The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victoryby Robert V. Remini
The Battle of New Orleans was the climactic battle of America's "forgotten war" of 1812. Andrew Jackson led his ragtag corps of soldiers against 8,000 disciplined invading British regulars in a battle that delivered the British a humiliating military defeat. The victory solidified America's independence and marked the beginning of Jackson's rise to national prominence… See more details below
The Battle of New Orleans was the climactic battle of America's "forgotten war" of 1812. Andrew Jackson led his ragtag corps of soldiers against 8,000 disciplined invading British regulars in a battle that delivered the British a humiliating military defeat. The victory solidified America's independence and marked the beginning of Jackson's rise to national prominence. Hailed as "terrifically readable" by the Chicago Sun Times, The Battle of New Orleans is popular American history at its best, bringing to life a landmark battle that helped define the character of the United States.
The New York Times Book Review
"Superbly written, fast-paced account of one of America's most significant but little-remembered military victories" —Forbes
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The War in the South
It was a battle that changed the course of American history; a battle that convinced Americans they had earned the right to be independent and that their sovereignty would be respected once and for all around the globe; a battle that thundered a once-poor, wretchedly educated orphan boy into the White House.
The battle took place during the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States on the Plains of Chalmette, approximately ten miles south of New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Two armies faced each other. The attacking force consisted of roughly eight thousand disciplined regulars of the British army, including the Royal Fusiliers, Highlanders, Light Infantry, and Light Dragoons, a West Indian regiment, and sailors from the fleet anchored in the Gulf of Mexico. They expected to punch their way straight north to New Orleans, collect the "Beauty and Booty" that awaited them, and then head up the Mississippi Valley to join with British troops coming from Canada, effectively slicing the United States in two. As Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, put it, once the large seaport towns of America were "laid in ashes" and New Orleans captured, and the British had command of "all the rivers of the Mississippi valley and the Lakes ... the Americans [would be] little better than prisoners in their own country."
The defending army consisted of about four thousand frontiersmen, militiamen, regular soldiers, free men of color, Indians, pirates, and townspeople who were strungalong a line from the Mississippi River to a cypress swamp and crouched behind a millrace ditch that had bales of cotton placed atop its northern edge.
It was January 8, 1815, and as the light of a new day dawned, a Congreve rocket, followed immediately by another, soared from behind the British line and hung for moments in midair before exploding over the field below. Red-coated officers ordered an advance; the disciplined veterans of the army of the Duke of Wellington rushed forward; the battle between these two armies began. When it was over, nothing for the young country would be the same.
The War of 1812the "forgotten war"began when the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay of Kentucky, his principal assistant, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and other southern and western representatives, collectively known as the Warhawks, pressured President James Madison into asking Congress to declare war against Great Britain. Madison's message listed several provocations. The British were impressing American seamen to help fight the war against Napoleon and seizing American ships. They were inciting Indians to attack the frontier, and had not evacuated forts held on American soil along the northern frontier as had been stipulated in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which had ended the American Revolution. But perhaps a more important reason than those given by Madison was the need the country felt to prove to itself and the rest of the world that this new experiment in republican government was a permanent fixture in the family of nations and that the contempt shown by Britain in persistently violating American rights would not go unchallenged or unpunished.
But the English sneered at U.S. pretensions. They insisted that these former colonies had not legitimately won their independence, certainly not by the force of arms. After all, what major military triumph could the former colonists point to as proof that by their own efforts they had won their freedom? Certainly not Saratoga or Yorktown. They were simply surrenders, nothing more. The English chose to believe that American independence resulted because they had grown weary of the rebellion and the accompanying European wars and simply agreed to let the colonies go.
The years following the Revolution demonstrated continued British disdain for American independence. England by its arrogance and condescension acted as though the United States would never survive as an independent republic. And America's great ally during the Revolution hardly behaved any better. France had guillotined its king, formed the Directory, and then succumbed to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. At one point in this remarkable period the United States was invited to bribe French officials as a way of obtaining recognition for its ministers. The "XYZ Affair" caused such a furor in America when it became known"Millions for defense but not one penny for tribute," went the crythat a formal declaration of war almost resulted. To make matters worse, the French imitated the British in seizing American ships when they docked in French ports.
But war with France made no sense. The real enemy was Great Britain, and it remained America's enemy for well into the nineteenth century. Only a great military victory over the English could convince the world that our independence had been fairly won and that it was permanent. Only such a military victory would give Americans the self-confidence they needed to face a hostile Europe with its kings and czars and dictators.
