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Chapter 25

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

by
Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 27

Chapter Twenty‑Six

p335 The Final Chapter at Sea

At last the overwhelming superiority of the British navy began to tell, and by the end of the year 1814 the effective strength of the American frigates was considerably reduced. The Chesapeake was at the bottom of the sea, the Essex had fought her last fight. The United States and the Macedonian were blockaded in the Thames at New London, the Constellation at Norfolk. The Constitution was in Boston harbor. The President alone was on the high seas and she was making for home. She managed to slip through British men-of‑war guarding the entrance to New York harbor and there she remained blockaded for the rest of the year, while Commodore Rodgers was transferred to the command of the Guerrière, then being completed.

But if the American Navy was badly wounded its fighting spirit had been in no way diminished. It was still capable of striking a few hard blows however ineffectual they may have been in changing the inevitable decision. The Adams, rating 18 guns, ran the blockade of Chesapeake Bay in January and cruised until summer, taking nine prizes in the course of six months. In August she took refuge in the Penobscot and then, as we have seen, she was burned to escape capture by the invaders.

Since the beginning of the war three new sloops had been commissioned, and two of them gave good accounts of themselves. The three were the Frolic, Peacock and Wasp. The Frolic was ill‑fated; she had not been out of port two months before she was captured. More fortunate was the Peacock, under the skillful hand of Master Commandant Lewis Warrington. She sailed from New York in March, 1814, and on April 29 sighted a large convoy on the way from Bermuda to Havana under the protection of the British brig p336Epervier, of 18 guns. Though weaker in guns and men than the Peacock, the Epervier stood up to her task of protecting the convoy.

Her decision was courageous but fatal. In less than an hour the guns of the Peacock had hulled her in nearly 50 places, cut her rigging and sails into shreds, shot away her main boom and shattered her foremast, while her decks were slippery with the blood of 23 of her crew killed or wounded. The Peacock lost not a single man and only two were wounded. Warrington returned with his prize to Savannah.

In June the Peacock again set sail and crossed the Atlantic to join the privateers that were harassing British commerce in the narrow seas. There, during July and August, she burned or sank 12 prizes, made cartel ships of two, and returned triumphantly home to New York where she arrived at the end of October.

Equally distinguished was the career of the Wasp, Commander Johnston Blakely. She sailed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on May 1, and made for the English Channel where she burned or sank five merchantmen. On June 28 the Wasp came up with the British brig Reindeer, commanded by Captain Manners. The fight was short and sharp. In 19 minutes the heavier weight of metal of the Wasp made a wreck of the Reindeer and the British commander was killed along with 32 of his men, not to mention 34 wounded. The Wasp, too, suffered badly. She had six round shot in her hull, her foremast was shot through, and her rigging and spars were mangled. Eleven of her crew were killed and 11 wounded. She was obliged to put into Lorient for repairs.

Refitted and her crew reorganized, the Wasp left Lorient on August 27 and five days later fell in with the British sloop Avon. Both ships cleared for action and engaged. Blakeley handled his ship brilliantly throughout a two‑hour fight. When the Avon struck her colors she had in her hold two feet of water, which inundated her magazine, five of her guns had been dismounted, her tiller, foreyard, main boom and rigging were shot away and 40 of her crew were killed or wounded. The Wasp's loss was only two men. In the course of her brief career as a Channel blockader she took 14 prizes in all, while eluding three frigates and 14 sloops which the Admiralty detailed to the vain task of guarding British shipping.

Turning from these rich hunting fields after her fight with the p337Avon, the Wasp clapped on sail and sped for Madeira. On September 21 she captured the brig Atlanta and on October 9 spoke a Swedish vessel. And that was the last that was ever seen of the stout little sloop and her gallant commander and crew. Her fate remains to this day one of the mysteries of the sea.

