One of the most notable land-battles of the war of 1812, that of New Orleans, was fought after the declaration of peace.
After the destruction of Washington and the assault on Baltimore, the British fleet sailed south, and in December appeared off Pensacola, which city General Jackson had previously taken by storm and prevented its being made a harbor for British ships of war. As it appeared that an attack on New Orleans was intended, Jackson hastened to this city. Here he found the utmost confusion and alarm prevailing. By stringent exertions, however, order was restored, the militia organized, fortifications built, and finally martial law proclaimed. On December 10 the British fleet entered lake Borgne, where a squadron of gunboats was captured. After much difficulty, a portion of the British army reached the Mississippi at a point nine miles below New Orleans, where, on the 23d of December, a night-attack was made on them. This they repelled, losing four hundred men in killed and wounded. Jackson then withdrew to his intrenchments, four miles below the city. These works, partly made of cotton-bales, were unsuccessfully cannonaded by the enemy on December 28 and January I. Finally, on January 8, the British army, twelve thousand strong, or six thousand depending on who's testimony is decide on, under General Packenham, advanced to the assault of these works, which were defended by six thousand militia, most of them adepts in the use of the rifle.
(TOLD FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A BRITISH SOLDIER)
IT was a clear frosty morning, the mists had dispersed, and the sun shone brightly upon our arms when we began our march. The enemy's corps of observation fell back as we advanced, without offering in any way to impede our progress, and it was impossible to guess, ignorant as we were of the position of his main body, at what moment opposition might be expected. Nor, in truth, was it matter of much anxiety. Our spirits, in spite of the troubles of the night, were good, and our expectations of success were high, consequently many rude jests were bandied about, and many careless words spoken; for soldiers are, of all classes of men, the freest from care, and on that account, perhaps, the most happy. By being continually exposed to it, danger, with them, ceases to be frightful; of death they have no more terror than the beasts that perish; and even hardships, such as cold, wet, hunger, and broken rest, lose at least part of their disagreeableness by the frequency of their recurrence
Moving on in this merry mood, we advanced about four or five miles without the smallest check or hindrance; when, at length, we found ourselves in view of the enemy's army, posted in a very advantageous manner. About forty yards in their front was a canal, which extended from the morass to within a short distance of the high-road. Along their line were thrown up breastworks, not indeed completed, but even now formidable. Upon the road and at several other points were erected powerful batteries; whilst the ship, with a large flotilla of gunboats, flanked the whole position from the river.
When I say that we came in sight of the enemy, I do not mean that he was gradually exposed to us in such a manner as to leave time for cool examination and reflection. On the right, indeed, he was seen for some time, but on the left a few houses built at a turning in the road entirely concealed him; nor was it till they had gained that turning, and beheld the muzzles of his guns pointed towards them, that those who moved in this direction were aware of their proximity to danger. But that danger was indeed near they were quickly taught; for scarcely had the head of the column passed the houses when a deadly fire was opened from both the battery and the shipping. That the Americans are excellent marksmen, as well with artillery as with rifles, we have had frequent cause to acknowledge; but perhaps on no occasion did they assert their claim to the title of good artillerymen more effectually than on the present. Scarcely a ball passed over or fell short of its mark, but all, striking full into the midst of our ranks, occasioned terrible havoc. The shrieks of the wounded, therefore, the crash of firelocks, and the fall of such as were killed, caused at first some little confusion; and what added to the panic was, that from the houses beside which we stood bright flames suddenly burst out. The Americans, expecting this attack, had filled them with combustibles for the purpose, and, directing against them one or two guns loaded with red-hot shot, in an instant set them on fire. The scene was altogether very sublime. A tremendous cannonade mowed down our ranks and deafened us with its roar; whilst two large chateaux and their outbuildings almost scorched us with the flames and blinded us with the smoke which they emitted.
The infantry, however, was not long suffered to remain thus exposed; but, being ordered to quit the path and to form line in the fields, the artillery was brought up, and opposed to that of the enemy. But the contest was in every respect unequal, since their artillery far exceeded ours, both in numerical strength and weight of metal. The consequence was that in half an hour two of our field-pieces and one field-mortar were dismounted; many of the gunners were killed; and the rest, after an ineffectual attempt to silence the fire of the shipping, were obliged to retire.