So the Warhawks demanded that President Madison take action to smite the nation that unceasingly humiliated and shamed the American people. When Madison finally capitulated, the House of Representatives responded with a declaration of war on June 4, 1812, by a vote of seventy-nine to forty, and the Senate followed on June 17 by a vote of nineteen to thirteen. The President signed the measure the following day. But the congressional vote revealed a dangerous split within the country. Western and southwestern states enthusiastically favored the war; but the commercial and maritime east almost solidly opposed it.
In the succeeding months and years following the outbreak of war, the hapless young nation experienced one military disaster and reversal after another. General William Hull failed in his invasion of Canada, retreated to Detroit, and foolishly surrendered the town to a decidedly inferior force of British soldiers and their Indian allies. Invasions of Canada from Niagara and Lake Champlain collapsed when American troops refused on constitutional grounds to cross the border. Then the frigate USS Chesapeake was captured, its captain, James Lawrence, killed along with a number of crewmen, and the ship taken to Halifax. The British also blockaded the entire American coastline except for New England, in the hope that that commercial section might be persuaded to secede from the Union and return as a British colony or dependency. The situation really worsened for the American cause when Napoleon retreated from Moscow and subsequently abdicated, leaving Britain free to throw its considerable military power entirely against its former colonies.
To bring the American nation to heel, the British cabinet worked out a grand plan of conquest. The goal was "to destroy and lay waste the principal towns and commercial cities assailable either by their land or naval forces." The strategy consisted of a three-pronged invasion from three widely separated areas of the continent: an amphibian thrust into the Chesapeake Bay area aimed at Washington, Baltimore, and other coastal cities; another from Montreal into New York State via Lake Champlain; and a third from the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana with the purpose of seizing New Orleans and detaching the Mississippi Valley from the Union.
The first part of this grand strategy enjoyed an initial success that further devastated the American people. An amphibian force under Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed into Chesapeake Bay in August 1814. A crack army of four thousand British soldiers and marines under Major General Robert Ross landed at Benedict, Maryland, and marched on Washington, easily knocking aside a superior number of American militiamen gathered at Bladensburg to block the invasion. President Madison fled to Virginia. His wife, Dolley, managed to make her escape in a wagon filled with "valuable portable articles," including a large portrait of General Washington that had to be unscrewed from the wall of the presidential mansion.
The British entered the unprotected city on August 24, 1814, and set fire to the Capitol, the White House, and all other public buildings with the exception of the Patent Office. They also burned any private dwelling from which shots were fired at the invaders. But the advance to Baltimore on September 13 was repulsed by thirteen thousand Americans, who had fortified the heights around the city. A British fleet tried to bombard Fort McHenry into submission, and when the attempt failed the invaders withdrew.
At approximately the same time that Ross and his men advanced on Baltimore, a red-coated army of ten thousand veterans, commanded by General Sir George Prevost, crossed the Canadian border and arrived at Plattsburg, New York, on September 6, 1814. Before continuing his advance, Prevost decided to wait until a British fleet could enter Plattsburg Bay and assist him in storming the American position. But Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough of the U.S. Navy and his squadron outfought the superior British fleet and prevented it from entering the bay, thereby retaining control of the strategic Lake Champlain. Without that naval assistance and unable to proceed further, General Prevost turned around and retreated back to Canada.
The only really encouraging military news for Americans during these dark days of humiliating invasion came from the southwest. The Creek Indians had been engaged in a deadly civil war going back several years. There were numerous causes for this conflict: factional enmities within the Creek Nation, the building of a federal road from the Georgia frontier to new settlements along the Alabama River, the encroachment of whites on Creek land, and violent differences of opinion over the intrusion of white culture on Creek life and society. One group, known as Red Sticks because of their custom of painting their war clubs a bright red color, and led by such prophets as Peter McQueen, Josiah Francis (Hilis Hadjo), Paddy Walsh, and others, attracted a large following, mostly through magic, prophecy, and spell-binding oratory. These men preached the necessity of maintaining Indian cultural purity.
The Creeks friendly to the whites understood the likely consequences if they waged war against the United States, so they refused the appeals and demands of the prophets. The Red Sticks subsequently threatened a massive bloodletting, and as their numbers swelled, especially among young warriors, they began a systemic assault against their own people, attacking and burning several villages allied with white traders, killing livestock, and burning homes and fields. Big Warrior, a Creek chieftain who was pro-white, appealed to Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Indian agent, for help, and the agent responded with military assistance. Thus, when the United States intruded in the summer of 1813, the Creek civil war became a war within the larger war against Great Britain.
