Thursday is the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, perhaps the most important battle fought after a peace deal had already been made.
By the end of 1814, the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain had been raging for two and a half years, and both sides were weary. The British had burned Washington, D.C., and largely crippled the American economy, but they had failed to take Baltimore and suffered a decisive loss at the Battle of Plattsburgh in New York. American General William Henry Harrison had defeated Great Britain and her Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames near Ontario. The Indian coalition’s leader, Tecumseh, died in the battle, and the coalition crumbled after his death.
Wartime taxation, years of fighting against the now-defeated Napoleon, and the rebuilding of Europe were also factors in the British desire for peace. On Christmas Eve that year, after months of negotiations, diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended hostilities and entailed no barrier changes. The War of 1812 had been a stalemate.
Although the British Parliament quickly ratified the Treaty, news of the Treaty would take weeks to reach the United States. A British invasion force, charged with the capture of New Orleans and the American Southwest, still intended to fulfill its objective.
The American commander in the region was General Andrew Jackson. In December 1814, Jackson, nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his toughness, arrived in New Orleans as the British approached. For assistance, Jackson recruited local militia, Choctaw warriors, freed blacks, and Jean Lafitte, a commander of French privateers. Ironically, Lafitte’s colony of pirates had been attacked by the United States Navy a few months earlier, but he agreed to help in exchange for the pardoning of his men.
On Dec. 23, Jackson launched a surprise attack on British soldiers that had moved through the bayous along the Mississippi River. He then pulled back toward the Rodriguez Canal south of the city. Although he did not force the British back, he bought time to prepare his defenses.
Realizing that the much smaller American force risked encirclement, Lafitte recommended that the canal be made wider and extended to a nearby swamp. Jackson ordered the canal be made wider and deeper for four days. The muck from the canal was used to strengthen the American earthworks.
On New Year’s Day, British General Edward Pakenham ordered an attack again Jackson’s line, but he canceled because the artillery ran out of ammunition and reinforcements had not yet arrived.
On the night of Jan. 7, New Orleans’ Ursuline nuns along with other faithful citizens prayed for the city’s protection and the intercession of the Virgin Mary.
Pakenham finally ordered the main attack on the foggy morning of Jan. 8. Jackson’s force, which included many inexperienced soldiers and militia men, numbered roughly 4,500. The British soldiers, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, numbered between 7,500 and 8,000.
Despite the superior size of Pakenham’s force, the assault quickly fell apart. The fog lifted, and Jackson’s artillery and rifles wreaked havoc. A flanking maneuver stalled, depriving the main attack force of artillery support. In the confusion, the British also forgot the ladders to climb the earthworks. Pakenham himself was killed in the attack along with his second-in-command. While his last order was to bring up reserves, the British withdrew.
The Americans had won the Battle of New Orleans in roughly half an hour. The casualties of that day were incredibly lopsided: 2,000 British dead, wounded, or missing; 8 Americans dead; and 13 wounded.
As the battle took place, mass was held at the Ursuline convent. After the battle, Old Hickory personally thanked the nuns for their prayers.
The United States Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815. Although the war had really been a stalemate by the time the British agreed to peace, the victory at New Orleans became a huge source of American pride and turned Andrew Jackson into a legendary hero, who would go on to win the White House and transform American politics.