Today’s installment concludes The Battle of New Orleans,
our selection from Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton published in 1860.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of seven thousand words. Congratulations! For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Battle of New Orleans.
Time: January 8, 1815
Place: A few miles south of New Orleans
Thornton next descried Colonel Davis’s two hundred Kentuckians — the Kentuckians who were to be immortalized by an act of hasty injustice. These men, worn out by hunger and fatigue, reached Morgan’s lines about the hour of Colonel Thornton’s landing. Immediately, without rest or refreshment, they were ordered to march down the river until they met the enemy; then engage him; defeat him if they could; retreat to the lines if they could not. This order, ill-considered as it was, was obeyed by them to the letter. Meeting the men of Major Arnaud’s command running breathlessly to the rear, they still kept on, until, seeing Thornton’s column advancing, they halted and formed in the open ﬁeld to receive it. Upon being attacked, they made a better resistance than could have been reasonably expected. The best armed among them ﬁred seven rounds upon the enemy; the worst armed, three rounds. Effectual resistance being manifestly impossible, they obeyed the orders they had received, and fell back (in disorder, of course) to the lines, having killed and wounded several of the enemy, and for a few minutes checked his advance. On reaching the lines they were ordered to take post on the right, where the lines consisted merely of a ditch and of the earth that had been thrown out of it, a work which left them exposed to the enemy’s ﬁre from the waist upward.
Colonel Thornton having now arrived within seven hundred yards of General Morgan’s position, halted his force for the purpose of reconnoitering and making his last preparations for the assault. He saw at once the weakness of that part of the lines which the Kentuckians defended. And not only that. Beyond the Kentuckians there was a portion of the swampy wood, practicable for troops, wholly undefended. The result of his reconnoitering, therefore, was a determination, as Thornton himself says in his dispatch, “to turn the right of the enemy’s position.” Observe his words: “I accordingly detached two divisions of the Eighty-Fifth, under Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Gubbins, to effect that object” (of turning the right); “while Captain Money, of the royal navy, with one hundred sailors, threatened the enemy’s left, supported by the division of the Eighty-Fifth, under Captain Schaw.” The brunt of the battle was therefore to be borne by our defenseless Kentuckians, while the strong part of the lines was to be merely “threatened” with a squad of sailors and a part of the Eighty-Fifth.
The result was precisely what Thornton expected and what was literally inevitable. The bugle sounded the charge. Under a shower of screaming rockets the British troops and sailors advanced to the attack. A well-directed ﬁre of grape-shot from Morgan’s guns made great havoc among the sailors on the right and compelled them ﬁrst to pause and then recoil, Captain Money, their commander, falling wounded. But Colonel Gubbins, with the main strength of Thornton’s force, marched toward the extreme left, ﬁring upon the Kentuckians and turning their position, according to Thornton’s plan. At the same moment Thornton in person, rallying the sailors, led them up to the battery. The Kentuckians, seeing themselves about to be hemmed in between two bodies of the enemy, and exposed to a ﬁre both in front and rear, ﬁred three rounds and then took to ﬂight. Three minutes more and they would have been prisoners. Armed as they were, and posted as they were, the defense of their position against three hundred perfectly armed and perfectly disciplined troops was a moral impossibility and almost a physical one. They ﬂed, as raw militia generally ﬂy, in wild panic and utter confusion, and never stopped running until they had reached an old mill-race two miles up the river, where they halted and made a show of forming.
The ﬂight of the Kentuckians was decisive upon the issue of the action. The Louisianians held their ground until they saw that the enemy, having gained the abandoned lines, were about to attack them in the rear. Then, having ﬁred eight rounds and killed or wounded a hundred of the enemy, they had no chance but to join in the retreat. In better order than the Kentuckians, they fell back to a point near which the Louisiana was anchored, half a mile behind the lines, where they halted and assisted the sailors to tow the ship up the stream.
Commodore Patterson, in his battery on the levee, three hundred yards in the rear of Morgan’s position, witnessed the ﬂight of the Kentuckians and the retreat of the Louisianians with fury. As he had retained but thirty sailors in his battery, just enough to work the few guns that could be pointed down the road, the retreat of Morgan’s division involved the immediate abandonment of his own batteries — the batteries of which he had grown so fond and so proud and which had done so much for the success of the campaign. In the rage of the moment he cried out to a midship man standing near a loaded gun with a lighted match, “Fire your piece into the cowards!”
The youth was about to obey the order when the Commodore recovered his self-possession and arrested the uplifted arm. With admirable calmness he caused every cannon to be spiked, threw all his ammunition into the river, and then walked to the rear with his friend Shepherd, now cursing the Kentuckians, now the British — the worst-tempered commodore then extant.
Colonel Thornton, severely wounded in the assault, yet had strength enough to reach Morgan’s redoubt; but there, overcome by the anguish of his wound, he was compelled to give up the command of the troops to Colonel Gubbins. Ignorant as yet of General Pakenham’s fall, he sent over to him a modest dispatch announcing his victory, and soon after was obliged to re-cross the river and go into the hospital.
And thus, by ten o’clock, the British were masters of the western bank, although, owing to the want of available artillery, their triumph, for the moment, was a fruitless one. On one of the guns captured in General Morgan’s lines the victors read this inscription: “Taken at the surrender of Yorktown, 1781.” In a tent behind the lines they found the ensign of one of the Louisiana regiments, which still hangs in Whitehall, London, bearing these words: “Taken at the Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8th, 1815.”
General Lambert, stunned by the events of the morning, was morally incapable of improving this important success. And it was well for him and for his army that he was so. Soldiers there have been who would have seen in Thornton’s triumph the means of turning the tide of disaster and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But General Lambert found himself suddenly invested with the command of an army which, besides having lost a third of its effective force, was almost destitute of ﬁeld officers. The mortality among the higher grade of officers had been frightful. Three major-generals, eight colonels and lieu tenant-colonels, six majors, eighteen captains, ﬁfty-four subalterns, were among the killed and wounded. In such circumstances, Lambert, instead of hurrying over artillery and reinforcements, and marching on New Orleans, did a less spirited, but a wiser thing: he proposed an armistice and at once sent an order to Colonel Gubbins to abandon the works and to re-cross the river with his whole command.
This ends our series of passages on The Battle of New Orleans by James Parton from his book Life of Andrew Jackson published in 1860. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history