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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battlefields – Part VII

Rodney Gascoyne tells of visiting the site of the Battle of New Orleans where, in 1815, for the last time British, Canadian and American armed forces were drawn against each other.

I visited another American battlefield back in the 1990s when making my only trip to New Orleans. In Part V of this series, I recounted events of the War of 1812 as they affected Old Fort Niagara. The Battle of New Orleans in 1815 became the final engagement and also the last time that British, Canadian and American armed forces were drawn against each other. Only verbal battles have occurred ever since.

The War was thought finished 24th December 1814 when they signed the Treaty of Ghent, but confirmation of the agreed terms did not get formally adopted and ratified for another week in London and by only mid February in the US Senate. Because communications of those days was pretty basic and slow, news of the treaty only arrived in Louisiana by mid February 1815, some five weeks after the battle, but in time to prevent the British forces from continuing the conflict with an attack on Mobile, Alabama.

The Royal Navy and Army forces under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, numbering in all about 11,000 men, were sent up from their base in the West Indies, with the purpose of capturing the city and the Louisiana territories, sold to the US by Napoleon in 1803, in attempts to get gold for his wars in Europe. The fleet arrived into the entrance of Lake Borgne and offloaded troops into barges to get ashore south of the City. An initial force of 1800 men made their way across to the east bank of the Missippi but then set up camp just 9 miles south of New Orleans. If they had continued, the road to the city was undefended and they could have taken the town. This was just the first of a series of mistakes and bad judgments that led to the eventual defeat by General Andrew Jackson.

The camp was attacked by Jackson that evening and they withdrew, allowing Jackson to move five miles north to set up a proper defensive position at the Chalmette Plantation near the Rodriguez Canal, where he built up earthworks. Within a week the site as probed by British troops and so he also added artillery batteries behind the earthworks. The position was again attacked on New Years day but was not pressed home, due to shortage of ammunition. If it had been, again the defense forces were in bad shape and could have been defeated. The Army’s General Pakenham then delayed any further attempt, for a week, until his full force had arrived, giving Jackson further time to reinforce his defenses and gather more men for the battle ahead.

The final battle on 8th January was also plagued with mistakes. A secondary force, landed on the west bank, to attack a US battery offering support across the river to the main defenses, were unable to take the position until many hours later, and so could not offer protection in the main assault that was to be made head on against Jackson’s earthworks and batteries. The initial plan for the main, late night attack under cover of fog, also came to grief as further delays came about, resulting in the main advance taking place in daylight, as the fog lifted earlier than expected. Added to this, one attacking force forgot to carry forward ladders they were to use to breach the canal and earthworks. Pakenham continued with his initial plans after all these setbacks, with disastrous results, as his men attacked in force in the open, against a protected force dug in behind the earthworks, helped ahead by the canal, and with the full support of artillery dug in alongside their positions. Fish in a barrel is the appropriate idiom. In the whole campaign, the British forces suffered almost 2500 casualties, included dead, wounded and missing, while the US forces suffered 333 casualties. The final assault was even more lopsided where the numbers were 2042 against 71.

The site was made a federal park in 1907, to preserve the battlefield, today it features a monument and is a short drive south from the city along the river road. I went there during my visit and could understand the way the field was back nearly 200 years before. Just as I wondered how any general could send in his men at Gettysburg, in Part I of this series,
“it is the site of the last day’s Pickett’s Charge against Cemetery Ridge, the heavily reinforced centre of Meade’s line, defended by dug in infantry and flanking artillery, which bewilders the onlooker as being the height of madness. The Ridge has an obvious, commanding and simple dominance over the wide valley below, and any attack faces odds that seem insurmountable, even to a non military person”,
I was dumbfounded by the idiocy of the last day’s attack near New Orleans.

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