The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Ten: The Battle of New Orleans (How Andy Jackson Turned Wellington’s Brother-in-Law into Red Mist)
(Previously: Day Nine: Invading Canada, The Hull Horrible Truth)
Today’s the payoff for all red-blooded Americans who’ve suffered reading about disasters like the Battle of Bladensburg and the Siege of Detroit. Today is the 198th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the most one-sided American victory in history, when an outnumbered force of amateur soldiers slaughtered an attacking force of British regulars.
When the battle was over, you could have counted our dead and wounded on your fingers and toes, but to tote up the British losses, you’d have had to bring your steampunk calculator. A British officer who was captured and detailed to bury his ex-buddies on the field gave this great description of a gloating Yankee repeating the score to anybody who’d listen:
“Within… a few hundred yards were…nearly a thousand bodies, all them in British uniforms. Not a single American was among them…they were thrown by dozens into shallow holes, scarcely deep enough to furnish them with a slight covering of earth. An American officer stood by smoking a cigar, and apparently counting the slain with a look of savage exultation, and repeating over and over to each individual that approached him, that their [US] loss amounted only to eight men killed and fourteen men wounded.”
To understand what went right, in a war where things usually went way wrong for American militia facing British regular infantry, you have to look at the commanders, Andrew Jackson for the Yankees and Edward Pakenham for the British.
So let’s deal with Jackson. Not an easy thing to do, because everything in American history is supposed to get judged and put in the good or bad boxes, and you really can’t do that with Jackson. Either Jackson was bad because of the way he treated the Seminole and Creek nations, or he was good because he was the first president who stood for the hardscrabble Scots-Irish peasants against the Coastal Elite (and yeah, they did talk about “Coastal elites” in those days, just like they do now). Either he was bad because he owned slaves or he was good because he fought against a centralized bank. It’s a shame we can’t just let him be what he was, an apex predator. He even looked like one, like a backwoods Dracula or a hawk with hair.
Whatever else he was, he was a great commander, the best of the war on either side. I’ve been a fan of Jackson, especially his New Orleans campaign, since I was nine years old. That year we had to do a book report, mostly to check that we could write cursive and get the margins right. My book was a classic called The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans. I gave it five cannons up, but Mrs. Street, my bleeding-heart teacher, stiffed me with a B-minus. I’ve been bitter ever since, lying awake thinking, “I bet she gave those liberal girls who read Judy Blume an A just for being sensitive.”
What made me maddest was that in a bloodthirsty way, the Battle of New Orleans was as close as early America got to real populism, real democracy and equality. We were the most mongrel army since Darius: blacks and whites, Anglos, French and Spanish, Pirates, clerks, and Tennessee backwoodsmen all fighting together behind the cotton bales. It went bad later, sure. That’s what history does, go bad. But for that one day, the goofy fantasy that they feed you in those Pirates of the Caribbean movies—all the misfits fighting together against the Empire—was real. And victorious. It was Andy Jackson who made that happen.
This is one battle where you can say pretty confidently that under any other commander in US history, we’d have lost, because nobody else had the combo of ruthlessness and flexibility to hold that Freak-Party coalition together for a single day. Jackson had all the hates and prejudices you’d expect, but unlike just about everybody else, he could suspend them for the good of the cause. He started out calling the Lafitte brothers “hellish banditti”; he ended up using them as his scouts and artillery, and writing them letters of recommendation after the battle. And although he was a slave-owning bastard, he wasn’t interested in drawing the color line in the lead-up to battle, so when one of his paymasters objected to paying a 280-man battalion of free blacks, Jackson told him to pay the soldiers whether they were “black, white or tea.” He was ruthless with natives who got in his way, but welcomed the contingents of Creek and Cherokee who fought behind the bales with his Tennessee rednecks.
