This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Dawn of Battle.
The importance of this battle is usually overlooked because it was fought after the of the Treaty of Ghent (December 24, 1814) had ended the War of 1812. However, one must recall that the British had ignored their previous treaty obligations to turn over posts to the United States before. That should open to conjecture what would have been the outcome had the British won the battle and occupied New Orleans.
As our story begins, the news of the treaty has not yet arrived. The British army vastly outnumbering the American one has landed and is on the move.
This selection is from Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton published in 1860. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
James Parton was an American biographer.
Time: January 8, 1815
Place: A few miles south of New Orleans
At one o’clock on the morning of this memorable day, on a couch in a room of the M’Carty mansion-house, General Jackson lay asleep, in his worn uniform. Several of his aids slept upon the ﬂoor in the same apartment, all equipped for the ﬁeld, except that their sword-belts were unbuckled and their swords and pistols laid aside. A sentinel paced the adjacent passage. Sentinels moved noiselessly about the building, which loomed up large, dim, and silent in the foggy night, among the darkening trees. Most of those who slept at all that night were still asleep, and there was as yet little stir in either camp. Commodore Patterson was not among the sleepers that night.
Commodore Patterson was not among the sleepers that night. Soon after dark, accompanied by his faithful aid, Shepherd, he took his position on the western bank of the river, directly oppo site to where Colonel Thornton was struggling to launch his boats into the stream, and there he watched and listened till nearly midnight. He could hear almost everything that passed, and could see, by the light of the camp-ﬁres, a line of redcoats drawn up along the levee. He heard the cries of the tugging sailors, as they drew the boats along the shallow, caving canal, and their shouts of satisfaction as each boat was launched with a loud splash into the Mississippi. From the great commotion and the sound of so many voices he began to surmise that the main body of the enemy were about to cross, and that the day was to be lost or won on his side of the river. There was terror in the thought, and wisdom too; and if General Pakenham had been indeed a general the Commodore’s surmise would have been correct. Patterson’s ﬁrst thought was to drop the ship Louisiana down upon them. But no; the Louisiana had been stripped of half her guns and all her men, and had on board, above water, hundreds of pounds of powder: for she was then serving as powder-magazine to the western bank. To man the ship, moreover, would involve the withdrawal of all the men from the river batteries; which, if the main attack were on Jackson’s side of the river, would be of such vital importance to him.
Revolving such thoughts in his anxious mind, Commodore Patterson hastened back to his post, again observing and lamenting the weakness of General Morgan’s line of defense. All that he could do in the circumstances was to dispatch Mr. Shepherd across the river to inform General Jackson of what they had seen and what they feared, and to beg an immediate reinforcement. Informing the captain of the guard that he had important intelligence to communicate, Shepherd was conducted to the room in which the General was sleeping.
“Who’s there?” asked Jackson, raising his head, as the door opened. Mr. Shepherd gave his name and stated his errand, adding that General Morgan agreed with Commodore Patterson in the opinion that more troops would be required to defend the lines on the western bank.
“Hurry back,” replied the General, as he rose, “and tell General Morgan that he is mistaken. The main attack will be on this side, and I have no men to spare. He must maintain his position at all hazards.” Shepherd re-crossed the river with the General’s answer, which could not have been very reassuring to Morgan and his inexperienced men.
Jackson looked at his watch. It was past one. “Gentlemen,” said he to his dozing aids, “we have slept enough. Rise. The enemy will be upon us in a few minutes. I must go and see Coffee.”
The order was obeyed very promptly. Sword-belts were buckled, pistols resumed, and in a few minutes the party were ready to begin the duties of the day. There was little for the American troops to do but to repair to their posts. By four o’clock in the morning, along the whole line of works, every man was in his place and everything was ready. A little later General Adair marched down a reserve of a thousand Kentuckians to the rear of General Carroll’s position, and, halting them ﬁfty yards from the works, went forward himself to join the line of men peering over the top of the embankment into the fog and darkness of the morning. The position of the reserve was most fortunately chosen. It was almost directly behind that part of the lines which a deserter from Jackson’s army had yesterday told General Pakenham was their weakest point. And the deserter was half right. He had deserted on Friday, before there had been any thought of the reserve, and he forgot to mention that Coffee and Carroll’s men, over two thousand in number, were the best and coolest shots in the world. What a terrible trap his half-true information led a British column into!
Not long after the hour when the American general had been roused from his couch, General Pakenham, who had slept an hour or two at the Villeré mansion, also rose, and rode immediately to the bank of the river, where Thornton had just embarked his diminished force. He learned of delay and difﬁculty that had occurred there, and lingered long upon the spot listening for some sound that should indicate the whereabouts of Thornton. But no sound was heard, as the swift Mississippi had carried the boats far down out of hearing. Surely Pakenham must have known that the vital part of his plan was, for that morning, frustrated. Surely, he will hold back his troops from the assault until Thornton announces himself. The doomed man had no such thought.
Before four o’clock the British troops were up and in the several positions assigned them. Let us note, as accurately as possible, the distribution of the British forces. The official statements of the General aid us little here; for, as an English officer observed, nothing was done on this awful day as it was intended to be done. The actual positions of the various corps at four o’clock in the morning were as follows:
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