1815 was the year of Waterloo, the British victory that ended Napoleon's European ambitions and ushered in a century largely of peace for Britain. But what sort of country were Wellington's troops fighting for? And what kind of society did they return to?
Stephen Bates paints a vivid portrait of every aspect of Britain in 1815. Overseas, the bounds of Empire were expanding;while at home the population endured the chill of economic recession. As Jane Austen busied herself with the writing of Emma, John Nash designed Regent Street, Humphrey Davy patented his safety lamp for miners and Lord's cricket ground held its first match in St John's Wood, and a nervous government infiltrated dissident political movements and resorted to repressive legislation to curb free speech.
The Year In series gets to the heart of social and cultural life in the UK at key points in its history.
About the Author
Stephen Bates is a former religious and royal affairs correspondent of the Guardian. He is the author of A CHURCH AT WAR (2004), GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (2008) and PENNY LOAVES AND BUTTER CHEAP: BRITAIN IN 1846 (2013).
Stephen Bates has worked as a journalist for the BBC, the Telegraph, the Mail and, for 23 years, as political correspondent at the Guardian. He is the bestselling author of Church at War and God's Own Country.
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Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo
By Stephen Bates
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2015 Stephen Bates
All rights reserved.
'A burlesque upon war'
— JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO HIS WIFE ABIGAIL, 1813
Unfortunately for the British, the early morning mist rising from the bayous of the marshy plain to the east of the city of New Orleans on Sunday 8 January 1815 was clearing fast as the tightly packed columns of redcoats crossed no man's land to attack the American lines. The start of their advance in the dawn light had been shrouded, but by the time they came within range of the American cannon at 650 yards the sun was coming out and they were in plain view, weighed down by their back-packs and struggling across the muddy ground. Not that the mist had particularly helped the British columns: the attack had started in confusion when the rocket launched overhead to signal the advance took the troops on the ground by surprise. Some stared up at it, baffled because they had not been told to expect it. By contrast it alerted the enemy to the imminence of the battle. So confused was the officer in charge of the 44th Regiment of foot that he neglected to order his men to collect the four-foot-long fascine bundles of ripe sugar-cane and ladders that were meant to fill the trench in front of the American redoubt and so enable them to scale the muddy breastwork wall. While the rest of the attackers ploughed onwards, they went back 500 yards to retrieve what they had forgotten, slithering about trying to carry the heavy, sticky cane bundles and catch up with the columns. From then on things only got worse.
The American cannon could scarcely miss and they poured forth grapeshot and canister shells, spraying red-hot iron balls into the struggling attackers and mowing down rank upon rank. Then, as those at the front got within musket range, the gunners stopped firing so that the cannon smoke would not obscure the view of the defenders' riflemen. The American militias, many of them experienced woodsmen from Tennessee and Kentucky who were used to hunting game, stood up behind their parapet and unleashed volley after volley into the faltering British ranks. As they did so, the drummers behind the parapet beat out 'Yankee Doodle'. It was 'the most awful and the grandest mixture of sounds to be conceived, as if the earth were cracking or the heavens had been rent asunder', wrote Captain John Cooke of the Monmouthshire Light Infantry. 'Give it to them, my boys,' shouted General Andrew Jackson, the American commander. 'Let us finish the business today.' In the cypress trees along the side of the battlefield there lurked militiamen and Choctaw Indians who had thrown in their lot with the Americans, firing into the sides of the columns as the soldiers staggered past as if into a high wind.
Sergeant John Cooper, of the 7th Fusiliers, wrote later:
At the word 'Forward!' the ... lines approached the ditch under a murderous discharge of musketry; but crossing the ditch and scaling the parapet were found impossible without ladders. These had been prepared but the regiment that should have carried them left them behind and thereby caused in a few minutes a dreadful loss of men and officers while the enemy suffered little, being ensconced behind the parapet.
In front of the ditch, the attacking columns, many of them veterans who had faced the French in the battles of the Peninsular War, faltered, milled about, attempted to regroup, pressed forward, and finally began to melt away as they saw their officers and comrades dying before their eyes. Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, the British commander and brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, who minutes earlier had ordered the troops to attack without troubling to ensure they were all ready to do so, now spurred his horse forward to steady the line, crying: 'For shame! Lost from want of courage.' He was immediately shot through the knee, and then his horse was also hit and killed. As Pakenham tried to mount his aide's horse instead, another bullet tore through his spine and killed him outright. Almost immediately Major General Samuel Gibbs, leading one of the columns, was also mortally wounded under the raking fire in front of the parapet. The British had lost their two most senior generals within minutes of the start of the battle.