The Constitution, which had been under repair, once more ventured out to show that an American frigate could still sail the seas. Captain Charles Stewart had replaced Commodore Bainbridge as her commander. She left Boston on January 1 and for 17 days did not encounter a single vessel. At last, in February, cruising off Dutch Guiana, she captured a British schooner and a letter of marque and, returning home, was herself almost taken by two British frigates off Cape Ann. She succeeded in making Marblehead, and eventually Boston, after a not particularly successful voyage. During November, 1814, not a single ship of the United States Navy remained on the ocean.

This situation, however, did not continue long. In December Captain Stewart again hoisted sail, ran past the blockaders and made the Bay of Biscay his goal. There he cruised until February 20, when he ran up with the British frigate Cyane, of 36 guns, and the British sloop Levant, of 18 guns, and captured both of them, after which he put in with his prizes at Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands. To Santiago he was followed by the British frigates Leander, of 50 guns, Newcastle, 50 guns, and Acasta, 40 guns. Stewart thought little of the protection afforded by Portuguese neutrality and did not wait to test it. Instead he decided to make a run, ordering the Cyane and Levant to do the same. The Constitution and the Cyane escaped and returned to the United States to learn that peace had been declared. The Levant was recaptured by the British.

In November, 1814, the Navy Department decided to send Commodore Decatur to sea in command of a squadron. With this end in view the President, Captain Warrington's Peacock, Captain Biddle's Hornet and the supply ship Tom Bowline were assembled in New York and careful preparations were made for a prolonged voyage. The ships were to slip past the British blockade separately and meet at sea. Decatur designated the lonely island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic as the rendezvous.

On January 14 the President dropped down to Sandy Hook, leaving p338the rest of the squadron off Staten Island. Hardly had she hoisted her sails before misfortune overtook her. She grounded on a sand bar, but succeeded in getting off with the tide. Hugging the shore of Long Island, she successfully eluded the blockaders during the night and put out to sea. Decatur was congratulating himself on his luck when, as day dawned, he discovered that he was in the immediate vicinity of four British men-of‑war. These turned out to be the Endymion, 40 guns; the Pomone, 38 guns; the Tenedos, 38 guns; and the Majestic, and they saw him as soon as he saw them. The President spread all her canvas and dashed away with the British in hot pursuit, like a fox pursued by a pack of hounds. But in spite of all Decatur could do the Endymion began to gain on him. Throughout the morning and early afternoon the race continued while the decks of the President were cleared for action and her crew stood at her stations. As a last resort Decatur lightened his ship, but still the space between the President and the Endymion continued to narrow.

AtP.M. the Endymion opened at long range with her bow guns. The President replied, but her shots fell short. Decatur was disappointed with the behavior of his guns which he attributed to inferior powder. By 5 P.M. the Endymion was on top of her prey and pouring a fire into her which did great damage while Decatur could not bring the President's guns to bear on her adversary. All hope of escape was now gone. In spite of the odds against him Decatur had no other recourse except to stand up and fight. Still the President's guns refused to act as Decatur thought they should and the Commodore determined upon the bold plan of running the Endymion down and boarding her. Captain Hope, of the Endymion, however, preferred to fight it out with the guns and skillfully maneuvered his ship so as to keep out of harm's way. The ships were now only a quarter of a mile apart and, for two and a half hours, poured broadsides into each other. The battle was hard fought and both of the contenders were badly damaged, but gradually the President's superiority in metal began to tell. The Endymion, her sails in shreds, gave evidence of exhaustion and fell astern.

The Endymion, however, had successfully performed her mission in overtaking and holding the President, for by this time the Pomone, the Tenedos, the Majestic and also the Dispatch, which had p339joined in the chase, arrived on the scene and entered the battle. Decatur had had as much as he could do to contend with the Endymion; he was in no condition to take on four more adversaries. So, with a heavy heart, he ordered the President's colors to be struck. Thus ended the career of the newest and finest of the American frigates, while one of the United States Navy's modern distinguished captains and his ship and crew were conducted to Bermuda by their triumphant conquerors.

