The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States evolved from several factors: (1) British impressment of American sailors, (2) The Americans accepted for citizenship British deserters, (3) British frigates blockaded US harbors in their search for British deserters, (4) British supported native Americans and urged them to commit hostile actions toward American settlers, (5) American interests in expansion into the Northwest Territory, and (6) America’s internal politics, with one faction demanding a stronger central government and closer ties to Great Britain, with the opposing party demanding a smaller central government, preservation of slavery and states’ rights, westward expansion, and a stronger break with the British.
Hostility with Great Britain, which at the time had the world’s strongest navy and land army, did not favor the United States. With few exceptions, senior American army officers —holdovers from the Revolutionary War— were elderly, full of themselves, tired, and incompetent. The combination of these factors led to American defeats at Detroit, Queenston Heights, and Upper Canada. Whether the United States succeeded or failed in this latest confabulation, the American people did not want another war with Great Britain; they were war-weary, which made James Madison a very unpopular president.
On the Continent, the United Kingdom was heavily committed to fighting Napoleon Bonaparte and could not immediately spare its army or the Royal Navy to confront the United States. These circumstances led the British to develop a conservative strategy in North America: defend British territory on land, employ naval blockades of American harbors, and harass US naval shipping at sea.
Following the death of Major General Robert Ross, who commanded the British North American Army, killed in action near Baltimore, Maryland, the British war office appointed Major General Edward Pakenham to succeed him. In August 1814, the United Kingdom and the United States initiated diplomatic negotiations to end the war. British Secretary of War Henry Bathurst issued Pakenham secret orders commanding him to continue prosecuting the war, even if he heard rumors of a peace treaty being signed because Bathurst feared that the United States Senate would refuse to ratify such a treaty. Bathurst did not want Pakenham to endanger his troops or miss an opportunity to gain advantages over the American Army.
In December 1814, the British navy stationed sixty (60) ships in the Gulf of Mexico, east of the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. Aboard these ships were 14,450 soldiers. An American flotilla of gunboats under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby-Jones, blocked their access to the lakes. British forces under Captain Nicholas Lockyer attacked Jones with 1,200 British sailors and Marines in 42 longboats. Each longboat was armed with a small cannonade. In this engagement, known as the Battle of Lake Borgne, Lockyer captured Jones’ vessels. Lockyer lost 17 of his men killed in action, with 77 wounded. Jones lost 6 Americans KIA, 35 wounded, 86 captured. Among the wounded were both Jones and Lockyer.
While Lockyer engaged Jones, General John Keane, commanding a force of three-thousand British soldiers, established a garrison on Pea Island (now, Pearl Island), which was about 30 miles east of New Orleans. On 23 December, Keane led a vanguard force of 1,800 soldiers to the east bank of the Mississippi River, 9 miles south of New Orleans. Unknown to General Keane at that time, New Orleans was undefended. Keane bivouacked his force at the Lacoste Plantation pending the arrival of reinforcements in preparation for an assault on New Orleans. When British officers commandeered the home of Gabriel Villeré, Villeré escaped through a window and warned General Andrew Jackson of the approaching British Army and informed Jackson of Keane’s position.
That very evening, Jackson led an assault force of 2,000 men to engage General Keane. After achieving surprise and disrupting the British camp, Jackson withdrew his force back to the Rodriguez Canal, 5 miles north of Keane’s encampment. General Jackson’s foray cost him 24 men killed in action (KIA) and 115 wounded in action (WIA). General Keane reported 46 of his men KIA, 167 WIA, and 64 missing in action (MIA). General Pakenham’s force arrived in the field on Christmas day. After conferring with Keane, Pakenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test the Jackson defense.
Between 24 December and 8 January, General Jackson ordered his “rag-tag” army to construct, expand, or improve existing defensive positions. Jackson’s command of 4,732 men included 968 US Army regulars, 164 sailors and Marines under the command of Major Daniel Carmick, 1,060 Louisiana militia and volunteers, 1,352 Tennessee militia, 986 Kentucky militia, 150 Mississippi militia, 52 Choctaw warriors, and a volunteer force operating under the pirate Jean Lafitte.
When completed, Jackson’s defensive line was substantial. There were three lines of static defenses organized north of the Rodriguez Canal, which was fifteen feet wide and around eight feet deep. The breastwork, which included felled timber and soil, protected riflemen from enemy musket fire. Behind the defenses, Jackson constructed earthworks for his artillery. In addition to eight batteries of artillery, Jackson had at his disposal naval guns aboard the USS Carolina, the steamboat Enterprise, and the grounded USS Louisiana. Carmick’s force of sailors and Marines manned the western redoubt and helped coordinate naval gunfire from the vessels already named.
