On the misty morning of Jan. 8, 1815, soldiers of the U.S. 7th Infantry Regiment—a motley band of laborers, farmers, artisans and frontiersmen—faced off against orderly ranks of veteran British Redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans. Just hours later, with gunpowder-streaked faces, smoking muzzles and muddy coats, the Americans surveyed an awful scene of slaughter on the fields beyond their ramparts.
“The whole plain on the left, as also the side of the river, from the road to the edge of the water, was covered with British soldiers who had fallen,” one soldier recalled. “What might perhaps appear incredible…is that a space of ground, extending from the ditch of our lines to that on which the enemy drew up his troops, 250 yards in length by about 200 in breadth, was literally covered with men, either dead or severely wounded. The artillery of our lines kept up a fire against the enemy’s batteries and troops until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The enemy’s loss…was immense, considering the short duration of the contest, the ground and the respective number of the contending forces.”
The men of the 7th, together with an assortment of militiamen from Kentucky and Tennessee, Louisiana locals and even pirates, all under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, had won a great victory, securing the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, solidifying American independence and awakening a strong sense of national identity in the young country. For Jackson personally, the victory was the first step along a path that eventually led to the White House.
In 1814, after two years of inconclusive fighting, Great Britain aimed to score a knockout blow against the upstart United States. By now, the British were on the verge of defeating Napoléon Bonaparte’s France. Caught up in the death struggle between these two powerful empires, the United States had, in 1812, come to blows with Britain over neutrality rights on the high seas. Preoccupied with the war in Europe throughout 1812 and 1813, Britain mounted a halfhearted campaign in America.
But now, in 1814, imminent victory in Europe allowed Britain to send a vast naval armada and army westward to deal with the contentious, outgunned Americans. The British planned a three-pronged offensive: one out of Canada aimed at Lake Champlain and the Hudson Valley, one in the Chesapeake states aimed at Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and the third aimed at the coastal South.
The northern prong failed in the face of American naval strength on the waters of upstate New York. The Chesapeake prong initially succeeded, the British defeating a force of pitifully led and trained American militia forces at the Aug. 24, 1814, Battle of Bladensburg. Unopposed, the Redcoats strolled into Washington and burned the tiny capital city to the ground.
The southern prong targeted New Orleans, the greatest seaport on the American continent in the early 19th century. With New Orleans in their pocket, the British would control the entire Southern coast, along with much of the Mississippi River. In early December 1814, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, commander of American forces along the Southern coast, was frantically cobbling together an army to stop the mighty British invasion force of 8,000 troops.
Jackson’s army mainly consisted of local militiamen, pirates, African-American freemen, Marines, sailors and Choctaw tribesmen, all formed around a core of Army regulars. Many of those regulars were members of the U.S. 7th Infantry Regiment, a hard-fighting outfit of a few hundred men that had been formed in 1808, mainly due to the recruiting efforts of a young officer and future president named Zachary Taylor. At New Orleans, when the time came for a decisive showdown with the British invaders, Jackson would wisely assign them to cover his most important positions.
The 7th was stationed in New Orleans throughout most of 1814 as Jackson assembled his army. For these regulars, disease was rife, life stark and discipline harsh. Many soldiers could not resist the temptations of liquor, women and trouble in the notoriously boisterous town. This led to a sharp rise in courts-martial. One anecdote describes a guardhouse commander named Corporal Hall, who had grown fond of one of New Orleans’ many whores, “an Indian squaw known by the name of ‘Toky.’” One night he brought Toky with him into the guardhouse, “remaining or lying apart from the members of the guard with the said prostitute and not suffering any candle or other light in the guardhouse during the time in the evening.” Charged with shameful conduct, Hall was court-martialed and found guilty. His night of carnal fun cost him his stripes. Regular privates found guilty in such proceedings fared much worse. In one instance, a private charged with neglect of duty was given 12 slaps with a paddle. Apparently he had left a water-collection detail and wandered off into the city.
Most of the men came from rural roots and had a hard time meshing with the population of New Orleans, who found the soldiers’ rough-hewn habits to extend well beyond the boundaries of “acceptable society.” Particularly distasteful was their tendency to urinate in public—anywhere and everywhere. The typical 7th infantryman saw no reason not to relieve himself whenever the need arose, no matter who happened to be around. When it came to bathing, soldiers often stripped naked and washed themselves in the Mississippi River. New Orleans belles who witnessed this soldierly brand of hygiene complained loudly to the regimental officers, who dutifully issued an order to stop bathing naked in the river—though one suspects the practices of public bathing and urination did not end completely.
The men who populated the regiment on the eve of the Battle of New Orleans were mostly Southerners and frontiersmen with little patience for social niceties or high society. One company was almost entirely composed of shoemakers and farmers from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Other companies comprised mostly farmers, laborers, artisans and seamen, whose backgrounds skirted the margins of respectability. While not quite poor and destitute, neither were they educated nor financially comfortable.
