The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America

The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America

by William C Davis


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“Davis’s accounts of small fights won by hot blood and cold steel are thrilling.”—The Wall Street Journal

From master historian William C. Davis, the definitive story of the Battle of New Orleans, the fight that decided the ultimate fate not only of the War of 1812 but the future course of the fledgling American republic.

It was a battle that could not be won. Outnumbered farmers, merchants, backwoodsmen, smugglers, slaves, and Choctaw Indians, many of them unarmed, were up against the cream of the British army, professional soldiers who had defeated the great Napoleon and set Washington, D.C., ablaze. At stake was nothing less than the future of the vast American heartland, from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, as the ragtag American forces fought to hold New Orleans, the gateway of the Mississippi River and an inland empire. 

Tipping the balance of power in the New World, this single battle irrevocably shifted the young republic's political and cultural center of gravity and kept the British from ever regaining dominance in North America. In this gripping, comprehensive study of the Battle of New Orleans, William C. Davis examines the key players and strategy of King George's Red Coats and Andrew Jackson's makeshift "army." A master historian, he expertly weaves together narratives of personal motivation and geopolitical implications that make this battle one of the most impactful ever fought on American soil.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399585227
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 411,498
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

William C. Davis is a retired history professor who taught at Virginia Tech. An acclaimed expert on the Civil War, he has served on a number of advisory boards, including the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission; the Civil War Preservation Trust; the Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia; the National Park Service; and the Lincoln Prize and Pulitzer Prize nominating juries.

Read an Excerpt



A Spot on the Globe


New Orleans assaulted the senses with friendly weapons. Bitter aromas from its coffeehouses mingled with smells from European, African, and Caribbean kitchens, spilling into streets redolent of rose and citrus gardens, warehouses of pungent sugar and tobacco, the acrid droppings of cart horses, and the fishy tang of the great river. Street mongers' cries hawked everything from bread to silks, vying with shouting auctioneers selling cattle and slaves, the rhythms of shod hooves and ironbound carriage wheels, the boasts of carousing riverboatmen, and the puffing stacks and belching boilers when a steamboat made landing.


Most of all, there were the sights of the city: the many-colored wooden buildings lining most of its seventy blocks, broadclothed and beaver-hatted gentlemen in their countinghouses, aproned merchants at shop doors, buckskinned upriver backwoodsmen on the streets, ladies in Parisian fashion strutting the banquettes, and Choctaw women in deerskin and gingham. Everywhere were the dusky faces of slaves and the formerly enslaved, and the coffeed complexions of mulattoes and quadroons inhabiting the city's almost unique terra incognita between white and black. A sightseer might roam the known world or simply come to the crescent bend of the Mississippi and see it all in New Orleans. No wonder a late war visitor declared, "I could scarcely imagine myself in an American place."


Some 25,000 people inhabited the place by late 1814, forty percent of them slaves or freedmen, making it the infant nation's sixth largest city. Americans were but a quarter of the white population. The rest bled French or Spanish blood, most of them creoles born there or in the Caribbean, and most resenting the American arrivées since the 1803 Purchase. The creoles clung to Catholicism, spurned English, and practiced an indolence that affronted the ambitious Yankees. Everything was an excuse for a party, even saints' days, when sexes and races mixed inappropriately, the men got drunk, and everyone feasted.


Language defined politics and loyalties. Few Federalists or Republicans here; they were French or American. Even the Francophile Jefferson feared the creoles were so immured in French and Bourbon ideology that New Orleans might drift back to France or Spain. Whoever governed it controlled the commerce and security of the entire American interior from the Alleghenies to the Pacific. More than a third of the nation's produce now passed through its wharves and warehouses. Attorney Abraham Ellery was not overly hyperbolic in calling the city "the deposit and Key of the Western World." Nor is it any wonder that, before he bought Louisiana, Jefferson foretold that "there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy." It was New Orleans.


English eyes had long looked in that direction. Leaders in London considered a plan to overwhelm the Spaniards there in 1770 to seize its trade in indigo and furs. Two years later the British commander in North America proposed to anchor transports in Lake Borgne, northeast of the city, and send boats rowing eighteen miles from the lake up its sluggish tributary Bayou Bienvenue to land just seven miles from the city, and in 1781 another plan emerged that proposed to do the same. Now, more than three decades later, a new war raged, yet the creoles outside the city took so little interest in it that the American deputy attorney general feared only a British invasion could rouse them.


An invasion is exactly what they got. Shortly before dawn on December 13, 1814, an American commodore commanding a miniature squadron of seven sailing sloops and schooners, with just 25 cannon and 204 men, had his flotilla off Malheureaux Island, 75 miles northeast of New Orleans and 30 miles from the entrance to Lake Borgne. As the first glimmers of light penetrated mists blanketing the water, a nightmare emerged from the gloom to crawl toward him. The British had not forgotten those earlier plans. Forty-five boats mounting 42 guns were rowing 1,200 redcoats toward him to board his squadron. The commodore knew very well that at that moment he was all that stood between the enemy and New Orleans.



