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The Beginning of the Regiment
The Battle of New Orleans
Officially,m and directly, the 7th Infantry came into existence on January 11, 1812, when the United States, after years of tension over neutrality rights, began preparing for imminent hostilities with Great Britain. At that time Congress authorized the raising of several infantry regiments for the coming war. Fair enough, but unfortunately, the story of the 7th’s lineage is far more complicated than those simple facts might indicate. To begin with, a unit called the 7th Infantry Regiment existed as early as 1798, when the country endured a war scare with France and Congress passed a law briefly raising the strength of the tiny Regular Army. That version of the 7th Regiment existed for two years and was then disbanded. Then, in 1808, Congress revived it, partially due to the recruiting efforts of a young officer named Zachary Taylor, who would later become president of the United States. Portions of this 7th Infantry fought at such battles as Tippecanoe in 1811 and Fort Harrison in 1812. Later the whole regiment fought at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
So why the confusion? In May 1815, after the war with Britain, Congress, in a decision that would befuddle and vex future generations of military unit genealogists, ordered that the 7th consolidate with the 3rd and 44th Infantry Regiments to form the 1st Infantry Regiment, which still exists today. Three other regiments, the 8th, 24th, and 39th, were organized into a new version of the 7th Infantry Regiment. The oldest of these vanishing regiments, the 8th, had been founded on January 11, 1812, which accounts for the "birth" date mentioned earlier. This reorganization might have made sense to a Congress concerned primarily with downsizing the Army, but it played hell with unit integrity and traditions for many years to come.
For decades the Army cared little for such nostalgia, until General George B. McClellan in 1862 began the practice of allowing units to fly battle and campaign streamers with their colors. McClellan was a poor fighting general, but he intuitively understood how to build soldier morale. He correctly believed that emphasizing a unit’s proud lineage would contribute to pride, discipline, and combat effectiveness. The 1862 version of the 7th Infantry Regiment naturally included New Orleans amid its battle streamers. By this time the unit had built a proud heritage, handed down through generations of antebellum soldiers, and that heritage began at New Orleans because soldiers from the old 7th Infantry Regiment had fought tenaciously there. The regiment even acquired a nickname as a result of its key role in this battle—the Cottonbalers. Supposedly, the soldiers of the old 7th fought the British from behind bales of cotton that had been hauled to their positions from New Orleans warehouses. Although this is probably not true— British cannonballs would have easily set such cotton bales afire—the name stuck and fostered a spirit of identity and pride among the soldiers who served in the "new" 7th Regiment born during the reorganization of 1815.
For most of the nineteenth century the Army allowed the 7th Infantry to include New Orleans among its battle streamers, even though technically this post-1815 version of the 7th had not fought there, since it was the product of what had been three other regiments not involved in the battle. In 1895 the War Department decided to address the innumerable lineage problems created by the 1815 reorganization. As a result, the War Department stripped the 7th of its New Orleans streamer. Then, in 1896, the War Department reversed itself. But, fourteen years later, it reversed itself again, ruling that New Orleans could not be counted among the 7th’s battles. For several years this view prevailed, and with war in Europe on the horizon, no one much cared. After the war, though, 7th Regiment officers voiced furious opposition to this policy. For one thing, the city of New Orleans had in 1919 adopted the 7th as "Louisiana’s Own." For another, the unit’s nickname and much of its heritage stemmed from its central role in the Battle of New Orleans. One officer summed up the general attitude nicely: "It is not believed that the War Department in doing this realized how deep was the feeling in the 7th Infantry because of this action. In some of our old Infantry regiments . . . the esprit de corps and regimental traditions built around old battles have been more or less