Taylor had recruited some of these men a few years before the war. Others were drawn from the New Orleans area just months before the battle. Some signed up during the war for patriotic reasons or because their lives were disrupted by the war. A few were immigrants from Ireland, England or Sweden. Most likely, all the soldiers of the 7th were white, as the U.S. Army did not permit blacks in regular units. The lone exception to this color line was Jordan Noble, a musician from Georgia who was apparently held in fairly high esteem. Collectively, the men of the 7th got into plenty of mischief. If they wanted something (usually liquor), they went after it, regardless of the consequences. They could be a handful to discipline and train in a garrison setting, but they were tough fighters when battle called.
That call came on Jan. 8, 1815, at Chalmette Plantation on the east bank of the Mississippi, downriver from New Orleans. The two armies had sharply but inconclusively skirmished two weeks earlier, on Dec. 23, 1814, to the south at Villeré Plantation. Since then, the British had cautiously advanced north, steadily closer to New Orleans, while Jackson dug in with his artillery batteries along Chalmette’s prime defensive ground, a small irrigation ditch known as Canal Rodriguez that faced the open Chalmette plain. The American soldiers took to calling their breastworks “Line Jackson.”
For several days in early January, the two sides pounded each other with artillery while the veteran British commander, Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington, pondered his next move. Surveying the tactical situation, Pakenham initially thought it might be best to load his troops—most of who hailed from the West Indies—back onto ships and find a better location from which to invade and capture New Orleans.
For many years after the battle, a story circulated that British Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane had shamed Pakenham into a straightforward advance on Line Jackson by exclaiming that if Pakenham’s soldiers shrank from the task, his sailors would push forward, rout the “Dirty Shirt” Americans and then march into New Orleans while Pakenham’s men “bring up the baggage.” This is nonsense. In reality, Pakenham’s staff officers convinced him that his force was powerful enough, and Jackson’s 4,500-man army weak enough, that a frontal attack could prevail. At heart, the British officers apparently did not believe that a ragtag army comprised primarily of militia and backwoodsmen would stand and fight against the scarlet might of well-trained British soldiers. So, on the evening of January 7, Pakenham issued orders for an all-out assault on Line Jackson early the next morning. Despite the three prior clashes in December and January, this fourth engagement is the one generally referred to as the Battle of New Orleans.
On the day of battle, the 7th Regiment, which numbered some 400 men, found itself at the extreme right of Line Jackson, which stretched roughly a mile, west to east, from the river to a cypress swamp. Along the riverbank, they took up a key position that spanned about 150 yards of the line. With the river just spitting distance to their right, they could count on no support from that flank. Within this bottleneck, they were concerned that there would inevitably be gaps in the American fields of fire, allowing the British a chance to infiltrate Line Jackson, overwhelm the 7th Infantry and destroy the whole U.S. force.
Understanding the importance of their place on the line, the 7th Infantry soldiers spent the first week of January alternatively sweating and shivering as they dug and improved their muddy positions. According to regimental lore, the 7th Infantry troops buttressed their position with cotton bales and later fought behind them during the battle. But this is almost certainly not true. Cotton bales would have been a fire hazard during battle, with so much shell and shot in the air. The men of the 7th Infantry constructed earthen defenses, not cotton ramparts. Nonetheless, the cotton bale story would one day earn the regiment its colorful and unique nickname: “The Cottonbalers.”
As they dug in the muck, the men were constantly pelted with rain, which permeated their coats and trousers with a musty, sweaty odor. Practically no one had a clean uniform. White woolen trousers that had once looked flashy on parade in New Orleans were now spattered with rust-colored earth. Blue coats were smudged and unkempt. The men took small comfort in their standard Army rations—salted pork, bread and whiskey.
In the predawn hours of January 8, groups of British soldiers moved forward to prepare artillery positions on the swampy plain for the day’s attack. Others patrolled in the dark, ready to provide cover fire for the emplacements once completed. At 4 a.m. the rest of the British forces quietly advanced into their assault positions. Their skirmishers got to within 200 yards of Line Jackson.
All through the night the Americans had listened to digging and hammering from the British position. “We distinctly heard men at work in the enemy’s different batteries,” Arsene Lacarriere Latour, Jackson’s chief engineer, recalled in his memoirs. “The strokes of hammers gave ‘note of preparation,’ and resounded even within our lines; and our outposts informed us that the enemy was reestablishing his batteries. In our camp, all was composure; the officers were ordered to direct their subalterns to be ready on the first signal. Half the troops passed the night behind the breastwork, relieving each other occasionally. Everyone waited for day with anxiety and impatience, but with calm intrepidity; expecting to be vigorously attacked.”
