The Royal Navy’s control of the sea threatened America’s Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
When the United States declared war on Britain to begin the War of 1812, American land and sea forces were woefully ill prepared to take on the world’s premier sea power and one of Europe’s finest armies. Twelve years earlier, Thomas Jefferson’s election as president in 1800 had brought an abrupt end to American naval construction that previously had added warships like the formidable USS Constitution to the fleet, while the regular Army, which was already well below its authorized strength, was reduced even further. Jefferson distrusted and opposed large standing regular military forces and felt the country’s best defense was provided by the citizen soldiers in the states’ militias (which he described as “the best reliance in peace and for the first moments in war”). Although during his election campaign Jefferson had implied that laws should be passed to strengthen and improve the states’ militias, no action at all was taken once he was in office.
Jeffersonians – and indeed most Americans – took great comfort in the fact that the wide Atlantic Ocean separated the United States from the seemingly never-ending turmoil in Europe. If Britain or France dared to send forth an invading army, the swarms of small coastal gunboats that Jefferson authorized to be built presumably would wreak havoc among the hostile fleet when it reached the American coast. And if enemy forces did succeed in establishing a foothold, state militias, backed up by the tiny number of U.S. Army regulars, would either defeat them outright or inflict so many casualties through continual harassment and attrition that the invaders would eventually give up and sail away. Or so it was thought.
Jefferson’s defense policies were continued by his protégé and successor, James Madison; and during the War of 1812’s opening rounds of fighting with Britain, the results were mixed. American warships usually bested their opponents in ship-on-ship actions, and the host of privateers the U.S. government authorized effectively preyed on British merchant shipping throughout the war. (See Battlefield Leader, January 2013 ACG.) But despite the sterling quality of the U.S. Navy’s ships and seamen, the puny size of the naval force meant it could do little to contest Britain’s increasingly effective blockade of American ports. At the outset of the conflict, excluding the 126 little coastal “Jefferson gunboats,” the U.S. Navy had only 16 warships (from sloop to frigate) and 14 revenue cutters to oppose the Royal Navy’s 255 men-of-war.
The Chesapeake Bay in particular became a rich hunting ground for the Royal Navy during the war’s second year.
CHESAPEAKE BAY OPERATIONS, 1813-14
February 1813 found a large British squadron under Rear Admiral George Cockburn operating in the Chesapeake Bay, probing almost as far north as Baltimore and conducting raids in the lower bay. In April, a secure British base of operations – including a fort, barracks and hospital – was established on Tangier Island 55 miles from Hampton Roads near the bay’s center. Tangier and adjacent islands were stripped of trees for the construction of shallow-draft barges, each bristling with oars, for transporting troops. The concept of conducting lightning amphibious strikes from a close-in base was considered highly innovative at the time, and raiding began in earnest the following month with British troops burning Havre de Grace, Md., at the Chesapeake’s northernmost reaches.
Opposing the British were the Virginia and Maryland militias (which due to the states’ laws could do almost nothing to coordinate their activities), some of the coastal gunboats, and a small but energetic corps of U.S. Army artillerists and engineers. These included the redoubtable Armistead brothers: Captain Walter K. Armistead, who greatly improved the Craney Island defenses guarding Norfolk, Va.; and Major George Armistead, commanding Fort McHenry, which dominated the water approach to Baltimore. Few additional U.S. regular troops could be spared because of the fighting along the Canadian border – President Madison declared, “It can’t be expected that I can defend every man’s turnip patch.” As if to emphasize the point, no effort at all was made to fortify the American capital.
By mid-1813, the federal government and the various state governments had increased the number of the relatively worthless gunboats to nearly 300 scattered from New Orleans to Maine (the latter state had already lost much territory to a British incursion from Nova Scotia). Perhaps 60 of these small sloop- and schooner-rigged vessels mounting one to three cannon each (some belonging to the U.S. Navy and some to the state navies) guarded local ports and rivers flowing into the Chesapeake. The principal offensive element of this force was a flotilla of 18 rowed barges and gunboats under Commodore Joshua Barney. He was a brave and resourceful commander, but his flotilla was so terribly outgunned that his small vessels were often compelled to take shelter in shallow upriver waters where British warships could not follow.
On land, Maryland’s local militia units were expected to rise up on their own and repel raids as they occurred; but across the Potomac, Virginia initially called up 2,000 militiamen, from shopkeepers to farmers, and then struggled mightily to keep the force equipped, trained, provisioned and manned with fresh troop levies when the citizen soldiers’ three-month enlistments expired. The militiamen, frequently with the aid of slaves and local work crews, heavily fortified key points along the rivers feeding the bay. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy – with nearly 100 blue-water ships in the bay, from supply vessels to 74-gun triple-decker warships – capitalized on the Tangier Island troop base to conduct amphibious raids at will against scant resistance from the gunboats and militia. A frustrated Commodore Barney lamented that local American forces “were here and there, but never where the enemy was.”
