On December 18 the General held a grand review of the battalion of uniformed companies, the pride of New Orleans, under the command of Major Jean Plauché, and D'Aquin's free men of color led by white officers. The free men of color had fought in Haiti and then fled the island and found refuge in Louisiana. Their organization was Jackson's own idea and it had not been without opposition from persons disturbed over the arming of former slaves.
It was Sunday and the historic Place d'Armes was thronged with people who had turned out to view the spectacle and hear an address from Livingston. The war spirit was now running high in the city. Military bands stirred the emotions of the populace and appealed both to the Americans and the French by playing "Yankee Doodle," "The Marseillaise" and The "Chant du Depart," while the belles of the town displayed their charms on balconies and at windows and waved encouragement to the military with their lace handkerchiefs. A general holiday was declared and people of all classes, regardless of race and color, joined forces in strengthening the fortifications.
The review over, Jackson ordered Major Plauché and his men to the Bayou St. John to watch the northern approach to the city. At the fort itself he stationed a detachment of regulars. At Fort St. Charles, across the Mississippi, he posted the 44th U. S. Infantry and a detachment of regular artillery, 800 men in all. The 7th U. S. Infantry he kept with him in the city. On December 20 Coffee's vanguard, 800 in number, responding to the urgent summons of his chief, arrived from Baton Rouge and encamped several miles to the north of the town. But best of all was the arrival of Major General William Carroll with his 2,000 Tennessee militiamen who at last p354 had completed their long and arduous trip down the Mississippi. What is more, they were equipped, well disciplined and ready for action.
A problem of immediate importance was the disposition of Laffite and his fellow Baratarians. They were experienced fighters, of which Jackson could not have too many, and they had volunteered their services. But the General proved a stumbling block. Having publicly declared them to be "hellish banditti" and condemned the British for trafficking with them, how was he now to do an about-face and accept them into his army? Livingston pleaded with him; so did Governor Claiborne and the local judge. The General brushed their arguments aside. Then, as a last resort, Jean Laffite presented himself before Jackson. The conference was held behind closed doors and what went on was never disclosed. But Laffite must have exerted his utmost charms for, when he departed, he carried with him Jackson's permission to muster himself and his men into the service. Most of the Baratarians were sent to the Bayou St. John.
On the barren waste of Pea Island Admiral Cochrane and General Keane received visits from numerous influential Spaniards from New Orleans. The Spaniards were more than willing to give aid and comfort to the enemy. They pictured Jackson as a tyrant, the city poorly defended and the people ripe for revolution. Of even greater importance was their disclosure of the existence, at the northwest end of Lake Borgne, of a bayou which extended almost to the Mississippi, •nine miles south of the city, and which was navigable for small boats a good part of the way. This was the Bayou Bienvenu. Cochrane and Keane were sufficiently impressed to send two officers to investigate. At all were well received at a Spanish fishing village at the mouth of bayou, and, disguised as fishermen, were conducted all the way to the river.
What is more, they made the astonishing discovery that this vital approach to New Orleans was totally unobstructed and undefended, in spite of Jackson's orders. To the Bayou Bienvenu, therefore, the British leaders decided to direct their expedition.
December 22 broke cold and rainy over Lake Borgne. Undaunted by the weather the vanguard of the British host, 1,800 men, put out in open boats on the first lap of their great endeavor. From p355 Pea Island to Bayou Bienvenu was a matter of •some 30 miles. In command was Lieutenant Colonel William Thornton, the same officer who had played so distinguished a part in the battle of Bladensburg. Through the day the sailors stood to the oars while the soldiers crouched in the boats without protection, the rain beating down upon them and soaking them to the skin. As evening came on the temperature fellow below freezing and the wet uniforms of the men stiffened on them. Throughout the night the expedition continued across the lake and in the early morning arrived at the fishermen's village and landed safely. At this spot the British were within •15 miles of New Orleans and up to this time, in spite of all of Jackson's studied precautions, not a person in the city knew of their presence.
However, since the reconnaissance of a few days before, a handful of pickets had been placed at the entrance to the bayou. They were part of the command of Colonel Pierre De La Ronde, next-door neighbor of Major General Jacques Villeré, of the Louisiana militia, whose sugar plantation lay between the Bayou Bienvenu and the river. Most of the pickets were immediately overpowered and captured.
This accident was not without benefit to the American cause. For among the pickets was one Joseph Rodolphe Ducros, a young man of nimble wit and a gift for lying convincingly. Upon being questioned he informed the British that the American force holding New Orleans was composed of excellent troops, thoroughly equipped and trained and, at a conservative estimate, numbering from 10,000 to 15,000 men. Cochrane and Keane, though not convinced, were impressed. The report was sufficient to make them cautious, and that caution was to prove costly.
