The Tennessee State Library and Archives remembers the Battle of New Orleans on its 200th anniversary.
For nearly two weeks the drama unfolded. At stake was the important port city of New Orleans, the economic life line of the growing settlements of the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi river valleys. American and British forces clashed several times from Dec. 23 until Jan. 7. The ultimate control of New Orleans was decided 200 years ago, on Jan. 8, 1815. The outcome also determined the fate of our nation and the respective fates of the opposing commanders in this consequential battle.
|This engraving of the battle dates to the 1850s and depicts the Tennessee militia standing behind Line Jackson on January 8. Noteworthy is the fact that free black soldiers are shown within the ranks.|
By Jan. 8, 1815 the young nation had grown war weary. It had been nearly three years since British interference with American trade, impressment of American sailors, and perceived instigations of Indian attack on the frontier had spurred President Madison to ask for a declaration of war. Congress granted the declaration on June 18, 1812.
American war efforts focused on seizing British Canada. Repeated efforts to invade Canada failed and, in some cases, the British and their Indian allies successfully counterattacked and occupied U.S. territory. Although the U.S. Navy achieved some spectacular victories over its numerically-superior foe, for the most part American forces accomplished very little.
In the midst of the War of 1812, a civil war erupted within the Creek Nation (modern day portions of Alabama and Georgia). The Red Sticks allied themselves with Tecumseh, an avowed ally of the British. The Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims, Alabama, in August, 1813. As word of the Red Stick attack spread, the Tennessee militia mustered to contend with the threat. After months of difficult fighting, General Andrew Jackson and his army of Tennesseans, U.S. Regulars, and allied Creeks and Cherokees soundly defeated the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend. [see blog post from March 27, 2014). General Jackson’s victory earned him a promotion to major general in the regular army and the responsibility for defending the Gulf Coast.
In August and September of 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington and moved to attack Baltimore. Repulsed at Baltimore, the British turned their attention to New Orleans.
The British hoped to strike New Orleans by moving overland from Spanish-held Pensacola. General Jackson, however, raided into Pensacola in November 1814, despite the fact that the United States was not at war with Spain. Jackson’s attack spoiled the British plan and after being turned away again around Mobile, the British moved directly on New Orleans.
The British Navy defeated a small U.S. Navy force on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, providing them the opportunity to land south of New Orleans on Dec. 23rd. The news of the British landing soon reached American headquarters and Jackson readied his troops to attack.
In a bold move, General Jackson launched a night attack on Dec. 23rd. The attack caught the British off guard. With an American ship bombarding the British positions from the Mississippi River, Jackson’s soldiers pushed into their camps. The arrival of British reinforcements and the fact that several of Jackson’s units got lost in the dark, forced the American withdrawal. While the night battle proved indecisive, it provided Jackson’s men with combat experience and confidence.
The next day, Jackson established his defensive line behind the Rodriguez Canal on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Jackson’s troops, augmented by local slaves, proceeded to build a sizable parapet with the canal serving as a moat. Over the next two weeks the line transformed into a strong defensive position dubbed "Line Jackson." The right end of Line Jackson rested on the Mississippi River while the left anchored on a nearly impassable cypress swamp. Eight artillery positions boasting twelve cannon bristled along the line. Troops also built additional defensive works on the west bank of the Mississippi to provide flanking fire on any force attacking Line Jackson.
U.S. Army Regulars, sailors, marines, volunteers and militia from Tennessee as well as the militia of Louisiana, Kentucky, and the Mississippi Territory (modern day Alabama and Mississippi) defended the city. A small group of pirates, Choctaw Indians, and two battalions of Free Men of Color recruited in the city of New Orleans further augmented Jackson’s force. This motley American force prepared to meet the veteran professional soldiers, sailors, and marines of the British crown.
On Christmas Day, Lord Edward Pakenham arrived to take command of the British land forces. Over the next week, Pakenham instigated probing attacks to determine weaknesses in the American Line. On Jan. 1, he ordered an artillery barrage to breach Line Jackson which ultimately failed. On Jan. 7, Pakenham laid out his plans for the imminent attack on the American positions.
