The Battle of New Orleans: The Myths that Made a Nation

I should like to share some of the myths of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This battle has more than the usual share of myths, and these myths in turn had a greater than usual impact. It made for the political career of a particularly influential President, Andrew Jackson, and the party he created, now the Democratic Party. America as a whole received a dizzying rush of self-confidence from this battle that proved a key early step in its rise to superpower status, but it was almost totally based on lies.

Now, no one can deny that the British suffered a devastating defeat at New Orleans. There’s nothing else to call it when you lose 2,000 men (one-third of your army) without taking the position and your opponent loses only 71. The central theme of American histories of the battle, though, that innate American superiority enabled untrained backwoodsmen to trounce the finest European troops on the planet, is a complete myth. Surprisingly, the British were actually the ones facing the long odds at New Orleans. In a way, their assault on Chalmette Plantation was like their attack on Arnhem in World War II. They took an immense gamble and needed everything to go right, when, as things happened, everything went wrong. A carefully woven battle plan dissolved into a comedy of errors that played out in front of massed cannon and furious small-arms fire.

First a synopsis of the campaign. The British landed an advance force, which they sent up the swamps and bayous from the east of New Orleans on December 23, 1814. That night American General Andrew Jackson assaulted the camp but failed to destroy the British force. As the British landed reinforcements through the coming days, the Americans fortified a line along the Chalmette Plantation between the British and New Orleans. They also positioned a battery across the river on the West Bank to enfilade any approach on the East Bank. After British commander Edward Pakenham had arrived, the British probed the American lines on December 28. The Americans gave way, but Pakenham did not realize it, so he called off the assault. On January 1, the British tried to bombard the American line before an assault, but this also failed. A week later, on the morning of January 8, 1815, they staged the decisive assault. Pakenham intended for boats to be brought via a canal to the Mississippi and troops landed to take out the West Bank position during the night before the main body assaulted the Chalmette position in three columns. As it was, the troops on the West Bank were late. Pakenham diverted troops from the left column on the East Bank to support his right column, but both attacks failed. Most significantly, the officer who had been assigned to oversee the fascines to throw in the ditch and ladders to scale the wall had completely neglected his duty. With no practical way to reach the Americans (though some did cut steps in the earthworks with their bayonets), the British endured five to ten devastating minutes of artillery and musket fire before they retreated. Pakenham had fallen in the assault. After an attempt to sail up the Mississippi, the British disengaged. They were trying an overland route from much further to the east when news of the peace treaty arrived.

The myths largely follow along the lines of this: The British, seeking to sack New Orleans and keep the Americans out of the Louisiana Purchase, landed an overwhelming army at New Orleans, completely confident that they would sweep aside the untrained Americans. They reckoned without Old Hickory and his Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen. Never missing an opportunity to harass the hapless British with their perfectly aimed shots and never making a major mistake, they finally shot the British to pieces with their infallible rifles and sent them reeling back from their position. On paper, the British held all the cards, but the Hunters of Kentucky were just too innate of scrappers.

Now the realities: The only advantage I can think of the British had besides more combat experience was a slight numerical superiority. They had somewhere along the lines of 5,300 men attacking 4,000 on the morning of January 8, certainly nowhere near enough of a superiority to cancel out fortified positions as strong as Line Jackson. Their supply lines stretched scores of miles back to the Gulf of Mexico through swamps and bayous. They had too few horses while the Americans could draft slave labor to help them with their own construction efforts. (Regarding which, after the battle, Jackson demanded the British return the slaves who had escaped to their lines. The British gave them their freedom in the West Indies instead.) With such supply difficulties, the British artillery ran out of ammunition on January 1.

That seems like a good place to contrast American and British accounts of the New Year’s Day battle. The British attempted an assault on January 1 preceded by an artillery barrage. When that failed to make enough of an impression, Pakenham aborted the assault. American histories delight that the Americans won the duel despite supposedly having the odds stacked against them. The British, after all, had 17 guns firing 276 pounds of shot while the Americans had 13 guns with 182 pounds. The problem is, most American accounts pass up the account of the man who could best describe this engagement (and the campaign as a whole).

