The Creeks who had fled south knew how implacable Andrew Jackson could be in war. When British ships failed to capture America's Fort Bowyer on the Gulf of Mexico, their Indian allies sensed disaster and scattered into the wooded countryside.
Outside Pensacola, Jackson decided he could not wait for authorization from Washington and called for reinforcements from Tennessee. The afternoon of November 6, 1814, with three thousand men in camp, he sent a flag of truce to Governor Gonzalez Manrique, along with an explanation that he had not come to attack a neutral power or to damage Pensacola but simply to prevent the British from using the town as a haven. Jackson called for the surrender of two nearby forts where British and Spanish flags had been flying together.
As Jackson's emissary approached with his flag of truce, he was driven back by cannon shot. When Jackson demanded an explanation, Gonzalez Manrique apologized and assured him that a second flag would be respected.
It was midnight before the governor finally received Jackson's terms: He must open Fort St. Michael and Fort Barancas to the Americans, who would hold them until enough Spanish troops arrived to protect their neutrality from the British.
Gonzalez Manrique consulted with his officers and rejected the proposal.
Before dawn, Jackson marched his men along a beach east of Pensacola, but sand made dragging their cannon impossible. After a brief skirmish, the terrified governor appeared with his own white flag and surrendered the town. The British remained in command of Fort Barancas six miles away.
Jackson planned his attack for the next morning. On his way to the fort, however, a deafening explosion told him that the British had blown up Barancas before abandoning it.
Although Jackson wrote a bitter note to the governor accusing him of bad faith, his progress so far left him buoyant. "The steady firmness of my troops has drew a just respect from our enemies," he wrote. "It has confirmed the Red Sticks that they have no stronghold or protections, only in the friendship of the United States."
Best of all, the good behavior of Jackson's Indian allies had impressed the Spanish residents of Pensacola. During their time ashore, Britain's troops had plundered the town and carried off most of its slaves. Jackson was gratified that the Spanish now believed "that our Choctaws are more civilized than the British."
All the same, Jackson had invaded a neutral territory. After he had already succeeded, he received Secretary Monroe's letter instructing him to do nothing to provoke a war with Spain. He could be certain, however, that Monroe was not unhappy with him. Jackson's exploit had further demoralized the hostile Indians, and newspapers back home were filled with extravagant praise.
Jackson still suspected that the British might attack Mobile, but the pirate Jean Lafitte, a tall and elegant former blacksmith from Haiti, was telling the Americans otherwise. Lafitte had commandeered a port on Barataria Bay outside New Orleans as headquarters for his flotilla of outlaw ships. His men, called Baratarians, had struck lucrative alliances with the local businessmen for disposing of their contraband. Slaves who brought six hundred dollars or seven hundred dollars in legal trading could be purchased from smugglers for less than two hundred dollars.
Congress appreciated the damage being inflicted on British commerce by America's privateers, who had seized almost fourteen hundred British ships since the war began. Daring commanders were able to dart into a merchant fleet with their lightly armed ships and take over a British vessel before its guardian frigate could give chase. The American ship names reflected the spirit of their crews True Blooded Yankee, Rattlesnake, Scourge, Catch Me If You Can.
In July 1812, Congress had taxed the privateers 2 percent of their bounty to provide for widows and orphans created by the war. Lately that levy had been lifted, but any legislation out of Washington hardly concerned Lafitte. He scoffed at neutrality laws and evaded all U.S. taxes, even though he considered himself an American patriot and claimed, "I have never ceased to be a good citizen."
Lafitte made good on that boast when the British invited him to regain respectability for himself and his gang by joining the Royal Navy. He would receive a naval commission and thirty thousand dollars; his men would be allotted sizeable tracts of the land the British intended to occupy.
In rejecting the offer, Lafitte turned over the British correspondence to Louisiana's governor Claiborne. He made the gesture in hopes of obtaining the release of eighty of his men, including his brother Pierre, who had been imprisoned after a recent government raid on their base.
With the letters he forwarded, Lafitte did not include his earlier draft in which he accepted Britain's offer. Given his change of heart, Lafitte wanted to impress on Claiborne that while America might see him as a criminal, he would never miss the chance to serve her.
Jackson also received copies of Britain's overtures. They underscored the urgent message he had received from Secretary Monroe that Admiral Cochrane was sailing in his direction with a formidable invasion force as many as fourteen thousand troops in at least sixty ships.
Arriving in New Orleans on December 1, Jackson understood why the British might feel confident. The local defenders were in disarray, with few ships on the water and only two small militia units for protection. Despite rumors of the impending danger, residents remained divided by politics and nationality into squabbling factions.
At the last census, New Orleans' total population had been less than twenty-five thousand. Most residents had been born into French-speaking families, and those of English heritage accounted for only one-eighth of the city. "Creole" had first been the name given to descendants of French settlers; now it also could apply to the Spanish and Portuguese. Cajuns, originally landing from Nova Scotia when the British drove them out in 1755, had settled along bayous that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite their quarreling, all of the communities seemed to take heart from the general's arrival and were passing the word: "Jackson's come!"
The man they hailed as their savior had been weakened by his constant exertion and was near collapse. When Jackson had been rewarded with his commission in the U.S. Army, he shed his touchy preference for a volunteer militia, and his letter to Rachel had glowed with pride:
"You are now a Major Generals lady," he had written, and must appear "elegant and plain, not extravagant" in the style expected of her.