Ignorant of the fate that had overtaken their leader, the Peacock, Hornet and Tom Bowline set out on January 22 and eluded the blockade. The Peacock and the Tom Bowline were the first to reach Tristan da Cunha, arriving off the island by the middle of March, but were driven away by a storm. On March 23 the Hornet sailed into the harbor. Captain Biddle was about to anchor when he sighted a strange vessel and set out to investigate her. When the Hornet was within musket-shot range of the stranger the latter raised the British colors and opened fire. The newcomer was the 18‑gun brig Penguin, under the command of Captain Dickenson. Biddle at once accepted the challenge and for 15 minutes the guns of the two ships thundered at each other. They were as evenly matched in size, crews and weight of metal as two ships could be. Dickenson proceeded to run down the Hornet in order to board her and settle the dispute on deck in a hand-to‑hand fight. The ships crashed and the Penguin's first officer shouted to her boarders to follow him over the side of the Hornet, but the men held back. Meanwhile Biddle was urging on his gun crews and raking the decks of the Penguin with broadside after broadside. Above the din of the battle a British officer's voice was heard shouting that the Penguin had surrendered.

Biddle ordered his guns to cease firing; and as the gunners obeyed the command, two British marines drew a bead on the American commander and fired. Biddle dropped to the deck with a bullet through his neck. With a shout of anger the Americans fell upon the marines and killed both of them. It was with difficulty that peace was restored. Biddle's wound proved slight. The Penguin was so severely damaged that she could not be taken as a prize and Biddle scuttled her. In the fight the Hornet lost only one man killed and 10 wounded. The battle, modest as it was, had an especial significance; p340for it was the last to the present day to be fought between men-of‑war of Great Britain and the United States.

The sun had not set when the Peacock and the Tom Bowline arrived on the scene to join the victorious Hornet. Biddle now converted the Tom Bowline into a cartel ship and sent her off with his prisoners to Rio de Janeiro. The Hornet and the Peacock continued to cruise about Tristan da Cunha waiting for the President, though meanwhile news reached them that she had probably been captured. The two sloops then set off to try their luck in the East Indies. On April 27 they came up with the British ship of the line Cornwallis, rating 74 guns, and at once separated and started to run from so formidable an adversary. The Hornet was slower than the Peacock and the Cornwallis singled her out for special attention. For a time it looked as though the end of the Hornet had come as the Cornwallis was overtaking her. Biddle's only hope lay in lightening his ship. Overboard went shot, anchors, cables and all the heavy gear that served to hold her back. When these proved to be not enough, spars and boats followed and then all the guns except one which Biddle saved for emergency. The plan worked. Gradually the Hornet drew away and at last threw off her pursuer. Thus bared of all her fighting gear the Hornet set out on her long journey back home. She arrived safely at last in New York harbor on June 9 without an anchor left aboard her to drop.

The Peacock continued on alone, looking for further adventure. She eventually came up with the British cruiser Nautilus, with whom she exchanged a broadside before the Nautilus struck. From her Captain Warrington learned that the war was over and also the period of grace allowed by the treaty for ships at sea. So the Nautilus was given her freedom. To Captain Biddle went the honor of fighting the last battle; to his colleague, Captain Warrington, of the Peacock, the honor of firing the last shot.

While these final chapters were being written at sea the war was coming to an end as well on land. The British had made a thrust from Canada. They had harried the Eastern seaboard and raided the capital. It was now time to try the South.

Before the British War Office learned of the death of General Ross in Baltimore it had ordered him, upon the completion of that campaign, to sail for Jamaica, await reinforcements and prepare for an p341expedition against the troubled territory of Louisiana. The British counted upon the disaffected French and Spaniards to further their cause. The main objects were the capture of New Orleans and the closing of the mouth of the Mississippi to commerce. The direction of the attack and the steps to be taken if it proved successful were left to Ross and Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who was to share in this amphibious operation. The death of Ross, when it was reported in England, did not greatly alter the plans.