broken up." The War Department relented in 1923 and issued a compromise. The 7th would receive credit for New Orleans (and other smaller engagements in which the "old" 7th participated) but would trace its birth to 1812 instead of 1798. This was a wise decision. After all, what difference did it really make that the actual officers and men who served at New Orleans finished their postwar careers as members of the 1st Infantry Regiment? Most of them left the Army within months of the battle anyway. Direct lineage notwithstanding, logic would dictate that those who fought under the colors of a unit called the 7th Regiment in early 1815 would share a common heritage with soldiers of a unit with the same name and colors, no matter the year. As a result, the modern 7th Infantry can rightfully and officially trace its heritage to the Battle of New Orleans, and this is where the combat history of the unit can begin.1
At New Orleans the Cottonbalers fought their first battle as a cohesive regiment, but previously, groups of them had been involved in fighting the battles of Tippecanoe and Fort Harrison. The latter is particularly interesting because in the first year of the War of 1812 Taylor commanded a motley assortment of sick and hungry 7th infantrymen at this fort near present-day Terre Haute, Indiana. A group of several hundred Native Americans, under the leadership of the famous chief Tecumseh, attacked the tiny fort on September 4. At the outset of the war, Tecumseh had allied himself with Britain, mainly because of his antipathy to American settlers who were steadily but surely encroaching westward into present-day Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. When Tecum-seh’s troops arrived at Fort Harrison, they shot at the fort and set fire to one of its blockhouses. The flames spread with alarming speed and provoked anguished screams from several women and children who had taken refuge within the dubious security of the fort. Unnerved by the fear of the civilians, the soldiers wavered in carrying out Taylor’s orders to man their posts and shoot back at the Indians. Like any good commander, Taylor sprang to action and set an immediate example for his troops: "I saw that by throwing off part of the roof that joined the blockhouse that was on fire, and keeping the end perfectly wet, the whole row of buildings might be saved, and leave only an entrance of 18 to 20 feet for the Indians to enter after the blockhouse was consumed. A temporary breastwork might be erected to prevent their entering there. I convinced the men that this could be done, and it appeared to inspire them with new life, and never did the men act with more firmness and desperation."2 Eventually the men put out the fires, plugged the gap in blockhouses, and hunkered down in safety while Tecumseh’s men ineffectually shot arrows and musket balls at the fort. The chief withdrew his soldiers out of range of the fort’s guns, and before he could mount a new attack, a U.S. Army relief force arrived at Fort Harrison. Tecumseh’s forces slipped away to fight again elsewhere, and Taylor became a war hero.3
THE FIRST TWO YEARS OF THE WAR OF 1812 FEATURED American offensives, generally aimed at Canada. Knowing that the British were preoccupied with battling Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Army in Europe, American leaders were determined to hit the British swiftly and effectively before their superior military power and resources could come into play in the Western Hemisphere. It didn’t work. The amateurish American offensives failed miserably. By 1814 the British had defeated Napoleon and could now send a vast armada and army westward to deal with the contentious, outgunned Americans. The British planned a three-pronged offensive: one out of Canada aimed at Lake Champlain and the Hudson valley, one in the Chesapeake states aimed at Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and the third aimed at the southern coast of America, primarily the port cities of Mobile and New Orleans. They went one for three. The northern prong failed in the face of American naval strength on the waters of upstate New York. The Chesapeake prong succeeded. Here the British defeated a force of pitifully led and trained American militia forces at the Battle of Bladensburg. They waltzed into Washington and burned the President’s Mansion, the Capitol, and other government buildings, but rain put out the fires before destruction was complete. Their southern prong failed, though, partially because of the 7th Infantry Regiment.