Enter Sir Alexander Dickson, Pakenham’s chief of artillery. This man, who had commanded the largest artillery battle of the Peninsular War at Vittoria in 1813, kept a detailed journal, as was his custom, throughout the campaign. He includes what is perhaps the most dispassionate analysis of the fighting, and Robin Reilly makes extensive use of it in what some consider the definitive work on the campaign, The British at the Gates.

The British artillery, which had been one of the finest in Europe and had proven its worth against Americans at Lundy’s Lane in Canada, performed poorly on January 1. And no wonder. The Americans had placed cotton bales under their guns to give them a firm emplacement. The British had to drag their guns through uncooperative mud each time they fired. The Americans had earthworks to protect them; the British had sugar barrels. The British had positioned their cannon barrels on naval carriages, which proved less accurate on land. The Americans had the ability to enfilade the British from across the river. Even then, the Americans did not quite silence their opponents. Dashed with shot from front and flank, the British field artillery battery did cease fire, but Dickson averred his heavy artillery simply ran out of ammunition (there’s that long supply line bedeviling him).

Really, the Battle of New Orleans saw the triumph of American artillery. It was mostly cannon that decimated the British in a matter of minutes on January 8. The central myth to New Orleans is the Kentucky rifleman outshooting the bumbling British musketeers, which was part of America’s upsurge of confidence. The initial American accounts recognized the artillery’s success, but cannons were not uniquely American weapons. In fact, one of their guns, the British discovered when they captured it, had been of British manufacture and had fallen into American hands at Yorktown. Rifles, though, became the quintessential American weapon.

So a few words on the rifles. First of all, most of them held the left flank in the woods. The British suffered their real damage in front of American cannon and muskets. Rifles were notoriously slow to load, and Harry Smith of Britain’s own 95th Rifles implies Americans were slower than most, albeit expert shots once loaded. Anyway, in a battle that lasted only a few minutes, canister would do far more damage than a flintlock rifle. In fact, the 4th Foot suffered the highest casualties at the rear of the British attack column out of rifle range, and the 95th Rifles at the front of the column suffered the lowest, according to one of its officers, because its open order was less vulnerable to artillery fire. Tellingly, the British column that attacked the rifles on the American left flank lost its commander to American fire but remained engaged until ordered to retreat by a staff officer once the main assault had failed against the guns. Evidently, the British could better stand American rifle fire than American artillery fire. The most myth-filled American account, by Dr. Robert Remini, reports, “The Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen never seemed to miss a target,” but just a paragraph earlier he cited British Lieutenant Gleig’s memoirs to show that “‘the Americans, without so much as lifting their faces above the rampart, swung their firelocks by one arm over the wall.’” Short of x-ray vision, the Americans could not have aimed such shots.

Any American account worth its salt will tell stories of the backwoodsmen harassing the British mercilessly with a constant fire of excellent shots, especially at night. This must be true to an extent since Harry Smith recalls saving Pakenham’s life by warning him of an American sniper taking aim at him (before one really did him in on January 8), but it has been exaggerated. Interestingly, these nocturnal hunters really don’t seem to have had much (if any) of an impact on the British nighttime advances for assaults on January 1 and 8. Evidently in their prowling they missed Dickson building his batteries within 500-600 yards of their own lines. Dickson’s own account of a sniper differs from the stock American version, where the Tennessean or Kentuckian shoots a flamboyant British officer and loots him. One day in his journal he records a British scouting party driven back by American fire that killed the commander, but several days later the officer’s corpse is found with his telescope and valuables untouched, which made Dickson think the Americans didn’t know they’d killed him. I noticed that Dickson and Smith both portrayed the Americans as harassing the British attempts at reconnaissance, whereas American versions have them plaguing the camp itself. I also noticed Remini’s citations become scarcer as his stories become more exciting. At one point he has the backwoodsmen shoot a cannon at the British tents one night. No account I have seen yet, however, has explained how the Hunters of Kentucky were able to inflict such aggravating damage under the noses of the British 95th Rifles and 43rd Foot, two crack light infantry regiments with six years of experience at skirmishing on the Peninsula.