The situation of the Federal Government, following the humiliation to the capital was bad enough in all conscience. In New England, the people were willing for peace at any price. When, in October, 1814, the British conditions were made known in this country, and included the cession of part of Maine and the abandonment of New England's fishing rights, Governor Strong, of Massachusetts, considered the terms reasonable and the Federalist leaders saw in them no cause for prolonging the war. They blamed the American negotiators for rejecting the offer.

But in other parts of the country the disgrace of the raid on Washington brought about a solidarity that President Madison hitherto had been unable to achieve. Particularly in the westward was there a cry for revenge, and the West had a leader capable of making revenge possible. General Andrew Jackson had a personal score of many years' standing to settle with the British; for, as a youth in the days of the Revolution, he had felt the edge of a British officer's sword across his face and the bite of it was still there. It so happened that he was now present for duty at the most threatened spot. When General William Henry Harrison, in a pique, resigned his commission after the battle of the Thames, a major-generalcy in the regular army was left vacant and to it Andrew Jackson, fresh from his victory against the Creeks, was appointed. He was now Commander of the Seventh Military District, with headquarters at Mobile.

The West had always laid covetous eyes on the Floridas and this may well have colored Jackson's estimate of the problem which confronted him. He arrived at Mobile on August 15, 1814, and, because of the demoralization at Washington just at that moment, he was left largely to his own resources. Jackson had informers everywhere and soon received news that the Spanish authorities in Pensacola were closely allied with the British and Indians. He also was p342convinced in his own mind that any attack on New Orleans must be made by way of Mobile, a conviction he held up to the last minute and which, as we shall see, nearly led to disaster.

The information he had received was shortly verified by the arrival at Pensacola of several British men-of‑war, under the command of Captain William H. Percy, from which were landed a few hundred marines under Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicholls, a somewhat bombastic Irishman. They were hospitably received by the Spanish governor, Don Matteo Gonzalez Manrique, and the British flag was flown from Fort St. Michael, on the outskirts of the town, and from Fort Barrancas, six miles below it. Agents were sent among the Creeks and Seminoles inviting them to join the British in the war against the Americans, while Nicholls issued a proclamation to the people of Louisiana urging them to cast off the American yoke. He talked so loudly of an invasion by way of Mobile that Jackson could not have been better deceived as to their true purpose had the British deliberately employed Nicholls to throw Jackson off the scent. Nicholls' force was totally inadequate for so ambitious an undertaking but the rumor was spread and actually believed that the Russian Czar was lending 50,000 men to the British for the conquest of Louisiana.

In their zeal to gather recruits the British were not squeamish about whom they asked. Their only requirement was that a man should know how to fight. If he had a grievance against the United States, so much the better. In Barataria Bay, west of the Mississippi delta and some 60 miles below the city of New Orleans, was the headquarters of a picturesque band of outlaws under the leadership of a shrewd Frenchman named Jean Laffite.º Laffite, according to his own way of putting it, was an honest man who was the victim of what he called "vices of the law." These "vices," for example, forbade American citizens to attack the vessel of a country with which the United States was not at war.a Laffite and his gangsters preyed upon Spanish commerce, seizing and robbing every Spanish ship that ventured too near his stronghold.

The "vices of the law" also forbade the entry of goods into the United States upon which a duty had not been paid. Laffite smuggled his captured goods in small boats through the lonely bayous which led to New Orleans and there disposed of them to merchants p343who were only too glad to get them. New Orleans was a gay, cosmopolitan city where life was free and polite custom forbade the asking of embarrassing questions. In New Orleans Laffite was favorably known and enjoyed the friendship of men in high places. A merchant of his importance naturally needed the service of legal counsel and Laffite engaged Edward Livingston, former mayor of New York, who had been involved in a financial scandal, lost his force and gone to New Orleans to start life over again. Livingston was a man of distinguished bearing and he and his charming wife were leaders of the American colony in the city.