But urging his wife now to join him in New Orleans, Jackson was less concerned with her wardrobe than with the beds and bedsteads he wanted her to bring to his camp. He explained that before leaving Pensacola, he had been taken very ill. Purging him with two herbs jalap and calomel the doctors had helped to restore his health. But there had followed "eight days on the march that I never broke bread."
Although Jackson looked cadaverous and older than his forty-seven years, he willed himself to stand erect in his uniform of blue homespun, yellow buckskin, and scuffed boots, and to ride with his usual energy.
He set about blocking the mouths of the many bayous that extended into the city. Jackson posted a guard at each of them and brought forward five gunboats to Lake Borgne. They were to act as decoys and attempt to draw the British ships into range of the guns at Fort Petites Coquilles, a small base built on a channel of land connecting Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain.
Next, Jackson had to decide what use to make of Jean Lafitte. In the past, he had cursed the pirates as "hellish banditti." But he might need their skill and daring. As his go-between, Jackson could depend on his new aide-de-camp, Edward Livingston, a brother of the Robert Livingston who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. After a financial scandal forced Edward to resign as mayor of New York, he had moved south, married the sister of a prominent Creole, and embraced the unfettered life of the frontier. His law clients these days included pirates forced to appear in court, and when Livingston suggested that Jackson recruit them, his motive was not entirely civic-minded. The imprisoned pirates had promised him twenty thousand dollars if he could get them acquitted on charges of violating U.S. trade laws. Livingston had recommended that their best strategy would be to join the American army.
At first, Jackson refused to deal with the outlaws. When they finally met at Jackson's headquarters on Royal Street, however, Jean Lafitte argued compellingly in English he also spoke French, Spanish, and Italian that his men should be allowed to join in defending the city. Looking past Lafitte's courtly manners and expensive tailoring, Jackson recognized, as he had with William Weatherford, a kindred fighting spirit. A federal judge released the pirates from jail on the condition that they enlist, and Jackson sent Lafitte to run two batteries below New Orleans and assigned others from his crew to a company of marines.
Even before he arrived in New Orleans, Jackson had resolved the question of whether to recruit the town's six hundred free black men. In the past, many had fought for Spain, but Claiborne interviewed their leaders, including Major Pierre Lacoste, and satisfied himself that they were committed to America. The governor had written to Jackson in August and got back the general's exuberant approval.
"Our country has been invaded and threatened with destruction," Jackson wrote. "She wants soldiers to fight her battles. The free men of color in your city are inured to the Southern climate and would make excellent soldiers. They will not remain quiet spectators of the interesting contest. They must be either for, or against, us."
Jackson also sent a proclamation to speak directly to black recruits:
"Through a mistaken policy, you have heretofore been deprived of a participation in the glorious struggle for national rights in which your country is engaged. This no longer shall exist. As sons of freedom you are now called upon to defend your most inestimable blessing."
Volunteers were to receive the standard inducements 160 acres of land and $124 in cash, along with rations, uniforms, and regular pay. They would be commanded by black noncommissioned or militia officers; their commissioned officers would be white.
The district's assistant paymaster was among those white men who opposed putting guns in the hands of black men. Questioning Jackson's authority, he got a quick comeuppance:
"Be pleased to keep to yourself your Opinions upon the policy of making payments to particular Corps," Jackson wrote. "It is enough for you to receive my order for the payment of the troops with the necessary muster rolls without inquiring whether the troops are White, Black or Tea."
In outlining to London his original plan for invading New Orleans, Cochrane had argued that since slaves and freemen alike would welcome the liberation of Louisiana, the British would need only three thousand regular troops to take New Orleans and then continue up the Mississippi Valley to Canada. When the campaign was over, the United States would be wedged between Britain to the west and Spain to the south. Further American expansion on the continent would be halted.
Cochrane's superiors considered his estimate too optimistic and tripled the force he suggested. Not only would the troops of the late Robert Ross be sent from the failed Baltimore campaign, but soldiers would come from Ireland and France, and black regiments shipped from the West Indies because they were accustomed to the Louisiana climate.
Sir Edward Pakenham was hurrying to the scene to replace Ross but had not arrived when Cochrane's fleet moved toward Cat Island. From there, he planned to send small boats onto Lake Borgne. Jackson had anticipated that strategy when he sent out his five gunboats for Cochrane to pursue. But the winds died before the Americans could lure the British ships near enough for the guns of Fort Petites Coquilles to fire on them.
Two days later, on December 14, Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, the American naval commander, fought for forty-five minutes until overwhelming salvos from Cochrane's barges blasted his flotilla and Jones's ships were taken. But the guns at Fort Petites Coquilles did prevent Cochrane from heading toward the best route into the city, and his men landed instead at the westerly end of Lake Borgne. They intended to travel along Bayou Bienvenu, which drained into Borgne, and mount a surprise attack from the east.
At first, Jackson took the news from Cat Island as a feint by the British, but by December 15, he could no longer doubt that the invasion had begun. He sent at once for John Coffee at his camp above Baton Rouge. Coffee was now his most trusted general, and Jackson ordered him to march day and night to reach him. Coffee was also to summon from further up the Mississippi other commanders, who included William Carroll, last year's winner of his duel with Jesse Benton.
With bands in the streets alternating between "Yankee Doodle" and the "Marseillaise," Jackson was convinced that the citizens of New Orleans backed him even if the legislature and the larger property owners might have less confidence in his ability. Jackson admitted, though, that the local government appeared to be supporting his measures. Along with five hundred volunteers, the state had drafted its full quota of one thousand militia and had them equipped and ready when Jackson arrived in New Orleans. Legislators had also voted funds for uniforms for the Tennessee militia and had committed crews of slaves to work on fortifications.