Those who reached the American line found themselves sliding about against the wall while being picked off by the militiamen, their white cross-belts making them perfect targets. Other units stopped in front of the wall, uncertain what to do. A few scattered groups did manage to scale the rampart, but they were quickly shot or forced to surrender. A Lieutenant Leavock of the 21st Fusiliers was so confused when he got to the top that he approached two American officers and demanded their swords, but they just laughed at him and told him he would have to surrender himself: 'You are alone and therefore ought to consider yourself our prisoner.' Another wounded officer who found himself staring down the barrel of a grubby Tennessee militiaman's musket sighed: 'What a disgrace for a British officer to have to surrender to a chimney sweep.'
Now a Highland regiment, the 93rd, raised from the clans in Sutherland, was thrown forward, dressed in their red tunics, tartan trews and hummel bonnets, with bagpipers playing the regimental charge 'Monymusk'. They veered across the front of the American lines, trying to avoid the piles of dead and wounded men and those who were fleeing back. But their colonel was killed and they too halted before the rampart, standing stoically under fire at close range and awaiting orders before finally being told to retreat. They left 600 – two-thirds – of the regiment lying in the mud. A black West Indian regiment was diverted into the woods that flanked the field, but they too were beaten back by the militias and the Choctaws. 'Our grape and canister mowed down whole columns,' wrote the American General John Coffee, 'but that was nothing to the carnage of our rifles and muskets.' Out on the field, Sergeant Cooper remembered a man beside him being smashed to pieces by a cannon-ball:
I felt something strike my cap; I took it off and found sticking to it a portion of his brain, about the size of a marble. A young man on my left got a wound on the top of his head ... close to him another man had his arm so badly fractured near the shoulder that it was taken out of the cup. A few yards behind sat a black man with all the lower part of his face shot away; his eyes were gone and the bones of his brow all jagged and dripping blood. Near him in a ditch lay one of the 43rd trying to hold in his bowels.
'I could', said Surgeon William Lawrence of the Tennessee militia, 'have walked on the dead bodies of the British for one quarter of a mile without stepping on the ground.'
Most of the British troops had never wanted to be on the expedition in the first place. Many were Irish or Scots (like some of the Americans behind the parapet) and had been coming to the end of their seven years' enlistment when they were shipped, unprepared and unexpectedly from Europe, thousands of miles over the Atlantic to fight a battle they did not want, across unfamiliar swamps and bayous, against troops who might almost have been their brothers. The West Indian troops with them shivered in their thin uniforms, designed for a Caribbean summer, not a raw Louisiana winter. The invasion force had suffered for more than a month since landing further down the delta. It had been a Herculean effort to drag themselves and their equipment, pushing and rowing barges with drafts too deep for the purpose for seventy miles up the shallow and sinuous bayous to the sugar-cane plantation where the battle finally took place. One group of soldiers, ordered to carry a cannon-ball each in their knapsacks, all drowned when their barge capsized. They went down, it was said, without a sound. The soldiers and sailors who accompanied them had been soaked by the freezing rain, half-starved and regularly harried by the enemy.
Probably, too, they would have been even more demoralized had they fully realized that the British commanders had targeted New Orleans not only for its strategic position at the mouth of the Mississippi river but also because of its rich potential for plunder. The Royal Navy had several empty barges ready offshore to carry off the loot. That is certainly what Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins, commander of the 44th, the officer responsible for leaving behind the fascines and ladders, had thought. He believed his regiment was being sacrificed so that others could gain the honour of an easy victory. Perhaps that is why he forgot his role in the battle plan until it was too late. Mullins, who did not accompany his troops forward under fire, was later tried and cashiered for misbehaviour, though some historians since have thought he was a scapegoat and that it was his superiors who were really to blame for the debacle. In his magisterial History of the British Army J. W. Fortescue contended a century later that it was the naval commander Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane who should have been held responsible and shot: 'the callous manner in which he deliberately placed the troops in a most dangerous situation and then worked his faithful blue-jackets to death to keep them there – all with the principal object of filling his own pockets – cannot be too strongly condemned.' It was, said Fortescue, the most striking warning upon record to British ministers against conducting operations onshore upon the sole advice of naval officers, a project wholly based on the prospect of prize money.
On the left bank of the Mississippi river a diversionary British attacking force managed to send the American defenders in the Kentucky militia flying in retreat, but they were alone and had to draw back themselves. The battle was all over by breakfast time. In less than half an hour, two generals, seven colonels, seventy-five officers and nearly 2,000 other ranks – almost half of those who took part in the attack – had been killed, wounded or captured. At least 300 were dead. The Americans lost thirteen killed and thirty-nine wounded. General Jackson said sanctimoniously: 'It appears that the unerring hand of providence shielded my men from the powers of balls, bombs and rockets when every ball and bomb from our guns carried with them the mission of death ... I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day.'
But it was not so much divine providence as lamentable planning, incompetent leadership and poor targeting by the British artillery, persistently shooting too high and missing the American lines, which lost the day. Jackson, the stern, self- righteous Presbyterian of Ulster ancestry, had prepared his defences well – and the British had given him every opportunity to do so – but on the day his troops had scarcely had to move to kill their attackers wholesale. In some ways the invasion had been a considerable feat of arms and endurance. Had the attack been launched before Christmas when the British first arrived – and pressed more resolutely then – it might well have succeeded. But the assault was too long delayed and then launched too haphazardly, and the outcome was, as the Annual Register recorded later, 'an enterprise which appears to have been undertaken with more courage than judgement'.