Governor William C. Claiborne, however, had sworn to uphold the "vicious laws" of which Jean Laffite complained. In spite of the popular sentiment in favor of Laffite the Governor determined to perform the unpopular task of breaking up the Laffite gang. He offered a reward of $500 for the capture of its leader, but the clever pirate, with a touch of Gallic humor, promptly countered and set all New Orleans laughing by offering a reward of $30,000 for the capture of the Governor. Claiborne, however, was not discouraged. Under his direction a combined military and naval expedition was organized to set out for Barataria Bay and beard the pirates in their den. Before it started Pierre Laffite, a brother of the leader, who lived in New Orleans, was clapped into jail.

Such was the situation when British agents arrived at Barataria Bay bearing a letter from Colonel Nicholls giving a glowing account of the prospects offered if Laffite would join the British and a more pointed one from Captain Percy warning him of the jeopardy he would be in if he didn't. Spanish ships did not always surrender without putting up a fight and the Baratarians were therefore quite accustomed to the smoke of battle and knew how to handle a cannon and other weapons. They could be most useful to the British cause.

Laffite asked for time to think the matter over. But even as he entertained his visitors his alert mind realized that an opportunity had come to him, like manna from heaven. He was now possessed of valuable information about the enemy and, if he delivered that information to New Orleans, the United States authorities ought to see him in a different light. Where all had seemed hopeless before, here at the ninth hour was a promising means of extricating himself from the toils that were tightening about him. Laffite immediately p344reported the offer to his lawyer, Livingston, and through Livingston begged of Governor Claiborne forgiveness for himself and his men. He promised that, if pardoned, they would faithfully serve the Americans. Claiborne, nevertheless, carried out his raid on Barataria; but, at the same time, Pierre Laffite mysteriously escaped from prison. Thus the dignity of the law was upheld and the Baratarians also scored a point. Everybody in New Orleans was pleased.

Soon after Jackson learned of Nicholls' activities at Pensacola he appealed to Governor Blount of Tennessee for troops for an expedition against the town. But it would be a month or more before the levy could be raised. Meanwhile his immediate concern was Fort Bowyer, 30 miles south of Mobile on a point of land guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort was poorly constructed and mounted only 20 guns. Major William Lawrence, of the United States Army, was dispatched there with 120 regulars under orders to hold it at all cost. These precautions were taken none too soon for, on September 12, Nicholls landed in rear of the fort with a small band of marines and Indians; while late in the evening the British men-of‑war Hermes, Sophia, Carron and Anaconda, commanded by Captain Percy, sailed up and anchored offshore.

The following day Nicholls posted a howitzer within 700 yards of the fort and tossed over a few shells, to which Lawrence's guns responded. This desultory exchange of shots continued for two days. Then, on the evening of the 15th, the ships approached close to the fort and delivered their broadsides while Nicholls attacked from the land. The British anticipated an easy victory but they failed to take into account Lawrence's courage and the marksmanship of his gunners. The little garrison in the fort responded vigorously to the attack, keeping Nicholls' force at a respectful distance while at the same time they directed fire with great effect upon the men-of‑war which lay nearest them.

In short order the Hermes and the Sophia found themselves in serious trouble and the Hermes was so badly damaged that Percy had to abandon and set fire to her. The joint attack ended in a bloody repulse in which the British lost 162 killed and 72 wounded. Though the American gunners were fully exposed to the broadsides of the men-of‑war Lawrence got off with only four men killed and four wounded. The defeated force retired to Pensacola p345while Lawrence's fine little victory greatly damaged British prestige among the Indians.

A few days after the events at Fort Bowyer Jackson received from the people of New Orleans a memorial in which they begged him to come to their help. This he was not yet ready to do. But he had been smarting under Nicholls' boasts and now was his opportunity for revenge. To Nicholls' proclamation he issued a counter proclamation to the people of Louisiana urging their continued loyalty to the United States. By way of sealing the argument he reminded them of the French offer to the Baratarians and asked how they could trust anyone who had sunk so low as to attempt an alliance with these "hellish banditti." Thus publicly he expressed his opinion of Laffite and his gang.

