Friday, January 9, 2015

We Fired Our Guns and the British Kept A'Running: The Battle of New Orleans in Story and in Song


We learn about history in the strangest ways sometimes. As a child, my father had a Johnny Horton album that I loved listening to on Saturdays. (For my younger readers, an album or record is like a really big CD that you play on a turntable! Yes, I have been asked that question before in class.) It had all sorts of really good tunes like Sink the Bismark and North to Alaska. But my favorite song, hands down, was The Battle of New Orleans. It had such a catchy beat to it and great lyrics. As my sense of humor tends towards the juvenile side of things, I appreciate the following: "We fire our cannon till the barrel melted down then we grabbed an alligator and we fired another round. We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind. And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind!" Though I am now 36, I still laugh every time I hear that line. At 6 or 7 years old, I was not yet a Half A$$ Historian and so the song was my first introduction to the Battle of New Orleans. That said, I never learned about it in a class until I took an Early American National Period course when I was an undergraduate student at Sam Houston State. I believe my professor was old enough to have fought in the battle too!

Here in the United States, we often tend to view the War of 1812 in a vacuum. It really was an extension of the Napoleonic Wars which had been ravaging Europe for nigh on twenty years by that point. The primary reason we declared war on the British was their practice of impressment, ie: stopping US flag vessels and removing sailors and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. Far be it from this American of Irish descent to defend John Bull here, but the British government had protested to the United States repeatedly that the US Navy was knowingly enlisting men who had deserted from the Royal Navy. Technically, British law forbade the impressment of neutrals. But in an age of no birth certificates, etc, proving nationality wasn't always an easy thing. We finally had enough and declared war on the British who really did not want a war with us as they were busy fighting Napoleon. We held our own on the naval side of things with ships such as Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution taking British warships in open combat on the high seas. On land, we struggled. The British landed a force on our east coast in 1814 and burned our capitol and the White House. (Note that this past August we did not commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British doing that!) The ultimate irony of the war was that we had agreed to a peace treaty a week or so prior to the Battle of New Orleans (though it was not ratified by Congress until a month after the battle).

The overall British plan was to take New Orleans in order to force the war to a conclusion. Given its strategic location along the Mississippi River, New Orleans was one of the most important cities in North America. Unfortunately for the British, the city was defended by Andrew Jackson, a man who took no crap from the British! Jackson's parents were Scots-Irish immigrants to the colonies who had been here around two years when Andrew was born. That may explain some of his dislike for the English. Jackson joined the colonial cause during the Revolution at the age of thirteen. One of his older brothers died in battle. Jackson and his remaining brother were captured by the British and imprisoned. The British mistreated American prisoners and the two suffered from numerous maladies. At one point, a British officer ordered young Jackson to clean the mud from his boots for him. When Jackson refused, the officer slashed him with a sword leaving Jackson with a sword leaving a scar on his hand and a hatred for the English. Jackson and his brother contracted smallpox and his brother died. Soon after, Jackson's mother secured his release but remained behind to nurse the wounded and ill. She too took sick and died. Jackson's father had passed away a few weeks before Jackson's birth, so he lost his entire remaining immediate family during the Revolution. 

By the time of the War of 1812, Jackson was the commander of the Tennessee Militia. Most of Jackson's experiences during the war involved battles with the Native American allies of the British. (Horseshoe Bend, for example.) Jackson was then placed in command of the defense of New Orleans. This was a handy choice as if you need to defend one of your most important cities, then who better to command them than a man with a deep hatred of the British Empire. And Jackson's personal bravery was beyond reproach as well. The man was a bada$$, no question about it.

The British troops were commanded by General Edward Pakenham whom we last discussed here during the Peninsular War. He was 36 years old at the time of the events discussed herein, the same age as your humble writer. A brief but sharp naval engagement on Lake Bourgne paved the way for the British invasion force to land. The first troops disembarked on Dec. 23rd about 9 miles downriver from the city. When Jackson learned of the landing, he is reported to have said "By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!" He then launched a surprise night attack on the unsuspecting British troops. The British managed to hold their position and Jackson withdrew his troops further back to a more defensible position. Both sides continued to feel each other out over the next several days, with the main British force not arriving until New Year's Day. 

Jackson's troops were in a fairly strong position. But his army was a strange collection of individuals. It consisted of Tennessee frontiersmen, Irish dockworkers from New Orleans, Lafitte's pirates who helped man the artillery, Native Americans, and Free Persons of Color from New Orleans. Pakenham launched his main attack on January 8th. Nothing went according to plan for the British. The force sent across the river to attack Jackson's artillery were delayed. Jackson's men were dug in behind a canal which the British assault columns, often called The Forlon Hopes by the British soldiers, would have to cross. The soldiers crept forward under a heavy fog but right as they neared the American lines, the fog lifted. This exposed them to the full fury of Jackson's artillery and withering rifle fire.

Have you ever gone somewhere and forgotten something important that you need? So too did the British assault columns. They left their ladders behind! This proved to be a really big mistake. American riflemen picked off British officers throwing the British ranks into confusions. Facing rifle fire from the front and withering artillery fire from across the river, the British still bravely pressed forward. Reinforcements were sent in and were mowed down as well. General Pakenham bravely rode forward and attempted to rally his troops but was fatally struck by pieces of grapeshot. The same blast of grapeshot which killed General Pakenham also killed his second-in-command. With their command and control decimated, British soldiers were caught in the open and they had no orders to advance or retreat. Jackson's men mauled them with grapeshot and rifle fire. And speaking of Jackson, he observed the entire battle from the center of his lines, oblivious to the rain of shot and shell around him. Finally, and mercifully, an officer took command and ordered the British to withdraw.

They left behind a distressing scene. Around 300 soldiers were dead and a further 1300 wounded. Another 500 or so were either captured or missing. The Americans, given their strong position, suffered much less. 13 Americans were killed, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The irony is that the war was technically over! But was it? Unbeknownst to the Americans, General Pakenham had received orders to keep fighting even if he learned of a Peace Treaty. If the British had captured New Orleans, I rather doubt they would have given it back. However, holding it would have been difficult. Napleon escaped from Elba in February and that commanded the full attention of the British. The Americans might have been able to take it back, perhaps. 

This battle catapulted Jackson into the national spotlight and would help him win the Presidency twenty-six years later. Jackson created the Democratic Party and the term Jacksonian Democracy and the Age of Jackson now defines a whole era. Like him or not, and yes, he had his faults, Jackson is an important figure in American History. This battle is important and should be remembered for this reason. Sadly, the 200th Anniversary yesterday passed largely unnoticed. Given the reenactment this weekend, maybe some of the media may pick up the story but I doubt it. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to salute the Fitzgerald brothers who fought in this engagement. (Two on the American side and one on the British side.)

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