The battle of New Orleans was an utter disaster for the British and a complete humiliation. Major General John Lambert, in charge of the reserve, now found himself commander-in-chief and ordered the retreat. For the next ten days the two sides would sit glowering at each other, the British periodically venturing out under white flags to rescue their wounded, who had been crying out for days from the muddy plantation field, and to bury their dead. Finally the British withdrew, boarding the Royal Navy ships waiting offshore, down the delta, from which they had disembarked two months earlier. The navy had wanted to renew the attack, but the army had had enough: 'Kill plenty more, Admiral,' said one officer bitterly. 'Fewer rations will be required.'
* * *
The battle marked the culmination of Britain's three-year war against the United States and was the last time the two countries faced each other in pitched warfare. Neither side knew – and the survivors would not find out for another two months – that the negotiators from the two nations had already reached an agreement to end hostilities a fortnight earlier, on Christmas Eve 1814 in the Belgian city of Ghent. Even after news of the settlement reached Washington in mid-February and was ratified by the Senate, word that the war was over took several more weeks to reach Louisiana. For Britain the campaign had been a distraction from the European conflict against Napoleon and the shipping of troops across the Atlantic had been an attempt to force a quick final victory following the French defeat in March 1814 and the emperor's abdication and exile to Elba. For many American politicians, too, there was a need to end the war quickly before it bankrupted the country: the national debt had increased from $45 million to $127 million in three years. New Orleans was in all senses a pointless battle in a futile war.
Hostilities had broken out in 1812 after several years of tension as the British attempted to impose a blockade on France to bring down Napoleon by strangling the French economy. To do this the Royal Navy was authorized to harry and stop ships even of neutral nations in case they were attempting to trade with the enemy. This meant primarily the United States, which was fast becoming an economic rival to Britain – the embargo was thus also a useful weapon in limiting American exports. The navy was additionally allowed to board American ships to detain any fugitive British sailors and even to impress American ones into naval service. This was naturally a source of considerable grievance to the young nation which had achieved independence by throwing off British rule only thirty years earlier. There was annoyance and spikiness in the relations between the two countries that had not diminished in the intervening years: exasperation on the British side that their American cousins were undermining the war effort against Napoleonic tyranny – even though only to a very small degree – and resentment among some American politicians that the British were still trying to impose themselves on their country. It is a measure of how unnecessary the war was that the orders in council by which the British government had imposed the sanctions were repealed as counterproductive before the conflict even got under way. British merchants themselves had opposed the embargo as interfering with their own freedom to trade.
But for the American warhawks – those clamouring for war with Britain – there was also a sense of unfinished business. Canada remained part of the British empire and needed to be annexed; but American loyalists had fled north after the War of Independence, and they and the rest of the Canadian population were determined to retain their own independence from the United States. When war finally broke out in 1812, it was regarded as an annoyance and a sideshow by the British government – 'the millstone of an American war,' said Viscount Castlereagh, the foreign secretary – and as an opportunity by those Americans who thought it would be a chance to seize the vast, underpopulated territory stretching along the St Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes. The British underestimated the Americans' military capabilities, just as they had during the War of Independence, and the Americans underestimated the British and Canadians' resolve to defend their land. Not all Americans wanted the war – most of New England was opposed because of its effect on their growing export trade – and on their side the British failed to appreciate that they could not consistently enlist the support of the Indian tribes of the Midwest, nor the support of Spanish and French residents in the South, to undermine the American war effort. Many Native American tribes supported the British – more than were on the American side – most prominently the Shawnees of Ohio, led by their charismatic leader Tecumseh, who was killed during a battle in 1813. They generally did so because of their opposition to white settler encroachment and the annexation of their traditional territory, but they could not be persuaded to support the redcoats in prolonged campaigns far from home.
Excerpted from 1815 by Stephen Bates. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Bates. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: 'A change in life itself',
Chapter 1: 'A burlesque upon war',
Chapter 2: The peace of Europe,
Chapter 3: 'A fearful interval',
Chapter 4: 'The damnedest millstone',
Chapter 5: 'An idea of the Regions of Pluto',
Chapter 6: 'The Great Wen',
Chapter 7: 'The age of surface',
Chapter 8: 'Lombard Street to a China orange',
Chapter 9: 'Bards, that erst sublimely told',
Chapter 10: 'Hearts beat high to tread the paths of Glory',
Chapter 11: 'A damned nice thing',
Chapter 12: 'Complete darkness covered the face of the day',
Chapter 13: 'Emotions both of rage and fear',
Chapter 14: 'The bravest and most fortunate nation in the world',
About this Book,
About the Author,
Also by this Author,
An Invitation from the Publisher,