The British, in spite of their defeat, were welcomed back to Pensacola by Governor Manrique and once more occupied Forts St. Michael and Barrancas. The circumstance strengthened Jackson's belief that Pensacola and its complaisant governor must be brought to book. The government in Washington had recovered from its paralysis and once more began to function. Monroe, who replaced Armstrong as Secretary of War, learned of the British plans against New Orleans, since they were discussed openly in the British press, and hastened to warn Jackson. On October 21 he wrote actually forbidding Jackson to attack Pensacola, stating emphatically that the President did not wish to become embroiled in a war with Spain.

Whether or not Jackson received the order, he nevertheless went ahead with his project. On October 25 his trusted lieutenant, General Coffee, arrived at Mobile with the newly raised Tennessee brigade, bringing Jackson's force there to 4,000. Jackson now judged that he was sufficiently strong to move. On November 3 he set out for his objective and on the evening of November 6 arrived within two miles of Pensacola and encamped for the night. The army he took with him, numbering about 3,000, was composed of two regiments of regulars, Tennessee volunteers and militiamen and a detachment of Choctaw Indians. An officer was dispatched under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the forts and was fired upon by the Spaniards. After reporting the incident to Jackson the officer set out a second time and succeeded in reaching Manrique who, however, refused Jackson's demand that the forts be turned over p346to the Americans until the Spanish Government should be strong enough to defend its neutrality.

Next day Jackson's army was up and stirring while it was still dark. Taking to the shore on the east side of the town to avoid fire from the guns of Fort St. Michael, the attackers advanced in three columns, making a desperate effort to drag cannon with them through the sand. The Spaniards were ready to meet them. They had planted two guns in the center of the main street, while houses and gardens were thick with armed men. Not waiting for his own cannon to come up, Jackson ordered the regulars to charge the Spanish battery. They went forward with a shout to be greeted by a burst of grape and solid balls from the battery and a hail of bullets from the defenders in all parts of the town.

Nothing daunted by this warm reception the Americans made a final dash that overwhelmed the battery. In the lull which followed, and as the smoke lifted, a flag of truce appeared. Under it was Don Matteo Manrique asking to be led to General Jackson. His Spanish pride was humbled as he offered to kiss the General's hands and begged him to spare the town. Old Hickory was indifferent to having his hands kissed. At the moment he was more intent upon taking possession of the forts and to this the thoroughly cowed Manrique promptly consented.

Fort St. Michael had already been evacuated by the British, but Barrancas still remained in their hands. Jackson spent the day resting his men and planned to move on Barrancas next morning, seize it and turn its guns on the British fleet which lay offshore. But in the middle of the night the British blew up the fort, and the garrison embarked on the ships which then sailed away. Fearful that the British meant to attack Mobile during his absence, Jackson set his army in motion toward Fort Montgomery to face them should they succeed in passing Fort Bowyer.

Jackson has been severely criticized for this descent on Pensacola. Its capture did, of course, injure the prestige of the British in that quarter. On the other hand it gave the Federalists in Washington the opportunity to raise a clamor over what they called an unwarranted attack on a friendly power. More to the point, it was a waste of valuable time in view of the fact that Jackson was completely deceived as to the actual direction of the invasion.

p347 Jackson reached Mobile on November 11. He found there, not the British, but another urgent appeal from the people of New Orleans to hasten to the defense of their city. New Orleans knew that it was a rich prize. It was fully conscious of the peril in which it stood, but its power of defending itself was virtually paralyzed by petty jealousy, political intrigue and strife. Conscientious and well-meaning though he was, Governor Claiborne lacked the force to weld together the cosmopolitan elements which composed the town's population. Americans, Spaniards and Creoles were divided into factions; the Legislature wrangled with the Governor and its members wrangled among themselves. As a result, nothing was being done by the constituted authorities to put the place in a state of adequate preparedness against the threatened attack. As events proved, the genius was there if it were properly directed. New Orleans needed an iron hand and that hand was at Mobile.