But Jackson suspected that their resolve would falter at the first sign of British success, and like the residents of Annapolis, they would try to buy protection for their property. To guarantee his control, Jackson declared martial law on December 16 and drafted all able-bodied men for service. Suspending the right of habeas corpus, he also required written permission for persons or ships to leave the city. Street lamps were to be extinguished by 9 p.m. After that hour, anyone found in the street without authorization was to be arrested as a spy.
Two days later, still waiting for reinforcements, Jackson reviewed the troops he had on hand. Throngs turned out to watch as he inspected his soldiers in front of the Cathedral of St. Louis and then congratulated his audience for rising above "the differences of language and the prejudices of national pride."
Early on the morning of December 20, Coffee arrived with 800 troops and another 450 on the way. Carroll got to town a day later, then a major in the dragoons brought 100 of his men. The newcomers represented about 4,000 militia from Tennessee and Mississippi.
Meantime, Jackson was astride his horse, trying to guess the route the British would choose. Most likely, he thought, they would leave Lake Borgne by way of Bayou Sauvage and an area known as Chef Menteur. That option would require wading through ten miles of marsh until the land grew solid again five miles east of the city at an expanse called the Plains of Gentilly.
Jackson sent many of his troops, including Major Lacoste's free black soldiers, to build redoubts and prepare a line of defense for the battle he expected to fight on that open field. Even if the British appeared to be heading elsewhere, it would be only another trick. Jackson was counting on his forceful instructions' being carried out, and he expected that trees had been cut down to block every major bayou. By now, he felt he was more familiar with the treacherous New Orleans landscape than the British could possibly be. He had outguessed them and now had only to wait.
Jackson would soon find that because of an oversight Bayou Bienvenu had not been blocked, but the narrow straits and a spate of foul weather helped to compensate for that negligence. The distance from Cat Island to the bayou was sixty-two miles and would take the British thirty-six hours of strenuous rowing. As they set out on the morning of December 19, an icy gale swept over the British troops and froze the tops of their water tanks. During the rowing, Lieutenant Gleig was determined not to complain. But, cold and wet to the skin, he did admit in his notebook that the trek was "the reverse of agreeable."
After two days and a night of weather as severe as any at home in England, they reached their destination with their uniforms stiff from morning frost. Gleig's commanding officer, Colonel Thornton, had recovered from a wound at Bladensburg, and he led a British advance party of eighteen hundred in open boats to the mouth of Bayou Bienvenu. Thornton had agreed with Admiral Cochrane in rejecting a landing near Chef Menteur as too predictable.
Cochrane left a schooner on the lake and came ashore to watch his barges rowing past alligators and snakes to reach the landing site. The admiral was assuring his crew that he would be eating Christmas dinner in New Orleans. And, if he chose to do it, he might stay on for Mardi Gras.
Nearing a rough collection of huts called Fisherman's Village, the British troops could congratulate themselves that so far their landing had gone undetected.
At the head of Bayou Bienvenu lay the sugar plantation of General Jacques Villeré, commander of the first division of Louisiana's militia. Jackson had ordered the general's son to post a guard, and Major Gabriel Villeré had sent out an eleven-man militia detachment. They had gone to the village to check on the Portuguese and Spanish fishermen there but found the area all but deserted. The Americans did not suspect that the fishermen had recently defected to the British.
Reassured by the quiet scene, the American sentries relaxed. By the following night, they were stationing only one man to keep watch while the others slept. After midnight, that sentinel heard a noise and woke the others in time to see five barges filled with British soldiers rowing up the bayou.
Realistic about the odds, the Americans hid until the barges had passed, but in their eagerness to escape they made enough noise that most of them were immediately captured. The others, defeated by the terrain, soon surrendered. One lone man survived in the swamp for three days before he reached an American camp.
When the prisoners were questioned, they proved to be skillful propagandists or inveterate optimists. Inflating America's strength by more than fourfold, they assured their captors that Jackson commanded eighteen thousand men.
Distressing as Colonel Thornton found their estimate, he felt he had no choice but to push forward more rapidly. On the night of December 22, he ordered his men to row their boats carrying his main force to another bayou called Mazant. The way proved so shallow that they had to push their barges forward from the stern with long poles. When scouts jumped out and found a solid path, the men stepped from their boats and moved in a single file beside the swamp until they reached the wide expanse of Jacques Villeré's plantation.
Seeing the farmhouses, Thornton rushed his men to surround them. Since Gabriel Villeré had received no warning from his sentries, he and his brother were smoking cigars as they lounged on the front porch of their house. Too late, Villeré caught sight of Thornton's troops trotting through his orange grove. He jumped up and ran through a back door into Thornton's arms. The brothers were taken inside under guard while Thornton awaited further orders.
Desperate to warn Jackson of the threat, Gabriel Villeré broke free, jumped out an open window, and ran across the lawn. Thornton shouted futilely to his men, "Catch him or kill him!"
Struggling through the swamp ahead of his captors, Villeré reached the house of his nearest neighbor. Together they rowed across the Mississippi to reach stables, where they were given horses. Throughout the morning of December 23, they rode up the levee on the west bank and crossed the river again at New Orleans.
Augustus Rousseau, a young Creole, had come to American headquarters when British ships were first sighted and had arrived only minutes before Villeré rode in at 1:30 p.m. to verify Rousseau's report.
Because Villeré spoke in French, his words had to be translated. When he finished, Jackson was furious at having been outmaneuvered. Pounding on the table, he swore, "By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!"
