How long a time, does the reader think, elapsed between the fire of the ﬁrst American gun and the total rout of the attacking columns?
Continuing The Battle of New Orleans,
our selection from Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton published in 1860. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. 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
A pleasant story, connected with the advance of Colonel Rennie’s column, is related by the same author. “As the detachments along the road advanced, their bugler, a boy of fourteen or ﬁfteen, climbing a small tree within two hundred yards of the American lines, straddled a limb, and continued to blow the charge with all his power. There he remained during the whole action, while the cannon-balls and bullets ploughed the ground around him, killed scores of men, and tore even the branches of the tree in which he sat. Above the thunder of the artillery, the rattling ﬁre of musketry, and all the din and uproar of the strife the shrill blast of the little bugler could be heard, and even when his companions had fallen back and retreated from the ﬁeld he continued true to his duty, and blew the charge with undiminished vigor. At last, when the British had entirely abandoned the ground, an American soldier, passing from the lines, captured the little bugler and brought him into camp.”
The reserve, under General Lambert, was never ordered up. Major Tylden obeyed the last order of his general, and General Lambert had directed the bugler to sound the advance. A chance shot struck the bugler’s uplifted arm, and the instrument fell to the ground. The charge was never sounded. General Lambert brought forward his division far enough to cover the retreat of the broken columns and to deter General Jackson from attempting a sortie. The chief command had fallen upon Lambert, and he was overwhelmed by the unexpected and fearful issue of the battle.
How long a time, does the reader think, elapsed between the fire of the ﬁrst American gun and the total rout of the attacking columns? Twenty-ﬁve minutes! Not that the American ﬁre ceased, or even slackened, at the expiration of that period. The riﬂemen on the left and the troops on the right continued to discharge their weapons into the smoke that hung over the plain for two hours. But in the space of twenty-ﬁve minutes the discomﬁture of the enemy in the open ﬁeld was complete. The battery alone still made resistance. It required two hours of a tremendous cannonade to silence its great guns and drive its defenders to the rear.
The scene behind the American works during the ﬁre can be easily imagined. One half of the army never ﬁred a shot. The battle was fought at the two extremities of the lines. The battalions of Planché, Dacquin, and Lacoste, the whole of the Forty-Fourth Regiment, and one-half of Coffee’s Tennesseeans had nothing to do but to stand still at their posts and chafe with vain impatience fora chance to join in the ﬁght. The batteries alone at the center of the works contributed anything to the fortunes of the day. Yet, no; that is not quite correct. “The moment the British came into view, and their signal rocket pierced the sky with its ﬁery train, the band of the Battalion D’Orléans struck up Yankee Doodle; and thenceforth throughout the action it did not cease to discourse all the national and military airs in which it had been instructed.”
When the action began, Jackson walked along the left of the lines, speaking a few words of good cheer to the men as he passed the several corps. “Stand to your guns. Don’t waste your ammunition. See that every shot tells.” “Give it to them, boys. Let us ﬁnish the business today.” As the battle became general, he took a position on ground slightly elevated, near the center, which commanded a view of the scene. There, with mien composed and mind intensely excited, he watched the progress of the strife. When it became evident that the enemy’s columns were ﬁnally broken, Major Hinds, whose dragoons were drawn up in the rear, entreated the General for permission to dash out upon them in pursuit. It was a tempting offer to such a man as Jackson. In the intoxication of such a moment, most born ﬁghters could not but have said, “Have at them, then!” But prudence prevailed, and the request was refused.
At eight o’clock, there being no signs of a renewed attack, and no enemy in sight, an order was sent along the lines to cease ﬁring with the small arms. The General, surrounded by his staff, then walked from end to end of the works, stopping at each battery and post and addressing a few words of congratulation and praise to their defenders. It was a proud, glad moment for these men, when, panting from their two hours’ labor, blackened with smoke and sweat, they listened to the General’s burning words and saw the light of victory in his countenance. With particular warmth he thanked and commended Beale’s little band of riﬂemen, the companies of the Seventh, and Humphrey’s artillerymen, who had so gallantly beaten back the column of Colonel Rennie. Heartily, too, he extolled the wonderful ﬁring of the divisions of General Carroll and General Adair; not forgetting Coffee, who had dashed out upon the black skirmishers in the swamp and driven them out of sight in ten minutes.
This joyful ceremony over, the artillery, which had continued to play upon the British batteries, ceased its ﬁre for the guns to cool and the dense smoke to roll off. The whole army crowded to the parapet and looked over into the ﬁeld. What a scene was gradually disclosed to them! That gorgeous and imposing military array, the two columns of attack, the Highland phalanx, the distant reserve, all had vanished like an apparition. Far away down the plain, the glass revealed a faint red line still receding. Nearer to the lines, “we could see,” says Nolte, “the British troops concealing themselves behind the shrubbery or throwing themselves into the ditches and gullies. In some of the latter indeed they lay so thickly that they were only distinguish able in the distance by the white shoulder-belts, which formed a line along the top of their hiding-place.”
— Still nearer, the plain was covered and heaped with dead and wounded, as well as with those who had fallen paralyzed by fear alone. “I never had,” Jackson would say, “so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day. After the smoke of the battle had cleared off somewhat, I saw in the distance more than ﬁve hundred Britons emerging from the heaps of their dead comrades, all over the plain rising up, and still more distinctly visible as the ﬁeld became clearer, coming forward and surrendering as prisoners of war to our soldiers. They had fallen at our ﬁrst ﬁre upon them, without having received so much as a scratch, and lay prostrate as if dead, until the close of the action.”
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