In the mean time the infantry, having formed line, advanced under a heavy discharge of round and grape shot, till they were checked by the appearance of the canal. Of its depth they were of course ignorant, and to attempt its passage without having ascertained whether it could be forded might have been productive of fatal consequences. A halt was accordingly ordered, and the men were commanded to shelter themselves as well as they could from the enemy's fire. For this purpose they were hurried into a wet ditch, of sufficient depth to cover the knees, where, leaning forward, they concealed themselves behind some high rushes which grew upon its brink, and thus escaped many bullets which fell around them in all directions.
Thus fared it with the left of the army, whilst the right, though less exposed to the cannonade, was not more successful in its object. The same impediment which checked one column forced the other likewise to pause; and after having driven in an advanced body of the enemy, and endeavored, without effect, to penetrate through the marsh, it also was commanded to halt. In a word, all thought of attacking was for this day abandoned; and it now only remained to withdraw the troops from their present perilous position with as little loss as possible.
The first thing to be done was to remove the dismounted guns. Upon this enterprise a party of seamen were employed, who, running forward to the spot where they lay, lifted them, in spite of the whole of the enemy's fire, and bore them off in triumph. As soon as this was effected, regiment after regiment stole away, not in a body, but one by one, under the same discharge which saluted their approach. But a retreat thus conducted necessarily occupied much time. Noon had therefore long passed before the last corps was brought off; and when we again began to muster, twilight was approaching. We did not, however, retire to our former position; but, having fallen back only about two miles from the canal, where it was supposed that we should be beyond reach of annoyance from the American artillery, we there established ourselves for the night, having suffered less during the day than, from our exposed position and the enemy's heavy fire, might have been expected.
[During the succeeding days, December 29 and 30, the army lay encamped, some unsuccessful efforts being made to find a path through the morass by which the American left might be turned. Meanwhile, Jackson actively strengthened his position, and by elevating his guns managed to throw balls into the British camp. It was evident that every day's delay decreased the chances of success. Yet what to do was not apparent. An endeavor to storm the American lines seemed too desperate to be undertaken. It was impossible to turn them, and the Americans were not to be drawn from their intrenchments. But one course remained, - to erect breaching-batteries and attempt to silence some of their guns.]
To this plan, therefore, our leader had recourse; and, in consequence, the whole of these three days were employed in landing heavy cannon, bringing up ammunition, and making such preparations as might have sufficed for a siege.
At length, having completed his arrangements, and provided such means as were considered sufficient to insure success, General Packenham determined to commence operations without delay. One-half of the army was accordingly ordered out on the night of the 31st, and marched to the front, passing the pickets, and halting about three hundred yards from the enemy's line. Here it was resolved to throw up a chain of works, and here the greater part of this detachment, laying down their firelocks, applied themselves vigorously to their tasks, whilst the rest stood armed and prepared for their defence.
The night was dark, and our people maintained a profound silence; by which means, not an idea of what was going on existed in the American camp. As we labored, too, with all diligence, six batteries were completed long before dawn, in which were mounted thirty pieces of heavy cannon; when, falling back a little way, we united ourselves to the remainder of the infantry, and lay down behind some rushes, in readiness to act as soon as we should be wanted.
In the erection of these batteries a circumstance occurred worthy of notice, on account of its singularity. I have already stated that the whole of this district was covered with the stubble of sugar-cane; and I might have added that every storehouse and barn attached to the different mansions scattered over it was filled with barrels of sugar. In throwing up these works the sugar was used instead of earth. Rolling the hogsheads towards the front, they were placed upright in the parapets of the batteries; and it was computed that sugar to the value of many thousand pounds sterling was thus disposed of.
It was a singular circumstance that batteries of cotton-bales on the one side should be opposed by batteries of sugar-hogsheads on the other; though neither proved very suitable for the purpose. Jackson's cotton-bales proved so inefficient that it became necessary to replace them with a bank of river mud. The morning of the Ist of January was misty. As the mist rose, the American regiments were discovered on parade, and were so taken by surprise on the opening of the British cannonade as to be thrown into utter confusion. A charge in force at that moment might have proved successful.
