Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

Author: Theodore Roosevelt  | Date: Jan. 8, 1815

The Battle of New Orleans

In the morning Sir Edward Packenham put his army in motion, and marched on New Orleans. When he had gone nearly three miles he suddenly, and to his great surprize, stumbled on the American army. Jackson’s men had worked like beavers, and his breastworks were already defended by over three thousand fighting men, and by half a dozen guns, and moreover were flanked by the corvette Louisiana, anchored in the stream. No sooner had the heads of the British columns appeared than they were driven back by the fire of the American batteries; the field pieces, mortars, and rocket guns were then brought up, and a sharp artillery duel took place. The motley crew of the Louisiana handled their long ship guns with particular effect; the British rockets proved of but little service; and after a stiff fight, in which they had two field-pieces and a light mortar dismounted, the British artillerymen fell back on the infantry. Then Packenham drew off his whole army out of cannon shot, and pitched his camp facing the intrenched lines of the Americans. For the next three days the British battalions lay quietly in front of their foe, like wolves who have brought to bay a gray boar, and crouch just out of reach of his tusks, waiting a chance to close in….

New Year’s day dawned very misty. As soon as the haze cleared off the British artillerymen opened with a perfect hail of balls, accompanied by a cloud of rockets and mortar shells. The Americans were taken by surprize, but promptly returned the fire, with equal fury and greater skill. Their guns were admirably handled; some by the cool New England seamen lately forming the crew of the Carolina, others by the fierce creole privateersmen of Lafitte, and still others by the trained artillerymen of the regular army. They were all old hands, who in their time had done their fair share of fighting, and were not to be flurried by any attack, however unexpected. The British cannoneers plied their guns like fiends, and fast and thick fell their shot; more slowly but with surer aim, their opponents answered them. The cotton bales used in the American embrasures caught fire, and blew up two powder caissons; while the sugar hogsheads of which the British batteries were partly composed were speedily shattered and splintered in all directions. Tho the British champions fought with unflagging courage and untiring energy, and tho they had long been versed in war, yet they seemed to lack the judgment to see and correct their faults, and most of their shot went too high.

On the other hand, the old sea-dogs and trained regulars who held the field against them, not only fought their guns well and skilfully from the beginning, but all through the action kept coolly correcting their faults and making more sure their aim. Still, the fight was stiff and well contested. Two of the American guns were disabled and thirty-four of their men were killed or wounded. But one by one the British cannon were silenced or dismounted, and by noon their gunners had all been driven away, with the loss of seventy-eight of their number….

For a week after this failure the army of the invaders lay motionless facing the Americans. In the morning and evening the defiant, rolling challenge of the English drums came throbbing up through the gloomy cypress swamps to where the grim riflemen of Tennessee were lying behind their log breastworks, and both day and night the stillness was at short intervals broken by the sullen boom of the great guns which, under Jackson’s orders, kept up a never-ending fire on the leaguering camp of his foes. Nor could the wearied British even sleep undisturbed; all through the hours of darkness the outposts were engaged in a most harassing bush warfare by the backwoodsmen, who shot the sentries, drove in the pickets, and allowed none of those who were on guard a moment’s safety or freedom from alarm.

But Packenham was all the while steadily preparing for his last and greatest stroke. He had determined to make an assault in force sa soon as the expected reenforcements came up; nor, in the light of his past experience in conflict with foes of far greater military repute than thosenow before him, was this a rash resolve. He had seen the greatest of Napoleon’s marshals, each in turn, defeated once and again, and driven in headlong flight over the Pyrenees by the Duke of Wellington; now he had under him the flower of the troops who had won those victories; was it to be supposed for a moment that such soldiers who, in a dozen battles, had conquered the armies and captured the forts of the mighty French emperor, would shrink at last from a mud wall guarded by rough backwoodsmen?

That there would be loss of life in such an assault was certain; but was loss of life to daunt men who had seen the horrible slaughter through which the stormers moved on to victory at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajos, and San Sebastian? At the battle of Toulouse an English army, of which Packenham’s troops then formed part, had driven Soult from a stronger position than was now to be assailed, tho he held it with a veteran infantry. Of a surety, the dashing general who had delivered the decisive blow on the stricken field of Salamanca, who had taken part in the rout of the ablest generals and steadiest soldiers of Continental Europe, was not the man to flinch from a motley array of volunteers, militia, and raw regulars, led by a grizzled old bush-fighter, whose name had never been heard of outside of his own swamps, and there only as the savage destroyer of some scarcely more savage Indian tribes….