Pakenham’s plan called for a combined force of sailors, marines, and soldiers to paddle across the Mississippi and move up the west bank. These troops were to capture the American artillery and then turn them down the length of Jackson’s line. Meanwhile, British soldiers on the east bank were to attack in three separate columns. One column, under the command of Colonel Rennie, planned to move along a levee on the east bank of the Mississippi and storm the American redoubt. Another column, under the command of General Gibbs, was to attack the American center. The center was perceived to be the weakest point in the American line due to the fact that it was manned by Tennessee militia under General William Carroll and supported by Kentucky militia. A third British column would launch a diversionary attack into the swamp.
In the middle of the night, British soldiers, sailors and marines prepared for their passage across the Mississippi to the west bank. The fast current of the river quickly swept the boats down river. The attack on the west bank would be seriously delayed.
On the east bank, fog draped the fields as British soldiers prepared for the assault. Colonel Rennie’s command pushed silently along the levee and rushed the American redoubt. The British gained the outside wall and leapt into the American works. The Americans, initially stunned by the British audacity, quickly regained their composure and a counter charge by the 7th U.S. Infantry and Beale’s Louisiana Rifles reestablished the American line and killed Colonel Rennie in the process. The British attack on the American right failed.
Meanwhile, as the fog vanished from the field, the British attack on the center came into full view. Exposed to deadly artillery and rifle fire, the British attack faltered. Furthermore, the ladders needed to scale Line Jackson were inadvertently left behind and had to be retrieved. The British 93rd Regiment of Foot faced a deadly predicament. Ordered to support the attack on the center, the regiment marched diagonally from the British left toward the center exposing its flank to artillery and rifle fire. The regiment was decimated.
Lord Pakenham rode into the midst of the chaos within his attacking force to reinvigorate the assault. His horse was felled by an American artillery round. As he tried to mount a second horse, rifle and artillery fire mortality wounded the British commander. General Gibbs, Pakenham’s second-in-command, also received a death wound. The British attack on the American center collapsed. The diversionary attack on the American left proved useless as well.
|Lord Pakenham commanded the British land forces attacking New Orleans. During the attack on January 8, 1815 Pakenham received a mortal wound and died within the hour.|
On the west bank, British soldiers, sailors, and marines, delayed by their unexpected trip down river, attacked. The British overwhelmed the lightly-armed and poorly-led Kentuckians and Louisianans and captured the American line. Their success on the west bank, however, proved too little, too late. As the British soldiers on the west bank looked across the Mississippi they saw Line Jackson firmly in American hands and their comrades withdrawing from the field. With little to gain, the British withdrew and recrossed the Mississippi River.
The battle lasted less than two hours. In that short time, the British suffered more than 2,000 killed, wounded, and missing. American losses were less than 60 with only 13 killed. The British completely abandoned the areas around New Orleans by the first week of February with nothing to show for their efforts but a lengthy casualty list, including Colonel Rennie, General Gibbs and Lord Pakenham.
“The Glorious 8th of January” went down in history as the greatest American victory of the War of 1812. Indeed, up until the Civil War, Jan. 8 joined July 4 and George Washington’s Birthday as the only nationally celebrated American holidays. General Jackson’s victory brought with it national prominence and public recognition as the “Hero of New Orleans,” a moniker that propelled him to the presidency of the United States.
|This artist rendering illustrates the gold medal presented to General Jackson for his victory at New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Congress awarded medals such as these to victorious American generals and naval officers.|
The legacy of the Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812 remained strong within the state of Tennessee and is mixed with pride and controversy, providing lessons for future generations in understanding the state’s rich history.
A new exhibit, “Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812,” which recently opened at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, not only explores the Battle of New Orleans in greater detail, but also examines Tennessee's important role in the War of 1812. With 16 panels full of images and information on this fascinating period in our history, this exhibit explores the political and military actions of Tennesseans in the War of 1812.
We invite you to come explore this important episode in Tennessee's history through this new exhibit, on display now at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Click HERE here to learn more.
The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.