Friday, September 7, 2018

Why the Battle of New Orleans mattered


From time to time I have run across posts on internet military history sites that state the Battle for New Orleans was all for naught, since the peace treaty had already been signed. I can’t resist the urge to refute this claim. Rather than restate it from time to time, I thought I’d just write it down here and then link to this post when needed.

But first, a print of the battle by the noted military artist Don Troiani, known for his diligent research:

This is Lt. Col. Rennie's British attack that briefly penetrated Jackson’s line. The Highlanders (in red and white checked hatbands) are wearing trews (trousers) instead of the kilts they are usually (and inaccurately, for this battle) portrayed in. Rennie was killed.

Why did it make a difference, since the Treaty of Ghent (ending the War of 1812) had been signed on December 24, 1814 and the battle was fought on January 8, 1815? The diplomats who negotiated the treaty knew that word traveled slowly, only as fast as sailing ships or horseback couriers. They also knew that a major British expedition had been sent against American positions in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s why the treaty specified that troops would halt in the locations they were in when news reached them.

This means that if the British Army had taken New Orleans before the news reached them, there they would stay for the foreseeable future.

The treaty also specified that troops of each side would leave the territory belonging to the other side. You’d think that means the British would then evacuate New Orleans once news reached them. But New Orleans was part of the enormous Louisiana Purchase, a rather shady deal made by the now-deposed Napoleon Bonaparte. Great Britain did not recognize the legality of the Purchase. In the event of a successful capture of New Orleans, most likely after a victory over the defending American army, they could be relied upon to insist that they were not on US territory. As is often said, possession is nine tenths of the law.

That would leave the US with the unenviable choice of starting the war anew to recapture New Orleans. This would be after a notably mixed record in the war, including a number of humiliating defeats suffered by the US Army. The economy was in tatters due to the British naval blockade. Or they could enter the post-war negotiations (the Treaty left many issues unresolved) with a severe handicap. The White House and other government buildings had been burnt by the British the previous August and repairs were proceeding slowly.

Jackson’s crushing victory made the British stance on the legality of the Louisiana Purchase a minor historical footnote. Who cares? More to the point, who remembers? And again, possession is nine tenths of the law.

It also was of importance to domestic American politics. First, ending the dubious war on a high note allowed Americans to feel they had won the war, even if the original issues that caused the war had not been addressed. The triumph put the final nails in the coffin of the New England based Federalist Party, who had been opposed to the war in the first place. And it made Andrew Jackson a popular hero, leading eventually to his ascent to the presidency in 1829.

an addition:

Irv H. wrote an answer in another online forum that pointed out the strategic importance of New Orleans. It was the port that controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River, not only of critical military value, but the trade of the enormous area drained by the Mississippi and Missouri could only reach distant markets by passing through New Orleans by boat. After railroads made other trade routes feasible, the river still provided the cheapest way to send agricultural and manufactured products to market. Grant's drive to open the Mississippi during the Civil War not only hurt the Confederacy deeply, it opened up trade for the restive Northwest and helped dampen the pro-Confederate Copperheads of that region. Had New Orleans been in the hands of a hostile power during the early 19th century, there is no telling how this would have stunted the growth of the new republic.

Footnote: other myths about the battle

US Soldiers fought behind cotton bales. No, they fought behind a mud wall earthwork reinforced with wood, using the Rodriguez Canal as a moat of sorts. Cotton bales were sunk into the mud behind the wall to provide stable platforms for the artillery.

The British ran to the Gulf Mexico. No, though the popular song says so. The British fell back out of artillery range after their assault failed with heavy losses. Jackson kept his army behind the wall, only sending skirmishers out to maintain contact. He knew the British veterans, though mauled, were still dangerous. The song also mentions Colonel Jackson. You may rest assured that he required people to address him as Major-General.

The battle was won by the marksmanship of American squirrel hunters. While there were some of those, the bulk of British losses were likely caused by the substantial number of artillery pieces in Jackson’s line. 14 guns, the majority of them heavy, sprayed canister and grapeshot into the advancing British. The British commander Pakenham was hit four times, once by a bullet and the rest by artillery projectiles. For ordnance purists, yes, some of the guns were heavy naval guns and were firing grapeshot.

American losses were 7 killed, 6 wounded. These are only the losses against the main attack, ignoring the US defeat on the south bank of the Mississippi River (nullified by the main British defeat) and the losses taken by skirmishers after the assault. Total US losses were closer to 100, though this is dwarfed by the 2,000+ British casualties, including the British commander and his second in command killed, and every British brigade commander in the attack wounded, all in some 30 minutes. Over 400 of the British losses were soldiers who surrendered rather than try to escape through that hail of fire again.

The attacking army was British-Canadian. While there may have been a few individual Canadians in Pakenham’s army, the vast majority were British. There was not a single Canadian unit in his force. There were two West Indian regiments (suffering badly from the winter weather) in his force which rather makes calling the force British-Caribbean more likely. But I digress.