CMH Remembers: 200th Anniversary
The Battle of New Orleans
December 23, 1814 through January 8, 1815
Battle of New Orleans, January 1815
January 2015, Glenn Williams, CMH
Early on the morning of 8 January 1815, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and his men waited for the British invaders to attack. In defending New Orleans, Louisiana, from capture, Jackson had established two defensive positions, one on each side of the Mississippi River. On the east bank, under his personal command, four thousand troops with twelve artillery pieces grouped into eight batteries stood behind an earthen parapet. Called Line Jackson, the entrenchment faced the open fields of nearby plantations as it stretched one thousand yards from the river along the Rodriguez Canal and then five hundred more into the Cypress Swamp. Composed mostly of soldiers of the Regular U.S. Army and Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi militia, his force also included men of the Navy and Marine Corps, Baratarian privateers and Choctaw Indians. On the west bank, Brig. Gen. David Morgan commanded another one thousand Louisiana and Kentucky militia soldiers as well as sailors, and sixteen cannon. Having fought three smaller engagements on 23 and 28 December and New Year's Day 1815, the battle they had anticipated for three weeks had finally arrived.
At 0500, the British commander, Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, ordered his men forward. Supported by rocket and artillery fire and preceded by a screen of light infantry and rifle units, two heavy columns advanced to penetrate Line Jackson at two points. With 2,100 men, Maj. Gen. Samuel Gibbs led the main effort against the weaker American left. Simultaneously, Maj. Gen. John Keane's 1,200 men advanced against the American right. They would stand ready to either follow the assault of a light infantry battalion and infantry regiment attacking the bastion that blocked the levy road on the extreme American right or exploit a breach made by Gibbs' men. Another force of British light troops advanced through the swamp to look for weaknesses on the American extreme left flank. Brig. Gen. John Lambert's 1,700-man brigade constituted Pakenham's reserve behind the artillery, ready to advance on New Orleans once the main attack had ruptured the American defenses. The plan had originally called for another British brigade-sized force of approximately seven hundred men commanded by Col. William Thornton to cross the river and attack the American positions on the west bank first. However, a shortage boats and difficulty cutting a path to the river delayed the operation and prompted Pakenham to order the west bank attack to proceed without waiting.
The Battle of New Orleans
The British attack went badly from the start. The early morning fog lifted just as the advancing British columns came into range of American artillery. Officers then discovered that no one had brought the fascines – bundles of sticks tied together – for bridging the canal and ladders for scaling the ramparts forward. As troops retrieved the items many of Gibbs' units stopped to ineffectively return the Americans' fire. Those who advanced to reach and managed to cross the ditch found it impossible to press forward any further and suffered heavy casualties. Meanwhile, Keane's brigade took punishing fire from American artillery on Line Jackson, as well as from guns on the opposite bank of the river and U.S. naval craft in the Mississippi. Going to Gibbs' support, he led his brigade obliquely across the battlefield. As they came within range, American infantry – standing four ranks deep – engaged them with withering volleys of rifle and musket fire. Although the light infantry attack along on the levy road entered the redoubt, with Keane no longer following, their success went for naught as a determined counter-attack drove them back with heavy casualties. The British flanking move through the Cypress swamp also failed, and retreated with heavy casualties.
With Gibbs mortally wounded and Keane carried wounded from the field, Pakenham went forward to rally his troops after ordering Lambert to commit the reserve. Pakenham received a fatal wound, after which Lambert assumed command and halted the assault. An officer he sent to assess the situation on the west bank reported that although Thornton's force had driven Morgan's troops back to their main defense on Line Boisgervais, they needed reinforcements to either continue the attack or hold what they had taken. Lambert ordered Thornton to break off the engagement and retire to the main army. Lambert asked Jackson for a truce to gather the dead and to treat the wounded. British casualties in the battle on the east bank amounted to 285 killed, 1,265 wounded, and 484 captured or missing. The Americans suffered 13 dead, 30 wounded, and 19 captured or missing in the main battle.
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