You might think anybody could be this clear-headed and ruthless when it was a matter of survival, but I got two words for that argument: Civil War. Name one Confederate commander who was willing to drop his bigotries when it was a matter of survival. Actually, you can name one, and only one: General Pat Cleburne, another Irish Protestant, who fought for the South and dared to suggest, in 1864, that maybe it was time to enlist black troops for the Confederacy, with the promise of emancipation. Not one Confederate politician or general backed Cleburne, and from the moment he made his proposal, he was blacklisted, to coin a phrase—had to watch idiots promoted over him and ended up dying at Franklin, thanks to an idiot named John Bell Hood, in a charge that was as disastrous as the British advance at New Orleans.
So don’t sell Jackson’s flexibility short; it’s not as “obvious” or common as you’d think. It’s especially not common among his people, the ones we call “Scots-Irish.” They started in Scotland, late enough to get Calvinism but too soon for the Enlightenment, which made them the scariest, most bloodthirsty tribe on the planet. They camped for a while in Ulster, where they hated the Papist Irish and the backsliding Anglicans both. They made up the best soldiery of the South. Some of them are still huddled there in the slums of East Belfast, hating durn near everybody. And they remember Andy Jackson to this day, the Ulster Prods; there’s a row-house mural of Andrew Jackson on the Shankill Road in Belfast, with the stars and stripes in one corner and the red hand of Ulster in another.
And if there’s one thing those people aren’t known for, it’s flexibility or broad-mindedness. Jackson was a very unusual Scots-Irish guy in that way—in a lot of ways, actually. It’s unusual he survived to adulthood; he didn’t have an easy time of it. His parents came over from Ulster in time for their sons, Andrew and his two brothers joined the rebels when Andrew was just 13. One brother died in battle, and the others, Andy and Robert, got captured and treated like most POWs were in those days: beaten, starved, encouraged to die ASAP from one of the wide selection of contagious diseases available. Robert died of smallpox; Andrew got it too, but refused to die, though he got a mangled arm and hand from a saber cut. It seems a British officer told the kid to clean his boots, and became annoyed when Jackson refused. He came limping home to find his mother dead from the cholera she caught nursing American prisoners on one of the “hulks” that the British used as POW storage and disposal.
Jackson came home to find his family wiped out and headed west to Tennessee, where he called himself a lawyer, got into politics, and grabbed all the real estate he could, including the land he helped buy/steal from the Chickasaw nation—all of it farmed by slaves, several hundred of them.
Land and slaves made a man a gentleman and an officer, by Tennessee standards, and Jackson took on a kind of loose, militia generalship the way Colonel Sanders did: by being the richest man in his part of the backwoods. Except Jackson was more than ready to back it up when the War of 1812 came around. Long before he got his chance to work out on actual redcoats outside New Orleans, he started chalking up victories against Tecumseh’s “Red Stick” alliance of Shawnee and Creek fighters.
Here again, it’s time to play “good and evil,” and say Jackson was evil because we’ve decided, now that they’re gone, that the natives were good. Good and gone, that’s the way it always plays out. At the time, things looked a lot scarier and less moral if you lived west of the mountains. It was a war of extermination on both sides, classic primitive warfare, nobody playing nice.
At Fort Mims, north of Mobile, 400 white settlers were chopped up in 1813, just like hundreds of native villages had been chopped up since the Puritans finished off the Pequot in 1637. There’s no good in primitive warfare—lots of bad, but no good. Good comes later, when you’re safe.
Jackson started the war as a Colonel in command of militia fighting a faction of the Creek nation in Alabama. Like I said in another article, the tribes tried all kinds of strategies for dealing with the aliens; they weren’t unified, any more than we would be if the Saucer People appeared overhead. The militant Creek faction, the Red Sticks, had defeated the Yankee militia in several battles before Jackson took command and crushed them at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It was a slaughter: 800 out of 1000 Creek were killed. That’s not the kind of casualty figure you get in battle alone; you have to figure that hundreds of Creek were bayoneted or shot after surrendering, or trying to surrender. The few survivors ran south to Florida, which was a kind of no-rules zone at the time. Still is, come to think of it.