Shortly thereafter, in July 1813, at a crossing of Burnt Corn Creek on the Pensacola Road, a group of whites and mixed-blood Creeks attacked a number of Red Sticks, led by Peter McQueen and High Head Jim, who were transporting a packtrain of powder and shot obtained from the Spanish in Florida, who were allied with the British. The Red Sticks drove off their attackers but lost their gunpowder. The whites and their friends took refuge in Fort Mims, a makeshift structure built around the house of Samuel Mims, a Georgia trader. It was a mile from the Alabama River in the Mississippi Territory and about forty miles north of Mobile.
At noon on August 30, 1813, the Red Sticks, led by a new recruit, William Weatherford (Chief Red Eagle), counterattacked. They entered through an open gate, slaughtered the defenders, and burned the fort. It was one of the most appalling massacres in frontier history. "The fearful shrieks of women and children put to death in ways as horrible as Indian barbarity could invent" echoed around the fort. The victims were "butchered in the quickest manner, and blood and brains bespattered the whole earth. The children were seized by the legs, and killed by batting their heads against the stockading. The women were scalped, and those who were pregnant were opened, while they were alive and the embryo infants let out of the womb." Red Eagle tried to stop this savagery, but many red clubs were raised over his head and he was forced to withdraw to save his own life. Between 250 and 275 white settlers, friendly Indians, and mixed-bloods were killed; between twenty and forty escaped.
The horror of the massacre at Fort Mims, the savagery and audaciousness of it, rolled over the western country of America like a shock wave. Anger and fear and a demand for revenge ricocheted up and down the frontier. The governor of Tennessee, Willie Blount, responded immediately to the outcry. Empowered by the legislature to raise five thousand men for a three-month tour of duty, he ordered Major General Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia to "call out organize rendezvous and march without delay" 2,500 volunteers and militia "to repel an approaching invasion ... and to afford aid and relief to the suffering citizens of the Mississippi Territory."
On October 7, 1813, although pale and weak from the loss of blood from a bullet wound in his shoulder suffered in a barroom gunfight with Jesse and Thomas Hart Benton, and with his left arm in a sling, the six-foot-tall, cadaverous Jackson took command of the West Tennessee army at Fayetteville. His complexion was sallow and rather unhealthy-looking; nonetheless, the rest of his overall appearance exuded strength, if not fierceness. He always carried himself very erect, and his manner radiated confidence and sureness of command. He was forty-six years old and his steely blue eyes invariably registered his thoughts and feelings. At one instant they could blaze with anger and fury, at another with gentleness and understanding. Because of his strength and toughness as well as his constant attention to the welfare of his army, his soldiers affectionately called him Old Hickory. Hickory was as tough a substance as they knew, and General Andrew Jackson was, in their minds, indomitable.
Born in the Lancaster district of South Carolina on March 15, 1767, Andrew Jackson participated in the American Revolution as a messenger boy for Colonel William R. Davie. Only thirteen at the time, he was captured by British soldiers, mutilated on the wrist and forehead, imprisoned at Camden, South Carolina, where he contracted smallpox, but later released in a prisoner exchange arranged by his mother. His entire immediate family died during the Revolution: first his older brothers, then his mother. (His father had died shortly before his birth.) His hatred of the British lasted for the remainder of his life and no doubt accounts in large measure for his fierce determination to defeat them in battle.
After the war he moved to Salisbury, North Carolina, where he studied law, first in the office of Spruce McCay and later in the office of Colonel John Stokes. Lacking opportunities for a lucrative law practice in North Carolina, he migrated west and established himself in Nashville. He married into one of the first families of Tennessee, established himself as a successful politician in the state, both as a congressional representative and a senator and as a judge on the state's superior court. In 1802, at the age of thirty-five, he won election as major general of the Tennessee militia.
The call by Governor Blount to avenge the Fort Mims massacre set Andrew Jackson on the course to national fame. He led his army deep into Creek country, speeding along at the incredible rate of thirty-six miles a day, and halted momentarily at the southernmost tip of the Tennessee River to build Fort Deposit as a depot for supplies. He then pushed on to the Coosa River, cutting a road over the mountains as he went and establishing a base at Fort Strother near Ten Islands. He and his army were now within striking distance of the Red Sticks, who were encamped thirteen miles to the east in the hostile village of Tallushatchee. On November 3, 1813, a thousand soldiers surrounded Tallushatchee and then closed in for the kill. It did not take long. They systematically slaughtered most of the warriors. "We shot them like dogs," boasted Davy Crockett. The town was then burned to the ground.