The British had a series of misfortunes when they made their big assault on January 8. The canal they were using to bring up boats to cross the Mississippi collapsed, and their flanking assault on the other bank was too late to keep the Americans from enfilading their left column with artillery. This column, which did take an American advance redoubt and might have pierced the American main line, did not have the support it needed when it did because Pakenham had redirected the 93rd Highlanders away to the right column. The leading regiment of the right column, meanwhile, had forgotten the fascines to cross the American ditch and ladders to surmount the American walls. Unable to reach the Americans, the British had a repeat of Badajoz, though some soldiers got to the top of the wall by cutting steps in the American earthworks with bayonets. The American artillery performed extremely well since Harry Smith, who had fought at Badajoz, ranked it as the deadliest fire he had ever seen, but they had already had the victory pretty much gifted to them by the British.

Having explained how the armaments affected the battle, let’s look at the relative quality of the troops engaged. The Americans delighted in the victory so much because their green troops had routed an army that had defeated Napoleon’s soldiers repeatedly on the Iberian Peninsula. It looked to them like, as the casualty ratio had been nearly 30 to 1, that was how much Americans were superior to Europeans. It gave them an expansionist streak that contributed to Manifest Destiny in the coming years.

Well, that’s rather a myth too. For comparison, take the Battle of Fort Sanders in 1863 during the American Civil War. McLaws’s Division found itself in a situation identical to the British, stuck in an assault on fortifications gone awry below withering fire and unable to close with the enemy. The casualty ratio was as bad (or worse given by now they had to deal with Minié balls), but no one in their right mind would suggest a Knoxville fort garrison was that many times better than the troops who had almost won the second day of Gettysburg by shattering the III Corps at the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard. That’s just what happens when assaults on fortifications go badly wrong. The Americans themselves had a similar experience against the British outside Savannah during the Revolution. Three years before New Orleans, the British had suffered as many casualties at the breaches at Badajoz as they did at New Orleans, but since they couldn’t come to grips with the enemy because of the obstacles in their way, they were repulsed by troops they almost always beat on the battlefield. It seems much fairer when evaluating the quality of the troops to compare their performances on the open battlefield. To judge by Donald Graves’s and Donald Hickey’s casualty figures in Don’t Give Up the Ship, the two armies in Canada inflicted comparable damage on each other. It’s pretty fair to say that during the War of 1812, with exceptions, the British repelled the Americans from Canada, and the Americans repelled the British from the U.S.

Jackson and the rest of the Americans crowed that he had defeated Wellington’s Peninsular Army, but that’s something of a misconstruing. Pakenham had actually weighted the main assault column with the 21st and 44th Foot, which Peninsular veteran Smith thought lacked Peninsular-style discipline. Pakenham probably wanted his best-disciplined troops ready to restore order so there would not be a repeat of the sacking of Badajoz, but his best regiments, the 7th Fusiliers and 43rd Foot (from the elite Light Division) did not get to engage the enemy. The 95th Rifles led the column and the 4th Foot ended it, and these were both Peninsula regiments, but the 95th was in skirmish order and the 4th never close enough to fire, so they could not have been expected to have much of an impact. One-fourth of the British losses came from the brave but misguided 93rd Highlanders, who had never been on the Peninsula. As their officers went down, they stood at their posts waiting for orders that could never come and just let the Americans decimate them. A Peninsular regiment behind them, the 7th Fusiliers, lay down to avoid the fire as they awaited their own orders. Actually, the one Peninsula regiment that did make contact with the Americans in full force, the 85th, routed the New Orleans militia and captured the American artillery across the Mississippi with a bayonet charge. This operation, which might have turned the tide, came too late to affect the outcome. Pakenham had wanted to start the assault with it, but the canal problems had delayed it.

The American accounts almost unanimously state that the Americans held out long enough to spike their guns (and maybe even dump their powder into the Mississippi). Evidently this is to cover Jackson’s errors that might have cost him the battle if the British hadn’t had such bad luck, but the people who actually had the guns in their possession knew that this wasn’t true. British Artillery Major Michell states in his diary that he was cleaning the guns to enfilade Jackson’s main line, and his official report to the now-dead Pakenham mentioned all the guns and ammunition that they had captured with no mention that they were now inoperable. The British took militia prisoners, but they didn’t capture any American artillerists tied up trying to spike their guns. If any more proof was needed, Dickson records that when he crossed to the West Bank, he saw the British spiking them themselves. This myth didn’t have much impact on public consciousness since this part of the battle isn’t really prominent in the popular versions, but it does serve to cover Jackson’s military reputation in some historians’ eyes.