The expedition now proceeded up the bayou, guarding against surprise, and eventually emerged from the swampland onto the solid ground of the Villeré plantation. The British surrounded the dwelling and, to their delight, discovered that they had bagged Major Gabriel Villeré, the general's son. But while they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune they momentarily relaxed their vigilance. In an instant Major Villeré had leaped a fence and was fleeing to the house of Colonel De La Ronde. Together the two men crossed the Mississippi, obtained horses and galloped all the way to New Orleans to give the alarm. Splashed with mud they p356 burst into Jackson's headquarters and told their story. It verified the news that had been brought to him a few minutes before by one of the pickets who had escaped from the fishermen's village.
Jackson rose from his couch to receive them and listened intently to what they had to say. It was the news for which he had been waiting, for now he had an idea of the direction from which the attack would be launched. The day was already well spent for it was two hours after noon. Jackson's army was spread over a wide area. Considerable time might reasonably be expected to elapse before he could bring it together. Even after that several hours would be needed for the march to the Villeré plantation; an attack could hardly be staged before nightfall. A cautious general would, no doubt, have considered the factors, compared them with the advantage of setting out early next morning when there would have been more time to prepare and make sure that all was in order. Besides, how did he know that this was not a feint? What if the real assault were to be launched from the most obvious direction, the plain of Gentilly and the Chef Menteur Road, or even from a branch of the Bayou Bienvenu that stretched northward toward the city?
But Andrew Jackson was not a cautious general. As soon as he knew where the enemy was, instinct told him to come to grips. He stood for an instant in thought. Then, turning calmly to the officers present, he said, "Gentlemen, the British are below; we must fight them tonight!"
The General fell heir to another piece of good fortune. It so happened that on this very morning Major A. Lacarrière Latour, his chief of engineers, was on reconnaissance in the neighborhood of the Bayou Bienvenu. Latour was an experienced soldier and knew the importance of accurate information. When he heard of the arrival of the British he approached within rifle shot of them, made an estimate and judged that the force amounted to from 1,600 to 1,800 men. He hit the number almost exactly. That was at 1:30 P.M. and within half an hour the information was in Jackson's hands. Thus the General knew the size of the opposition and what force he would need to defeat it.
A cannon was fired to give the alarm, marching orders were issued and by 4 P.M. Jackson, with a force of over 2,000 men, was advancing down the river road on the way to the Villeré plantation. p357 This force was composed of the advance guard of Coffee's mounted riflemen, Hind's Mississippi dragoons who galloped on ahead of the column, Beale's New Orleans riflemen, Plauché's uniformed battalion, D'Aquin's free men of color, the regulars of the 7th and 44th U. S. Infantries and two 6‑inch guns manned by regular artillerists and guarded by a detachment of marines. Carroll's Tennesseans were left behind to guard against a surprise attack closer to the city.
On the river at New Orleans were two armed schooners, the Carolina and the Louisiana, both under the command of Master Commandant Patterson. The Carolina was fully manned and ready for action; the Louisiana was still without a full crew. Jackson gave orders to Patterson to dispatch the Carolina down the river to cooperate with the land troops.
At the Villeré plantation the British troops had encamped during the afternoon on the riverbank near the levee, taking their last rest before advancing on the city. Thornton counseled immediate action but he was overruled by Keane. Reinforcements were expected during the night and, after Ducros' story, Keane was taking no chances. It never entered the heads of the British that they might themselves be attacked. Since, as one of their officers argue, the Americans had never dared to attack before, there seemed no great probability of their doing so on the present occasion. This man had fought at Bladensburg and Baltimore. He had yet to make the acquaintance of Andrew Jackson. Dark had descended when, around 7 P.M., the Carolina quietly anchored off the Villeré plantation. She was so near the British camp that some of the soldiers on the levee hailed her. They eyed her with curiosity but not with fear, never dreaming what her true purpose was. At the same time the American column was moving forward silently on the road that paralleled the river. Arrived within a few miles of the British camp Jackson himself continued to follow the river road. With him were the two guns, the 7th and the 44th, Plauché and D'Aquin's men. Here Coffee's brigade turned off to the cane fields on the left. With it went Beale's riflemen and Hind's dragoons. The purpose of Coffee's force was to make an encircling movement, cut the British line of communications with the Bayou Bienvenu, and take the enemy in the flank while Jackson attacked them in the front. Coffee was fortunate in having as guides Colonel De La Ronde and Major Villeré who knew every foot of the p358 country. His men moved close to the cypress swamp, which was separated from the river by the flat lands of the sugar plantations.
