Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Battle of New Orleans

The War of 1812 should have never happened. Enraged by the British practice of impressment, trade restrictions, and support of Native Americans, U.S. President James Madison convinced Congress to declare war. Signing the declaration on June 18, 1812, Madison would not learn for weeks, due to slow communications, that new Prime Minister Lord Liverpool was seeking to avoid war.

The war was fought in three theaters: At sea, along the northern border and in Canada, and along the American Gulf Coast. The most significant land battle was for New Orleans. Ironically, like the start of the war, this battle should have never took place. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814 officially ended the war. News of the war's end would not reach Louisiana until February of the following year.

In December 1814 a British fleet laden with 8,000 soldiers moved against New Orleans. Capture of the city, strategically located near the mouth of the Mississippi River would have threatened the entire Louisiana Territory and the course of Manifest Destiny that would fuel American expansion in the 19th century.

General Andrew Jackson was charged with the defense of the city. British troops disembarked onto the west coast of the Mississippi on December 23rd. A quick movement by General John Keane might have easily resulted in capture of the city. A spoiling attack by Johnson's forces (technically a British victory) unnerved Keane enough to delay until all his forces arrived at the beginning of the new year. The Americans used the time wisely, converting a canal into a strong defensive line.

The main attack got under way before light on the morning of January 8th. British soldiers, hemmed in by the Mississippi on one side and swamps on the other, bravely crossed the open field towards the American positions. Despite having superior numbers and reaching several American positions along the bank of the river, the British attack never truly stood a chance. Two large assaults were repelled. Americans suffered 71 casualties; the British a staggering 2,042.

The battle secured American rights to the Louisiana Territory and made Andrew Jackson a national hero. In 1828 Jackson would be elected president, serving as one of the most memorable presidents in American history. The battle also bolstered American morale and unity, propelling the young nation into a time of great growth and optimism known as the "Era of Good Feelings."

The battle was the subject of a song, The Battle of New Orleans, written by Jimmy Driftwood and made popular when recorded by Johnny Horton in 1959.

The map is from The Library of Congress.