Jackson was commanding on the Gulf Coast, pushing the British out of Pensacola and defending Mobile, but he arranged to bring 2500 of his Tennessee militia down the river by flatboat. Jackson moved west along the gulf, after blunting British attacks to the east, and reached New Orleans on December 1, 1814; his militiamen came in dribs and drabs over the first half of December (Remember that song I mentioned: “In 1814 we took a little trip…”) The place was a mess. And from the start, Jackson showed that hard Lenin-style sense of priorities that made him a good commander. The Louisiana militia wasn’t bothering about defending the city, even though they knew a huge British fleet full of combat-tough veterans of the Napoleonic wars was sailing from Jamaica. What the militia was busy doing was hunting down runaway slaves who’d heard about the British promise of freedom. Jackson stopped all that. He focused all the French, Spanish and Yankee demographics on a common enemy, the British, who he called “highway robbers” and “the common enemy of mankind.” Still held a grudge over those hard times in the POW camp, maybe, but he also understood the need to find a common denominator in a way mixed-up town, get the fear and anger focused on the enemy at hand. Jackson instantly dropped his prejudice against the Lafitte brothers once he saw how weak he was in artillery, because those pirate brothers had the best cannoneers around; Jackson promised them pardons, loot, whatever it took.
He had to hurry, because a huge force, almost 14,000 soldiers and sailors, freed up by Napoleon’s collapse at Leipzig, was bearing down on the city. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Thomas Cochrane, who led the siege of Baltimore. Cochrane ended up taking the fall for the defeat in New Orleans, but he wasn’t a bad commander. In the Chesapeake and in the approach to New Orleans, he did what the Army of the Potomac never had the sense to do: use naval superiority to get a huge body of troops ashore as close to the enemy city as possible. Cochrane dealt with the shallow muddy water of Lake Borgne by putting his men in longboats, where they fought a weird mud-battle with the few small boats the Americans had posted to stop them.
By December 22, the British had landed, gone up one of those bayous you hear about in fake-Cajun songs—they saw a few alligators along the way and didn’t like them at all--and camped at a French plantation in the Delta on December 23. Jackson did something insane and brilliant: with only 2000 militia, who didn’t even speak each others’ languages and for the most part hated each others’ guts, he marched south the same day and ordered a night attack—one of the messiest things you can ask even trained troops to do—on more than 7000 regulars.
It was a mess, with men firing on their own units, an American ship in the river lobbing shells at British campfires, total confusion—but Jackson somehow managed to withdraw his men in good order. He did something way bigger, too—he convinced the British they were facing a much bigger and more experienced force than Jackson actually had. So instead of marching north and pushing Jackson’s handful of amateurs out of their way like Ross had done at Bladensburg, Ross’s replacement, Keane, went into defensive mode and waited while Jackson’s engineers picked the best spot to build a roadblock between them and New Orleans.
The chief engineer, a Frenchman named LaTour, came up with the perfect spot, the Rodriguez Canal, a muddy, deep ditch that crossed the road the British would have to take. LaTour started slapping the mud up to deepen the moat and pile up fortifications, with cotton bales brought along in wagons and dumped in line to make a bulletproof wall. The left ended in a swamp; the right went right to the Mississippi. Flanking, the usual way of dislodging raw troops from a strong position, was out of the question. Jackson had even placed artillery, served by those French pirates, on the opposite bank to keep the enemy from getting upstream.
On Christmas Day, General Edward Pakenham, slotted to command the attack, arrived. Pakenham was the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law, which was some pretty nice secondhand celebrity. Wellington admitted that Pakenham wasn’t the smartest guy in a red uniform, but still felt he was “one of our best.” Pakenham was brave; everybody admitted that, but there are times when brave isn’t enough, like when you’re facing a damn force of nature like Andrew Jackson.
