Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815

The final battle of the war of 1812-14 between Great Britain and the United States was actually fought on 8th January 1815, some two weeks after the combatants had a signed a peace treaty to end the war. This was the Battle of New Orleans.

The War of 1812-14

One might argue that most wars are ultimately pointless, but that of 1812-14 must come high up the list of conflicts that should never have taken place. The American President James Madison had declared war on Britain in June 1812 in protest at British naval actions that had blockaded American ships in French ports – Britain was at war with Napoleonic France – and the hostilities had dragged on for more than two years, with the most significant action being the British burning of Washington in August 1814 that resulted in the presidential residence having to be painted white to cover the scorch marks. Both sides were therefore content to call an end to the war by the time December came along.

The Battle of New Orleans

A peace treaty was signed on 24th December, but the news that the war was over had not reached the combatants at New Orleans before the turn of the year.

Although there was little desire on most people’s part to carry on fighting, one exception was the British General Sir Edward Pakenham, who was the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law. He reckoned that the city of New Orleans would be an easy capture in that his troops outnumbered those of the city’s defenders, led by Andrew Jackson, by three to one.

Pakenham sent Jackson an insulting message that ended with the threat that he (Pakenham) would be eating breakfast in New Orleans on Sunday morning. Jackson replied by saying that Pakenham would be eating supper in Hell on Sunday night.

When the British attacked they faced withering fire from the defenders, who sheltered behind bales of cotton. The fire included grapeshot from cannons that had a devastating effect on the attackers, who lost 2,000 men within the half-hour that the battle lasted, these casualties including General Pakenham. On the other side, the losses were seven dead and six wounded.

If ever there was an unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war, this was it. The only positive result was that it boosted the reputation of the defending commander, who gained a hero status that would eventually take him all the way to the Presidency, which he won in 1829.

© John Welford