Jackson won another victory at Talladega and killed three hundred warriors, but many more escaped, and he was forced to wait for reinforcements before renewing the war.
Governor Blount finally responded to Jackson's repeated appeals for additional troops, and on March 14, 1814, Old Hickory and an army of about two thousand infantry, seven hundred cavalry and mounted riflemen, and six hundred friendly Indians, of whom five hundred were Cherokees and one hundred Creeks, wheeled out of Fort Strother and headed directly for the heavy entrenchment of the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend.
Horseshoe Bend was a heavily wooded peninsula almost completely enclosed by the looping course of the Tallapoosa River. The Indians had built a stout breastwork running across its narrow 350-yard neck. It was made of timber and trunks of trees "laid horizontally on each other, leaving but a single place of entrance." At a height of five to eight feet it had a double row of portholes "artfully arranged" to give the defenders "complete direction of their fire." Since the breastwork was a curved zigzag structure, attackers could not advance upon it without being exposed to a deadly crossfire, while the defenders themselves were well protected and could not be enfiladed. It was "a place well formed by Nature for defence & rendered more secure by Art," Jackson reported to Secretary of War John Armstrong. Within the fort the finest gathering of hostile strength from the towns of Oakfuskee, New Youka, Oakchays, Hillabee, the Fish Ponds, and Eufala had been assembled. The principal chief in the fort was the Prophet Monahee, but the warrior in command of the fighting was Menewa (Great Warrior), a mixed-blood.
The punishing hand of Andrew Jackson arrived at Horseshoe Bend at approximately ten o'clock in the morning on March 27. Facing the barricade, which was the focus of the main attack, Jackson stationed his artillery, one six-pounder and one three-pounder (not a particularly powerful battery), on a small eminence about 80 yards from the nearest and 250 yards from the farthest points of the breastwork. At 10:30 A.M. he opened fire.
The Indians inside the fortification began beating their war drums and screaming their defiance. Then, without warning and apparently without specific orders from Old Hickory, the friendly Creeks, part of the Cherokee force and the company of spies who had been sent to the other side of the Tallapoosa to cut off a retreat by the Red Sticks, crossed the river in canoes and set fire to buildings near the shore, attacking the hostiles at the rear of their fortification. This diversion gave Jackson the opportunity he needed, and he quickly seized it.
He stormed the breastwork. The troops raced forward under a withering hail of Indian bullets and arrows. The 39th Regiment reached the barrier first, and Major Lemuel P. Montgomery leaped onto the top of the breastwork and called to his men to follow, the screams of the Red Sticks almost drowning him out. No sooner had his words been spoken than a bullet struck him in the head and he fell lifeless to the ground. Ensign Sam Houston mounted the wall and repeated Montgomery's cry, whereupon an arrow pierced his thigh. Unmindful of his wound, he jumped into the compound, followed by a large contingent of regulars. Within moments the breastwork was breached, and the army scaled the rampart in force. With the capture of the fortification, the infantry moved in force from the forward position while the friendly Indians and spies advanced from the rear. Caught in this pincer, the hostiles could not escape. They tried to hide in the thick brush that covered the ground but were flushed out and shot at close range.
Once the troops gained the upper hand they set the village on fire. For five hours, Horseshoe Bend became a killing field, "but the firing and the slaughter continued until it was suspended by the darkness of the night," reported Jackson. "It was dark before we finished killing them."
As the sun went down it also set on the once great and proud Creek Nation. For the Americans the victory came at the most opportune time imaginable. The hostiles were crushed just when the British were about to land troops in the south to initiate the third prong of their grand strategy to conquer the American nation. Had the Creek civil war been delayed and synchronized with the landing of the British troops, the combined forces might well have overcome Jackson's army and gone on to capture New Orleans and the lower Mississippi Valley.
About three thousand Creeks, estimated at approximately 15 percent of the entire Creek Nation, lost their lives in this war. Numerous Creek towns had been destroyed, along with an abundance of foodstuffs. Jackson moved his army to the juncture of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, and there he raised the American flag on April 17 over the old French fort, which was rebuilt and renamed Fort Jackson. There at 2:00 P.M. on August 9, 1814, Old Hickory imposed on the defeated Creek Nation a treaty in which he obtained for the United States some 23 million acres of land, roughly half of all the land held by the Creeks. It was approximately three-fifths of the present state of Alabama and one-fifth of Georgia, and extended from Georgia to the Mississippi Territory. As a reward, Andrew Jackson was appointed major general in the United States Army and placed in command of the Seventh Military District, which consisted of Tennessee, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory.