The War Office in London meant to change the dynamic in North America. In 1812-1813, Kentucky and Tennessee sent thousands of militia north to threaten Canada. Divert that supply of volunteers elsewhere, and His Majesty's hold in Canada would be more secure. The raid on Washington and Maryland was one such diversion. A similar strike somewhere below Tennessee held promise of diverting even more. The ideal place was the Gulf Coast and particularly New Orleans.


Ironically, even Americans had mused on plots to take the city. In 1804 the embittered vice president Aaron Burr, his presidential ambitions dashed, proposed to seize newly purchased Louisiana and hand it to Britain in return for half a million dollars. London ignored Burr's offer, but by 1806 he planned to use Louisiana as his base for the conquest of Spain's Mexico and Texas provinces, implying that he would create a new southwest empire with himself as ruler.


Many in New Orleans supported him, not least the Irish-born lawyer Lewis Kerr. An early champion of Jefferson's Republicans, he had a magnetic attraction for controversy. In 1802, on the advice of his friend Colonel Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia, Kerr moved to Natchez, where he made a fast friend in the governor of Mississippi Territory, William C. C. Claiborne, who appointed him attorney general. Aged just twenty-seven, that precocious Virginian had already been a supreme court judge in Tennessee, the youngest congressman in history, governor of Mississippi, and then, in 1803, governor of the Orleans Territory of Louisiana, a position the jealous Jackson had coveted. Claiborne actually sent Kerr to New Orleans ahead of himself to survey the local militia, and on taking office made the Irishman its chief of staff.


The authoritarian Kerr was unpopular, thanks not least to his claims of kinship to Robert Dundas, soon to be Viscount Melville and Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, and Lieutenant General John Hely-Hutchinson (Baron Hutchinson). Some suspected Kerr's loyalty, but Claiborne steadily advanced him and even had him codify the territory's criminal law. Then Kerr fell under Burr's spell. He began recruiting men for an "army" that he would lead to conquer Spain's provinces in North and South America and promised British assistance, thanks to his influential "relations."


Kerr courted officers of the United States Army and tried to enlist the already legendary Reuben Kemper. Six feet tall, powerfully built, hazel eyes glowing from a face deeply scarred by Spaniard foes, Kemper and his brothers had led resistance to Spanish rule in the West Florida parishes above New Orleans that both Spain and the United States claimed. The nation watched via newspaper coverage in 1805 when the Spaniards beat and kidnapped the Kempers from their Mississippi homes, only for them to be saved from prison or death by the United States military. Reuben later confronted his kidnappers one by one, exacting revenge with bullwhip and knife, and carved notches in the ears of one as a warning to all.


This was the kind of man Kerr wanted. He met with Reuben and his brother Samuel, boasted of the important backing he enjoyed, asked them to raise men in Kentucky and Tennessee, and promised money in abundance, even if banks must be robbed. Then another Irishman stepped into the picture, Judge James Workman. He had earlier called on Britain to forcibly seize Louisiana. When he was ignored, he approached Jefferson, who showed no more interest than the British. After the 1803 purchase, Workman moved to New Orleans and soon fell into Kerr's orbit. In January 1805 they joined lawyer Edward Livingston, merchant Beverly Chew, Orleans Gazette, for the Country editor John Bradford, and several others to form the Mexican Association of New Orleans, with Workman as president and its goal to seize Mexico. The connection with Burr was transparent. The Kempers wanted nothing to do with the scheme, and Reuben went to Washington to alert Jefferson, but the president was already aware of Burr's plans.


Governor Claiborne also refused to cooperate and fell out with both Irishmen, Workman dismissing him thereafter as "a mauled bitch." By temperament affable, Claiborne quickly adapted to dealing with the prickly creole population, married the daughter of a prominent family, and confronted the daunting task of merging a population of Catholic Frenchmen and Spaniards with the predominantly Protestant American émigrés and their new democratic institutions. "There was a strange fascination in his manners," recalled one of those Americans, but there was also a crafty politician. "He never refused, but always promised."


His diplomacy did not work with General James Wilkinson, sent by Jefferson in 1806 to secure the city against further plots. Greedy, autocratic, and treasonous, Wilkinson was a paid Spanish spy as well as an American general. He simply ignored the governor and began arresting anyone suspected of complicity with Burr, with whom he was himself in league until he betrayed Burr, too. Wilkinson censored mail and instituted virtual martial law, one observer declaring that "his visit to New-Orleans was like that of a pestilence." Wilkinson arrested Kerr and Workman, accusing them of sedition, but juries twice failed to convict. Both just disappeared in early 1809. Workman settled in Havana for several years. Kerr moved to the Bahamas to practice law. "I was one of those every day kind of characters that, in absence, are seldom remembered long," he told a friend, but neither he nor Workman were forgotten. Neither were they forgiving. Both nurtured grudges and they were not yet done with New Orleans.


