Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Battle of New Orleans, 8 January 1814

Battle of the Week 2011-01

The War of 1812 was, for the most part, a series of embarrassments for the young United States.

It was ill-conceived by both sides: the British, busy with Napoleon in Spain, had neither the manpower nor the resources to fight a decisive campaign on this side of the Atlantic, while the Americans, busy expanding into the lands opened by the purchase of Louisiana, had no business declaring war against what was still one of the world's three greatest military powers. But British impressment of American sailors and a continued British presence in Canada were unacceptable insults, so off to war we marched.

The next two and a half years saw sporadic conflict, a good many men killed and wounded, and no change whatsoever in the combatant's relative positions on the world stage. It saw a few indecisive American victories and a number of indecisive American defeats, including perhaps the greatest embarrassment ever to American arms: the capture of Washington, D.C. and the burning of the White House and Capitol.

But it also brought a few of the moments we remember as our finest, such as the U.S.S. Constitution's many victories against British men-of-war and the defense of Fort McHenry--the incident that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It's ironic that the greatest American victory of the war took place two weeks after it ended. The Peace of Ghent ended hostilities between the United States and Great Britain on 24 December 1814. But in 1814, word could travel no faster than a man could ride on horseback or by ship, so neither Andrew Jackson nor his adversary, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, had heard the news by the time their forces clashed on the 8th of January.

The battle itself was an entirely one-sided affair: the British regulars, in true British fashion, advanced across a wide field against Jackson's motley force of riflemen from Kentucky and Tennessee, militiamen from the city, pirates, freed slaves, and Indians, who lay, in true American fashion, armed with rifles and entrenched behind a canal. In such conditions the British Brown Bess was no match at all for the American rifles, and the numbers tell the story as well as I can. In half an hour more than two thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, to just seven killed and six wounded on the American side. Among the British dead was Pakenham himself. The British withdrew to their camps, and a week later took to their ships and left New Orleans to the Americans.

The battle itself decided nothing, since the war was already over, although we may speculate whether the British would have been inclined to give up control of the Mississippi River, treaty or no treaty, had they won the battle and captured the town. But it provided a needed shot in the arm for the young United States, a victory to be proud of on the heels of a war that gave us few such moments. And it made an American hero of Jackson, who rose to widespread fame thanks to his wartime exploits and became President of the United States in 1829.

I'll be back next week with another battle. Go get your nerd on!

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