To his aides, Jackson said more calmly, "Gentlemen, the British are below. We must fight them tonight."
Brave words were not enough to reassure the nervous residents of New Orleans. A Creole militia colonel sought out Magloire Guichard, Speaker of the Louisiana House, to ask what would happen if Jackson were defeated. He took away the impression that the legislature would sue for an independent peace with the British and rode to inform Jackson's cadre what he had learned.
By the time Jackson got the message, it was third-hand and garbled, but he sent another aide with instructions for Governor Claiborne:
"Major General Jackson has received the information that the legislature is on the point of assembling to give up the country. His orders are that the governor should immediately close the doors of the State House, surround it with guards, and fire on the members should they persist in assembling."
Claiborne did as he was told. Two days later, with the rumors laid to rest, the legislators returned to their seats. Furious and humiliated, they ordered an immediate inquiry to exonerate themselves from accusations of treason.
Until Pakenham arrived, the British troops were being commanded by Major General John Keane, who caught up with Thornton's advance column, formed his troops into battalions, and marched them to the northern boundary of the Villeré estate. There he called a halt to wait for his main force to join them.
Thornton protested Keane's decision. Given the element of surprise, they could march on New Orleans now with the men they had and take the city with a minimum of resistance. But Keane, only the interim commander, displayed an interim's caution. Wary because of the inflated estimates of the American forces, he preferred to hold off for another day. Better to forgo a chance at glory than to risk a catastrophic blunder. Keane made Villeré's house his headquarters and ordered his men to set up camp.
That afternoon, he and Cochrane approved a proclamation to be distributed in town. "Louisianians!" it began, "remain quietly in your homes; your slaves shall be preserved to you, and your property respected. We make war only against Americans."
That pledge would be difficult to honor. New Orleans was reputed to be irresistibly rich, and the watchword among the British troops was that "beauty and booty" awaited them in the city. George Gleig observed that the prospect of reaping lavish rewards had inflamed everyone from the general down to the youngest drummer boy.
Moving his ground troops into position, Jackson told the resourceful New Orleans commodore, Daniel Patterson, to send all available ships down the Mississippi. Patterson hurried to bring his schooner Carolina to the far side of the river out of sight of the British camp. He would fire his guns when the American troops were ready to attack.
Jackson led fourteen hundred soldiers with two cannon down a narrow road along Rodriguez's Canal toward Keane's men. Coffee took another 732 riflemen, including a black battalion, behind the British positions to cut off communication between Keane and his troops still on Lake Borgne.
Jackson sent General David Morgan south of the Villeré estate to create a diversion. He left behind the Louisiana militia and William Carroll's Tennessee troops because he could not quite give up his initial certainty about the British strategy, and he still wondered whether the landing was a ruse. Claiborne tried to dissuade him, and even some of Jackson's officers privately ridiculed their general's obsession.
All the same, Jackson would guard against a trick; he sent Carroll and the others to patrol Chef Menteur.
At the Villeré plantation, Keane's men had lighted fires for cooking the hams and chickens they had confiscated from neighboring houses.
Others of the exhausted troops had already stretched out on the ground for the night. Lieutenant Gleig and his friend Captain Grey had fashioned a cone-shaped hut from fence stakes torn up around the Villeré perimeter and rested there with Gleig's dog at their feet. Their enlisted men brought them a couple of hens for roasting and a few bottles of an excellent claret.
Since British soldiers had been warned against looting, Gleig preferred to regard the wine as "borrowed" from a nearby cellar. As they relaxed and reminisced in the glow of six or eight wax candles, they agreed they were ready now to return to England. Gleig had hoped to write a book about his adventures, but so far he felt he had not seen enough action to make a compelling story.
Through the late December darkness, their regiment had watched the Carolina approaching with no sense of alarm. It must be either one of their own or a harmless American merchant ship.
From his deck, Patterson checked the time and passed word to his captain. He had orders to begin firing at 7:30 p.m., and the Carolina was now directly in front of the British camp. A shout from American Captain John Henley cut through the night air to where Gleig and Grey were sitting:
"Now, boys, give it to them for the honor of America!"
The Carolina fired its starboard guns, and the British troops jumped up in confusion and ran to get out of its range. Their artillery tried to answer back, but the shots only allowed the Carolina to home in more effectively on their position.
Hearing the guns, Jackson marched his men to overrun the British guard posts. Musket fire coming from the direction of the British sentinels convinced Keane that the estimates of Jackson's superior numbers had been accurate. Shaken by the crisis, he gave Colonel Thornton full authority to repel the Americans any way he could.
Heavy clouds obscured a crescent moon. In the blackness, Gleig and Grey rushed to their right to beat back the American attack. The two young officers waded across a pond in the direction of the firing, collecting strays from their regiment until they had about thirty men.
Gleig was moving blindly forward, trying to avoid the plantation's ditches, when he dimly made out a band of men coming toward them. In the gloom, he could not tell whether they were friendly or hostile.
Gleig called to them. When there was no answer, he and Grey led the British soldiers forward until they were about twenty or thirty yards from the strangers. A burst of fire proved to Gleig that they were Americans, but Grey worried that if they returned the fire they might be shooting at their own troops. And, despite their friendship, Grey was the ranking officer.
The two of them directed their men to take cover behind a stack of cane stubble while Gleig crept forward alone. Under the protective darkness, he got even closer to the opposing line. Convinced more than ever that they were Americans, he scuttled back to Grey. But for reasons Gleig never understood Grey could not be moved. He insisted that it was impossible for the Americans to have penetrated past the British outposts. That meant that the men standing before them had to be members of Britain's Ninety-fifth Rifle Corps.
