U.S. and British gunners battle it out on January 1, 1815

by Dale Cox

The story of the Battle of New Orleans is immortalized in legend, book, and song. An entire generation of Americans grew up singing the lyrics of Johnny Horton’s 1959 #1 hit – when they weren’t wearing their Davy Crockett coonskin caps – and dreamed of aiming squirrel rifles over cottonbales. [I]

While you may know that Andrew Jackson smashed an elite British army at New Orleans to become America’s greatest military hero of his day, you may not know that the battle was actually a series of confrontations. One of the most severe – and often overlooked – took place 204 years ago today on January 1, 1815.

This was the day that the British planned to storm New Orleans. They had moved into position for what Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham expected to be the final battle for the city on December 27, 1814. The next four days were spent getting ready:

From the 28th to the 31st every exertion was made to get up from the ships ten eighteen-pound and four twenty-four-pound carronades, with the ammunition and stores. These were brought up the canal in boats to within a quarter of a mile of the main road, and thence transported on carriages of the country or our own limbers, by the seamen, with incredible labour. The weather was fortunately fair, and the road consequently good. [II]

American cannon and the restored rampart of Jackson’s Line at Chalmette Battlefield,
site of the Battle of New Orleans. National Park Service

Carronades were short, large caliber cannon used aboard ships in the War of 1812. They were very effective in close combat, but less so at longer ranges.

The British got the last of their heavy guns into position on the night of December 31, 1814. The artillerymen ready for action, the Redcoat infantry moved forward and prepared to attack.

Across the field, Maj. Gen. Jackson and his officers knew that something was up. They could see and hear the sounds of heavy labor along the British line and likewise continued to strengthen their own line, a 1,000-yard rampart of earth that stretched from the Mississippi River into a thick cypress swamp.

Maj. Gen. Sir Pakenham’s plan was to use his heavy guns to blast an opening or breach in Jackson’s lines. The British infantry would them storm through the hole, split the American army and advance right into the city of New Orleans itself. By sunrise, all was ready:

 The 1st of January was ushered in with a very thick fog, which did not begin to disperse until towards 8 o’clock. As soon as the horizon began to clear up, the enemy opened a very brisk fire from his three batteries, of which the left, established on the road, mounted two twelve-pounders; the centre, eight eighteen-pounders, and twenty-four-pound carronades, and that on the right towards the wood opposite our lines, mounted eight pieces of cannon and carronades. A cloud of Congreve rockets accompanied the balls, and for fifteen minutes the fire was kept up with unexampled celerity. [III]

Andrew Jackson as painted in 1824.
The White House

The initial barrage of artillery fire almost changed the course of American history. 

The McCarty house stood near the Mississippi River and immediately behind the American fortifications. It was Andrew Jackson’s headquarters and the British targeted it with a storm of cannon fire:

…In less than ten minutes, upwards of one hundred balls, rockets and shells struck the house, and rendered it impossible to remain there. The general-in-chief and all his staff were in the apartments when the firing began; but though bricks, splinters of wood and furniture, rockets and balls, were flying in all directions, not a single person was wounded.  [IV]

Jackson walking away unscathed as more than 100 cannonballs fell around him was one of the “miracles of New Orleans.” Had a single one of the iron ball found its target, the outcome of the battle – and of American history – might have been very different.

The Chalmette Monument on the site of the Battle of New Orleans,
National Park Service

The American cannons returned fire and the booms of heavy artillery shook the ground for miles around. Citizens in New Orleans itself felt the vibrations and listened with apprehension to the sounds of the battle. Jackson brought additional troops up to his line in case the British succeeded in their effort to breach his ramparts. In the end, though, the firepower of the army that defeated Napoleon simply wasn’t enough:

…The enemy’s object was to silence our artillery and make a breach in the breastworks of our lines, with a view to push on to the assault. For this purpose the troops were in readiness, drawn up in several parallel lines; but prudently waiting in the back ditches, and in the intervals between the batteries, but the favourable moment to advance to the attack of our lines. But on this occasion…his expectations were frustrated; and instead of intimidating us by his artillery, he soon perceived the superiority of ours. [V]

Among the gunners manning the cannons along Jackson’s line were the “privateers” of Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre. These men were considered pirates and “banditti” by Gen. Jackson just a few days before, but after they patriotically offered to join his army, he changed his opinion of them. Dominique You, one of the premier Lafitte ship captains, personally directed the fire of 24-pounders mounted in Battery Number 3 and came close to losing his life when a British cannonball crashed into one of the gun carriages.

Map of the New Orleans battlefield as it appears today.
National Park Service

Unable to breach the American rampart, the British conducted a reconnaissance toward the American left, but found the swamp not to their liking:

…About ten o’clock the enemy ordered some platoons of sharp-shooters to penetrate into the woods on the left of our line, with a view to ascertain whether it could be turned; but he soon perceived, from the brisk fire of our musketry, that on the left we were as well prepared to receive him as on the right. Part of general Coffee’s brigade stationed in the fosse, two hundred yards behind the line, received orders to move forward towards the wood, in order to support, if necessary, the troops stationed immediately on the line; but Wellington’s heroes discovered that they were ill qualified to content with us in woods, where they must fight knee deep in water and mud, and that the various kinds of laurel which abound in Louisiana, in the cypress swamps and prairies, were not intended to grace their brows. [VI]

Among the laurel that grows in that part of Louisiana is one called the Bay Laurel” or “laurel of the protector and conqueror.” Maj. Pierre LaCarriere Latour, Jackson’s engineer, noted the irony of its presence in the swamp.

The critical moment came but, unable to breach the rampart that fronted the American lines, Pakenham decided not to send his infantry forward. The cannon of both sides continued to blast away for the rest of the day as the British troops withdrew to their camps. The New Year’s Day battle at New Orleans was over.

Visitors learn the story of the Battle of New Orleans.
National Park Service

The British tried again on January 8, 1815. That battle ended with the virtual slaughter of the Redcoat infantry which proved unable to break through Jackson’s lines. The disaster that was avoided on January 1 finally came on January 8 and Andrew Jackson began his walk down the road to the Presidency.

Casualties in the New Year’s battle were 34 killed and wounded on the U.S. side – more than would fall in the main battle on January 8 – and 32 killed, 44 wounded and 2 missing on the British side. [VII]

The site of the Battle of New Orleans – including the action of January 1, 1815 – is preserved at the Chalmette Battlefield Unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. It is at 8606 West St. Bernard Highway, Chalmette, Louisiana, and is open daily.

Please click here to learn more about the park.

Please note that many National Park facilities – including those at Chalmette -are temporarily closed due to the Government shutdown.

[I] James Morris, “The Battle of New Orleans,” (c) Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC. Performed by Johnny Horton on Columbia Legacy Records, the ballad reached #1 on the Pop charts on April 27, 1959. 

[II] “Extract from the Journal of the movements of the army employed on the southern coast of North America,” printed as Appendix 3 in Major A. LaCarriere Latour, Historical Memoir of The War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-1815. John Conrad and Co., Philadelphia: 1816. Page cxlviii.

[III] Major A. LaCarriere Latour, Historical Memoir of The War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-1815. John Conrad and Co., Philadelphia: 1816. Page 132.

[IV] Ibid., pp. 132-136.

[V] Ibid.

[VI] Ibid.

[VII] Ibid.; “Return of Casualties between the 1st and 5th January, 1815,” published as an appendix in Latour, page clxii.