Despairing of getting the Legislature to act, Livingston, the ex‑mayor of New York, took it upon himself to call a mass meeting of the citizens. He addressed them with all the eloquence at his command and the result was the organization of a committee of safety with Livingston as its chairman. The next step was the letter to Jackson. Having achieved his ambition in striking at Pensacola Jackson was now ready to go to New Orleans. But he continued to believe that Mobile would be attacked first. He therefore split his army, leaving several thousand men at Mobile under General James Winchester, while he proceeded with the remainder to New Orleans.

The General was at the time in wretched health, suffering from dysentery and exhausted from his strenuous campaigns, between which he had enjoyed practically no rest. His digestion was so poor that he could eat little more than boiled rice, and his tall slender frame and his sunken cheeks gave him a ghostlike appearance. He was so weak that he could not stand, or even sit, for any length of time and many of his orders were issued as he lay on a couch. But his eyes were still full of their accustomed fire and his state of emaciation gave to his chin an even more determined firmness.

Upon his arrival in New Orleans he found plenty of work to do. Livingston had not exaggerated the condition of stagnation. The only military consisted of a battalion of uniformed volunteers and a handful of militia. Arms were scarce and there was neither money p349nor credit with which to increase the supply. The government had shipped arms from Pittsburgh but they were still on their way down the Mississippi, having been shipped by slow boat by the contractor to save money! Furthermore there was present a defeatist group, composed chiefly of wealthy merchants whose warehouses were stocked with valuable goods and who preferred surrender to the possible loss of their possessions in a siege.

Jackson got swiftly through with the formalities of his arrival, made a speech which was translated by Livingston and created a favorable impression, then declared martial law and set out upon the arduous task of converting the gayest city in the New World into an armed camp. The Governor was immediately directed to call out all the militia, orders were issued to fell trees and raise other obstructions in all the bayous leading toward the city deep enough to float barges. The old fortifications were strengthened and new ones built. Jackson himself pored over maps and in person made long trips outside the city to inspect the operations and study the terrain in order to familiarize himself with the country in which he would probably have to fight. (See Map X)

The city of New Orleans lies on the left bank of the Mississippi River some 100 miles from its mouth. To the north and east is Lake Pontchartrain and still farther east, Lake Borgne. The lakes are joined by a narrow strait known as Les Rigolets and between them is a flat and rather wide peninsula extending from the city to the strait. Through the center of this peninsula, known as the plain of Gentilly, ran the Chef Menteur road. This would be the most obvious route for an invasion based upon a fleet coming in from the Gulf.

However, there were several other lines of attack. Were the British to take possession of the lakes they could enter Pontchartrain and from there use the Bayou St. John which was sufficiently wide and deep to carry an invading force straight to the center of the city. The entrance to the bayou was protected by Fort St. John, which Jackson garrisoned. A fort also stood at the entrance to Les Rigolets.

South of the city the river winds its way to the delta. For many miles below New Orleans the banks were lined by successive sugar plantations on a strip of narrow dry ground flanked by cypress swamps and marshes. In numerous places the swamps were cut by p350bayous sufficiently large to float an expedition. The British might come straight up the river or they might use one of these bayous.

To the west of the river was a series of bayous and lakes leading all the way from Barataria Bay to the city. This was the route favored by the Baratarians in bringing their contraband to New Orleans. Jackson's problem of defense was greatly magnified by the choices, of which there were at least five, presented to the enemy and the great danger involved in dividing his limited forces in an effort to guard all approaches.

To protect the direct river route Jackson manned Fort St. Philip, some 20 miles from its mouth. At a broad bend in the river 12 miles from New Orleans, known as English Turn, he erected a battery. Since he had given the orders he assumed that all the bayous had been blocked. On Lake Borgne was a flood of five gunboats under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones to lie in wait for the enemy and report his arrival. Having taken these precautions Jackson believed that for the time being he was secure against surprise.

