January 8, 2015
If you don’t believe in miracles, skip this page. If you don’t think America is an exceptional country, read no further. The story of the Battle of New Orleans, the Bicentennial of which we observe today, is a story of an almost unbelievably one-sided victory.
At this point two hundred years ago in the War of 1812, both Britain and the U.S. had failed repeatedly in attempts to strike a knockout blow. The Americans failed spectacularly in attempts to invade and occupy British Canada. We were driven out of Canada after humiliating defeats at Lundy’s Lane and elsewhere. At the commencement of the war, retired President Thomas Jefferson had said the conquest of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” It was not one of the Sage of Monticello’s better predictions.
Jefferson’s loyal lieutenant and successor as president, James Madison, had had to hightail it out of the White House in August, 1814, to avoid capture. Then, a powerful British amphibious force sailed up the Chesapeake almost unopposed and landed disciplined troops in Maryland. They marched overland and summarily defeated panicked local militia at Upper Marlboro, Bladensburg, and eventually even Washington, D.C.
While President Madison courageously rode into action against the invader (the only president ever to take up arms against a foreign foe), his equally brave wife, Dolley Madison, saved the famous Gilbert Stuart “Lansdowne”portrait of George Washington. As Dolley was evacuating the White House, Sec. of State James Monroe ordered clerk Stephen Pleasanton to throw some old government documents in a burlap sack and hurry them out of the embattled capital. Pleasanton did his duty. He took that sack in a wagon to Great Falls, Virginia, and thus we still have the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The British burned the White House, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress. The entire capital city might have gone up in flames but for a sudden hurricane that extinguished the flames. With the capital still smoldering, however, the mayors of Georgetown and Alexandria finally got an audience with the invading British Admiral, George Cochrane. “We’ve come to surrender our cities to you, Sir,” they bleated. “I’m not even going there,” harrumphed the haughty conqueror. (Liberal Georgetown and Alexandria have a long tradition of pre-emptive surrender!)
Adm. Cochrane instead went to Baltimore, where his attack failed. And the Star-Spangled Banner still waved above Fort McHenry. None of this would have helped, however, if the British had made good their invasion of Louisiana.
This was perhaps the gravest threat of the entire war. In Europe, Napoleon had at last been defeated and exiled. Now, Britain could turn her undivided attention to crushing the upstart Americans. To show their seriousness of purpose, they dispatched Gen. Sir Edward Michael Pakenham to join Adm. Cochrane and a huge force of 14,000 battle-hardened troops to wrest the entire Mississippi Valley from the United States. Pakenham was a seasoned soldier and the brother-in-law of Napoleon’s nemesis, the great Duke of Wellington. Among Sir Edward’s papers was a Royal Commission naming him as Governor of the Province of Louisiana. When, as expected, he overwhelmed the American rabble at New Orleans, Britain would hem in America on the North, the South, and the West.
All of this might have happened but for the flinty courage and iron will of Gen. Andrew Jackson. Known as “Old Hickory” to his troops (and not always fondly), Jackson was already a veteran of Indian wars and border conflicts with the Spanish. He bore a scar on his temple from a sword cut made by a surly British officer when he had been just a lad in South Carolina, during the Revolution. Jackson hated the British with a Scots-Irish fervor.
Gen. Jackson had been alerted to the British invasion by a local militia officer, Major Gabriel Villaré, one of the French Creole planters of Louisiana. Villaré had evaded British capture by diving through a window at his estate when the British barged in. Maj. Villaré then ran through the swamps to sound the warning.
Commanding Gen. Jackson quickly put the Crescent City under martial law, jailed a federal judge who defied his orders, and prepared to hold New Orleans against the expected assault. Jackson commanded a motley force of American regular army, half-wild Tennessee and Kentucky militia, and the Baratarian Pirates. These were French-speakers whom Jackson himself called “hellish banditti” The pirates were led by Jean Lafitte, who was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English and who had offered his services—for a price, of course—to the redcoat invaders. The shrewd Jackson quickly accepted Lafitte’s offer of alliance. Add to this mix, the local “Gens du Couleur.” These were free black citizens of New Orleans. Their aid would prove indispensable and their example would help to tamp down any idea of slave rebellion in the state.
The British had expected the Americans to panic at the sight of their latest weapon, the Congreve rockets. These spectacular new sights on the battlefield had led Americans to throw down their weapons outside Washington as men and horses fled in terror. They reckoned without Old Hickory, who rode back and forth along his lines, exposing himself to enemy sharpshooters while calling out “these are terrors for children, men. Hold your ground!”
Hold it they did. And when the redcoats advanced toward the American breastworks, these “wild” frontiersmen let loose with devastating volleys. They had been trained to shoot, fall back, re-load, and shoot again with lethal accuracy. Gen. Pakenham and other top British attackers were killed in the onslaught. As related by famed historian, Robert Remini in his acclaimed biography of Jackson, “the destruction of the high command in one blow ‘caused a wavering in the column which in such a situation became irreparable.” The British suffered 2,037 casualties to the Americans’ 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. British survivors would tell their American captors they had never faced an enemy who did not run away when hit by the new Congreve rockets.
In mere minutes, Britain’s hope of re-establishing its North American dominance faded. Jackson’s victory was celebrated in a Te Deum Mass in the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans. Jackson, the staunch Presbyterian, obligingly attended that event and several society balls in his honor.
In Washington, D.C., late word arrived of the Treaty of Ghent. That document officially ended the War of 1812. It had been signed on December 24, 1814, in that Belgian city—three weeks before the Battle of New Orleans. That treaty essentially restored the Status Quo Ante—that is, neither side could claim a victory in the war.
Still, news of the “Incredible Victory” at New Orleans followed on the heels of the peace announcement. Not surprisingly, Americans tended to view the events as one and ever after claimed “bragging rights.” President Madison basked in new public esteem. As for Gen. Andrew Jackson, from January 8, 1815, until his death in 1845, Americans all knew who “The Hero” was.