Packenham had under him nearly 10,000 fighting men; 1,500 of these, under Colonel Thornton were to cross the river and make the attack on the west bank. Packenham himself was to superintend the main assault, on the east bank, which was to be made by the British right under General Gibbs, while the left moved forward under General Keane, and General Lambert commanded the reserve. Jackson’s position was held by a total of 5,500 men. Having kept a constant watch on the British, Jackson had rightly concluded that they would make the main attack on the east bank, and had, accordingly, kept the bulk of his force on that side. His works consisted simply of a mud breastwork, with a ditch in front of it, which stretched in a straight line from the river on his right across the plain, and some distance into the morass that sheltered his left. There was a small, unfinished redoubt in front of the breastworks on the river bank. Thirteen pieces of artillery were mounted on the works. On the right was posted the Seventh regular infantry, 430 strong; then came 740 Louisiana militia (both French creoles and men of color, and comprising 30 New Orleans riflemen, who were Americans), and 240 regulars of the Forty-fourth regiment; while the rest of the line was formed by nearly 500 Kentuckians and over 1,600 Tennesseeans, under Carroll and Coffee, with 250 creole militia in the morass on the extreme left, to guard the head of a bayou. In the rear were 230 dragoons, chiefly from Mississippi, and some other troops in reserve; making in all 4,700 men on the east bank. The works on the west bank were farther down stream, and were very much weaker. . .

All through the night of the 7th a strange, murmurous clangor arose from the British camp, and was borne on the moist air to the lines of their slumbering foes. The blows of pickax and spadeas the ground was thrown up into batteries by gangs of workmen, the rumble of the artillery as it was placed in position, the measured tread of the battalions as they shifted their places or marched off under Thornton—all these and the thousand other sounds of warlike preparation were softened and blended by the distance into one continuous humming murmur, which struck on the ears of the American sentries with ominous foreboding for the morrow.

By midnight Jackson had risen and was getting everything in readiness to hurl back the blow that he rightly judged was soon to fall on his front. Before the dawn broke his soldiery was on the alert. The bronzed and brawny seamen were grouped in clusters around the great guns. The creole soldiers came of a race whose habit it has ever been to take all phases of life joyously; but that morning their gayety was tempered by a dark undercurrent of fierce anxiety. They had more at stake than any other men on the field. They were fighting for their homes; they were fighting for their wives and their daughters. They well knew the fell destruction and nameless woe that awaited their city should the English take it at the sword’s point. They feared not for themselves; but in the hearts of the bravest and most careless there lurked a dull terror of what that day might bring upon those they loved. The Tennesseeans were troubled by no such misgivings. In saturnine, confident silence they lolled behind their mud walls, or, leaning on their long rifles, peered out into the gray fog with savage, recklesseyes. So, hour after hour, the two armies stood facing each other in the darkness, waiting for the light of day.

At last the sun rose, and as its beams struggled through the morning mist they glinted on the sharp steel bayonets of the English, where their scarlet ranks were drawn up in battle array, but four hundred yards from the American breastworks. There stood the matchless infantry of the island king, in the pride of their strength and the splendor of their martial glory; and as the haze cleared away they moved forward, in stern silence, broken only by the angry, snarling notes of the brazen bugles.

At once the American artillery leaped into furious life; and, ready and quick, the more numerous cannon of the invaders responded from their hot, feverish lips. Unshaken amid the tumult of that iron storm the heavy red column moved steadily on toward the left of the American line, where the Tennesseeans were standing in motionless, grim expectancy. Three-fourths of the open space was crossed, and the eager soldiers broke into a run. Then a fire of hell smote the British column. From the breastwork in front of them the white smoke curled thick into the air, as rank after rank the wild marksmen of the backwoods rose and fired, aiming low and sure. As stubble is withered by flame, so withered the British column under that deadly fire; and, aghast at the slaughter, the reeling files staggered and gave back. Packenham, fit captain for his valorous host, rode to the front, and the troops, rallying round him, sprang forward with ringing cheers.

But once again the pealing rifle-blast beat intheir faces; and the life of their dauntless leader went out before its scorching and fiery breath. With him fell the other general who was with the column, and all of the men who were leading it on; and, as a last resource, Keane brought up his stalwart Highlanders; but in vain the stubborn mountaineers rushed on, only to die as their comrades had died before them, with unconquerable courage, facing the foe, to the last. Keane himself was struck down; and the shattered wrecks of the British column, quailing before certain destruction, turned and sought refuge beyond reach of the leaden death that had overwhelmed their comrades.