Long before this the British expedition had begun to rendezvous at Negril Bay, in Jamaica. The troops which had taken part in the invasion of Washington and the attack on Baltimore were joined by others fresh from Wellington's campaign in Spain and one Scottish regiment which came all the way from the Cape of Good Hope. The expeditionary force was augmented by several regiments of native Jamaicans. The land troops in all numbered from 7,000 to 8,000, and sailors brought the total to the neighborhood of 10,000. No less than 50 ships, including men-of‑war and transports, were assembled to carry this impressive host to the scene of combat. On the way from England to take command of the expedition in place of the now‑deceased General Ross was Major General Sir Edward Pakenham attended by Major General John Keane, both officers of the first rank.

Everything being in readiness the armada set sail on November 26. Officers and men were in excellent spirits for they had heard much of New Orleans and anticipated enjoyment of the spoils after what they hoped would be an easy victory. The ships made good time and less than two weeks later, on December 9, they arrived off the Gulf Coast and dropped anchor between Ship and Cat Islands, at the entrance to Lake Borgne. Within 24 hours Lieutenant Jones p351had sighted the expedition and reported its presence to his superior, Master Commandant Daniel Patterson, in command of all the naval forces in the neighboring waters. Admiral Cochrane also caught sight of Jones and forthwith ordered an attack by his light sailing ships. Jones maneuvered skillfully to lure the ships into the treacherous shallows of the lake where many of them grounded.

This attack failing, Cochrane ordered out 60 barges, each with a carronade in the bow and manned by 1,200 men in all. This was too much for Lieutenant Jones to handle and he prepared to retire under the guns of the battery overlooking Les Rigolets. But at this crucial moment a calm set in rendering flight impossible. So, forming his flotilla in line near Malheureux Island, he cleared his decks for action and stood ready to receive the attack.

The Americans held their fire until the British had come within close range, then met them with a barrage of ball and grape. The damage to the enemy was severe; but, regardless of their losses and counting upon their numerical superiority, they continued forward. The battle raged fiercely for an hour before the gunboats were surrounded, boarded and captured. Jones lost in the engagement all his boats and six men killed and 35 wounded, he himself being among the latter. But he had made the British pay dearly for their success, their loss running to 300 killed and wounded.

However, Jackson had lost his eyes in Lake Borgne as well as the lake itself. The British quickly followed up their success by seizing Pea Island, a desolate spot in the lake at the mouth of Pearl River, part swamp inhabited by alligators but with enough firm land to serve as an advance post for the attack on New Orleans. For the next few days the British set themselves to the laborious task of rowing men and matériel across the 30 miles that lay between the fleet and the island.

As soon as news of the capture of the gunboats reached New Orleans the town was thrown into a fever of excitement and alarm. Jackson among other things recognized the plain of Gentilly and the Chef Menteur Road as being his most vulnerable spot and dispatched Major La Coste with a battalion of free men of color and detachments of dragoons and artillery to guard them. General Coffee with half of his mounted riflemen was at Baton Rouge. The other half, unfortunately, p352had been left in the Mobile area. Jackson ordered him to march posthaste to New Orleans.

General William Carroll with more Tennesseans had set out weeks before and was somewhere on the Mississippi on the way to New Orleans. So, too, was General John Thomas and the Kentucky militia. Jackson had heard nothing from them and had no idea where they were. Nevertheless he dispatched couriers to intercept them if possible and urge them forward with all speed. The time devoted to the attack on Pensacola now began to make itself felt. The enemy, formidable in numbers and equipment, was within striking distance of New Orleans. But as yet Jackson's army was scarcely in being. So firm had he been in the belief that invasion would come by way of Mobile that, at the crucial moment, he was painfully unprepared to meet it.


Thayer's Note:

a A good succinct definition of piracy: for the detailed differences between pirates and privateers, see chapter 2 of Chidsey's The American Privateers. Louisiana historian Gaspar Cusachs gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lafitte, and details his rôle and that of the Baratarians in the Battle of New Orleans, in "Lafitte, the Louisiana Pirate and Patriot" (Louisiana Historical Quarterly II.418‑438).


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