The British plan was actually quite ingenious: While the artillery kept the American guns busy, the infantry would move forward in two waves. On their right flank, near the cypress swamp, the main infantry force was to advance on the edge of Line Jackson with ladders and fascines to get over the American breastworks. On the British left flank, along a levee road next to the river, light infantry would advance in column, overwhelm American redoubts and breach the ramparts of Line Jackson right where the 7th Infantry was situated. The two enemy forces would act as pincers designed
to trap a confused, reeling American army. It didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing, delays in executing the plan meant that the British began their attack not under cover of predawn darkness, but in broad daylight.
The morning was chilly and misty. The fog afforded the British some semblance of concealment despite their bright red uniforms. All at once, a British rocket sizzled through the early morning fog. A chorus of voices shouted three cheers. This was the signal to move forward. Immediately, British artillery opened up on the American batteries. In answer, the American artillery, far from being distracted or confused, opened fire and raked the enemy columns. Cannonballs flew back and forth, with British balls slamming into the earthen ramparts and American balls slamming into bodies. Still, the British troops advanced closer until they were plainly visible to the Americans, including the men of the 7th Infantry, who were covering the first three artillery batteries along the western edge of the American line.
The British column attack along the levee road clashed with elements of the 7th under Lieutenant Andrew Ross. The soldiers of this advance element occupied a redoubt just in front of the main line, south of the Rodriguez Canal and on the extreme west flank beside the river. The purpose of this position was twofold: First, it afforded a good observation post; second, it allowed American troops to fire into the flanks of any British troops who managed to reach and assault the main ramparts. Unfortunately for the defenders, these very advantages also made the redoubt vulnerable to attack. The men in the redoubt had a good view of British activity—most would have said far too good a view—and clear fields of fire. But like any observation post detached from a main defensive line, the redoubt was inadequate in the face of a stronger enemy force. Jackson himself had expressed doubts about the usefulness of the redoubt: Two days earlier, when it was constructed, he told his engineers, “That will give us trouble!”
He was right. Although most of the Americans out ahead of the main line were clustered together in small outposts, the redoubt provided them with no special comfort or protection when they scrambled away from the British and headed for it. The British simply pursued them and entered the redoubt to attack Lieutenant Ross’ company. Two of his men, a sergeant and a corporal, were killed immediately; Colonel Robert Rennie, the British officer in command of the assault, personally killed the sergeant. Fighting desperately in wet, hand-to-hand bayonet struggles, Ross’ survivors were either captured or pushed back toward the main line.
As the British cleared the troublesome redoubt, they had a real chance to breach the American line. The Redcoats rushed into the breastworks, led by Rennie, who screamed, “The day is ours!” He was brave, but wrong. At this point, a volley of shots from the American line staggered the British troops. Immediately behind the redoubt, eyeball to eyeball with the British, was a small company of some 30 Louisiana riflemen. The British tried to shield themselves with some of the 7th infantrymen they had captured in and around the redoubt, but this tactic failed. The Louisiana riflemen poured steady fire into the British. Supporting the riflemen were American batteries firing grapeshot, as well as the muskets of the rest of the 7th Infantry. The concentrated firepower ripped into the British troops, who were caught in the open. Some were hit several times and fell backward; others were beheaded by artillery fire; still others caught musket balls in bellies or limbs. A shot ripped through Rennie’s calf, but he kept going. Then he took a mortal shot just above the eyebrow, probably the work of a Louisiana rifleman.
At that moment, the 7th Infantry, with bayonets fixed, mounted a major counterattack, chasing British survivors back down the levee road. Some remained behind the parapets and sniped at the retreating enemy. Artillery continued to hurl grapeshot at the fleeing troops, knocking several off their feet.
On the opposite side of Line Jackson, the British attack failed in an even bigger bloodbath. Pakenham was killed, as were several of his key officers. An ancillary British attack on the west bank of the river was more successful, but ultimately it counted for naught. The great battle was essentially over by midmorning, an almost absurdly short amount of time, given the months of buildup, tension and preparation, and the consequences of the outcome.
The Battle of New Orleans was a slaughter. British casualties that day numbered more than 2,000, while the Americans lost just 70 men, 13 of who were killed. Burial details from both sides worked together for days to dispose of the dead. The wounded were carried to nearby homes that had been turned into makeshift hospitals. The level of ghastliness and suffering was reportedly beyond imagination. One British captain recalled hearing the piteous cries of his wounded soldiers and seeing “a basket nearly full of legs severed from these fine fellows.” The British army retreated from the field, boarded ships and left. Ironically, this climactic battle was fought after American and British negotiators had concluded a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve 1814.
But on that fateful day in early January 1815, no one in New Orleans knew anything about a treaty. The Americans knew only that their country had been invaded, and they must fight. They proved they could defeat some of the world’s best troops fighting on behalf of the world’s strongest nation. They also proved the lethal efficacy of applied and concentrated firepower, a blend of technology, policy and tactics that would eventually prove the cornerstone of the American way of war.
For further reading, John McManus recommends: The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory, by Robert V. Remini, and Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812–1815, by Frank Owsley, Jr.