According to Jackson's orders the action was to be opened by the Carolina. The crew were now at their guns which they had trained on the British camp. Promptly at 7:30 P.M., the appointed hour, the Carolina let go her first broadside. In a flash the quiet scene was transformed into one of confusion and death as the shells ripped into the groups of men sitting around the fires and left scores of them torn and bleeding on the ground.
Nothing could testify better to the quality and discipline of these British veterans of Wellington's army than their behavior on this occasion. In spite of the entirely unexpected attack they recovered at once from their first surprise, put out their fires and within a few minutes were replying with rockets and musketry. As yet they had no cannon with them. But rockets and small arms did no damage to the Carolina which continued to pour in a devastating fire. The critical position of the British was alleviated by the fact that an old levee which paralleled the new one gave them a place where the fire from the schooner could not reach them. This space served as a rallying point as the battle proceeded.
No sooner had the British recovered from the first shock than shots on their northern picket line announced a threat from another quarter. With presence of mind born of long experience in battle Colonel Thornton, though working in the semidarkness, gathered together detachments from two regiments and rushed to the support of the pickets. In fact his counterattack was so successful that he almost overran the American guns. General Jackson saw the danger and dashed forward on his horse to encourage the artillerists with his presence and urge them to save the guns at all cost. Thus inspired by the commander the men stood their ground, drove the British off and the guns were saved. The 44th Infantry joined with the 7th and Plauché's and D'Aquin's commands to drive Thornton back to his original position.
While these events were taking place on the American right and center, General Coffee arrived on the De La Ronde plantation, which adjoined Villeré's on the north, and there dismounted his riflemen. A part of his force made their way on foot almost to the center of the British camp. Here again Thornton came to the rescue p359 and directed a counterattack against Coffee. In the dark friend and foe were virtually indistinguishable; little groups formed and met in hand-to‑hand combat. A detachment of Beale's riflemen lost their way and were captured by the British. To add to the difficulty of night fighting a fog came up and further obscured the field. Concluding that nothing further could be accomplished under such trying conditions Jackson called off his men. The hour was 9:30 o'clock and by now the expected British reinforcements were arriving from the Bayou Bienvenu. Jackson no longer knew with how large a force he had to contend.
The battle of the evening of December 23 was inconclusive, yet the result was highly favorable to the American cause. Jackson, through his intuitive genius, had accomplished the rare feat of turning a surprise into a countersurprise. Within a few hours the British had expected to be in New Orleans. Instead they had been roughly handled, losing 277 men in killed, wounded and missing. The American losses were a trifle less, totaling 217. Jackson left the enemy not a little bewildered and disheartened. The men also were critical of General Keane whom they held responsible for the predicament in which they found themselves.
While the regulars and the dragoons remained on the field facing the enemy, Jackson fell back with the rest of his force •about three miles to the Rodriguez Canal. This was a dry ditch •some four feet deep and twenty feet wide, entering the river at a right angle and extending eastward to the cypress swamp. The line had been selected by the engineers because it was the narrowest piece of dry land between the river and the swamp. It gave Jackson a line of •about three‑fifths of a mile to defend. Here the men were set to work at once digging a trench •30 feet back from the canal and raising a parapet •about three feet in height. Thus the little army spent the whole of Christmas Eve. (See Map XI)
Map XI. New Orleans, January 8
The day in the British camp was cheerless enough, for the weather was cold and blustery with occasional rain. However, the spirits of the expedition were considerably raised by the arrival of a new commander. Rumor spread in the American camp that it was the great Wellington himself. Actually he was the Iron Duke's brother-in‑law, General Pakenham. Sir Edward was the beau ideal of a soldier whose rise to high rank was due not alone to family influence p361 but also to native ability. He had fought through the Peninsular War and, because of his exploits in that adventure, won the sobriquet of "Hero of Salamanca." He was 37 years of age, 10 years junior to Jackson. If reports are to be credited, on this present expedition he was subjected to the salty jibes of Admiral Cochrane who compared unfavorably the fighting qualities of the soldiery to those of his sailors. This may have warped Pakenham's judgment in the critical days ahead and induced him to take heavy risks.
After the punishment the British had taken from the Carolina on the evening of the 23rd Pakenham wisely decided not to attempt an advance until that annoying vessel had been got out of the way. That meant waiting for guns which had to be brought the 30 miles from Pea Island and then dragged laboriously through the mire on the last few miles that lay between the bayou and the Villeré plantation.