Throughout much of 1814, General Andrew Jackson, in command of American forces in the 7th Military District, which covered the southern coast, warily watched for British movements in his area. The year before, he had led a successful campaign against the Creek nation in present-day Florida and Alabama, depriving the British of a natural ally in their coming offensive. Nonetheless, a British officer reported to his superiors that the Creeks were ready and willing to fight Jackson’s forces again. The British sent soldiers and supplies to Pensacola and set up a base, under the approving eyes of Spanish authorities who weakly controlled northern Florida. Fully informed of these British moves, Jackson attacked Pensacola and ejected the British. But most of their strength was still at sea, bearing down on Mobile and perhaps New Orleans. The latter city had come under American control roughly ten years before as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. In early December 1814, Jackson hurried his small force back to New Orleans. Previously he had believed Mobile would be the main target, but intelligence sources now told him that a British amphibious force of about six thousand troops was planning to invade Louisiana and capture New Orleans.4
He immediately set to work strengthening his defenses near the city and along the rivers, swamps, and deltas south of New Orleans. The 7th Infantry constituted a vital component of those defenses. Eight companies of the unit arrived in New Orleans in early 1814 and endured garrison duty for most of the year. Two companies were dispatched to Fort St. Philip, a strongpoint on the lower mouth of the Mississippi River. For the other six companies in New Orleans, disease was rife, life was stark, and discipline was harsh. Many soldiers could not resist the temptations of liquor, women, and trouble in New Orleans. This led to a sharp rise in court-martials. One sergeant was charged with "being drunk when sergeant of the police on the evening of the 17th [of January]. He plead not guilty. The court finds the prisoner guilty and sentences him to be reduced to ranks." Another noncommissioned officer, a Corporal Hall, did something even worse. One night in early April 1814, he brought a prostitute, "an indian squaw known by the name of ‘toky,’ " with him into the guardhouse of which he was in command. He was charged with shameful conduct. "Remaining or lying apart from the members of the guard with the said prostitute and not suffering any candle, or other light in the guardhouse during the time in the evening." The court-martial found Hall guilty. His night of carnal fun cost him his stripes.
Regular privates who were found guilty in such proceedings fared much worse. For instance, one private received twelve slaps with a paddle for "neglect of duty." Apparently he left a water-collecting detail and wandered off into the city. Another man got six slaps for drunkenness on duty. Every now and then an enlisted man was accused of petty thievery or a violent crime. For example, on November 11, 1814, Corporal Wood Long and Privates Henry Helm and John Archer were charged with improper conduct for assaulting a citizen in town. "While some of them held him [the citizen] others attempted to force from him his watch, and in the act broke it, on or about 8th November 1814. To which charge they generally plead not guilty. The court finds the prisoner John Archer guilty as charged and sentences him to receive ten slaps with a paddle, and acquits Corporal Wood Long and Henry Helm."5 Actually, Archer was lucky he didn’t get worse because the twenty-year-old laborer from Sevier County, Tennessee, had constantly gotten himself in trouble for a range of offenses, including drunkenness and absence without leave, ever since joining the regiment this summer before.6
Most of the men of the regiment did not come from cities, and they had a hard time meshing with the population of New Orleans, who found the soldiers’ rough-hewn habits to be outside the boundaries of "acceptable society." Particularly distasteful was the soldiers’ tendency to urinate in public—everywhere and anywhere. The typical 7th infantryman saw no reason not to relieve himself wherever and whenever the need arose, no matter who happened to be around. When it came to bathing, the soldiers often stripped naked and washed themselves in the Mississippi River. The local New Orleans belles who witnessed this brand of hygiene maintenance complained loudly to the regiment’s officers, who dutifully issued an order to stop bathing naked in the river. One suspects that the practices of public bathing and urination did not end completely, though.7
The men who populated the regiment on the eve of the Battle of New Orleans were mostly frontiersmen and southerners with little patience for social niceties or high society. One company was composed almost entirely of shoemakers and farmers from Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.8
The other companies were made up mostly of farmers, laborers, artisans, and seamen who came from backgrounds on the margins of respectability in American life. While not quite poor and destitute, neither were they educated or financially well off. Some had been recruited by Taylor a few years before the war. Others were recruited from around the New Orleans area in the months leading up to the battle. Some signed up during the war for patriotic reasons or because their lives had been disrupted by the war. A few were immigrants from Ireland, England, or Sweden. Most likely, the combatants of the 7th were all white, since the U.S. Army did not permit blacks in regular units. The lone exception to this color line was Jordan Noble, a musician from Georgia who sounded the call to arms for the regiment on January 8, 1815, and was apparently held in fairly high esteem, given the racial mores of the time.9 Collectively, the men of the 7th got into plenty of mischief. If they wanted something (usually liquor), they went after it, regardless of the consequences. They could be a handful to discipline and train in a garrison setting, but they were tough fighters when battle called.10
That call came on December 23, 1814, at place called Villeré’s Plantation. By this time the British had overwhelmed a small force of American gunboats on Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans, and landed a force of about fifteen hundred soldiers at Bayou Bienvenu (which ironically means "welcome" in French) about twenty miles southeast of New Orleans. More would follow later. For now, though, this group began a cautious northward advance in the direction of New Orleans since they were not entirely sure what lay in front of them. They captured a few prisoners who told them Jackson had anywhere between eighteen and twenty thousand men at his disposal (truthfully, he had about five thousand), and this information caused them to sit tight and wait for reinforcements. This delay was a break for Jackson because his army was badly disorganized and his defenses incomplete. What’s more, he had little idea of the disposition and strength of the British because they had destroyed or captured many of his gunboats along the lakes and bayous below New Orleans.