They agreed on a compromise. Grey would remain where he was with half of their men while Gleig tried to circle around the other soldiers with a dozen or fourteen of the rest.
As he reconnoitered, Gleig joined forces with a British squad also stumbling through the darkness toward the Americans. Climbing over a fence, the British squad moved across a field and found themselves on the left flank of John Coffee's men. With no time for strategy, the British could fire only one round before the two sides charged each other with bayonets, musket butts, sabers, and then fists. They fought, Gleig thought afterward, with the savage ferocity of bulldogs.
The exertion was too strenuous to last long. When the Americans gave way and ran, Gleig's men took after them briefly until he called a halt. Looking around for his friend Grey, Gleig was surprised not to find him.
Meantime, Jackson was marching up Levee Road with his artillerymen when they ran into a British squad that fought fiercely to wrest away their cannon. Jackson raced to the forefront and called, "Save the guns, my boys, at any price."
A British squad arrived from Bayou Bienvenu but broke off its attacks for fear the men were getting too far from their ships on the lake. As the British withdrew to the comparative safety of Villeré's plantation, Jackson and his officers decided that a deepening fog made it too dangerous to pursue them.
The Americans camped on the grounds of Villeré's neighbor, Pierre Lacoste, and by 9:30 p.m. the battle seemed ended. Two hours later, both sides were awakened by musket fire coming from below the Villeré estate. It turned out that recently drafted militiamen from Louisiana had heard the Carolina's guns and insisted on joining the fray. After trading a few shots with British sentinels, they retreated at dawn to their own post.
When quiet descended again over the fields and swamps, the British officers were claiming victory. The night's battle had lasted from 8 o'clock until three in the morning, and an early count found at least two hundred of their men killed or wounded, and another sixty-four missing. But they had escaped the trap Jackson had tried to spring.
George Gleig was standing with two swords in his hands his own and one that an American had surrendered to him when a British officer stepped forward and told him that Charles Grey had been killed.
Gleig's jubilant mood vanished, and he ran to the cane stack where he had last seen Grey. Gleig found his body with a shot that had torn through his head and left him in a pool of blood thickening in the night air. It looked as though Grey had been struck almost as soon as they had parted.
Numb and exhausted, Gleig was standing over the body when a bugle called him back to duty. To avoid shots from the Carolina, the British troops passed the rest of the night and most of the next day lying low on the riverbank without fires and shivering in the cold air.
When the threat seemed to be easing, Gleig rounded up three enlisted men and went to recover Grey's body. He passed dozens of the dead. Those struck down by bullets seemed to be sleeping. But men slashed with bayonets or sabers lay in grotesque formations of four or six, one Englishman and an American still joined by blades in each other's belly.
Locating Grey's pale and bloody corpse once again, Gleig threw himself down beside it and sobbed like a child. The other men wept along with him as they loaded Grey onto a cart and dug a shallow grave for him in the Villeré garden.
The British had turned the mansion itself into a field hospital. As Gleig walked its halls, he heard the wounded enlisted men cursing and shrieking from pain. In a small room, he recognized the officers who had been separated because of their rank. One, shot in the head and barely alive, gasped for breath. Another, a musket ball lodged deep in his backbone, was biting down on his blanket to stop himself from screaming.
Andrew Jackson also regarded his first joust with the British as, if not a victory, certainly no defeat. His killed, wounded, and missing men totaled 213, somewhat less than those of the enemy. America's regular army had taken the heaviest casualties.
The next day, Jackson was more ebullient as he relayed the results to John Coffee. They had halted the British advance and could dig in for the defense of New Orleans that lay ahead. Morale was running high, with many of yesterday's green recruits more confident now that they had stood up to the best soldiers Britain could field.
And Admiral Cochrane had learned as General Ross had been taught outside Baltimore never to announce his dinner plans in advance.
Whatever their commanders might be saying, British soldiers hurrying from their ships on the lake found their advance party subdued, even downcast. By working through the night, the entire army had arrived at the campground before dark on December 24. But two more U.S. ships were now pointing their guns at the British position, and General Keane's new arrivals were penned in until he could withdraw them from the riverbank, company by company.
The soldiers had no idea how long they would have to remain pinned down. Because their local guides had been either inept or treacherous in not alerting them to the American raid, the British now paid no attention to their rumors and treated them as spies.
Gleig reflected bitterly that every one of their expectations had been shattered. Instead of an easy march to a city whose residents would flock to welcome them, they had been mauled in their own camp. Around them, they saw deserted houses and the cattle and horses that had been driven away by outraged citizens. The men had already accepted that this expedition would not add to their glory but might at least fill their pockets. Instead, the new year promised only fierce resistance against men fighting to defend their homes.
A moment of hope arose when Pakenham arrived to the customary cheers from his new troops. But it was Christmas Day, and melancholy settled again over the camp. Eating in a barn with too few plates and forks, his officers reminisced about happier holidays, spoke of fallen comrades, and tried to ignore the salvos from the American ships. Most guns were far enough away to be harmless, but a few shells shook the barn walls. Then one shell hit an enlisted man and cut him in half. As they looked on, he took an hour to die.
The spectacle reminded Gleig of the difference between honorable European soldiers and ruthless Americans like Jackson's men. In France, British sentries could stand twenty yards apart from the French guards and, if neither army planned an advance, they might face each other throughout the night with no shots exchanged. That was civilized warfare.