However, on June 22, 1813, a strong British attempt to seize the well-defended Norfolk-Portsmouth area was beaten back at Craney Island by troops under Virginia militia Brigadier General Robert Barraud Taylor. The British suffered more than 200 dead and wounded from their 2,000-man landing force against apparently no American casualties. Yet Cockburn’s ships simply re-embarked the British soldiers and marines and landed them at less well defended Hampton, across the James River. The invaders’ discipline immediately broke down, and Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Sir Charles James Napier of the British 102d Regiment recorded in his diary: “Every horror was perpetrated with impunity – rape, murder, pillage – and not a single man was punished.”
The federal government in Washington, D.C., was unperturbed at the enemy’s freedom of movement on the capital’s very doorstep because the number of British land forces available to Cockburn was judged to be relatively small. No federal effort whatsoever was made to fortify either the capital or Baltimore beyond maintaining the existing forts guarding their sea approaches. The government did appoint regular Army Brigadier General William H. Winder as commander of the newly created 10th Military District encompassing the Chesapeake region.
The inevitable reckoning finally came when the defeat and exile of Napoleon in April 1814 freed thousands of seasoned British troops in Europe for the fighting in North America. Command of all British forces operating along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coasts was given to Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who eagerly initiated a series of large-scale amphibious operations with Cockburn as his second-in-command.
In mid-August, 4,000 British troops landed on the Chesapeake Bay’s Maryland shore and began a lunge toward Washington amid frantic American calls for militia to oppose them. Assembling as if arriving at a country fair, militia companies under Winder’s command formed a defense along the British line of march at Bladensburg, Md., about 5 miles northeast of the capital. On August 24, the Redcoats crossed a small river (at a bridge the Americans should have destroyed), deployed for battle and promptly put the militia to flight with their first shots – Congreve rockets which, although effective against wooden structures and fixed defenses, were relatively harmless to troops on an open battlefield. Some militia, however, did not join the “Bladensburg Races” (as the headlong flight was called) and put up a stout fight, although it was woefully brief due to poor leadership.
At Bladensburg, more than 6,000 Americans were routed by a British vanguard with just one-third their number. Only a force of approximately 450 U.S. Marines, Commodore Barney’s now land-bound sailors manning their cannon, and a handful of U.S. Army regulars stood their ground until finally overwhelmed. Late that afternoon, British forces entered the capital city, where senior officers dined on a meal hastily left behind at the White House. Before evacuating back to their ships, the British set afire all of Washington’s government public buildings.
In truth, Washington in 1814 was an insignificant, partially completed town. It had only been attacked and its federal buildings burned in retaliation for the Americans’ burning and looting of Upper Canada’s parliament buildings and private residences in York (Toronto) two years earlier. The real prize, as far as the British admiral was concerned, was Baltimore with its fabulous wealth of shipping and merchandise – “and consequently of prize money” to be gained by Royal Navy officers for captured enemy goods and property, as Sir J.W. Fortescue explained in a British army history. Given the potential for substantial prize money, Fortescue noted, “the naval commanders [were] always eager for operations ashore.”
The British seized Fort Washington on the Potomac River several days later and then conducted a successful raid into Virginia, where they accepted the surrender of Alexandria. After more British reinforcements arrived in November, Baltimore looked to be ripe for the picking – local militias had proved utterly ineffective and even the U.S. Army regulars manning Fort Washington had fled their posts. It therefore came as an unsettling shock to the overconfident British amphibious force moving against Baltimore on September 12, 1814, when it found a well-led and better trained militia, determined U.S. Army regulars at Fort McHenry guarding Baltimore Harbor, and an aroused citizenry organized in Baltimore’s city wards and precincts under a Committee of Vigilance and Safety.
Ably led by Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia (who replaced Winder), the citizen soldiers had constructed a line of stout defensive works covered by the guns of Fort McHenry. While the line was being strengthened, Smith sent 3d Maryland Division’s 3,000- man 3d Brigade under Brigadier General John Stricker forward to hold a mile-wide bottleneck across the peninsula where the invaders had landed. British commander Major General Robert Ross, the victor at Bladensburg, was warned that close to 20,000 militiamen were preparing to defend the Baltimore approaches. Ross, unimpressed, stated, “I don’t care if it rains militia.” Within a few hours, he lay dying in front of the Maryland militia’s ranks.