On the twenty-third, Jackson sent a reconnaissance force out to gather information. His chief engineer, a French soldier named Arsène Lacarrière Latour, served as the eyes and ears of this party. Latour and his group proceeded in the direction of Lake Borgne until they encountered several people hurrying back to New Orleans. They told Latour that the British had captured Villeré’s Plantation along with a small force and were setting up a headquarters there. One officer immediately rode back to inform Jackson of this information while Latour stuck around and observed the British force. "I approached within rifle-shot of those troops, and judged that their number must amount to sixteen or eighteen hundred men. It was then half past one p.m., and within twenty-five minutes after, general Jackson was informed of the enemy’s position."11 When Jackson was told of the British force, he smashed his fist on a table and exclaimed, "By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil. We must fight them tonight. I will smash them, so help me God!"12
He decided to launch a night attack, and one of the units tabbed for this attack was the 7th. He planned to take a force of two thousand soldiers south from the city and assault the British positions with the support of two ships, the USS Carolina and the USS Louisiana. The latter vessel, however, never made it to the scene of battle. As the late-afternoon shadows grew longer, the men of the 7th crept silently into position, almost to within five hundred yards of the unsuspecting British who were busy setting up camp and cooking dinner. At this point their commander, General John Keane, had no idea Jackson knew of the British landing, though some of his soldiers had noticed the Carolina sailing down the river and dropping anchor immediately to their left in the nearby Mississippi River. Some of these redcoats even waved at the Carolina before returning to the chore of looting the Villeré plantation house and slave quarters.
In the meantime, the Americans waited in the trees near a house owned by Denis de la Ronde, who commanded a local militia unit. The 7th Regiment huddled together quietly and waited with the rest of the Americans. They checked their muskets, adjusted their uncomfortable blue tunics, and fought off the chill of an early winter’s evening. The minutes seemed like hours. After a while, complete darkness descended. All was quiet, except for the distant voices of the British and the current of the river somewhere off to the right. Then, finally, after this interminable wait, they heard a massive boom from the guns of the Carolina. According to a British officer, the ship raked the British camp for about ten minutes. "Flash, flash, flash came from the river, the roar of cannon followed, and the light of her own broadside displayed to us an enemy’s vessel at anchor near the opposite bank [of the river], and pouring a perfect shower of grape and round shot, into the camp."13 The British soldiers immediately scattered amid the angry buzzing of grapeshot that wounded some of them. They hurriedly extinguished their campfires and hastened to organize themselves into some semblance of a fighting formation.
