Winning: Battle NOLA @ 200 Years

Seesaw on the Mississippi


War consists of two basic options: defense or offense.

The middle ground is the perilous transition between the two, mastered only by the truly expert.

Two hundred years ago today, the war of 1812 thundered to an effective close when two able leaders, Andrew Jackson and Edward Pakenham made history on the Plains of Gentilly.

British forces had been operating east of New Orleans since mid-December and on the 23rd were positioned to potentially overwhelm Jackson’s mix of regulars and volunteers in a surprise attack.

They passed on the opportunity because of an abundance of caution allowing Jackson to in turn surprise them on Christmas Eve with devastating results.

Jackson, the defender,  had gone on the offensive.

The Rodriguez Canal

Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte

But not for long.

Jackson was building a massive defensive fortification behind a canal on the east bank of the river.

On the 28th and again on January 1, the British surged forward to attack but were repulsed both times.

The attack on New Year’s Day featured the Brits outgunning the Americans 24 to 15 but the Americans had better aim, and perhaps luck.

Jackson stayed behind his now growing earthworks.

He was also being reinforced with incoming troops though surprised when he was told that the Kentucky arrivals were without guns.

Walter Lord reports that Jackson said,”I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”

A Human Component

Death of Pakenham

Death of Pakenham

When the British first moved into close position on December 23rd Pakenham was still en route and army forces were under the command of Major General Keane.  Keane declined to move forward without reinforcements allowing Jackson to come to him, instead.

The element of surprise was lost.

Pakenham was furious when he found out and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, overall commander,  stated to Pakenham:

“If the army were to shrink again from launching an assault, his sailors and marines would do the job.  ‘We will storm the American lines and march into the city.  Then the soldiers can bring up the baggage.'” (A.J.Langguth, Union 1812)

Pakenham was on the spot.

Langguth goes on to say, “His (Pakenham’s) rewards for victory would be great…but failure would be ignominious.”

The fragile concept of honor (and ego) had perhaps replaced the cold hard logic of war.

January 8, 1815



The British attack was to include an assault on American artillery on the west bank of the river, which when captured, would be turned on Jackson’s east bank redoubt.

The west bank assault came off brilliantly but nearly 12 hours late.

As Pakenham’s troops approached the Rodriguez Canal he was stunned to learn that the scaling ladders had been left behind.

Soldiers were left to climb on each other’s shoulders when they reached the parapets.

Precious few made it over as most were mowed down by grapeshot fired from American artillery.

Pakenham, Keane and other British officers were killed or wounded and their troops fled in dis-array.

Lord writes that a senior British officer said, “They had to keep on [the fight] or the army would starve” to which another said, “Kill plenty more, admiral, fewer rations will be required.”

The Unspoken Lessons

Some of Jackson’s officers wished to pursue the fleeing Brits.

He held a war council and his generals advised against it soberly admitting that while their troops did well on the defense and in the woods, engaging on an open field was a wild card.

Caution (and victory) prevailed.

Jackson won by staying on the defensive.

The conventional wisdom or view is that the Battle of New Orleans mattered not as the war was “officially over” when it occurred.

Jackson Biographer Jon Meacham and others say not so fast.

The slaughter on the plains of Gentilly sent a shock wave through the British army that lasted a generation.

The message:  don’t mess with the Americans, they can fight.


Sources: Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light, Langguth, Union 1812, Wiki)





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