Jackson employed the interim to examine and strengthen his defenses. He posted two 6‑pounders near the levee on the right flank to cover the river road. Across the Mississippi he ordered Brigadier General David Morgan, of the Louisiana militia, to withdraw from the English Turn and take station on a line with the Rodriguez Canal. Major Latour cut the levee in several places in the hope of inundating the strip of flat open land that lay between the two forces on the east side of the river, but the Mississippi was too low and the scheme failed. Buildings were blown up so that the artillery might have a clean sweep of the field.
The General made his headquarters in the château of a M. Macarté and from a window on its third floor, with the aid of a telescope, he could follow the activities in the British camp. As the guns arrived the enemy set to work erecting a heavy battery near the river to oppose the Carolina. Detachments of Louisiana militia arrived on the field, increasing the American forces to 4,000, and pieces of artillery were distributed along the line. With the arrival of another division Pakenham's army numbered about 5,000.
On the morning of the 27th the British battery was completed and its guns were leveled at the Carolina. The broadside of the schooner was no match for the battery. Hot shot was hurled into her and in a few minutes she caught fire and had to be abandoned by her crew. They got off just before the fire reached the magazine p362 and the ship blew up. The Louisiana had by this time been manned and prepared for action and had joined the Carolina. Having disposed of the latter the British next turned their guns on the Louisiana. But, before any damage had been done, her crew manned the boats and, battling the current, towed her out of harm's way. The Louisiana now took station in the river just to the right of Jackson's line and was placed so that she could throw an oblique fire from the river across the plain.
Pakenham now prepared for his next move. On the evening of the 27th he advanced his whole force forward to within a few hundred yards of the American line to be ready for an assault on the morrow. His plan of battle was to divide his army into two columns and send them forward simultaneously. The column on the left, under General Keane, was to stick close to the levee and the river road and attack the American right; the other, under Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs, was to attack the American left over by the cypress swamp. Arrived at their jumping‑off place the British settled down for the night. But Jackson gave them little peace, sending out raiders who kept them so constantly on the alert that they had little chance to sleep. This, apparently, was contrary to European custom where opposing armies by mutual consent allowed each other a good night's rest. The British regarded this breach of good manners on the part of the Americans as little short of barbaric.
As the morning of the 28th dawned a fog enveloped the plain. It rose like a curtain at a play, disclosing the two solid columns of scarlet and, between them, General Pakenham and his staff. At this critical moment Jackson observed a rabble advancing at the double from the direction of the river road. He soon recognized them as Laffite's Baratarians who had trotted almost all the way from the Bayou St. John to be in on the fight. Jackson rewarded their zeal by giving them a 24‑pounder to serve which had just been placed in the line. Sailors from the Carolina also arrived on the scene and these experienced gunners were assigned to a howitzer.
General Gibbs ordered a gallant young colonel, Rennie by name, to move with a detachment through the edge of the cypress swamp and endeavor to flank the American left. As Rennie obeyed the fight was on. Simultaneously Keane's column advanced and made good headway toward the American line in spite of fire from the guns and p363 small arms that greeted them. The British anticipated this first stand. They had seen interest at Bladensburg and in the skirmish on the North Point Road outside of Baltimore. But they assumed that the resistance of raw American troops could not be expected long to endure against the steady pressure of Wellington's veterans.
Here, however, there was a difference. The British again used rockets to strike terror into the Americans. But rockets were nothing like so fearful when they were observed from behind a parapet. Further, the American gunners knew their business. This was by no means a baptism of fire for the Baratarians or the sailors of the Carolina or others who manned the pieces in the line. Nevertheless Keane's men were making good headway. They were approaching the canal and the Americans lay only 30 yards behind it.
From the deck of the Louisiana Master Commandant Patterson bided his time. Then came the chance for which he had been waiting. As the scarlet column nearest the river came within range of his guns he opened on them. So quickly did the schooner's crew work that, in the course of a few minutes, they sent over more than 800 shots. And those shots were well aimed, ripping holes in the closed ranks that presented so admirable a target. A single shot was said to have killed or wounded more than a dozen men.
Caught between a frontal fire from the trenches and the oblique fire from the Louisiana Keane's column broke. It was more than human flesh and blood could stand. Veterans though they were they had experienced nothing like this in the battles of Spain. It soon became apparent even to General Keane that he could expect no more of his men. He ordered them to take cover, but there was little cover to be had except the canals which cut across the plain. To these the troops retired, standing in mud and water up to their waists.