Finally, Jackson gave the order to advance. The plan called for eight hundred dragoons and militiamen on his left flank, under the command of General John Coffee, to advance about one thousand yards, with the edge of a swamp on their left, and then pinch to the right in an effort to force the British toward the river. The rest of his force, a mixture of artillerymen, marines, local volunteers, "free men of color," Choctaw Indians, and army regulars, was to move forward and engage the enemy’s main strength. The 7th led the way. Its lead company ran ahead about two hundred yards and began taking fire from a British outpost of eighty men. Both sides exchanged blisteringly accurate shots until the 7th drove the British troops back to a makeshift defensive line in a ditch behind a small fence. Troops of the 7th covered their artillery brethren as they ran their guns up a levee road along the river. At this point the battle degenerated into a confused melee. A blanket of fog settled over the area, reducing visibility to practically nothing. Both armies got mixed up. Friends shot at friends. Enemies slashed and bayoneted enemies. Jackson’s two artillery pieces roared unevenly at shapes in the night. At various times, the British came close to capturing the guns only to be repulsed. Jackson himself rallied the gun crews, as well as nearby marines and 7th infantrymen who threatened to falter. The enemy was no more than fifteen or twenty yards away. Somewhere in this vortex, a British officer struck down and killed Captain Michael McClelland, a well-regarded company commander from Ohio.14
On the left flank of Jackson’s army, Coffee brushed through British pickets but then ran into trouble when he encountered the enemy’s main camp. After several minutes of seesaw fighting, in which some of his men captured a group of British troops before being captured themselves, Coffee ordered a withdrawal. After about two hours of fighting, the battle started to die down, and Jackson, with the British threatening to overrun his artillery—not to mention the confusion engendered by the fog—decided to fall back to reorganize his forces. Confused troops still sniped at one another in the dark, but the real fighting was over. The "night attack" or "first Battle of New Orleans," as some historians call it, had ended in a tactical draw. The British took 277 casualties; the Americans, 213. The 7th lost seven killed and twenty-eight wounded, significantly higher casualties than it would take in the more famous engagement fought two weeks later, when the 7th lost two killed and one wounded.15 Among the wounded was Josiah Leach, a rare bird in that he was commissioned from the ranks at a time when that almost never happened. A Massachusetts native, Leach had joined the Army in 1811 and ascended the enlisted ranks until he received a slot as a junior officer in the fall of 1814, probably for obeying orders, showing good soldierly discipline, and natural leadership ability. In the December 23 fighting he more than justified the confidence his superiors obviously had in him. He took a nasty wound in the side, but according to a report filed by Jackson’s adjutant not long after the war, Leach "refused to leave the Army until compelled the next day from extreme severe pain, but returned in time to perform in all the subsequent engagements."16
In the wake of the Villeré Plantation fight Jackson hoped to attack again in the morning, but once he found out that British reinforcements were on the way, he withdrew his army north, behind the Rodriguez Canal, and began to fortify the area known as the Chalmette Plantation. As he did so, he sent a small party out to cut the levee between the enemy and him. This had the effect of creating a small flood that impeded the British long enough to buy time for Jackson’s men to construct extensive positions behind the Rodriguez Canal. Under the watchful eye of Latour, the soldiers dug and scraped positions for themselves and their artillery, creating a formidable mud bank that became known as Line Jackson. On Christmas Day, General Sir Edward Pakenham, the overall British commander, arrived with the rest of his army. Surveying the tactical situation, Pakenham, whose brother-in-law was the famous Duke of Wellington, thought it might be best to load his troops back on ships and find a better place to invade and capture New Orleans. For many years after the battle, a story circulated that the British naval commander, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, shamed Pakenham into a straightforward advance by exclaiming that if Paken-ham’s soldiers shrank from the task of assaulting Line Jackson, his sailors would push forward and rout the "Dirty Shirt" Americans and then march into New Orleans while Pakenham’s men "bring up the baggage." This is nonsense.17 In reality, Pakenham’s staff officers convinced him that his force was powerful enough, and Jackson’s army weak enough, that a frontal attack could prevail. At heart, the British officers did not believe that a ragtag army made up primarily of militia and backwoodsmen would stand and fight against the scarlet might of well-trained British soldiers.
On December 28, those soldiers tried a reconnaissance in force and had to fall back amid devastating artillery barrages. In the days that followed, the British landed fourteen guns—ten "eighteen pounders" and four "twenty-four pounders"—from Lake Borgne and dragged them arduously to positions overlooking Line Jackson. On New Year’s Day they opened up on Jackson’s positions in an effort to destroy the American guns and their dug-in positions. But the British got the worst of that encounter. The American artillerymen found their targets with an alarming degree of accuracy. Pakenham ordered that his guns be moved out of range, but not before some incurred extensive damage. For the next week Pakenham sat tight and waited to be reinforced by three more regiments comprising about 2,000 soldiers. In the meantime, 500 Louisiana volunteers and 2,250 Kentucky militiamen reinforced Jackson. Still, he was content to remain on the defensive because he knew he was outnumbered and that some of his troops and commanders were not reliable. The campaign reached a climax on January 8, when Pakenham opted for an all-out assault on Line Jackson. In spite of the earlier fighting, it is this engagement that is generally referred to as the Battle of New Orleans.