Soon after Pakenham’s main force on 1 January 1815, British artillery initiated a barrage of Jackson’s defenses. The exchange of artillery lasted over three hours and ceased only when Pakenham had expended all available munitions. Several of Jackson’s guns were silenced, which necessitated a realignment of artillery. During the barrage, Major Daniel Carmick fell wounded from fragmentation striking his forehead. Command of the naval forced passed to First Lieutenant Francois de Bellevue, USMC.
Initially, General Pakenham intended to launch an assault on Jackson’s position after first softening the American position with artillery fire. Whether it was a matter of Pakenham not realizing that he was short of artillery munitions, or that his fire plan was deficient, or some other reason, Pakenham canceled the attack. General Pakenham did not realize how close he had come to defeating Jackson. Several of Jackson’s militia had abandoned their positions during the British barrage and were not likely to return. Instead, Pakenham delayed his offensive until the entire force of 8,000 infantry was assembled ashore.
Pakenham’s force included eight battalions of Highlanders, the 14th Light Dragoons, elements of the 95th Rifle Brigade, and the 1st and 5th India Regiments. Several hundred blacks, recruited from West Indies colonies reinforced the British order of battle and a force of undetermined size of native Americans under the war chief Kinache.
The British assault began on the morning of 8 January 1815. Pakenham ordered a two-prong attack. Colonel William Thornton was to cross the Mississippi from the west back during the night with a force of 780 men, move up-river, and storm the naval battery under Commodore Daniel Patterson. Then, with captured American artillery, Thornton would turn those guns on the American line. General Keane would lead his force along the river and position them shy of Jackson’s defensive line for a frontal assault. General Samuel Gibbs (Pakenham’s deputy) would lead his column along the swamp, approaching the American on Jackson’s left flank. Major General John Lambert would hold his brigade in reserve.
No military operation plan survives its first objective, and this was the case with Colonel Thornton, who was delayed twelve hours when a dam constructed on one of the canals failed, forcing his men to drag their boats through muddy ground.
Notwithstanding Thornton’s delay, Pakenham ordered his assault to begin before dawn. Heavy fog and the pitch-black of the early morning hour wrapped his men as in a cloak, denying them a clear vision of what lay ahead. As the fog lifted, Pakenham’s forward line encountered withering American fire. Colonel Thomas Mullins, commanding the 44th East Essex Regiment, had forgotten the ladders and fascine he needed to cross the Rodriguez Canal and scale the American breastwork. When Mullins and most of his officers were killed, along with General Gibbs, the men became confused and floundered.
With his right-center struggling, General Pakenham ordered General Keane to detach his 93rd Highlanders and move across the open field and reinforce the British right flank. During this movement, Keane fell wounded. On Pakenham’s left flank, Colonel Rennie’s force managed to attack and overrun an American redoubt next to the river but was unable to hold the position or advance into the American line.
Jackson sent the 7th Infantry to recapture the redoubt. After 30 minutes of intense combat, Colonel Rennie and most of his men lie dead. On Pakenham’s right, British infantry threw themselves on the ground or into the canal to avoid American musket fire and grapeshot. A handful of men made it to the top of the parapet, but they were soon killed or captured. The 95th Rifles had managed to advance ahead of the main assault and were concealed in a ditch below the parapet, but without additional support, they were unable to advance further.
Jackson’s Americans repulsed the two-pronged British attack.
While directing his troops on the field, grapeshot from US artillery shattered General Pakenham’s left knee and killed his horse. As he was helped to his feet by his senior aide-de-camp, Major Duncan MacDougall, Pakenham was wounded a second time in his right arm. Then, having mounted MacDougall’s horse, another salvo of grapeshot ripped through his spine and he fell to the ground mortally wounded. With his second in command already dead (Gibbs), Major Wilkinson reformed the 21st Regiment and initiated a third assault. Wilkinson was shot as he achieved the top of the parapet; the Americans, impressed with his courage under fire, carried him to safety behind the rampart. The 93rd Highlanders, having no further orders, were caught in the open and were slaughtered by American artillery. General Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade, assumed command of the British force. Lambert led his reserve brigade onto the field. Observing that the attack had failed, he ordered a withdrawal with the rifles of his brigade providing covering fire for the retreating army.