Whilst this consternation prevailed among the infantry, their artillery remained silent; but as soon as the former rallied they also recovered confidence, and answered our salute with great rapidity and precision. A heavy cannonade quickly commenced on both sides, and continued during the whole of the day, till, towards evening, our ammunition began to fail, and our fire in consequence to slacken. The fire of the Americans, on the other hand, was redoubled: landing a number of guns from the flotilla, they increased their artillery to a prodigious amount; and, directing at the same time the whole force of their cannon on the opposite bank against the flank of our batteries, they soon convinced us that all endeavors to surpass them in this mode of fighting would be useless. Once more, therefore, were we obliged to retire, leaving our heavy guns to their fate; but, as no attempt was made by the Americans to secure them, working parties were again sent out after dark, and such as had not been destroyed were removed.
So far all efforts had proved abortive. The army was worn out with fatigue, provisions, which had to be derived from the distant ships, were coarse and scanty, and murmurs of discouragement were heard throughout the camp. Not only were they annoyed by the constant play of the American guns, which was kept up day and night, but they were exposed to a deadly fire from the opposite side of the river, where a battery of eighteen pieces of artillery had been mounted which swept the British camp. The affair was growing daily more desperate, and success or retreat would soon be necessary. Under these circumstances, Packenham determined to cut a canal by which boats might be brought up from the lake, to send a detachment over the river and take the battery there placed, and to turn its guns on the American works at the same moment that he assailed them in front. It was a well devised scheme, but proved unsuccessful. The canal was finished by the 6th of January, but in taking the boats through part of the banks caved in, so that only the light boats could pass. Thus, instead of the designed fourteen hundred men, only three hundred and forty crossed the river, and these were so late in starting that day was dawning when they rowed out on the Mississippi.
The 8th of January was the day fixed on for the assault, and at day-break the signal-rocket was fired. But the boat-party was yet four miles from the battery which it should have been in possession of hours before had all gone well. The attack on the battery was successful, but it was too late to be of service to the main body.
In the mean time, the main body arrived and moved forward some way in front of the pickets. There they stood waiting for daylight, and listening with the greatest anxiety for the firing which ought now to be heard on the opposite bank. But their attention was exerted in vain, and day dawned upon them long before they desired it appearance. Nor was Sir Edward Packenham disappointed in this part of his plan alone. Instead of perceiving everything in readiness for the assault, he saw his troops in battle-array, but not a ladder or fascine upon the field: The 44th, which was appointed to carry them, had either misunderstood or neglected their orders, and now headed the column of attack without any means being provided for crossing the enemy's ditch or scaling his rampart.
The indignation of our brave leader on this occasion may be imagined, but cannot be described. Galloping towards Colonel Mullens, who led the 44th, he commanded him instantly to return with his regiment for the ladders; but the opportunity of planting them was lost, and though they were brought up, it was only to be scattered over the field by the frightened bearers. For our troops were by this time visible to the enemy. A dreadful fire was accordingly opened upon them, and they were mowed down by hundreds, while they stood waiting for orders.
Seeing that all his well-laid plans were frustrated, Packenham gave the word to advance, and the other regiments, leaving the 44th with the ladders and fascines behind them, rushed on to the assault. On the left, a detachment under Colonel Rennie, of the 21st regiment, stormed a three-gun battery, and took it. Here they remained for some time in expectation of support; but, none arriving, and a strong column of the enemy forming for its recovery, they determined to anticipate the attack, and pushed on. The battery which they had taken was in advance of the body of the works, being cut off from it by a ditch, across which only a single plank was thrown. Along this plank did these brave men attempt to pass; but, being opposed by overpowering numbers, they were repulsed; and the Americans, in turn, forcing their way into the battery, at length succeeded in recapturing it with immense slaughter. On the right, again, the 21st and 4th, supported by the 93d, though thrown into some confusion by the enemy's fire, pushed on with desperate gallantry to the ditch; but to scale the parapet without ladders was a work of no slight difficulty. Some few, indeed, by mounting upon one another's shoulders, succeeded in entering the works, but these were speedily overpowered, most of them killed, and the rest taken; whilst as many as stood without were exposed to a sweeping fire, which cut them down by whole companies. It was in vain that the most obstinate courage was displayed. They fell by the hands of men whom they absolutely did not see; for the Americans, without so much as lifting their faces above the rampart, swung their firelocks by one arm over the wall, and discharged them directly upon their heads. The whole of the guns, likewise, from the opposite bank, kept up a well-directed and deadly cannonade upon their flank; and thus were they destroyed without an opportunity being given of displaying their valor or obtaining as much as revenge.