In any event, I think Old Hickory made the definitive pronouncement on the relative quality of his troops. As the British streamed away from his lines with 2,000 casualties and most of their officers down, many of Jackson’s subordinates wanted to give chase and finish the job. Jackson stayed put and really didn’t do much to harass the British for the rest of the campaign. He had tried that early on and been repulsed, and evidently he didn’t think his army was up to it again even after the British had been decimated.

A common report says that the British lost the battle because of arrogance. It is, after all, a common theme in U.S. historiography how Europeans underestimate the Americans and pay dearly for it. Yes, the British could behave with arrogance in the face of American troops, and the moralizing British Lieutenant Gleig says they looked down on the Americans before the battle. (This explains why he’s such a popular source for American histories despite his unreliability and the superiority of the dispassionate Dickson’s account.) Whatever Gleig and his mates may have thought, the British commander did not share their opinions (and neither did Harry Smith, another British source). Before their commander had gotten there, the British had taken a brazen chance by landing their advance force so deep in enemy territory without support, but Pakenham himself had called off two assaults when he thought the American position was too strong. On the 8th, he concocted a very elaborate battle-plan for a dawn assault, one that ultimately proved too complex but which showed that he obviously took the Americans seriously.

The contrast with Bunker Hill couldn’t be greater. There the British had attacked fortified American positions head-on in broad daylight. General Howe learned his lesson and ever after outflanked the Americans whenever possible (which, it proved, against Washington was frequently). There were other battles where the British lost because they attacked militia head-on, like Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and Chippawa, but the British were catching on by 1815. American historians say General Ross boasted, “I don’t care if it rains militia,” before the Battle of Baltimore, but he missed his chance to take that city after taking Washington because he gave the Americans credit for better organization than they had. After his death outside Baltimore, his successor took the time to outflank the American militia. Pakenham lost the battle not because he was arrogant, but because he couldn’t call off a third assault without really damaging morale. He was more frustrated than anything else.

A lot of people know that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war had ended. (Actually, the war was technically going on since it wouldn’t end until both sides ratified the Treaty of Ghent; the British had ratified their copy, but Congress hadn’t gotten theirs yet.) Historians have crafted a wide range of scenarios as to what would have happened if the British had won, however. At the least, they would have sacked New Orleans like Badajoz and raped the Creole women. In the wildest version of the story (courtesy of Dr. Remini), they would have marched up the Mississippi to join another army I’ve heard of in no other history from Canada (further to the west than any British army operated in the entire War of 1812 marching through territory the Americans had taken from them in 1813) and then cut the Americans off from the Louisiana Purchase. In between these versions, they would have kept New Orleans or given it back to Spain.

First the sacking. The burden of proof is on someone saying the British wouldn’t have sacked New Orleans after they really did brutally sack towns in Spain, but I accept that. Fear of such a thing might have cost the religious General Pakenham the battle since he held back his best troops to prevent it and led off with his worst. In a supreme twist of irony, the troops he held back had actually sacked Badajoz, but the troops he sent in had behaved with remarkable restraint when they had taken Washington, D.C., the prior year. Yes, as everyone knows, they burned the White House, but they were acting under orders to avenge the torching of York in Canada. Private property they for the most part left alone.

Supposedly, the British used “booty” and “beauty” as their password and countersign the night before the assault, but this makes no sense. Pakenham would never have ordered such a thing, and they’re too similar to make a good sign and countersign. Two decades after the battle, the British officers denied the growing American claims that they had encouraged their men’s dreams of plunder and rape. The “beauty and booty” school could consult Dickson’s journal, wherein he relates how, when he arrived on the West Bank following the British success there, he found that the small contingent of sailors had dispersed to loot plantations, but that the redcoats in the Marines and the 85th Foot had not joined them.

The British sacked the cities they did in Spain when discipline broke down after hellish assaults that brought them right into the cities. This time, they would have had to outrun their officers to New Orleans eight miles away with enough pent-up rage and energy to sack it. Pakenham would have had plenty of opportunity to bring them back into line, as he no doubt would have done his utmost to do. The better comparison is in fact the Washington campaign. The British lost terrible casualties to American artillery fire, but they for the most part kept their discipline up once they reached their opponents’ capital.