On the American left the British met with greater success, where they faced Carroll's Tennesseans. Colonel Rennie made a spirited attack with his advance guard; Carroll countered by sending out a force to get around Rennie's flank and rear but it was discovered and hurled back. Rennie was now free to proceed with his flanking movement, and with every prospect of success. General Gibbs, however, had witnessed the disaster which overtook Keane and at the very moment of Rennie's triumph saw fit to recall him. Rennie p364 obeyed, though indignant at being denied the opportunity of a victory. Given a few more minutes he was confident he could have achieved his objective. now ordered a general retirement. In the morning's fight he lost 150 men killed and wounded; the Americans got off with nine killed and eight wounded. The British were bitter over the outcome, for Wellington's men were not accustomed to being bested. There was a feeling in the ranks that Pakenham had let them down.
Jackson was not a man to rest on his laurels. He had seen the danger to his left flank and set to work to strengthen it. The line was carried well into the swamp itself. Logs were chained together to form rafts and on these for the next few days the hardy Tennesseans ate, slept and fought. Further to strengthen the position of battery of two 12‑pounders was erected near the swamp and placed in charge of General Garrigue Flauzac, a veteran artillery officer who had served under Napoleon. Also near this flank he mounted a 6‑pounder and an 18‑pounder, bringing the number of batteries in his line to eight.
Similar precautions were taken across the river on the extreme right of the American defenses. The Louisiana, after her decisive action of the 28th, saw no further service. Her heavy guns were removed and used to establish a battery to deliver an oblique fire across the plain as she had done. The Americans now had in their line 15 guns in all which could be considered effective.
Throughout the last four nights of the dying year the Tennesseans amused themselves at the expense of the British by what they described as "going hunting." They slipped out of the line in the darkness and stalked their human game with rifle, knife and tomahawk. Soon the British did not dare place a sentinel alone within several hundred yards of the Tennesseans' front. In fact, to protect themselves, they constructed a redoubt and mounted it with heavy guns which they put to work shelling the American left.
History speaks of the battle of New Orleans. Actually there were four separate and distinct battles covering a period of two weeks. We have seen how Jackson on the 23rd scotched the immediate march on New Orleans and how, on the 28th, the guns of the Louisiana turned the tide and sent the British back whence they had come. Pakenham salved his conscience by calling that not "a battle" p365 but a "reconnaissance in force." But by now he had learned enough to know that, with armament he had at his disposal, he could not take the American line. Another possibility occurred to him. If he used heavy cannon to blast holes in the American line he and his men could walk right through. That line, after all, was no more than mud raised to a height of three feet, capable of warding off small-arms fire but not a concentrated bombardment. There was a purpose in the four‑day respite. Heavy siege guns were on the way from Pea Island.
Jackson planned to celebrate the New Year with a grand review and visitors came from the city to attend it. As day dawned a fog again covered the plain, but it promised to burn off before the time set for the festivities. However, there was no parade that day. The British had seen to it. During the night of the 31st Pakenham moved his whole army forward to be in readiness for an assault, and the Americans heard the sounds of work coming from the British lines. When the fog cleared there, within 600 yards of the American ramparts, stood three half-moon batteries armed with heavy siege guns. These batteries were at the right, left and center of the American position ready to blast it to bits.
The British attack opened with an artillery barrage supplemented by rockets. For ten minutes the British guns concentrated their fire on Jackson's headquarters and, in that brief interval, more than 100 shots landed on or near the Macarté château. The General and his staff wasted little time in getting out of the house while the troops which were being assembled for the review rushed back to the comparative safety of the fortifications. After the first surprise the American guns replied in kind, and with an accuracy that astonished the British. Master Commandant Patterson from across the river engaged in a duel with the British batteries on the levee while the Baratarians, the sailors from the Carolina, General Flauzac and the other artillerymen gave as good they received, and even better. Rank played little part in Jackson's choice of battery commanders, who ranged from a general to a corporal. What counted with him was that they knew how to handle their pieces. Pakenham tried an attack on the American left, but it had been greatly strengthened since his attack on the 28th by the extension of the line into the swamp and the addition of the batteries. Coffee's men withstood p366 the onslaught and began a counterattack which drove the British back.
The artillery duel continued and, under the grueling American fire, the British batteries were severely punished. The British used hogsheads of sugar to protect their guns, assuming that sugar would prove as effective as sand. The American fire smashed them to pieces, many of the guns were dismounted and others so badly thrown out of alignment that the gunners could scarcely fire them. The American guns also did not escape damage. Cotton bales had been used to shield them and these proved to be no more effective than the sugar hogsheads similarly employed by the British. Several of the American guns were dismounted and a caisson was blown up.