Sir Edward saw how things were going, and did all that a general could do to rally his broken troops. Riding towards the 44th, which had returned to the ground, but in great disorder, he called out for Colonel Mullens to advance; but that officer had disappeared, and was not to be found. He therefore prepared to lead them on himself, and had put himself at their head for that purpose, when he received a slight wound in the knee from a musket-ball, which killed his horse. Mounting another, he again headed the 44th, when a second ball took effect more fatally, and he dropped lifeless into the arms of his aide-de-camp.
Nor were Generals Gibbs and Keane inactive. Riding through the ranks, they strove by all means to encourage the assailants and recall the fugitives; till at length both were wounded, and borne off the field. All was now confusion and dismay. Without leaders, ignorant of what was to be done, the troops first halted and then began to retire, till finally the retreat was changed into a flight, and they quitted the ground in the utmost disorder. But the retreat was covered in gallant style by the reserve. Making a forward movement, the 7th and 43d presented the appearance of a renewed attack; by which the enemy were so much awed that they did not venture beyond their lines in pursuit of the fugitives.
Meanwhile, the assault on the batteries on the opposite side of the river proved successful; but it was made too late to be of service to the charging army. The Americans, surprised and dismayed by this unexpected attack upon their rear, yielded to a smaller force, and deserted their cannon.
In this affair our loss amounted to only three men killed and about forty wounded, among the latter of whom was Colonel Thornton Nor could the loss on the part of the enemy greatly exceed our own. Had they stood firm, indeed, it is hardly conceivable that so small a force could have wrested an intrenched position from numbers so superior; at least it could not have done so without much bloodshed. But they were completely surprised. An attack on this side was a circumstance of which they had not dreamed; and when men are assaulted in a point which they deem beyond the reach of danger it is well known that they defend themselves with less vigor than where such an event was anticipated.
When in the act of storming these lines, the word was passed through our ranks that all had gone well on the opposite bank. This naturally added to the vigor of the assault; but we had not followed our flying enemy above two miles when we were commanded to halt. The real state of the case had now reached us, and the same messenger who brought the melancholy news brought likewise an order to return.
The place where we halted was in rear of a canal, across which was thrown a wooden bridge, furnishing apparently the only means of passing. At the opposite end of this bridge stood a collection of wooden cottages, and one chateau of some size. Here a company was stationed to serve the double purpose of a picket and a rear-guard; whilst the main body, having rested for half an hour, began their march towards the place where they had landed.
As soon as the column got sufficiently on their way the picket likewise prepared to follow. But in doing so it was evident that some risk must be run. The enemy, having rallied, began again to show a front; that is to say, parties of sixty or a hundred men approached to reconnoitre. These, however, must be deceived, otherwise a pursuit might be commenced, and the re-embarkation of the whole corps hindered or prevented. It so happened that the picket in question was this day under my command: as soon, therefore, as I received information that the main body had commenced its retreat, I formed my men, and made a show of advancing. The Americans, perceiving this, fled; when, wheeling about, we set fire to the chateau, and under cover of the smoke destroyed the bridge and retreated. Making all haste towards the rear, we over-took our comrades just as they had begun to embark; when the little corps, being once more united, entered their boats, and reached the opposite bank without molestation.
(END OF BRITSH PERSPECTIVE)
So ended this disjointed affair, which had been rendered futile not only by the actual difficulties of the enterprise, but by that series of misadventures to which all military operations are subject. The loss of the British is given by our author at fifteen hundred, while American authorities state it at seven hundred killed and more than one thousand wounded, and the American loss at but seven killed and six wounded. Of their leaders, Packenham was killed, Gibbs mortally and Keane severely wounded. General Lambert now took command, with no further thought than to retreat to the shipping with as little loss as possible. This was a difficult matter. The whole army could not be transported in their boats, and it was not safe to divide it. It became necessary to construct a road through several miles of a morass. This took them till the 18th, during which time many of the soldiers deserted. On the evening of the 18th the camp-fires were left burning, and the army stole away over its wet and yielding path, reaching, after the greatest hardships and difficulties, the borders of the lake. From here the shipping was safely gained, and the fleet stood away for Mobile Bay, off which, on February 14, word came of the treaty of peace, with the discouraging reflection that their desperate effort had been in every respect useless.
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