The Americans acted as though any man they could kill was one less enemy. Tennessee riflemen were creeping through the brush to take potshots at the British sentries, and when they killed them, they scrambled out to strip their bodies of weapons and valuables. At one post, three replacements had been picked off before the British stopped posting guards and abandoned the area.
To Gleig and his fellow officers, those cold-blooded murders exposed the Americans not as soldiers but as simple assassins.
Jackson had drawn most of his men back two miles to dig entrenchments along the left bank of Rodriguez's Canal from the river to a swamp thick with cypress trees. Their new position was several miles southeast of New Orleans.
Jackson worried that a larger enemy force would soon be charging his meager defenses. He was somewhat relieved to learn at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve that the British troops were being held in camp. The reprieve made Jackson redouble his efforts. He sent to the city for shovels and pickaxes and for slaves to fashion a rampart from mud and salvaged scrap; the slaves would free his soldiers for the battle ahead. When digging too deep sent up geysers of water that washed out their efforts, they cut down cypress logs and laid them in a way that kept the mud stable.
Jackson made his headquarters in a plantation house one hundred yards behind the fortified ditch and then rode up and down the line to urge speed. By sunset, a breastwork rose from three to four feet and stretching three-fifths of a mile.
Jackson was still sickly and weary from the battle, but he would not pause to sleep. He was determined, he said, either to halt the enemy there or to bury himself in the ruins of his defensive wall.
As Jackson was raising that bulwark, Major Latour cut a levee in front of a neighboring plantation, trying to flood the open plain between the two armies. Then the river dropped so low that Latour's effort made little difference, and the Americans put two six-pounders at the head of the road as added protection. The crew of a converted merchant sloop, the Louisiana, brought their ship downriver to two miles below Jackson's army; the Carolina remained anchored opposite the British camp.
Even with their nonstop exertion, the Americans were celebrating a merrier Christmas than the British, who had expected to mount an attack at any moment. But Pakenham, although a veteran of the battle of Salamanca during the Peninsular War, was also a cautious thirty-eight-year-old. His rewards from a victory would be great an earldom and possibly the governorship of Louisiana. But failure would be ignominious.
At home, his brother-in-law Wellington was suggesting that Pakenham commanded enough troops to assure victory some eight thousand well-equipped and disciplined men.
Pakenham seemed to agree. At least, his reproaches were scathing when he learned about the British decision not to move from the Villeré plantation and attack New Orleans instead of letting the troops be bottled up in this cul de sac.
Resenting the slur against his strategy, Cochrane protested that it had been Keane who refused to move his men. Cochrane vowed that if the army were to shrink again from launching an assault, his sailors and marines would do the job.
"We will storm the American lines and march into the city," the admiral said. "Then the soldiers can bring up the baggage."
For all his criticism, Pakenham himself would not commit his land troops until he could end the harassment from the American ships on the river. He would wait a few more days for the heaviest guns of his fleet.
On the night of December 26, Lieutenant Gleig was sent to an outpost at his army's left flank. With his dog trotting ahead of him, he checked on his sentinels every half hour. Even when they had become separated during the last battle, Gleig knew he could count on his dog to find him.
About 1 a.m., the animal stopped a few paces in front of a small woods and began barking fiercely. Gleig froze. A moment later, half a dozen muskets fired at him from only several feet away. He pulled out his pistol and fired back, and his attackers ran off.
As a clear but chilly dawn broke and the sun burned off the mists, Gleig was relieved to find that these inconclusive nights were over at last. At camp, he found his senior officers forming the men into ranks, with horses commandeered from nearby plantations lined up to create a makeshift cavalry unit.
At 7 a.m., Pakenham gave the order to open sustained fire against the Carolina. British nine-pounders threw shot that had been heating for five hours, their six-pounders hurled shrapnel, and their howitzers fired cold shell and shot. Within fifteen minutes, the American schooner was in flames and its crew jumping from the decks.
When the Carolina blew up an hour later, the British guns turned on the Louisiana. As America's largest armed vessel on the river, the ship was too valuable to lose. The winds were not strong enough to move it to safety, but 150 sailors rowed under a barrage of shot and pulled the Louisiana out of range.
Now that the British were on the move, their spirits were rising. Gleig enjoyed hearing his men shouting out coarse jokes to each other as they marched toward the Americans. He had concluded that living with death left soldiers as immune to its terror as animals were, and hunger and exhaustion were less disagreeable because they experienced them so often. Truly, Gleig told himself, a soldier was the man most free from care, which made him the happiest of men.
Gleig's musing ended abruptly when the British ran into a concealed American position and were cut down by extremely accurate artillery fire. The cheerful mood gave way to panic and cries from the wounded. The left flank broke to cower behind high reeds in the knee-deep water. Men of the right flank took fewer hits but were stopped by the salvos at the marsh's edge.
The British retreated to settle onto a new campground at the Bienvenu and Chalmette plantations. Gleig worried that they were not much better protected there than at the Villeré estate no woods or other cover, only open spaces visible to the American scouts. Nor over the next three days could he understand why Pakenham was keeping them there with no attempt to fortify the camp or even to send out riflemen to harass the Americans.
The British had already sprung their one surprise, a new weapon called the Congreve rocket. Pakenham had hoped that its novelty and the noise it made would terrorize the Americans. But William Carroll's troops had adjusted quickly to the device, and it turned out to be more effective at frightening the horses.