Pakenham didn’t want to get involved in the war at all, and wrote home a few months before the battle, “I think I have escaped America and consider myself vastly fortunate to have been spared such a service.” That’s the War of 1812 for you: no respect. Then again, Pakenham’s instincts were good, because from the time he set boot on the squishy ground of Louisiana, he had exactly two weeks to live.
Three days after he came ashore, Pakenham looked at Jackson’s mud-and-cotton barricades and decided that one good sharp charge would rout the militia. It was a reasonable guess; that’s what usually happened when regulars advanced against militia. A wall of bayonets coming at you is very scary; the natural thing is to hear your momma calling you, somewhere way back behind the lines. But these were Jackson’s mongrels, and things didn’t go the normal way. Jackson rode along the lines, lending spine where needed, telling his men to shoot the officers first (that made the British brass furious; they thought it was a war crime to kill men of good family instead of the cannon fodder on foot) and his riflemen sat behind the bales and picked their targets. The British retreated with over 100 casualties and Pakenham decided to give it another think.
Pakenham wasn’t happy with the campaign at any level, from the disposition of his troops to the whole idea of taking New Orleans. He hated Admiral Cochrane, an old enemy of Wellington’s, and didn’t seem to have his heart in the war. He couldn’t come up with any other way of dislodging Jackson’s men, and after a week of sitting in his lines, he finally decided to do the sensible, obvious thing: send his much bigger, much better-trained force right at them and crush them, Bladensburg style.
But Jackson wasn’t a fool like the American commanders who shunted amateur troops around from strong positions to weaker ones just before Bladensburg. Jackson knew you put militia in place, behind fortifications, and keep them there, nail their feet to the ground and tell them to aim low. He had no flanks; the river and the swamp took care of that. The swamp came close to the river right at the American line, so Pakenham’s troops would have to funnel down a narrowing, flat field, right into grapeshot and rifle fire.
6:00 a.m., January 8, 1815. This was the year of Waterloo, so it was gonna be a good one for the British Army—but it wasn’t going to get off to a good start.
A major attack involves more last-minute adjustments than an interfaith wedding; the siege ladders were too short and too far behind the first wave. British officers had to do a lot of yelling to get everyone in place before the bagpipes started their cats-fucking yowl and the lines moved over the muddy field. There was some fog, but in one more proof that God was on Andy Jackson’s side, a breeze blew it away just as the redcoats came into cannon range, about 450 yards.
Jackson’s broadmindedness about piracy had brought him the finest artillerymen in the Gulf. Lafitte’s gunners had won every single artillery duel with the British regulars in the week of stalemate, and now they had a target that even Garcia from Reno 911 couldn’t miss.
But European regulars were trained to walk forward while their faces got splattered with the next guy’s brains, or what passed for them. They learned to be more afraid of their NCOs than the enemy. So the troops kept their line and kept coming, even though “there wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.” They were still out of grapeshot range, so the holes in the lines weren’t huge yet.
Jackson had his killing zones all set, so when the lead regiments were 300 yards from his lines he ordered the cannon to stop firing so the riflemen could see their targets. The unrifled muskets European armies were designed to face were useless past 100 yards, but those rifles could kill at three times that range. Instead of the cannon blasts, the noise from Jackson’s line was the weird blowgun “Phffft” you get with black powder rifles. The rifles dropped soldiers one at a time, instead of blowing holes in the lines. The Highlanders, cannon fodder from the same barbarian tribes who’d been all but wiped out in 1745, got another treat, pushed into the front lines as usual. They had 500 dead in a few minutes, and good luck getting that pension.
By the time the lines were 200 yards from the canal, Jackson’s cannon had reloaded with grapeshot, the most terrifying weapon an advancing infantry unit had to deal with. Grapeshot was a huge shotgun shell, a wooden can full of steel balls. When the cannon fires, the can disintegrates and the balls turn into buckshot squared. Grapeshot turned men into red mist. And it was effective even in the thick smoke from hundreds of rifles, muskets and cannon firing at once.
