With the formal signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814, the War of 1812 drew to a close —or at least it should have, if only there had been a faster means than sailing ship of spreading the word. One day after the signing, on Christmas Day, Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham arrived at the British encampment outside New Orleans to take charge of the army Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane had landed in Louisiana 10 days earlier. Their goal was to seize New Orleans, with its stores of sugar and cotton, take out the port’s privateers and smugglers, and block the Mississippi River to American ship traffic.
That same day newly arrived Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson was putting every man he could muster to work, preparing breastworks of sugar barrels covered with earth, fronted by a disused canal and surmounted by artillery. He also mobilized a motley defensive force combining U.S. Army, Navy and Marine regulars with militiamen and civilian volunteers, the latter including free blacks, Choctaw Indians and Jean Lafitte’s freebooters—4,732 men in all.
Pakenham’s 6,000 British army regulars, 1,000 West Indian troops and 1,000 marines could have taken New Orleans in one swift stroke on December 25, but the British general didn’t make his move until Jan. 8, 1815, by which time Jackson’s preparations had produced a solid defensive line, anchored on one flank by the Mississippi and on the other by impassable swampland. Pakenham was to have opened his assault with a predawn feint on Jackson’s left, but Colonel William Thornton of the 85th Regiment of Foot got a late start. Just before daybreak the British main attack set out for the center of the American line. British skirmishers succeeded in reaching the canal, but, incredibly, they had not brought fascines to bridge the ditch or ladders to mount the breastworks. That obstacle and the destruction of British cannon by American guns stopped the main thrust in its tracks. Rolling American musket fire combined with grapeshot reaped devastation. The few British who reached the breastworks were killed or captured.
Pakenham made one last, personal attempt to rally his men, only to be felled by grapeshot. So ended the promising career of the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law—not to mention the 290 other British troops killed, 1,261 wounded and 484 captured or missing. And so began the political career of Jackson, whose brilliant victory had cost just 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing and would eventually propel him to the American presidency.
Be prepared. New Orleans was virtually indefensible when Jackson arrived, but he remedied the situation without delay. The British failure to equip their assault troops with fascines and ladders was a critical factor in their defeat.
Don’t dally. Had the British attacked on Christmas Day, the battle would have ended very differently.
Timing is everything. The Americans’ well-prepared defensive positions constituted an age-old combat multiplier. For the British to overcome their enemy’s advantage would have required a better-coordinated assault than the one they launched.
Leaders matter. “Ned” Pakenham had earned the loyalty of his well-disciplined troops through numerous Napoleonic battles and campaigns. But “Old Hickory” proved just as adept at commanding respect, not only from his regulars but also from the ragtag troops he whipped into a coherent defensive force.
Know the field. Whatever Jackson’s auxiliaries may have lacked in discipline was compensated for by their knowledge of the home ground. The Redcoats’ relative ignorance of their objective was another dooming devil in the details.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.