On this day, the 7th Regiment, with an operational strength of around four hundred men, found itself at the extreme right of Line Jackson, immediately along the riverbank, in a position that spanned about 150 yards of the line. For more than a week the men had alternately sweated and shivered as they dug and improved their muddy positions. They were constantly pelted with rain, which gave their coats and trousers a musty, sweaty odor. Almost no one had a clean uniform. White wool trousers that had once looked flashy on parade in New Orleans were now spattered with rust-colored earth. Blue coats were smudged and unkempt. The men took small comfort in their standard army rations—salted pork, bread, and whiskey.18
On the night of January 7, groups of British soldiers went forward into the muck to dig artillery positions for the next day’s attacks. Others went forward, in the dark, with the job of providing cover fire for the emplacements once they were completed. At 4:00 a.m. the rest of the British forces quietly moved into their assault positions. Their skirmishers (a nineteenth-century term roughly correlating to the modern term "point men") were within two hundred yards of Line Jackson, which stretched for roughly one mile, west to east, from the river to a cypress swamp.
All through the night the Americans heard digging and hammering noises. "We distinctly heard men at work in the enemy’s different batteries," Latour recalled; "the strokes of hammers gave ‘note of preparation,’ and resounded even within our lines; and our outposts informed us that the enemy was re-establishing his batteries. In our camp all was composure; the officers were ordered to direct their subalterns to be ready on the first signal. Half the troops passed the night behind the breastwork, relieving each other occasionally. Everyone waited for day with anxiety and impatience, but with calm intrepidity; expecting to be vigorously attacked, and knowing that the enemy had then from twelve to fifteen thousand bayonets to bring into action, besides two thousand sailors and some marines."19
The morning was chilly and misty. The mist afforded the stealthy British some semblance of concealment in spite of their bright red uniforms. All at once, a British rocket sizzled through the early-morning fog. A chorus of voices shouted three cheers. This was the signal to move forward. Immediately British artillery opened up on the American batteries. The British plan was actually quite ingenious. While the artillery kept the American guns busy, the infantry would move forward in two waves. On their right flank, near the cypress swamp, the main infantry force, augmented by ladders and fascines, was to advance on the edge of Line Jackson. On the British left flank, along a levee road next to the river, light infantry would advance in columns, overwhelm American outposts, and breach the ramparts of Line Jackson. The two forces would act as pincers that would trap a confused, reeling American Army. It did not quite work out that way.
Far from being distracted or put out of action, American artillery raked the enemy columns. Cannonballs flew back and forth in every direction. British balls slammed into ramparts. American balls slammed into bodies. Still, the British troops advanced closer and closer. Everyone could see them clearly now, including the men of the 7th Regiment. The 7th was covering the first three batteries of artillery along the western edge of the American line. Some of the men could practically spit in the river. It so happened that the British column attack along the levee road clashed with the advance elements of the 7th. The soldiers of this advance element occupied a redoubt located several feet in front of the main line, south of the Rodriguez Canal, on the extreme west flank, right next to the river. The purpose of this position was twofold: first, it afforded a nice observation post; second, it allowed American troops to fire into the flanks of any British troops who assaulted the main ramparts. Unfortunately, these very advantages also made the redoubt vulnerable. The men in the redoubt had a nice view of British activity—most would have said far too good a view!—and clear fields of fire, but like any observation post detached from a main defensive line, the redoubt was inadequate in the face of a stronger enemy force. In fact, Jackson himself expressed misgivings about the usefulness of the redoubt. Two days earlier, when it was constructed, he told his engineers, "That will give us trouble!"20
He was right. Although most of the Americans out ahead of the main line were clustered together in small outposts, the redoubt provided them with no special comfort or protection when they scrambled away from the British and headed for the redoubt. The British simply pursued them and entered the redoubt themselves. This was a bad situation for the men of Lieutenant Andrew Ross’s company of the 7th Infantry. Two of them, a sergeant and a corporal, were killed immediately. The sergeant was killed by the British officer in command of the assault, Colonel Robert Rennie. Fighting desperately, but awkwardly, in wet, hand-to-hand bayonet struggles, the company’s survivors either were captured or fell steadily back toward the main line.