From 8 A.M. until after noon this battle of the opposing artillery went on. Then, at 1:30 P.M., the British fire ceased. It was a shocking thing for them to admit that British artillery had been outshot by the Americans. More remarkable still, according to a careful estimate, the Americans had only 15 guns to 24 of the British and the American guns threw a smaller weight of metal. British military critics shook their heads and reflected that this was one of the worst setbacks their artillery had ever encountered. There was nothing for Pakenham to do but call off the attack. His men found what shelter they could during the afternoon and, when night came on, retreated to their camp behind the lines. Some of their heavy guns were hauled to safety, but several could not be moved and fell into the hands of the Americans.
Three times so far the British had tried and three times they had failed. While their spirits ebbed the Americans grew in enthusiasm and confidence. Welcome also was the announcement of the belated arrival of Major General John Thomas with 2,000 Kentuckians. But the news was not as good as its sounded for the Kentuckians had assumed that arms and equipment would be waiting for them at New Orleans, and there were none. The legislature appropriated money and the people of the city raised a fund for blankets, clothing and bedding. A few hundred small arms, which New Orleans had stored against a possible uprising of the slaves, were commandeered. Nevertheless only a fraction of the Kentucky force found arms and most of it was used as a reserve to bolster the weak p367 spot on the American left where Carroll's Tennesseans joined those of Coffee.
Pakenham, however, had one more trump card to play. His prospects were improved by the arrival of a fresh division under Major General John Lambert. Including Cochrane's sailors and various staff detachments and specialists the British army now numbered close to 10,000 men. Having found the American left flank secure Pakenham's thoughts turned to the right flank across the river. His plan of operations was simple. Sending a force across the Mississippi he would seize Patterson's battery and turn the guns on the American line. Simultaneously his main body would attack the Americans on the Rodriguez Canal from the front.
This plan, it so happened, took advantage of an inexcusable weakness in the American defenses. A commander, perhaps, cannot be expected to look out for every eventuality, but Jackson's indifference to his flank across the river is hard to excuse. He gave the responsibility to General Morgan, who was not an exceptional leader and had at his disposition only some 500 Louisiana militia, by no means the best troops.
To lead the force that was to operate across the river Pakenham selected Colonel Thornton, assigning him 1,200 men for the task. Boats for the crossing were to be brought up from the Bayou Bienvenu and, to facilitate this, the army was set to work digging a canal which would connect the upper arm of the bayou with the river. This was an ambitious undertaking which would require several days. On the east side of the river two columns were to attack the American front, led by General Gibbs and General Keane respectively on the right and left. Since the main effort was to be on the right, Gibbs's force was to consist of 2,100 men while that of Keane was to be 1,200 strong. Added to this force were 200 artillerists and 500 skirmishers. Held in reserve in the rear and ready to move either to right or left as circumstances required was General Lambert with 1,400 men. In view of the strength Jackson's line had already shown it was evident to Pakenham that a frontal attack in broad daylight offered little prospect for success. Consequently the plan called it to begin before dawn. (See Map XI, p360)
An evil genius seemed to pursue the British from the beginning. The canal was completed by January 7 and the assault was ordered p368 for the early morning of the 8th. But when Thornton was ready to move he found that the boats provided were sufficient only for 700 men. To make matters worse the walls of the newly built channel caved in and the boats stuck in the mud. It was only with the greatest effort and the loss of valuable time that they were released and dragged to the river. Then Thornton did not make sufficient allowance for the swift current of the Mississippi so that he landed on the west shore several miles below the point intended.
Jackson knew the attack was coming. From his lookout on the third floor of the Macarté mansion, searching the horizon with his telescope, he had observed the activity in the enemy camp. After darkness on the evening of the 7th he heard the noise of construction gangs as before the previous attacks. An aide came from Patterson on the west side of the river warning Jackson of the weakness of the situation there and begging for reinforcements. But the general was still confident the main attack would be delivered against his front and was reluctant to weaken his force. His only contribution to Morgan was 400 Kentuckians, some of whom were unarmed and who could be sent across the river only by marching all the way back to New Orleans. Less than 200 eventually reached Morgan.
Jackson was asleep when the messenger from Patterson arrived. Now wide awake he announced to his staff that they had rested long enough and, putting on his greatcoat, he went out into the dark to make a final inspection of his lines. Never before had so strange an assortment of men fought under the Stars and Stripes. The Macarté château stood not far from the levee. Beginning at the right of the line, Jackson came first upon the 7th Infantry, regulars all, and with them Beale's New Orleans riflemen. A bastion had been extended in front of the line at this point and it was occupied by the riflemen.