The widely publicized plots of Workman, Kerr, and Burr, and the kinetic efforts of the Kempers and others, kept the Spanish constantly on the alert, and the Americans in Louisiana ever aroused. Wilkinson's departure in May 1807 brought relief, but there remained the specter of Spain and mistrust of the Spaniards in the city. They still believed that Louisiana rightfully owed allegiance to the Bourbon crown. The French remained interested as well, despite Bonaparte's sale. General Jean-Victor-Marie Moreau visited the city in January 1808. Once one of Napoleon's leading captains, he had been banished in 1804 for suspected disloyalty, becoming an exile in the United States. His visit may have had a motive other than sightseeing, and some suspected he was involved with Burr in yet another plot.


Real hazards hovered on the southern and western horizon. In January 1809, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane landed a 10,000-man army on Martinique to operate against French possessions in the Indies, but rumor said he already had a taste in his mouth for New Orleans and meant to enforce free navigation for British shipping on the Mississippi. At the same time, Spanish border provocations west of the river fed speculation that the Diegos-a British nickname for Spaniards that soon eroded into the derogatory "dagoes"-meant to reclaim what Bonaparte sold. A month after succeeding Jefferson in the presidency, James Madison responded with a military and naval buildup at New Orleans that included the return of Wilkinson.


A year later the Kempers' dream came to realization when a two-minute revolt pushed the Spaniards out of Baton Rouge and the West Florida parishes. The rebels proclaimed a new commonwealth and sent now-colonel Reuben Kemper to seize Mobile. He just got in sight of his goal when the infant republic winked out on December 10 as Claiborne, representing Madison, took possession of West Florida in fulfillment of Jefferson and Madison's claim that the Louisiana Purchase always included those parishes. West Florida's "president," Fulwar Skipwith, was powerless to resist. Neither Spain nor England recognized the legitimacy of the momentary republic, nor of Madison's opportunistic occupation. A year later Jefferson advised the seizure of the rest of Spanish Florida before England did so.


Despite mounting provocations, Britons commonly agreed that there was little to gain from war with America, though little to fear, either, from a nation with scarcely a dozen warships, virtually no standing army, and a reliance on disorderly militia. Louisiana and New Orleans might make an easy harvest. An army landing in, say, Spanish Pensacola or Mobile, could march westward on a decent road, live off the land with aid from Creek allies, and take the city virtually unopposed, a prospect not lost on Orleanians, who as early as 1810 heeded Jefferson's call to seize Pensacola before the British.


There was even a threat from within. On the night of January 8, 1811, two dozen slaves on an upriver plantation attacked their sleeping masters with machetes and cane knives. Soon they numbered in the hundreds, killing and attracting more adherents as they moved south toward a city that soon fell into panic. Federal soldiers, local militia, and a posse of planters congealed the next day to attack and disperse the rebels, killing more than fifty on the spot and capturing and executing at least fifty more in the following days, displaying their heads and mangled bodies along the river as a reminder of the price of rebellion. It was the largest slave rebellion in the nation's history, and after it Orleanians never again slept entirely at ease. Every new rumor awakened fear of a repeat or worse, and persuaded the British that with the right encouragement the slaves would rise in their thousands.


Among the volunteers who brutally quelled that revolt were two companies of free black militia that had existed since before the Purchase. New Orleans's 7,500-strong free black community was the largest in the nation, and the rest of the population did not know quite how to deal with them. Led by white officers, they had helped put down an earlier slave rebellion as well, making Claiborne hope that they might be a bond between the races, but they also posed a challenge. Few were comfortable with black men being armed. The planter Major Pierre Lacoste commanded them, and some were property and slave owners themselves who had a stake in defending their city; but the governor feared that if Americans withheld their confidence from the black militia, the British might woo them to alliance.


All New Orleans needed was yet another source of danger, but then the Creeks took advantage of the United States' distraction with its war to begin sporadic attacks on families as far north as Tennessee, a precursor of the Creek War to come. With slaves killing their masters and Indians killing whites, some laid the chaos to British agents stirring both to "carry fire and sword" across the frontier. Then came the comet and the earthquakes. In a time of millennial fervor, it seemed that the world was coming to the end of days. A few panicked Orleanians even sought to hide from the cataclysm aboard the American gunboats on Lake Borgne. Then, on June 18, 1812, Madison declared war.



Whitehall paid little overt attention to the Gulf Coast at the outset, but Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, did not escape notice. Two months before the war began, Cochrane already had his eye on Louisiana. "The places where the Americans are most vulnerable is [sic] New Orleans and Virginia," he told Kerr's presumed cousin Viscount Melville. Take New Orleans and Britain controlled the Mississippi Valley's trade. "Self interest being the ruling principle with the Americans," said Cochrane, the interior states, like Tennessee, Kentucky, even Ohio, would withdraw from the Union to "join the party that pays for their produce."

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