti, and Latin America.The First and Second Battalions of Free Men of Color, comprising over six hundred men, played an important role in the Louisiana campaign, just as free black men had during the colonial period in the service of France and Spain. Louisiana was the first state in the Union to commission a military officer of African descent, and an act passed by the Louisiana legislature in 1812 was the first in the nation to authorize a black volunteer militia with its black line officers. Also important were the Choctaw Indians, who were friendly with the French and then the Americans because their sworn enemies, the Creek Nation always sided with the British. They were led by the half-Choctaw Major Pierre Jugeant, a scout who grew up with the Native Americans and spoke various dialects.
In late November 1814, Jackson set up his base of operations in New Orleans, preparing for the impending British attack. The people of New Orleans were very distrustful of Jackson at first, fearing he would burn the city rather than surrender it. At this time, Lousiana was a very new State(it entered the Union in 1812), and the people were largely French Creole with very little in common with the rest of the United States, culturally or otherwise. Thus, they formed committees of public safety to protect their own interests.
The British forces were based in Jamaica and planned to attack New Orleans from the sea without much travel across land. They chose to enter Lake Borgne and pass through Bayou Bienvenue which would bring them within a mile of the city. The chose this direct eastern path after Jean Lafitte rejected their offer or $30,000 to guide them through the various marshes and swamps south of New Orleans for a sneak attack on the city. Another plan to enter Lake Pontchartrain via the Rigoletswas scrapped after the British lost a naval skirmish in this area.
Jackson's original plans for defense were ruined when the British captured five American gunboats in Lake Borgne, in a skirmish that actually resulted in more British casualties than American. On the night of December 23, 1814, British and American forces clashed at Villeré and other plantations south of the city. This skirmish ended in a stalemate with 277 (46 killed) British casualties, and 213 (24 killed) American. Most of the American losses fell on Beale's Rifle Company, which was composed of New Orleans merchants and businessmen. These small battles continued below New Orleans with the Americans winning a major victory on New Year's Day, and the British winning one of the Westbank.
All of this gave Jackson time to prepare for the final battle, which would take place at Chalmette Plantation on January 8, 1815, the day commemorated today as The Battle of New Orleans. A wall of earthworks made mostly of mud and cotton bales was built from the river inland, and cannon were mounted among them. In front of the earthworks lay a sort of moat, and the Rodriguez Canal was yet another obstacle the British had to cross.
The battle was a tactical disaster and embarrassment for the British. The battle was fought on a dark, rainy, cold, foggy morning typical of Louisiana in January. The Highland Battalion was led diagonally across the battlefield, which is an entirely moronic move in this type of warfare. British cannon didn't even get much of a chance to fire.
American guns, which were mostly hunting rifles personally owned by the men comprising the militias had an advantage of about 100 yards over British muskets. Legend has it that Lafitte himself went out into the fog as the bagpipes wailed eerily across the battlefield, and shot up a flare when they were 300 yards form the American battlements, the signal for US forces to open fire while the British could not fire back until they reached 200 yards. Whether or not Lafitte was actually present is up for debate, but this advantage did exist and was taken advantage of.
Another advantage marked the bloody beginning of the end of the colorful uniforms of Napoleonic Europe. The British were famous for their brick-red and scarlet coats. These 'redcoats' combined with criss-crossing white leather straps which formed a clear 'X' served at the perfect targets for American rifles, which were relatively very accurate for the early 19 Century.
As the British forces came at the earthworks head-on and diagonally, Americans picked them off one by one, ignoring the customary volley-fire typical of those days. By the time British forces came close enough to fire, they had already been raked by the deadly American rifles and cannon. One group near the river composed mostly of Scotsmen actually approached the earthworks, only to be decisively crushed in the depression right beneath the wall.
The entire battlefield was in disarry and the British had no idea what the hell was going on. By the time Pakenham realized it was a slaughter, he was shot by the Tennessee riflemen. Eyewitness accounts given by this rowdy bunch who claimed they could "shoot the balls off a squirrel at 300 yards" go like this: Pakenham was shot off of his horse, and when he hit the ground, he tried to get up, only to be shot in the ass. Welcome to America.
With Pakenham down and another British general dead and another wounded, the British sounded the retreat. Pakenham died just behind British lines, in what is today the Pakenham Oaks and he instructed for them to continue the attack. This instruction was wisely disregarded, and the British fled back through Lake Borgne, attacking Fort St. Philip on the way out.
British losses that day numbered well over 2000, with American losses numbering 8 dead and 13 wounded. Another account gives the official number at 71. Regardless, this was a major victory for the US and a horrible defeat for the British. Pakenham's body was allegedly taken back to England in a pickle barrel. The other British dead were allowed to be buried along the river, but the Mississippi River has since claimed most of these graves.
This victory resulted in Jackson being elevated to celebrity status (This popularity contributed to his winning the Presidency in 1828, and Lafitte was pardoned of all charges previously on his head. Another hero, Jordan Noble, was a free man of color who beat the long drumroll at the battle. He later formed militia companies of free men of color to fight for the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Today, the Chalmette Battlefield in Chalmette, Louisiana is a National Historical Park, with a museum and a 100-foot obelisk monument commemorating the battle. It also contains the estate of the family of PGT Beauregard, the famous Civil War general. The park is popular among joggers and cyclists, as well as history fans. In summertime, it is a popular place to go pick blackberries or just sit on the levee. The museum is an excellent resource of information, and many of the original earthworks and trenches still exist or have been reconstructed. The site also contains the Chalmette Cemetery, where many Americans from all wars from 1812 onward are buried.
In Chalmette, the battle is commemorated every year around January 8 with reenactments and living history exhibits. There is also a large fair on the same weekend that commemorates the battle at the St. Bernard Civic Center.
The battle was immortalized in the Hollywood movie of 1938, The Buccaneer, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and its 1958 remake, starring Charleton Heston as Andrew Jackson and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte. The movies are about Lafitte, but the main event is the Battle of New Orleans.