The Battle of New Orleans
By nightfall on January 7, 1815, more than 10,000 British troops prepared for battle.8 American troops numbered approximately 5,500, including militia from Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.9 Andrew Jackson took note of his combined troops: “Natives of different states, acting together, for the first time in this camp; differing in habits and language, instead of viewing in these circumstances, the germ of distrust and division, you have made them the source of an honourable emulation, and from the seeds of discord itself, have reaped the fruits of an honourable union . . . .”
The Free Men of Color played an important role.11 Louisiana was the first state to commission a military officer of African descent.12 In 1812, the Louisiana legislature authorized a free black battalion led by a white commanding officer and lower ranking free black officers.13 At the Battle of New Orleans, the First Battalion of Free Men of Color numbered 353 men, including an eleven-piece band.14 Fourteen year old Jordan Noble, a free man of color, sounded the call to arms, beating the long roll on his snare drum.15 Opening the battle with reveille, Noble concluded with taps.
Jean Lafitte and his legendary Baratarian privateers provided men, military supplies and artillery power. General Jackson recognized the “gallantry” and “courage and fidelity” of “the brothers Lafitte” and the Baratarians in battle. For their service, President James Madison rewarded Lafitte and his privateers with amnesty for past offenses.
Jackson and his forces fought the battle behind the Rodriguez Canal, a twenty-foot-wide and four-foot-deep abandoned canal on the old Macarty plantation located six miles below the city. Jackson’s line of defense extended from the Mississippi River to the swamp, with eight batteries spaced out in the line. Choctaw Indians, enemies of the pro-British Creek nation, and Brigadier General John Coffee’s Tennessee Mounted Volunteers defended the line in the swamp and woods.
The battle began early on the morning of January 8th with “a heavy shower of bombs and Congreve rockets” from the British army.
The British attacked on two fronts at the Battle of New Orleans – the east and the west banks of the Mississippi River. General Pakenham’s main offensive charged Jackson’s line on the east bank of the Mississippi. A secondary assault centered on the United States forces on the west bank. The British were soundly defeated by Jackson’s main forces on the east bank. However, the British “succeeded” in attacking the American forces on the west bank. With Generals Pakenham and Gibbs killed and General John Keane severely wounded, command of the British forces fell to Major General John Lambert, who decided to withdraw his troops from the west bank. The Americans then regained possession of the west bank of the river.
The temporary British success on the west bank greatly concerned Jackson. As Major General Jackson reported to Secretary of War James Monroe on January 9, 1815:
This unfortunate route had totally changed the aspect of affairs. The enemy now occupied a position from which they might annoy us without hazard, & by means of which they might have been enabled to defeat, in a great measure, the effects of our successes on this side the river. It became therefore an object of the first consequence to dislodge him as soon as possible. For this object all the means in my power, which I could with any safety use, were immediately put in preparation. Perhaps however it was owing somewhat to another cause that I succeeded even beyond my expectations. In negotiating the terms of a temporary suspension of hostilities to enable the enemy to bury their dead; & provide for their wounded, I had required certain propositions to be aceeded [sic] to as a basis; among which this was one – that altho [sic], hostilities should cease this side the river until 12 OCLK [sic] of this day yet it was not to be understood that they should cease on the other side; but that no reinforcements should be sent across by either army until the expiration of that hour. His Excellency Majr Genl. Lambert begged time to consider of those propositions until 10 OCLK [sic] of today; & in the meantime recrossed his troops. I need not tell you with how much eagerness I immediately regained possession of the position he had thus hastily quitted.
Major General Samuel Gibbs led the main assault with 2,200 British troops against the left flank of Jackson’s line which was defended by Tennessee and Kentucky troops.30 General Jackson explained to his troops: “Knowing that the volunteers from Tennessee, and the militia from Kentucky, were stationed on your left, it was there they directed their chief attack.”31 The British forces were “cut down by the untutored courage of American militia.”32 The American artillery “without exaggeration, mowed down whole ranks at every discharge.”
In a letter dated January 13, 1815 to James Monroe, General Jackson described the great victory on January 8th as follows:
Early on the morning of the 8th, the enemy having been actively employed the two preceding days, in making preparations for a storm, advanced in two strong columns on my right and left. They were received however with a firmness which it seems they little expected, and which defeated all their hopes. My men, undisturbed by their approach, which indeed they long anxiously wished for, opened upon them a fire, so deliberate and certain, as rendered their scaling ladders and fascines, as well as their more direct implements of warfare, perfectly useless. For upwards of an hour it was continued with a briskness of which there have been but few instances, perhaps, in any country. In justice to the enemy, it must be said, they withstood it as long as could be expected, from the most determined bravery. At length, however, when all prospect of success became hopeless, they fled in confusion from the field, leaving it covered with their dead and wounded. Their loss was immense.
The War of 1812 culminated in Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans. His resounding victory on January 8, 1815 insured that the Treaty of Ghent was ratified and the war was over.35 Andrew Jackson was transformed into a national hero, enabling the popular general to win the presidency in 1828.
Thus, Article I of the Treaty of Ghent stipulated: “All hostilities both by sea and land shall cease as soon as this Treaty shall have been ratified by both parties.” The British ratified the treaty almost immediately, on December 27, 1814, but it was not until February 16, 1815, that the U.S. Senate consented to the treaty and that the president ratified it. American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which took place five weeks after the Battle of New Orleans, marked the official end to the war, although fighting continued for some months in the more remote theaters.
Hickey, Don. Wayne State College. “Leading Myths of the War of 1812.” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 4: September 2006. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/Warof1812/2006/Issue4/c_myths.html
The NPS site (Jean Lafitte Treaty of Ghent) confirms that the British had ratified the treaty before the Battle of New Orleans was fought:
In fact, the British official who brought the treaty to the United States also brought a copy of the British ratification and had instructions to stop hostilities only if the United States ratified the treaty with no changes. What this meant was that fighting had to continue.”