Next in line were Plauché's companies of the smartly uniformed battalion which had taken part in the operations of December 23. Then came La Coste's colored corps, D'Aquin's free men of color, and after them the 44th Infantry, regulars but like the 7th composed mostly of raw recruits. At the far end of the line, in strange contrast to the rest, were Carroll's and Coffee's Tennesseans and a few Kentuckians, the main body of the latter being kept in reserve p369 where Carroll's and Coffee's commands met. Here were rugged frontiersmen in hunting shirts, fur caps and pantaloons, their faces unshaven, their hair unbrushed, uncut and matted, each holding tight to his precious rifle. Their belts were stuffed with tomahawks and wicked-looking hunting knives. Because of illness General Thomas, of Kentucky, had to yield his place to General John Adair. At equal intervals along the line were eight batteries capable of adding greatly to Jackson's fire power, covering every portion of the plain and ready to repeat the performance of January 1. The total force in the line was about 3,200 men, which was as many as could be squeezed into it.
Jackson took nothing for granted. He ordered his engineers to prepare two other lines in his rear to which he might fall back in case of disaster. One was •a mile and a half behind the Rodriguez Canal, the other on the outskirts of the city. The people of New Orleans were disturbed, taking this as evidence that Jackson expected to be whipped. They would have been more nearly correct had they guessed that Jackson's plan was to fight where he was and, if beaten there, to fall back on the second line; and, if need be, on the third. He even contemplated fighting inside the city itself. His was not the attitude of a man who expected to be whipped, at least so long as there was anything with which to fight.
Pakenham, on his side of the field, was equally active. Throughout the evening men had been at work preparing emplacements for the artillery and at midnight the General ordered the divisions of Keane and Gibbs to advance and take station within •a quarter of a mile of the American line. He also ordered the construction of fascines and scaling ladders to be used by the vanguard in crossing the canal and climbing the breastworks. Pakenham and his staff took station in the center.
The attack was to begin as soon as the fire of Thornton's expedition across the river was heard. All was now in readiness and Pakenham waited anxiously for the signal. But precious moments passed by and no signal came from Thornton. Delayed by the shortage of boats, the late start and the river's current, he was still far from his objective. Dawn was beginning to break and there was the usual fog. Very soon it would lift and reveal the British position. The flaw in Pakenham's strategy was that, for its success, it depended upon p370 simultaneous action by two widely separated forces. It was a flaw that, many times in history of warfare, has led to disaster.
Soon the critical moment arrived. As the sun rose the fog floated away and there on the plain, in full sight of the Americans, stood the two compact columns. It was too good a target to ignore. In all his campaigns with Napoleon Garrigue Flauzac had not seen a better one. The guns of Battery 7 boomed, and grape and round shot zoomed through the air and ripped a hole in the British ranks which quickly closed, according to the rules, leaving another perfect target.
What was Pakenham to do? He could not let his men stand there and be mowed down while he waited for Thornton. And he could not retire. That was not in the books of Wellington's veterans. What would his brother-in‑law say were he to hear that British regulars had incontinently retired in the face of a few thousand American backwoodsmen? That was not in the tradition of the British Army. For a man of Pakenham's training and background there was no choice.
The prearranged signal for the attack was the firing of two rockets, one at each end of the line. The Americans saw them and knew what they meant. Slowly the scarlet ranks moved forward. Again the evil genius that was dogging Pakenham appeared. The advance regiment, whose job it was to carry the fascines and slicing ladders, had forgotten them. But there was no stopping now. Men were sent back for the fascines and ladders while the rest moved ahead. The Americans took advantage of the brief delay to pour in more shot and shell from their batteries, tearing more holes. The infantrymen behind the ramparts withheld their fire. They remembered Jackson's order to wait until the British were within effective range, then to take aim just above the breastplate.
Gibbs's column obliqued toward the cypress swamp to avoid the fire of the batteries in their immediate front. Keane's men, led in person by the brave young Colonel Rennie, were making good progress by the levee and had reached the bastion that stood out in front of the American line. A fast charge and they were in possession of it, driving Beale's riflemen out. But the riflemen and the regulars of the 7th Infantry counterattacked and regained the bastion. In the p371 hand-to‑hand fighting Rennie was killed and Keane's attack slackened.
On the British right Gibbs was in even worse plight. His attack was aimed to sever the American line between Carroll and Coffee. Only a few hundred yards now separated the two forces and word came to Pakenham that the fascines and ladders were on the way. The General rode forward to urge on his men for the last assault that would take them across the canal and over the breastworks. An American sharpshooter fired. His aim was a trifle low; the bullet caught Sir Edward in the left hand. Another rifleman shot Pakenham's horse from under him. The General borrowed a Creole pony from an iade and remained on the field.