Once elevated to this exalted rank, the proud conqueror of the Creek Nation immediately assumed all the trappings of his high office. He even informed his wife, Rachel, that "you are now a Major Generals ladyin the service of the U.S. and as such you must appear, elegant and plain, not extravagantbut in such stile as strangers expect to see you."
He had brought, to use his own words, "retaliation and vengeance" to the Creeks. And Great Britain and Spain, those two despicable allies, deserved no less. "I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory vengeance," he told Rachel, "should our forces meet I trust I shall pay the debtshe is in conjunction with Spain arming the hostile Indians to butcher our women & children."
Although the United States was not technically at war with Spain, and therefore any attack on it or its possessions would constitute an act of unauthorized aggression, Jackson had no compunction against invading Spanish Florida, because Spain cooperated with the British and Indians and indeed supplied the Indians with arms and ammunition. In addition, many of the leaders of the Red Sticks had escaped into Florida, where they continued to plot against the United States. So Jackson wrote to the Spanish governor in Pensacola and instructed him on his duties. There are "refugee banditti from the creek nation swarming into Florida," he wrote Don Matteo González Manrique, and "drawing rations from your government and under the drill of a British officer." Such renegades as Peter McQueen, Josiah Francis (Hilis Hadjo), and other hostiles constituted a "matricidal band for whom your christian bowls seem to sympathise and bleed so freely." They should be arrested, confined, and tried for their crimes, he insisted. The United States would not tolerate any attempt to protect them. Be aware of my creed, he warned. "An Eye for an Eye, Toothe for Toothe and Scalp for Scalp."
As Jackson turned his attention toward Florida, the third phase of the British grand strategy finally came into play. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, commander of the North American station, had recommended to his government an invasion of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, an expedition by which he felt certain he could bring about the conquest of New Orleans and the entire Mississippi Valley. Cochrane was the youngest son of the eighth Earl of Dundonald. A stern, proud, domineering Scot, he entered the navy at an early age, served in the West Indies during the closing days of the American Revolution, and, with the renewal of the war by Great Britain against Napoleon, was named a rear admiral in 1804. He was knighted for bravery in the naval victory off San Domingo and later promoted to vice admiral. He was a very courtly man, quite proud of his achievements. Once raised to flag rank, he expected and received the deference due him. Early in 1814 he was placed in command of the entire North American naval station.
In his argument to his superiors about this invasion from the Gulf, Cochrane declared that few troops would be neededperhaps three thousand regulars, perhaps lessbecause they would be joined by Indians and Spanish. He also believed that slaves in great numbers could be recruited to fight the United States. Their hatred for their masters and their masters' fear of them combined to make them especially valuable. With Indians, Spanish, and slaves it would take as little as a few thousand regulars to capture Mobile, drive on to Baton Rouge, and from there seize New Orleans. Once the great city was taken, the invading force could march up the Mississippi Valley to Canada and reduce the United States to an island territorially surrounded by Britain and Spain. He, like other commanding officers, was also certain that the people of Louisiana would not be loyal to the United States and would welcome British "liberation." Since American peace commissioners had already departed for Europe to meet in Ghent, Belgium, with their counterparts from England, a victory such as he anticipated would enable the British envoys to dictate peace terms, in particular the creation of a semi-independent Indian state in the southwest under British protection and the acquisition of territory around the Great Lakes to be added to Canada. In August 1814 the American and British peace envoys would meet in Ghent and begin their negotiations.
London approved Cochrane's plan, and on July 30, 1814, Lord Bathurst, the secretary of state for war and the colonies, directed General Ross to sail his army to Jamaica and rendezvous with additional troops that would be sent him from England. As part of the invasion Ross was also ordered to obtain command of the lower Mississippi so as to deprive Americans any access to the Gulf of Mexico and to occupy a large stretch of important and valuable territory in the area that could be demanded as the price of peace. Less than two weeks later, on August 10, John Wilson Croker, secretary to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, wrote Cochrane and approved his plan; five thousandlater the figure was raised to fourteen thousand men would be dispatched over a period of time to join him in the invasion. The bulk of them could be expected to arrive in Jamaica around mid-November.