By the end of December 28, deciding that the British charge had been only a feint or reconnaissance, the Americans went back to digging in for the real battle. They had no idea what preparations the British were making, but on New Year's Eve, they heard a hammering and clamor that suggested the British were creating a battery for mounting their cannon.
In their haste, the British soldiers were rolling out the hogsheads of sugar they found in local barns and building the gun mounts from sugar instead of dirt. Gleig and his fellow junior officers calculated sadly that the sugar they were destroying would have fetched them many thousands of English pounds sterling.
On January 1, Pakenham waited for a heavy fog to lift at 8 a.m. before he tried again to carry the fight to the Americans. He opened fire from his new batteries, confident that the odds would now favor him. He could draw on ten of the eighteen-pounders the British sailors had labored strenuously to haul from their ships, plus four twenty-four-pound carronades and ten field artillery pieces and howitzers. Against those twenty-four guns, the Americans had fifteen, and those guns had been mounted on higher and more vulnerable platforms than the British had built.
Pakenham seemed to expect his superior firepower to open up a gap in the American defenses that would let his infantry pour through. He did not take into account how skillfully the Americans fired what guns they had.
The first British salvos were aimed at Jackson's headquarters in the Macarty farmhouse. Jackson had passed the night fitfully on a couch in his rumpled uniform, with a guard on duty in the hallway and aides sleeping on the floor, their sword belts and pistols at their sides. They sprang up as a hundred hot balls, shells, and Congreve rockets hit the building. The barrage splintered furniture in every room, but Jackson and his men were unhurt as they evacuated the house.
Those first shots had scattered the American ranks in confusion. Gleig watched the frightened troops being coaxed back into formation and wished Pakenham had taken advantage of those minutes for his charge.
By noon, despite hits on American artillery caissons that had the British troops cheering, the battle was turning. Pakenham's fire remained intense, but answering shots from the American side were more precise and damaging. On the river, British batteries firing from the Chalmette and Bienvenu camps were trained ineffectually on Commodore Patterson; he lost not a man. Under his steady return barrage, British gunners began deserting their positions.
Jackson's troops remained far back, out of range of the shells. He kept them ready to leap forward and repel a British infantry charge. But that charge never came.
When the shelling died away, the British had lost forty-four killed and fifty-five wounded. Eleven Americans had died. The twenty-three American wounded included civilian visitors who would have been safe behind Jackson's lines if the British firing had been less erratic.
In retreat, Gleig pretended not to hear the mutterings and curses of his frustrated men. He admitted that they were justified. These soldiers had cheerfully endured hardship and exhaustion because they had expected to be led to victory. Instead, they were furious. Their swearing reminded their lieutenant of "the growling of a chained dog when he sees his adversary and cannot reach him."
But the preamble was ending. Commodore Patterson had spent hours studying the British position through his telescope and could give Jackson a clear idea of British strategy. Pakenham's troops would first assault the American position from the west bank of the river. They would try to capture Jackson's cannon and turn them against him while another British attack from the other bank would trap the Americans in their crossfire.
When Jackson was reluctant to split up his men to meet both charges, New Orleans' unstable geography worked in his favor. Pakenham demanded that Cochrane move another fourteen hundred men and their artillery by barge over the two miles from their bayou to the west bank of the Mississippi. The admiral's officers complained that the barges would require digging a canal, but Cochrane had made a proud boast to Pakenham and would not back down.
The British crews were split into four teams, working day and night, to cut a channel across the entire neck of land to the river. Gleig watched admiringly as the men worked past the limits of their fatigue and got the job done by January 6. But when transporting of the new troops began, the banks of their canal crumbled. The soil was too soft and collapsing earth stopped larger boats from moving up the passage. Of the 1,400 men Pakenham was expecting, only 340, plus 100 sailors and marines, made it into position.
As he reviewed his troops on the night of January 7, Pakenham discovered a setback even worse. The men were properly arrayed in battle gear, but the Forty-fourth Regiment seemed to have misunderstood his orders. Its troops had neglected to bring the ladders and fascines needed for crossing the Americans' ditch and scaling their walls.
Furious, Pakenham galloped up to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullens, a regimental commander widely scorned for his incompetence. He ordered Mullens to return to camp for the ladders. But the sun rose during the delay, and Jackson's men had a clear view of the British soldiers lined up as they awaited orders. The Americans opened fire and began to strike them down by the hundreds.
Pakenham still did not have the essential ladders. He lacked support from soldiers and seamen who should already have seized the American guns on the west bank. But he had no choice. Pakenham gave the order to charge.
In those first moments, a British detachment overran one American battery and captured its three guns. They were expecting more troops to arrive soon. When none came, the Americans retook their position with punishing losses for the British.
Down the line, other men braved the American fire in an attempt to cross the ditch between them and storm the American parapets. But without ladders, they could only boost each other up on their shoulders. They were instantly cut down by Americans who pointed their muskets over the wall and fired directly into the tops of their heads. British soldiers were being killed without ever seeing an enemy face.
Mullens's Forty-fourth Regiment had returned to battle, but its ranks were disorganized and ineffectual. Sending orders to advance, Pakenham learned that Mullens had disappeared. When he could not be found, Pakenham rode to the head of the regiment to lead the troops himself.
A musket ball merely nicked his knee but killed his horse. Pakenham had barely called for a replacement when a burst of grapeshot dropped his body into the arms of his aide-de-camp. General Keane and the leader of the British third column were also wounded and carried from the field.
The Redcoats were left with no leaders and no plan. They stopped their charge, drew back from the American bombardment, and began to run for their lives. In a matter of minutes, Andrew Jackson had scored a stunning victory.