Edward Pakenham, brave and dumb as ever, became a not-living testimonial to the effectiveness of grapeshot at close range. While he rode along the lines, encouraging the men in the approved suicidal manner and making a target of himself, a charge of grapeshot disemboweled his horse and brought Pakenham to the ground. As his aides helped him up, he was hit again. He managed to get back on a fresh horse when another dose of giant buckshot ripped his torso apart. They supposedly brought his body to Halifax to bury, preserved in a barrel of rum, but you have to wonder how much body was left. (You also have to wonder if the sailors left the rum alone just because there was a body in it. My guess is they weren’t that squeamish, so there were probably tars drinking Pakenham while the officers’ cabin was drinking to his memory.)
Three British generals died in the attack. Before he was torn apart, Pakenham had ordered the reserves to advance, but they were held up by what you might call the sane faction among the troops, the ones who had sense enough to see it was suicide and decided to head away from the firing. The reserves pulled back—I bet there wasn’t much complaining about that order—and what was left of the British force sailed off to have another try at Mobile.
The casualties were unbelievable: more than 2000 British regulars killed by a force of outnumbered militia that included pirates, French aristocrats, two battalions of free blacks, inland redneck eye-gougin’ bastards, and natives from a half dozen different tribes.
Pakenham’s brother in law, the Duke of Wellington, blamed it all on Cochrane, which is kind of a stretch. It wasn’t the Admiral who ordered those men to march across a soggy field right into a fortified, moated position. But then he already hated Cochrane and probably had a pissed-off Mrs. Wellington to appease. He wrote a letter blaming Cochrane in a roundabout way, the way officers do when they want to libel somebody without winding up in court:
“The Americans were prepared with an army in a fortified position which still would have been carried, if the duties of others, that is of the Admiral had been as well performed as that of he whom we now lament.”
See, “he whom we lament” is the rock-headed bro-in-law who actually ordered the men into that “fortified position”—the late Pakenham, in other words—and “the Admiral” is Alexander Cochrane, who as far as I can tell did a very good job of getting the troops ashore, close to the objective, over some very tricky shallow estuaries.
The last thing you always hear about this battle is how tragic it was because it was fought “two weeks after the war ended.” This is crap. Yes, the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, and ratified by the Prince Regent, filling in for the senile ball of pus known as George III, who was taking longer to die than an opera singer and annoying even more people in the process. But nobody on the ground in New Orleans was concerned with that treaty, and if the battle had gone another way you can be sure the Empire, never one to give up on real estate equity, would have demanded a few revisions of the borders. More important, Jackson’s incredible victory gave British politicians and soldiers—who were, let’s remember, not a bunch of Hugh Grant wimps but the scariest seaborne force since the Norse went into their moral coma—a permanent hangover-in-advance at the idea of fighting American armies. New Orleans wasn’t just a defeat, it was utter humiliation, and that kind of pain sticks with an army for generations, turning their ambitions to other theatres when they get itchy for a fight. (The same thing happened to the Imperial Japanese Army after their crushing defeat by the Soviets at Khalkin Gol in 1939; the victory of the “Southern Strategy” dates from exactly the moment the Soviet tanks destroyed the pride of the Kwantung Army in the Summer of 1939.)
The US went to war with Britain in 1812 for a lot of strange, vague reasons, but the biggest reason the US and UK never fought each other again was what happened in 1812. There were lots of times during the 19th century when there were much better reasons to fight, and an Anglo-American war later in the century would have been a giant bloody mess. But the memory of the War of 1812 had something to discourage everybody: Bladensburg for the American brass, New Orleans for the British elite—and good old Rhode Island, aka “The Treason State,” for those up-themselves New Englanders. If my snotty fourth-grade teacher had really been as peacenik as she thought she was, she’d have given me a B-plus at least, because by turning out to be a C-minus war for all concerned, 1812 did more for peace than all the Judy Blume books ever printed.