In executing his plan, even before it had been officially approved by Croker, Cochrane first dispatched Captain Hugh Pigot in May 1814 to the mouth of the Apalachicola in Florida, just east of Pensacola, to begin rounding up Indian and Spanish allies. Pigot later reported that over three thousand Creeks and Seminoles had agreed to join in raids against the Americans. With Spanish consent, Cochrane initially planned to invade through Pensacola and Mobilethe latter recently seized by the United States from Spain. So he sent Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicholls to Pensacola with two naval vessels, the Hermes and the Carron, plus a small force of one hundred troops and a supply of arms and ammunition, to begin training the Indians. Nicholls, "an impatient blustering Irishman" known to be brave but cruel, was directed to scout the area and determine all the possible routes to New Orleans. He first landed at Apalachicola, where he issued several proclamations in which he said that all slaves who joined him would be freed and all Indians who took up arms against the United States would regain the lands taken from them, which would be guaranteed to them forever.
Nicholls arrived outside the port of Pensacola on August 14, 1814, and immediately received permission to land from Governor González Manrique. This was a clear and indisputable violation of Spanish neutrality, but González Manrique felt justified, since he expected an American invasion at any time.
As early as June 1814, General Jackson learned of the British operations in Florida. He notified Secretary of War John Armstrong that "300 British had landed and are fortifying at the mouth of the Apalachicola, and are arming and exciting the Indians to acts of hostility against the United States." Under the circumstances he requested permission to initiate an assault against Pensacola. "Will the government say to me ... proceed to ---- and reduce itIf so I promise the war in the south has a speedy termination and British influence forever cut off from the Indians in that quarter." Such permission would of course constitute a declaration of war against Spain, which the Madison administration was reluctant to grant. "I am directed by the President to say," replied Secretary Armstrong, "that there is a disposition on the part of the Spanish Government not to break with the U.S." You must distinguish between "the effect of menace & compulsion" and "choice & policy. The result of this enquiry must govern." If the Spanish are arming and feeding the Indians and cooperating with the British, then "we must strike on the broad principle of preservation."
It is unlikely that Jackson received this letter before he made plans to invade Florida. Not that it would have made a particle of difference. He received many reports about the intentions of the British invading force, particularly the proclamations of Nicholls. He knew that they included an attack on Mobile, followed by a general assault against New Orleans. He therefore "finished the business with the creeks" by forcing them to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson, and then hastily moved down the Coosa and Alabama rivers with his army to the American-occupied town of Mobile, arriving on August 22. He and his army had traversed four hundred miles through a wilderness in eleven days.
Roughly 140 miles east of New Orleans, Mobile figured prominently in British invasion plans for three reasons: it provided the best route for an invasion of Louisiana; it would strengthen ties and lines of communication with the Indians; and it guaranteed the severing of Louisiana trade to the rest of the country and Europe. The chief American defense of the town consisted of Fort Bowyer, built at the extreme end of a long spit that extended many miles out across the entrance of Mobile Bay and "commanded the passes at the entrance of the bay." It provided almost exclusive control over the navigation of the coast of West Florida and allowed easy access to Pensacola. In the first of a whole series of costly mistakes, the British, in particular Admiral Cochrane, decided that the fort was weak and did not require a large force to subdue it.
On arriving at Mobile, Jackson sent Major William Lawrence and a contingent of 160 regular soldiers to repair and defend the dilapidated fort. Working at top speed, they managed within two weeks to bring the fort to an acceptable level of defense. Then on September 12 a British force of 225 marines and Indians was put ashore nine miles east of the fort and a naval squadron consisting of the Hermes, Carron, Sophie, and Childers with a total of seventy-eight guns under Captain William H. Percy arrived at Mobile Bay to begin the land-sea invasion. The Hermes and Sophie got within range of the fort and opened up with their heavy guns at 4:20 P.M. But the shallowness of the channel and the dying wind made it impossible for these ships to maneuver. By 7:00 P.M. the Hermes had gone aground with her sails shredded and her rigging shot away by the returning fire from the American fort. After transferring his men to other ships, Percy abandoned the Hermes and set it ablaze. The resulting explosion of her magazine could be heard by Jackson thirty miles away in Mobile. The destruction of the Hermes marked the end of the engagement.
Realizing that he could not capture the fort, Percy withdrew and sailed back to Pensacola. The marines and Indians who had landed got within a thousand yards of the fort and attempted a feeble assault, but when they saw the fleet sailing off they turned around and retreated to Pensacola. In the engagement Nicholls was wounded in the leg and blinded in one eye. The British lost twenty-two dead aboard the Hermes and twenty wounded; the Sophie had nine killed and thirteen wounded, while the Carron sustained one killed and four wounded. Lawrence lost only four killed and five wounded.