The British now were within effective small-arms range. It was the moment for which the Tennesseans had waited. It is said that the riflemen were organized in groups of three, one man firing while another stood ready and a third was loading. However that may be, the British who survived reported that they had never before faced such rapid fire or one so deadly.
This was actually true. For as primitive as the Tennesseans might appear, and as remote as was their home from the centers of inventive genius, they possessed the most destructive small-arms weapon the world then knew. This was the Kentucky rifle and its history is interesting. In the eighteenth century the infantryman was customarily armed with the musket, a smooth-bore weapon of questionable accuracy. Fire power was obtained by using it in the mass and at close range. In Germany, however, greater accuracy was achieved by rifling the barrel and this improved arm was carried by the Jäger, or sharpshooter.
The rifle was brought to this country by the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania, and Lancaster became the center of its manufacture. From there it followed the march of migration into Kentucky and Tennessee. Frontiersmen depended upon it for their food and improved it by lengthening the barrel and adding other refinements. Authorities on small arms state that at a range of 150 yards it was as accurate as a modern rifle. Marksmen who were accustomed to picking off a squirrel in the top of a tree found nothing difficult in drawing a bead a few inches above a shining breastplate. On p372 that winter morning below New Orleans the British regulars were walking into the most devastating fire then imaginable, and the slaughter was frightful.
With their customary gallantry the British officers set a good example to their men by taking the forward and most exposed positions. Many of them were killed. The men could no longer keep their line and broke up into little groups. Some of them fell back in confusion behind a portion of the swamp that bulged into the field and afforded cover. There the officers who survived restored some order and prepared for a fresh assault. With the fascines and ladders in front, at the word of command, they rushed forward in a last desperate attempt to break the American line. Only a handful got across the canal and scaled the slippery breastworks. One officer made it and fell dead in the American line.
General Keane, at the other side of the field, witnessed the confusion in Gibbs's column and, without waiting for orders, detached the 93rd Regiment, 900 Scottish Highlanders in kilts and tartans, fresh from a tour of duty at the Cape of Good Hope. They set out to reinforce Gibbs. Halfway across the plain they were caught in an oblique fire from Patterson's guns. Across the river as well as that of the batteries in front of them. Of the 900 men only 130 survived the devastating fire; of the 25 officers who led them only nine escaped untouched.
In rallying his men Gibbs had been killed. Keane soon was severely wounded and had to leave the field. Shortly after he had been first hit Pakenham received a second wound which put him out of action. He was being led from the field when a shell burst near him, driving a fragment into his thigh which severed an artery. Before he could be moved to the rear he was dead from loss of blood. Thus in a few minutes the British lost all three of their major generals who taken part in the engagement.
Pakenham's last words before he died were to order Lambert to throw in the reserves who, up to this point, had not been engaged. But, displaying a discretion in marked contrast to the foolhardy boldness of his colleagues, Lambert refrained from obeying the command. He realized that the situation was now beyond retrieving.
Across the river Thornton had a different story to tell. Once he p373 got under way he drove Morgan's forces before him and, as Pakenham had planned, overran and captured Patterson's battery, though the American commander had time to spike the guns. No opposition worth mentioning now lay between Thornton and New Orleans. His accomplishment, however, was without profit. For, in view of the disaster which had overtaken the main body, Lambert ordered Thornton to break off the action and retire by the way he had come. Though Jackson later rebuked Morgan's command for its flight and lack of discipline, the latter had exacted a toll from Thornton's men as they retreated. General Adair came to the defense of his Kentuckians and the charge was made that Jackson's complaint actually was designed by him to cover up his lack of judgment in leaving his right so weak.
Throughout the battle the Americans had been cheered by a military band. Now that the fight was over the musicians struck up "Hail Columbia" while the victorious general and his staff passed along the whole length of the line, receiving the cheers and applause of the troops. Not until the smoke had cleared away was the carnage on the field revealed and the overwhelming nature of the American victory realized. The plain was covered with the British dead and wounded, and from among those lying on the field the living now rose up and ran forward to surrender. The courage and tenacity of the British had cost them no less than 2,600 men of whom 700 were killed, 1,400 wounded and 500 captured. And this stunning defeat the Americans accomplished with the loss of only eight men killed and 13 wounded! Of the several thousand men in the American line only a fraction had been engaged. The British paid a fearful price to maintain their reputation for bulldog determination. The body of Sir Edward Pakenham took its sad departure for home preserved in a cask of spirits.
New Orleans without a doubt was the decisive battle of the war. Or at least it would have been save for one important circumstance. For, true to the last to the war's anomalous nature, the battle was fought and won just two weeks after the treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent!
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