It seemed too easy. Major Thomas Hinds of the Mississippi Volunteers asked Jackson's permission to pursue the British with his cavalry. But when Jackson called together his generals, they all opposed the idea. John Adair, who had led a reserve force of one thousand Kentuckians, warned Jackson that his troops fought well behind breastworks or in the woods, but their officers were inexperienced and their soldiers undisciplined. If Hinds provoked a fight on an open plain, Adair's men could not be relied upon.
Edward Livingston agreed. As an adopted son of New Orleans, he worried about his friends. "What more do you want?" Livingston asked. "Your object is gained. The city is saved. The British have retired." For the pleasure of a blow or two, he added, Jackson would be risking the city's leading citizens and depriving many children of their fathers.
Jackson was easily convinced. He denied Hinds's request and adopted Livingston's reasoning in his later justification for keeping his men secure behind their battlements.
With the last sporadic firing over, Jackson walked from battery to battery, congratulating the men as they cheered and the military band played "Hail Columbia."
He was surveying the bodies fallen in front of him when the smoke cleared and Jackson saw hundreds of British soldiers seeming to rise up from the dead. They were the men, terrified by the first barrage, who had fallen without a scratch and lay among the dying and wounded until the battle was over. Now they were coming forward to surrender as prisoners of war.
Along the American defenses, soldiers were jumping down to tend to the enemy wounded. New Orleans hospitals were already filled with Americans from the earlier engagements, but residents had begun to hear of the victory and were collecting mattresses and linen for binding up wounds. Local women were volunteering as nurses.
Less compassionate men picked their way among the carnage, collecting souvenirs or valuables that could be sold swords, money, telescopes, and the uniform caps they clamped on their heads.
A sudden outbreak of gunfire seemed to make the American self-congratulations premature; it also revealed a weakness in Jackson's single-minded approach to strategy.
Just as he had neglected New Orleans while driving the British from Pensacola, he had concentrated his formidable energies on the east bank of the river for his showdown with Pakenham. For more than two weeks, he had not inspected the west bank's defenses. At the last minute, Jackson had sent another 500 Kentuckians to reinforce that flank, but only 170 of them were carrying weapons.
Earlier in the morning, William Thornton's reduced number of British troops had landed from their boats after long delays and had rushed double-time to the west bank. Scattering the Kentucky defenses, they charged General David Morgan's position and seized his cannon, one inscribed like Isaac Brock's Canadian trophy, "Taken at the surrender of Yorktown, 1781." But the spiked guns were useless.
Lieutenant Gleig was among Thornton's officers, all of them convinced that the entire battle was going well for the British. They chased the Kentuckians for more than two miles before they were ordered to halt. It was then that they learned how disastrously Pakenham's attack across the river had failed. Thornton, severely wounded, was told to march his men back to their boats and join the rest of the army in its retreat. Gleig set fire to a plantation house and withdrew under the cover of its smoke.
Infuriated by the Kentuckians' fleeing, Jackson directed a French general, Jean Humbert, to cross the river and retake the American position. Humbert, who had fought under Napoleon and always appeared on the streets of New Orleans in his old uniform, was delighted to accept the assignment. But in the U.S. ranks, he was serving as a volunteer private. Since Jackson neglected to give him written authority, American officers on the west bank refused to take orders from a man who was not a citizen, and Humbert returned angrily to Jackson's headquarters.
By noon, the British sent a flag of truce with a letter asking for a two-day armistice to bury their dead. Tough as ever in negotiations, Jackson agreed only if the truce did not involve the west bank and if neither side reinforced their troops there. He was demanding surrender.
John Lambert accepted those terms for the British. In his note, Lambert included only his rank of major general but not his new authority over the army. He did not want Jackson to know yet that the British had lost the three generals who outranked him.
The next morning, after Lambert had brought the remainder of his troops over to the east bank, they began to collect the dead and any wounded men who had been left overnight where they had fallen. Carried off the battlefield, the corpses of Pakenham and three other generals were gutted, according to military practice, and their remains nailed into barrels of rum to be shipped back to England.
Young Gleig was curious enough to ride out to the front, where he found the scene even more shocking and humiliating than he had expected. Within the narrow passage in front of the American defenses lay a thousand or more corpses. He knew they were all British because they were in full uniform, with not an American body to be seen.
The dead were being thrown by the dozens into shallow holes with barely enough dirt to cover them. Gleig rode through the solemn scene recalling the laughter and high spirits above all, the confidence of these same men only twenty hours ago.
Gleig estimated his army's loss at two thousand men; he was only thirty-six short of the final tally. As he surveyed the scene, Gleig came upon an American officer who was smoking a cigar as he made his own count. To everyone who passed, he repeated exultantly that his side had suffered only eight men killed and fourteen wounded! Only eight killed and fourteen wounded!
The man's insufferable bragging cut through Gleig's sorrow. He wanted to fight. But with an armistice in effect, he had to choke back his anger. Gleig rode back to the British camp and found the defeated regiments quarreling among themselves and seething for one more chance at revenge.
Although Thornton's attack had not affected the day's outcome, Jackson sent word to David Morgan to improve his defenses and posted men to warn if the British were regrouping for another attack. Over the next days, he kept up incessant artillery fire to trouble the sleep of the British survivors.
Jackson and Lambert sent representatives to work out an exchange of prisoners. Admiral Cochrane would give up the Americans being held by his fleet and receive the same number of British prisoners of an equal rank.
Copyright © 2006 by A. J. Langguth