The loss of this battle was catastrophic for British plansand it could have been prevented. The strategy of a land-sea operation to capture Mobile and thereby provide the location for a massive invasion by the army gathering in Jamaica had great merit and should have been better planned and organized. Defeat resulted because shallow-bottomed boats were needed to properly navigate the waters of Mobile Bay so as to get into position to bombard the fort. In addition, the land force was too small for the task of capturing the fort and faced a highly disciplined and well-entrenched contingent of American soldiers.
Now convinced that the British planned their invasion through Mobile with Pensacola as a base of operation, Jackson decided to pursue the retreating British marines and Indians and invade Florida. Such an action would disrupt British plans, punish the Spanish for violating their neutrality, and put an end to the Indian war in the south. Although he admitted in a letter to the new secretary of war, James Monroe, that "I act without the orders of the government," still he said he felt "a confidence that I shall stand Justified to my government for having undertaken the expedition."
But he needed additional troops for such an expedition. Fortunately, his friend General John Coffee started southward from West Tennessee with more than two thousand cavalry and even picked up several hundred more troops along the way. When he learned of Coffee's approach and the size of his force, Jackson wheeled out of Mobile on October 25 to rendezvous with him. By the time the combined force reached Pensacola the American army comprised over 4,000 men, including 1,000 regulars and several hundred Choctaw and Chickasaw allies.
Pensacola was a small village of a few streets connected to a square and defended by two forts, St. Rose and St. Michael, which were poorly garrisoned with approximately five hundred men. Real strength lay in Fort Barrancas, which guarded the entrance of the bay, and it was held by the British.
Under a flag of truce, Jackson demanded the surrender of the forts from Governor González Manrique and the immediate evacuation of the British from Pensacola. "I have come not as an enemy of Spain," he assured the governor, "but I come with a force sufficient to prevent the repetition of those acts so injurious to the U.S. and so inconsistent with the neutral character of Spain." If his demands were refused he would not be responsible, he said, for the conduct of "my enraged soldiers and the Indian warriors."
The governor rejected the demands, and Jackson attacked the town on November 7, employing one column of five hundred men to make a noisy demonstration on the west side of the town while he led the main force through the woods before dawn on the east side. The Spanish had expected the attack to come from the west side because that was the site of Jackson's camp. Moreover their heaviest artillery was located in that section. So they were completely surprised when the Americans poured into Pensacola from the east. Jackson anticipated that the British ships anchored in the harbor would open fire on his army, "but they remained silent from a dread of our Artillery." Actually the British, like the Spanish, had expected the assault to come from the west, and the surprise attack on the east developed so swiftly that the ships could not make the necessary adjustments to bring Jackson's force within range of their guns. Indeed, the attack moved so quickly that resistance collapsed within minutes, and González Manrique soon surrendered the town and its fortifications. However, the commanders of the forts delayed their surrender for several hours in the hope of receiving British support"Spanish treachery," Jackson fumedwhich meant that the attack on Barrancas had to wait until the following morning.
The next day the town was rocked with a tremendous explosion. The British had destroyed Fort Barrancas, and Nicholls, the British garrison, and hundreds of their Indian allies sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico. At least, Jackson reported to Secretary Monroe, "I had the Satisfaction to see the whole British force leave the port and their friends to our Mercy."
In the engagement the Americans lost seven dead and eleven wounded, while the Spanish suffered fourteen killed and six wounded. British and Indian casualties went unrecorded.
Rather than remain in Pensacola, since it was now totally defenseless against invasion because of the loss of Barrancas and was therefore a waste of effort and manpower, Jackson decided to return to Mobile, still the focal point, in his mind, of invasion by the main British force. If nothing else, the continuing presence in Pensacola of his army was a violation of international law and an act of provocation that could trigger open warfare between the two countries. He was also convinced that he had "broken up the hot bed of the Indian war," since many starving Indians wandered about the area in desperate search for food. In addition, he believed the Spanish recognized that any further violation of their neutrality would bring swift retaliatory action by the United States. So he departed the town fairly certain that he had seriously disrupted the overall British strategy in the Gulf area.