The British had but one success during the Battle of New Orleans: it was the delayed attack on the west bank of the river where Thornton’s brigade and detachments of Royal Navy and Marines attacked and overwhelmed the American line. In this assault, Thornton was wounded, but his success had no effect on the outcome of the battle. General Lambert directed Colonel Alexander Dickson, his chief of artillery, to assess the British position. Dickson reported that no fewer than 2,000 additional men would be required to hold what they had. On this advice, Lambert ordered a general withdrawal from the field. In the American camp, Jackson believed that his defense strategy had failed and was preparing to withdraw when he received word that the British had already begun their withdrawal.
The battle was brief but costly. Pakenham’s force suffered 285 killed, 1,265 wounded and gave up 484 prisoners —all within 25 minutes. The Americans lost 13 killed and 30 wounded. Admiral Cochrane continued his naval bombardment of Fort St. Philip for another ten days but finally withdrew on 18 January. In the Duke of Wellington’s final analysis, the failure of this campaign was the result of Admiral Cochrane’s shortcomings as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces and the failure of Colonel Mullins to carry the ladders and fascines onto the field. There is little doubt that Colonel Mullins’ error cost Pakenham his victory at New Orleans.
After the battle, General Andrew Jackson commended the navy and Marines for their gallant conduct. On Jackson’s recommendation, the Congress resolved on 22 February 1822, that “Congress entertain a high sense of the valor and good conduct of Major Daniel Carmick, of the officers, noncommissioned officers, and Marines under his command, in the defense of [New Orleans] on the late memorable occasion.”
US Marine Corps Major Daniel Carmick, wounded during Pakenham’s artillery barrage, died from his wound on 6 November 1816. At the time of his service in New Orleans, Carmick was the second-ranking officer in the Marine Corps. Lieutenant de Bellevue, later promoted to captain, resigned his commission on 9 March 1824.
One of the saddest footnotes to any battle exists in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans. The fight actually occurred after a peace accord had been signed by British and American officials on 24 December 1814 —days before American and British forces confronted one another on 8 January 1815. Word of the peace was not received in the United States until 11 February 1815. In the final analysis, however, given Henry Bathurst’s secret directive to Pakenham, that is, to “continue the war even if he should hear rumors of a peace treaty”, the Battle of New Orleans would in all likelihood have taken place as it did even if word of the peace had reached American shores in time to avoid the conflict. The Bathurst directive reminds us that great danger to our forces exists whenever civilian officials interject themselves into the prerogatives of a field commander.
- Borneman, W. H. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004
- Chapman, R. The Battle of New Orleans: “But for a Piece of Wood.” Pelican Publishing, 2013
- Drez, R. J. The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception: The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014
- Patterson, B. R. The Generals, Andrew Jackson, Sir Edward Pakenham, and the road to New Orleans: New York: New York University Press, 2008
 Sir Edward Michael Pakenham (1778-1815) was the son of the Baron Longford and the brother in law of the Duke of Wellington. Pakenham was an experienced military officer, with service as a dragoon in the Rebellion of 1798, in Nova Scotia, Barbados, and Saint Croix. In 1803, he led an attack at Saint Lucia, where he was wounded, and in 1807 fought in the Danish Campaign at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807. He was wounded for a second time at Martinique.
 Cochrane, who was then servicing as a vice admiral, commanded the North America and Jamaica Stations. Under Cochrane, Ross successfully burned the city of Washington and laid down the massive barrage at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, from which the Star-Spangled Banner was penned by Francis Scott Key. Despite criticism of the Duke of Wellington directed at Cochrane, he was advanced to full admiral in 1819. He passed away in Paris, France on 26 January 1832.
 Catesby-Jones (1790-1858) was appointed a navy midshipman in 1805 but lacking in education the Navy suggested he return home and study geography, navigation, and surveying as a measure to improve his future chances for an active naval assignment. When the navy mobilized gunboats following the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Catesby-Jones was assigned to gunboat 10, commencing active service in August 1807. After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Lake Borgne in 1814, Jones continued his service as a navy officer, reaching the rank of commodore. He passed away while serving on active duty in California.
 The number of killed and wounded in this action may be accurate but given the placement of Keane’s encampment at the Villeré Plantation, the numbers reported as MIA seems questionable. It is more likely that some of these MIAs deserted Keane.