In the War of 1812, or America’s Second Revolutionary War, the British had burned Washington DC to the ground, but had been stymied in Maryland, New York, Michigan, and the Western frontier. The war was at an impasse. The British knew they needed to stop America’s westward momentum (or Manifest Destiny, they recognized it before we did). The key to doing that was New Orleans which controlled trade on the Mississippi river.
In early January 1815, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham’s eight thousand battle hardened British veterans, fresh from defeating Napoleon in Spain, approached New Orleans from the south. Between the British and New Orleans stood four thousand strongly entrenched American troops under Major General Andrew Jackson, or “Old Hickory” to his men. But Pakenham and the other British leaders were contemptuous of the ramshackle nature of America’s small army.
Jackson’s command was the first American melting pot. It consisted of Kentucky riflemen and Tennessee volunteers, Mississippi dragoons, a company of US Marines, the 1st and 7th US Infantry Regiments, French, Spanish, Creole and free African American militia from Louisiana, Choctaw Indians, a battalion of US Navy seamen, and even two hundred of Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates. The British scorn for Jackson troops was misplaced. Before Packenham and his main force arrived, Jackson’s troops had already defeated the British vanguard twice: once on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day (because if you mess with us, we’ll kill you on our holidays. Just ask the Hessians). Additionally, most of the American army participated in the hard fought Red Stick War/Creek Civil War the previous summer. And finally, Jean Lafitte’s pirates were arguably the best cannoneers on the gulf coast, and they brought their cannon with them. Pakenham, like the British generals of the American Revolution, thought that the Americans would break under a disciplined bayonet charge. Most of the British wouldn’t get close enough.
The British attacked under cover of fog on the morning of 8 January 1815. But Pakenham’s plan was complicated and suffered from poor staff planning. The five uncoordinated British columns attacked piecemeal and suffered from numerous planning errors, including the lack of boats to cross the Mississippi River and the location of scaling ladders for the assault troops. The American penchant for shooting enemy officers first destroyed any cohesion left in the British attack. American sharpshooters and riflemen, especially the New Orleans businessmen who shot for sport, killed almost the entirety of the British leadership, including Pakenham. Still, sheer British determination and bravery allowed some to storm the earthworks on the right, a complement to the successful British attack across the river. But the assault eventually failed in the face of America’s own bayonets of the 7th Infantry Regiment. Any local successes were untenable. Less than two hours after the first shot was fired, Brigadier John Lambert, the senior surviving British commander, ordered a withdrawal…down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
It was a decidedly lopsided American victory: the United States had 13 killed and 40 wounded while the British had 330 killed, 1200 wounded and 400 captured. The news of the Treaty of Ghent, and the end of the War of 1812, arrived a few weeks later and the Battle of New Orleans forced the British to adhere to the terms of the peace treaty (which they had no intention of doing prior to the battle).
America had taken on the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world and survived, again. And it would send a surge of pride in the young American nation. The Battle of New Orleans permanently forged an American national identity. After the battle citizens would stop saying. “I am a Louisianian”, “I am a Kentuckian”, “I am New Yorker” or “I am a Free Man of Color”, but would instead say, “I am an American”.
It was also the last time a foreign power would attack America on its native soil until Pancho Villa a hundred years later in 1916 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.