Stricker, a veteran of the American Revolution battles of Princeton, Brandywine and Monmouth, formed his brigade’s five regiments in depth. The 5th and 27th Maryland regiments were arrayed to the front and bore the brunt of the British attacks, even as militia units behind them in support and reserve left the field when the fire got too hot. These Marylanders, however, would not be moved and they delayed the British regulars for two critical hours, only withdrawing when it became apparent they were being flanked. The exhausted and much-bloodied Redcoats, however, recognized that they could go no farther without the direct support of Royal Navy warship cannon – the British fleet would have to subdue Fort McHenry first.
Cochrane’s attempt to force Fort McHenry’s surrender the night of September 13-14 proved futile largely because Baltimore’s merchants had sunk their own ships to block the channel leading into the harbor. Although Royal Navy commanders had airily dismissed the submerged wrecks’ effectiveness, they quickly discovered that the location at which the ships were sunk forced the British warships to fire at such a distance from Fort McHenry that the bombardment was rendered much less accurate and effective. During this bombardment, American emissary Francis Scott Key, detained for the night on a British ship, wrote the words for “The Star-Spangled Banner” that described the “red glare” of Congreve rockets fired from barges constructed at Tangier Island.
Unable to reduce Smith’s defenses, Cochrane withdrew the amphibious force and then conducted some minor raids along the Virginia and Maryland coasts before sailing to Jamaica for reinforcements. The British lost 590 men killed or wounded during the Chesapeake campaign, with only the burning of the unfinished American capital to show for it.
Foiled at Baltimore, Cochrane now set his sights on the second phase of his amphibious operations. He targeted yet another rich prize, America’s recently acquired port of New Orleans on the Mississippi River.
NEW ORLEANS CAMPAIGN, 1814-15
Admiral Cochrane’s fleet disappeared into the Atlantic, and President Monroe and Louisiana Governor William Claiborne immediately perceived that New Orleans was vulnerable to attack. Indeed, British agents and the Royal Navy already had been very active in the region, and one of Cochrane’s officers had approached pirate chieftain Jean Lafitte, who controlled many armed ships and one of the land invasion routes to the city, to propose an alliance. The French-born Lafitte – former blacksmith, sea captain, “businessman” – proved a loyal American. He warned Louisiana authorities of British intentions, although some initially did not believe him.
In March 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, Major General Andrew Jackson, commander of the 7th Military District, defeated 1,000 British-armed Creek Indian warriors who in August 1813 had massacred over 400 militia, allied Creeks and settlers at Fort Mims, Ala. Jackson subsequently moved his headquarters and tiny contingent of 60 regular soldiers to New Orleans after first seizing Pensacola, Fla., to “ensure the neutrality of Spain” (in the process ejecting a small British occupation force and five warships). His victory at Horseshoe Bend and the seizure of Pensacola had been accomplished by a mixed force of regulars, militia, volunteers and allied Indians; but at New Orleans a similarly diverse force would face the cream of the British army.
Cochrane, intent on avoiding a potentially costly battle between his fleet and the American forts sited along the Mississippi River’s banks, landed British troops on the Lake Borgne shore in late December (after a swarm of 45 troop-filled British longboats had swept aside a small American flotilla at the Battle of Lake Borgne on December 14). Although the troops’ position was safely upriver from the forts and “only” 5 miles east of the Mississippi, it was beyond a cypress swamp that made resupply nearly impossible and was behind a mud-banked plantation canal that impeded military movements.
Worse, the British admirals had inappropriately attempted to repeat their earlier Chesapeake Bay amphibious strategy by establishing an offshore troop staging base. However, unlike the excellent conditions at Tangier Island in the Chesapeake, Lake Borgne’s shallow waters forced them to establish the base at distant Ship Island, near present-day Biloxi. All soldiers, artillery, ordnance and supplies had to be laboriously rowed by ships’ crews some 80 miles to the troop landing site (with a welcome but time-consuming rest stop en route at Isle aux Poix).
Forty-eight exhausting hours after disembarking, the fatigued British advance brigade emerged from the swamp roughly 9 miles south of New Orleans on December 23, 1814, and encamped on the grounds of riverside plantations that lined the Mississippi. The British invaders established guard posts, yet they made no effort to establish a defensive perimeter. They did note, however, that USS Carolina (14 guns) and USS Louisiana (16 guns) were anchored upriver.