Would New Orleans and the West be part of the United States today if the British had won? Many historians claim that Britain would have tried to keep New Orleans had they taken it. The usual line of reasoning derives from a selective reading of the treaty’s terms or, sometimes, mere assumption. The British had insisted that both sides ratify the treaty before it would become effective, so, these historians reason, they had deliberately created a loophole, extending the war beyond the treaty’s signing, enabling them to retain New Orleans if they captured it in time. However, they overlook Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s December 23, 1814, letter to Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh explaining to him that this clause would keep Madison from “‘play[ing] some trick in the ratification of it’” (like the Congress had done with the Jay Treaty). Not to mention that the first article specifically includes restoration of territory “‘taken by either party from the other during the war, or which may be taken after the signing of this Treaty.’”

I think Robin Reilly is over-punctilious when he says that the British would not have thought they had taken New Orleans from America because it technically belonged to Spain. (When Napoleon had bought Louisiana from Spain, he had promised to offer to sell it back to them first and then sold it to Thomas Jefferson instead.) First of all, they would have had to give it back to Spain, rather than keeping it for themselves, and, while Pakenham’s orders had instructed him to direct the people of New Orleans towards that, he was told not to make any firm promises.

Historians trying to imbue Jackson’s victory with strategic significance are really reaching when one considers the British side of the picture. They had been at war with France and much of Europe for twenty-two years with one brief intermission, and now that that war was over, they were eager to conclude the one in America. The public debt was £860 million, and the interest on it was about to chew up half of their budget. While historians try to find quotes from British statesmen about keeping New Orleans, few consider the Prime Minister’s letter to Sir George Canning on December 28, 1814 (as the campaign was just starting but it looked like peace was possible). He wrote in part, “‘We might land in different parts of their coast and destroy some of their towns, or put them under contribution; but […] it would be vain to expect any permanent good effects from operations of this nature,’” before going on to inform him of the British public’s opposition to the property tax and the difficulties “‘we shall certainly have in continuing [the property tax] to discharge the arrears of the war.’” In Europe, they were trying at the Congress of Vienna to talk Tsar Alexander out of territorial aggrandizement, and they couldn’t risk offending him with some sneaky, underhanded trick against America, which had his sympathies. Parliament ratified the Treaty of Ghent promptly and wanted an end to the war. As Donald Hickey, an American historian, points out, the British wanted peace and knew that anything but giving New Orleans back would have led to prolonged bloodshed.

Remini’s grand British strategy to lock America out of Louisiana looks outlandish enough as it is, but I should like to point out one more thing from his book. He cites as part of his argument a quote attributed to Foreign Secretary Castlereagh as proof that this was their intention. This remark Castlereagh supposedly made in Paris in mid-December 1814 states in the original version, “‘I expect at this moment that most of the large seaport towns of America are laid in ashes; that we are in possession of New Orleans, and have command of all the rivers of the Mississippi valley and the Lakes, and that the Americans are little better than prisoners in their own country.’” The American historians would have us believe that Castlereagh, about the time the expedition was just arriving outside New Orleans, believed that this small force had accomplished more than the famed Peninsular army had done in six years. He had also apparently forgotten the strategic situation since Perry had won the Battle of Lake Erie. He could not have been serious if he really said such a thing, but was rather making braggadocio.

I strongly doubt he said it at all. Remini cites Alexander Walker’s book from 1856, which does not give its own sources, but which Remini still makes much use of, despite admitting that “Walker tends to embroider what he was told.” And Remini embroiders what Walker told him. He writes in his own version, “As Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, put it, once the large seaport towns of America were ‘laid in ashes’ and New Orleans captured, and the British had command of ‘all the rivers of the Mississippi valley and the Lakes…the Americans [would be] little better than prisoners in their own country’” (his brackets, my italics). Now the quote is not as ludicrous as Walker’s original statement of a fait accompli.

The fact is New Orleans decided nothing. It did not save New Orleans from a sacking. It did not secure any U.S. territory. Had it been fought earlier, it might have had some significance, but it was fought after everything had been decided. What did count, however, was the myth that gave the young United States a surge of self-confidence that made it want to stretch from sea to shining sea.