As the British cleared the redoubt, they now had a real chance to breach the American line. The redcoats rushed into the American breastworks, led by Rennie, who screamed, "The day is ours!" He was brave, but he was wrong. At this point the British troops, most of whom hailed from the West Indies, were staggered by a volley of shots from the American line they hoped to breach. Immediately behind the redoubt, eyeball-to-eyeball with the British, was a small company of thirty Louisiana riflemen. The British tried to shield themselves with some of the 7th infantrymen they had captured in and around the redoubt. This tactic failed. From the west bank of the river, cannons roared. Worse, the Louisiana riflemen poured steady fire into the British along with the two American batteries to their left. Along with that came the concentrated muskets of the rest of the 7th Infantry. This concentration of firepower, coming from the front and the side, ripped into the British troops. Some of them were hit several times and fell backward; some had heads blown off; others caught musket balls in bellies or limbs. A shot tore part of Rennie’s calf off, but he kept going. Then he took a mortal shot just above the eyebrow, probably the work of one of the Louisiana riflemen. The 7th Infantry, with bayonets fixed, charged the British in a major counterattack. In no time, the British survivors turned and ran back down the levee road. But that didn’t guarantee them safety. American artillery hurled grapeshot at them, and several fleeing British soldiers were hit. They fell and writhed in agony with terrible wounds caused by the stinging metal of the grapeshot, a weapon designed more for wounding than killing.21
In the meantime, some 7th infantrymen stood behind their parapets and sniped at the retreating enemy soldiers. Others pursued the British until they were too far away. Here and there an enemy soldier fell, but the unit’s role in the battle was mostly done. On the opposite side of Line Jackson the British attack failed in an even bigger slaughter. Pakenham was killed, as were several of his key officers. An attack on the west bank of the river was more successful but ultimately for naught. For all intents and purposes the great battle was over by midmorning, an almost absurdly short amount of time given the many months of buildup, tension, and preparation.
The soldiers of the 7th, with gunpowder-streaked faces, smoking muzzles, and muddy coats, surveyed an awful scene of slaughter on the fields beyond their ramparts. "The whole plain on the left, as also the side of the river, from the road to the edge of the water, was covered with British soldiers who had fallen," one soldier recalled. "What might perhaps appear incredible . . . is that a space of ground, extending from the ditch of our lines to that on which the enemy drew up his troops, two hundred and fifty yards in length, by about two hundred in breadth, was literally covered with men, either dead or severely wounded. The artillery of our lines kept up a fire against the enemy’s batteries and troops until two o’clock in the afternoon. The enemy’s loss . . . was immense, considering the short duration of the contest, the ground, and the respective number of the contending forces."22
Indeed, it was a slaughter. British casualties numbered about twenty-four hundred while the Americans lost seventy men, thirteen of whom were killed. Burial details from both sides worked together in the days ahead to dispose of the dead. The wounded were carried to nearby homes that had been turned into makeshift hospitals. The level of ghastliness and suffering there is beyond imagination. One British captain remembered hearing the piteous cries of his wounded soldiers and seeing "a basket nearly full of legs severed from these fine fellows."23 The British Army retreated from the scene of the battle, boarded ships, and left. Andrew Jackson and the United States had won a great victory, securing the Gulf Coast and New Orleans for America as well as awakening a strong sense of identity and nationalism in the new country. Ironically, the climactic battle was fought after American and British negotiators had concluded a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve in 1814. But on that fateful day in early January 1815 no one knew anything about the peace treaty. The American soldiers only knew that their country had been invaded and they must fight. They proved that they could defeat the best troops in the world, who fought on behalf of the strongest nation in the world. They also proved the lethal efficiency of applied and concentrated firepower, a blend of technology, policy, and tactics that would prove to be the cornerstone of the American way of war.
But that was the big picture. Of far more importance to the men of the 7th was that a collection of laborers, farmers, artisans, and frontiersmen had won a great victory. They had also won for themselves an enduring nickname—the Cottonbalers.
Excerpted from American Courage American Carnage by John C. McManus.
Copyright © 2009 by John C. McManus.
Published in June 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.