Shortly after nightfall, British sentries noticed that one of the darkened ships had drifted with the current until it was directly across the river. Suddenly, Carolina’s gunners opened a broadside into the British camp, firing furiously and throwing it into chaos. This was the signal for the 1,800 troops Jackson had gathered thus far to attack. Fortuitously alerted that the British had landed south of New Orleans instead of north of the city as he had expected, Jackson wasted no time in striking first.
The understrength U.S. 7th and 44th infantry regiments plus Louisiana militia units struck the British front while Tennessee militia emerged howling from the swamp on the startled Redcoats’ right. Bitter fighting lasted until after midnight, but while smoke and confusion added to the horror of hand-to-hand fighting, darkness actually kept down losses – British casualties were 313 against the Americans’ 277. The principal result of Jackson’s surprise night attack was to make the invaders very wary of pressing on toward New Orleans, or even sending out patrols, until all British troops had landed. Jackson would make good use of the time it took the British to collect their entire force.
When the British troop commander, General Edward Pakenham, finally arrived several days later, he found his army confined to the narrow strip of farmland and with scarce supplies. He complained bitterly about the situation in which his army had been placed by the navy’s Cochrane. Pakenham saw few tactical options for capturing New Orleans other than to do what every British commander since Bunker Hill in 1775 had been warned against – launch a frontal assault against an entrenched American force.
Jackson, meanwhile, had wisely used the time to construct sturdy defense lines south of New Orleans at Chalmette plantation on the east bank of the Mississippi. With ample artillery and the plantation’s canals serving as moats all along the front, Jackson’s defenses stretched from the levee along the river to well within the swamp bordering the British right. Across the river on the Mississippi’s west bank, a strong redoubt with cannon and crewmen from USS Louisiana was constructed to fire on the left flank of any attack. Finally, if the British did succeed in breaching his defenses, Jackson was prepared to burn New Orleans and leave the enemy nothing but ashes.
Manning Jackson’s line was a 4,700-man mixed force consisting of the two regular infantry regiments; regular and militia artillerymen, including three “companies” of Lafitte’s pirate cannoneers; two regiments of locally raised (largely Creole) militia; three regiments of Tennessee riflemen; and a force of Kentucky volunteers (many of whom, surprisingly, were unarmed). Additionally, at a second defense line in the rear (Line Dupre) was Major General Jacques Villeré’s 1,100-man 1st Division, Louisiana Militia, with attached artillery. As it turned out, this second American defensive line proved unnecessary.
In the January 8, 1815, battle, Jackson’s entrenched infantrymen and cannoneers shredded the well-ordered ranks of attacking Redcoats that advanced headlong into a blizzard of American firepower. Pakenham was killed, and over 2,000 British soldiers out of the 5,300 who launched the assault fell dead, wounded or were reported missing. Roughly half of the fallen lay in ghastly heaps and rows on the British far right near the cypress swamp where Pakenham had hoped to overwhelm the American left. Instead, Tennesseans under Brigadier General William Carroll and Kentuckians under Brigadier General John Adair formed ranks five and six men deep which, each rank in turn, fired, then fell back to reload before moving up to fire again – generating a volume and accuracy of fire the British had not encountered in Europe. Said American defender Zachariah Frederick Smith: “On our left, in front of the Tennesseans and Kentuckians, the greatest execution had been done. The slaughter here was appalling. Within a space 300 yards wide, and extending out 200 yards from our breastwork, an area of about 10 acres, the ground was literally covered with the [British] dead and desperately wounded.”
Jackson’s casualties during the Battle of New Orleans were just 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing.
A subsequent 10-day effort by the Royal Navy to force its way past the Mississippi River forts failed and the exhausted British land force was withdrawn on February 4, 1815. The surrender a week later of Fort Bowyer, which defended the port of Mobile, Ala., was inadequate consolation after the disaster at New Orleans. Several days later, Cochrane finally received word that a peace treaty between the United States and Britain had been signed on December 24, 1814, the day after the admiral had put British troops ashore in Louisiana.
Thus ended two years of British amphibious operations along America’s Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Looking back at the ill-fated operations of Admiral Cochrane’s Baltimore and New Orleans campaigns during the final six months of the War of 1812, British military historian Sir J.W. Fortescue maintained that they provided “perhaps the most striking warning upon record … against conducting operations ashore on the sole advice of naval officers,” and to never use “combined forces upon the sole advice either of a naval or a military officer.” Sound advice that would form one of the bedrock principles of modern amphibious operations.
D.M. Giangreco served for more than 20 years as an editor for “Military Review,” published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He has written and lectured widely on national security matters and is an award-winning author of numerous articles and a dozen books, including “The Soldier From Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman” (2009, Zenith Press).
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Armchair General.