The Battle of New Orleans
The fighting in Louisiana was really a series of battles for New Orleans, lasting from December 1814 through January 1815. On the Chalmette battleground , just below the city, a diverse force of soldiers, sailors, and militia, including Indians and African Americans, defeated Britain's finest white and black troops drawn from Europe and the West Indies.
The American victory in the Gulf region forced the British to recognize United States claims to Louisiana and West Florida and to ratify the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. The Battle of New Orleans also marked the state's political incorporation into the Union.
The Key Players
Britain sent between 11,000 and 14,450 troops under the command of Major General Sir Edward Pakenham to fight in the Louisiana campaign. These included army and navy men fresh from campaigns fought against Napoleon in Europe, as well as veterans of other theaters in the War of 1812. Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane had charge of the British navy in American waters and directed naval skirmishes in the gulf.
Among the British forces were the First and Fifth West India Regiments, made up of about one thousand black soldiers from Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas. Some of these units recruited and trained American slaves who escaped to British lines, attracted by the promise of freedom.
United States forces at the time of the Battle of New Orleans were much smaller--somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000. This detachment was composed of United States army troops; Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana militia; Baratarian pirates; Choctaw warriors; and free black soldiers.
Major General Andrew Jackson, commander of the Seventh Military District, led United States forces in the Gulf campaign against Britain. An ardent expansionist and charismatic leader, Jackson inspired his men and the local populace to fight and defeat the British.
Preparations for War
General Jackson established his base of operations in New Orleans in late November 1814 to concentrate United States military efforts on the Mississippi River after discovering that British Vice-Admiral Cochrane intended to direct the Gulf Coast campaign against New Orleans. Distrustful of Jackson at first, citizens of New Orleans formed committees of public safety to protect their interests; they feared that Jackson would burn the city rather than surrender it.
The British had many potential routes in attacking New Orleans from their base in Jamaica. They ultimately chose to approach the city from the east by way of Lake Borgne and Bayou Bienvenu, which brought them within a mile of the Mississippi.
The Battles Begin
General Jackson's plans for defense of the city were thwarted by the British capture of five American gunboats in Lake Borgne in the first battle near New Orleans in December 1814. Despite the loss, American casualties numbered fewer than those of the British. In the next major battle during the night of December 23, United States and British forces fought on land on the Villeré and adjacent plantations below the city, ending in a stalemate that threw the British off balance and battered their morale. The cost of the engagement was high: 277 British casualties, including 46 killed, and 213 United States casualties, including 24 killed. Hardest hit was Beale's rifle company, composed primarily of New Orleans lawyers and merchants.
Although United States and British commissioners met in Ghent, Belgium, on December 24 to sign a peace treaty to end the War of 1812, the battle raged on around New Orleans. A major American victory came on New Year's Day, with British casualties outnumbering those on the United States side by more than two to one.
Finally, on January 8, the day commemorated today as the victory day in the Battle of New Orleans, two British generals, including Major General Pakenham, were killed in battle, with a third severely wounded. Soldiers described battlefield action as confused and haphazard in the dark hours of that foggy morning. Britain suffered over 2,000 casualties in that decisive battle, whereas Jackson lost only 71 men. The British forces withdrew through Lake Borgne and into the Gulf, firing on Fort St. Philip for over a week before sailing out to sea for good.
Militia units from surrounding states joined local troops in defending Louisiana. These included mounted militia and dragoons, (mounted troops who rode into battle, dismounted, and fought on foot). Major Gabriel Villeré commanded the Louisiana Militia, and Major Jean Baptiste Plauché headed the New Orleans uniformed militia companies. Each of these companies had its own distinctive, colorful uniform, and many of their members had previous military experience in France, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and Latin America.
Louisianians contributed to the American victory in many ways. Behind the front lines white and free black men forty-five years and older formed home guards to protect private property and maintain order in New Orleans and surrounding towns and posts. Slaves and citizens helped widen canals and build defenses along them. Slaves also fortified military positions and fought in several battles of the Louisiana campaign. Women at home made clothing for the troops and flags and bandages for the militia regiments, while nuns and free women of color nursed the wounded at hospitals and convents.
The First and Second Battalions of Free Men of Color, comprising over six hundred men, played an important role in the Louisiana campaign, just as free black men had during the colonial period in the service of France and Spain. Louisiana was the first state in the Union to commission a military officer of African descent, and an act passed by the Louisiana legislature in 1812 was the first in the nation to authorize a black volunteer militia with its black line officers.
Fighting with Jackson's forces in Louisiana was a group of Choctaws, longtime enemies of the pro-British Creek nation. They were under the command of Major Pierre Jugeant, a part-Choctaw scout who had grown up among Native Americans and spoke various dialects.
The legendary Baratarian pirates also lent assistance to Jackson and the Americans, primarily in the form of military supplies and artillery power. The Baratarians had been approached by British officials to act as allies and waterway guides. Acting as leader of the "Frenchmen of Barataria," Jean Laffite went to American authorities while considering the British offer, ultimately securing from Jackson promises of amnesty for past offenses in return for siding with the United States and committing his men to battle.
Jordan Noble was a free black drummer famous for beating the long roll at the Battle of New Orleans. Born in 1800 in Georgia, Noble came to New Orleans in 1811 and joined the United States army one year later. He participated in several engagements of the Louisiana campaign. At the Battle of New Orleans, he opened with reveille. He later served as a drummer in the Mexican War of 1846-1848 and rallied New Orleans free men of color to form militia companies on behalf of the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War.
After the Battle of New Orleans, Louisianans gave Andrew Jackson mixed reviews from Louisianians. Some hailed him as a "conquering hero" and honored him with parades, balls, and parties. Others scorned him as the "butcher of New Orleans" and master of "bloody deeds," blaming him for what few casualties there were from the campaign. However, the victory gave "Old Hickory" enough national recognition and popularity to win the presidential election of 1828.