And indeed he had. The defeat at Mobile and the expulsion from Pensacola forced the English to change their invasion plans and target New Orleans directly as the point of invasionprobably the worst site they could have chosen. An attacking force of professional soldiers coming from Mobile or somewhere in East Florida could easily sweep across the Mississippi Territory to Louisiana above New Orleans. Such an invasion would cut off the city from supplies, especially with the British fleet patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. Also, the terrain across Louisiana was far better than what an attacking force faced in a frontal assault up the Mississippi River with its bayous, creeks, and soggy ground, which could play havoc with the movement of heavy equipment and a large army. And the river itself could be treacherous, with its shifting tides and erratic movement.
Even the British acknowledged the damage that Jackson had inflicted on their plans. "The attack made by the Americans upon Pensacola," wrote Admiral Cochrane, "has in a great measure retarded this service." Jackson also appreciated the extent of his success. "Our conduct," he told his wife, "has obtained from our enemy [a] tribute of Just respect. It is said that Colo. Nicholls, exclaimed from the shipping that he never beheld such o[r]der and determined bravery and the universal good conduct of our troops whilst in Pensacola, has inspired the Spaniards with the highest confidence in the americans, and the citizens exclaimed that the choctaws were more civilized than the British."
Jackson's victories also deprived the British of any real help from the Spanish population living in East Florida. Not only had the invaders proved their inability to lend useful support, but their behavior in Pensacola shocked and outraged the inhabitants of the town. They kidnaped slaves, stole property, and acted with "typical British arrogance" toward occupied peoples. Any attempt on their part to invade from Florida in the future would have been met with hostility and possibly concerted opposition. As for the Indians, they were so demoralized and disorganized as to be of little use to the British.
On November 9, Jackson handed the town back to the governor, but not without a typical Jacksonian flourish. The "enemy having disappeared and the hostile creeks fled to the Forest," he wrote Governor González Manrique, "I retire from your Town, and leave you again at liberty to occupy your Fort." Or what was left of it. And Gonzalez Manrique responded in like manner, asking "God to preserve your life many years."
And on that pleasant note, Jackson departed Pensacola and headed for Mobile, where he arrived on November 19. It is quite possible that before he left he received a letter written by Secretary of War Monroe almost three weeks earlier. In the letter, written at the direction of the President, the secretary directly forbade Jackson to take any "measure which would involve this Government in a contest with Spain." A minister to Spain had just been appointed, and since U.S. relations with that country were still officially amicable, it seemed more appropriate for this country to make a "representation" to the Spanish government about "the insolent and unjustifiable conduct of the Governor of Pensacola" through its minister than to have Jackson take military action. Fortunately for the ultimate success of American arms, this letter arrived too late to forestall the invasion of Florida.
But the letter had added significance in that it relayed to Jackson the information the administration had heard about Britain's invasion plans. Monroe told Old Hickory that a large force under Lord Rowland Hill would be directed at Louisiana. In fact he informed the American peace commissioners meeting in Ghent with their British counterparts that between twelve and fifteen thousand troops would sail from Ireland in September and invade New Orleans sometime in the winter. Actually a force of about two thousand men under Major General John Keane had left Plymouth and was expected to rendezvous in Jamaica in late November with the expeditionary force from the Chesapeake. This initial British forcesupplemented by additional reserves sent at different timesconstituted about six thousand men, with Lieutenant General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham given overall command in place of General Ross, who had been killed at Baltimore.
To meet, challenge, and defeat this formidable army about to invade the United States, Monroe assured Jackson that he would send him 7,500 men from Tennessee, 2,500 from Kentucky, and 2,500 from Georgia. He also expected the warriors of all the friendly Indian tribes in the area to join in the effort of defense.
Just when this letter reached Jackson is uncertain, but he had begun to pick up rumors out of Jamaica from his vast network of spies that New Orleans was now the focus for a full-scale British invasion. He found this information hard to believe, since Mobile provided the best route to the great city. Still he could not dismiss the evidence at hand. So he quickly ordered the strengthening of Fort Bowyer, assigned a large contingent of troops to the defense of Mobile, and turned over command of the area to Brigadier General James Winchester. On November 22, together with an army of less than two thousand, he finally set out for New Orleans, still concerned that a blunder or miscalculation on his part might mean the successful invasion of his country by a savage enemy bent on its prostration and the scooping up of "Beauty and Booty" in New Orleans.
Meet the Author
Robert V. Remini, whose three-volume biography, Andrew Jackson, won the National Book Award and was reissued in 1998 as a Main Selection of the History Book Club, is also the author of biographies of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. He is professor emeritus of history and research professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lives in Wilmette, Illinois.
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