Nor did it fare better with the weaker force that was to assail the right of the American line. This was led by the dashing Colonel Rennie, who, when the confusion caused by the main attack was at its height, rushed forward with impetuous bravery along the river bank. With such headlong fury did he make the assault, that the rush of his troops took the outlying redoubt, whose defenders, regulars and artillerymen, fought to the last with their bayonets and clubbed muskets, and were butchered to a man.

Without delay Rennie flung his men at the breastworks behind, and, gallantly leading them, sword in hand, he, and all around him, fell, riddled through and through by the balls of the riflemen. Brave tho they were, the British soldiers could not stand against the singing, leaden hail, for if they stood it was but to die. So in rout and wild dismay they fled back along the river bank, to the main army. For some time afterward the British artillery kept up its fire, but was gradu-ally silenced; the repulse was entire and complete along the whole line; nor did the cheering news of success brought from the west bank give any hope to the British commanders, stunned by their crushing overthrow.

Meanwhile Colonel Thornton’s attack on the opposite side had been successful, but had been delayed beyond the originally intended hour. The sides of the canal by which the boats were to be brought through to the Mississippi caved in, and choked the passage, so that only enough got through to take over a half of Thornton’s force. With these, seven hundred in number, he crossed, but as he did not allow for the current, it carried him down about two miles below the proper landing-place. Meanwhile General Morgan, having under him eight hundred militia whom it was of the utmost importance to have kept together, promptly divided them and sent three hundred of the rawest and most poorly armed down to meet the enemy in the open. The inevitable result was their immediate rout and dispersion; about one hundred got back to Morgan’s lines. He then had six hundred men, all militia, to oppose to seven hundred regulars. So he stationed the four hundred best disciplined men to defend the two hundred yards of strong breastworks, mounting three guns, which covered his left; while the two hundred worst disciplined were placed to guard six hundred yards of open ground on his right, with their flank resting in air, and entirely unprotected. This truly phenomenal arrangement ensured beforehand the certain defeat of his troops, no matter how well they fought; but, as it turned out, they hardly fought at all. Thornton, pushingup the river, first attacked the breastwork in front, but was checked by a hot fire; deploying his men he then sent a strong force to march round and take Morgan on his exposed right flank. There, the already demoralized Kentucky militia, extended in thin order across an open space, outnumbered, and taken in flank by regular troops, were stampeded at once, and after firing a single volley they took to their heels. This exposed the flank of the better disciplined creoles, who were also put to flight; but they kept some order and were soon rallied. In bitter rage Patterson spiked the guns of his water-battery and marched off with his sailors, unmolested. The American loss had been slight, and that of their opponents not heavy, tho among their dangerously wounded was Colonel Thornton.

This success, tho a brilliant one, and a disgrace to the American arms, had no effect on the battle. Jackson at once sent over reenforcements under the famous French general, Humbert, and preparations were forthwith made to retake the lost position. But it was already abandoned, and the force that had captured it had been recalled by Lambert, when he found that the place could not be held without additional troops. The total British loss on both sides of the river amounted to over two thousand men, the vast majority of whom had fallen in the attack on the Tennesseeans, and most of the remainder in the attack made by Colonel Rennie. The Americans had lost but seventy men, of whom but thirteen fell in the main attack. On the east bank, neither the creole militia nor the Forty-fourth regiment had taken any part in the combat.

The English had thrown for high stakes and had lost everything, and they knew it. There was nothing to hope for left. Nearly a fourth of their fighting men had fallen; and among the officers the proportion was far larger. Of their four generals, Packenham was dead, Gibbs dying, Keane disabled, and only Lambert left. Their leader, the ablest officers, and all the flower of their bravest men were lying, stark and dead, on the bloody plain before them; and their bodies were doomed to crumble into moldering dust on the green fields where they had fought and had fallen. It was useless to make another trial.


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Chicago: Theodore Roosevelt, "The Battle of New Orleans," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.5, Pp.102-112 Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BEBDZ5JQX3ZQ1EH.

MLA: Roosevelt, Theodore. "The Battle of New Orleans." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.5, Pp.102-112, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BEBDZ5JQX3ZQ1EH.

Harvard: Roosevelt, T, 'The Battle of New Orleans' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.5, Pp.102-112. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BEBDZ5JQX3ZQ1EH.