This, is the very definition of tactical advantage
This week two hundred years ago, some 11,000 British soldiers, marines and sailors advanced through the swamps to the southeast of New Orleans, the recently acquired crown jewel of the young United States’ vast Louisiana Territory. There, in the thick wilderness that is now Chalmette, Louisiana, they collided with an entrenched force of some 4700 rag-tag Americans consisting of a small group of regulars of the 7th and 44th U.S. Infantry, a detachment of U.S. Marines, men from the 1st U.S. Dragoons, two loose brigades of Tennessee militia, one of Kentucky militia, Jean Lafitte’s swashbuckling pirate crews fighting on shore, two battalions of local Free Men of Color under Monsieurs Lacoste and Daquin, Major Plauche’s battalion of creole French led by New Orleans gentlemen (which included a number of veterans from Napoleon’s armies and true to their roots, two of the companies wore uniforms based on French Imperial Guard’s Grenadiers), Jugeant’s Choctaw warriors, and last but not least, a force of mounted Mississippi Dragoons under Colonel Hinds.
The Brits were some of the most professional soldiers in the entire world at the time and their legions included the famed green-uniformed 95th Rifles, 1st and 5th West India Regiments made up of freed Caribbean slaves who had seen much campaigning, the blue-coated 14th Light Dragoons who left their horses behind and fought on foot, the 4th Kings Own Regiment, 7th Royal Fusiliers, 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, 43rd Monmouth, 44th East Essex Foot, as well as the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders (who, contrary to popular myth, did not fight in kilts that day). These men were volunteers, not, as in many European armies, draftees. They were long-serving career men who had taken up arms as a skilled trade. Most had been well-bloodied in the ongoing series of colonial campaigns and wars on the European, African and American continents. Rule of thumb on an assault is to have the attacking force enjoy a 3:1 superiority, which the Brits did. Comparatively, the scratch force of Americans were neophytes in warfare, having rarely met modern army in set battle.
The line at Chalmette. Jackson’s headquarters was the McCarty House, which fell into ruins after the war. The home seen in the distance is commonly known as the Beauregard mansion, built in the 1840’s for a Spanish nobleman, the Marquis de la Trava, by the famous architect, Gallier, and was originally called “Bueno Reposito.” Shortly after its construction for De la Trava the estate became the property of Rene Beauregard, a nephew of General Pierre Beauregard of Civil War fame and became part of the National park in 1938. The the battlefield’s 100-foot-high obelisk, seen to the right, was placed after that.
Things went bad for the British on Jan, 8, 1815 from the start. The King’s army, led by Major Sir Edward Pakenham, had been halved by leaving guard forces around the rear and sending a strong force down the West Bank of the river to try to flank Jackson’s army. This left them only 6,970 men to attack the Americans. While still more numerous, it was nowhere near the 3:1 rule of thumb, and many speculate that the Royal Navy, in overall command of the landings, forced Pakenham’s avenue of approach.
Further, vital equipment needed to scale the American fortifications and pass over the bayou were left behind, slowing progress. Starting the assault some 12-hours late, the British began almost immediately taking heavy casualties while trying to make a brave, but futile attack.
The 16-gun sloop USS Louisiana, fighting the river current, sailed down the British lines and raked them in enfilade fire from her 24-pounders filled with grapeshot (this plucky 99-foot wooden warship performed yeoman service and her contribution to the battle goes largely forgotten). Trying to encourage their men and lead from the front, Pakenham was killed, followed by many other key senior officers. Nevertheless, the Brits kept pressing the attack.
One unit, the Highlanders, actually came close to turning the American lines but withered under harsh fire, earning some 557 casualties that included their colonel. The battle had cost 2,042 British casualties that included 291 killed. The Americans suffered just 71 and retained the field in a stunning victory– the only such large set battle of the War of 1812 that could be counted as such.
In the end, the British recoiled and, contrary to myth, withdrew in good order, fighting a rear guard engagement until they were evacuated by the Royal Navy ten days later from Villere.
With this in mind, here are some more images from that battlefield that I took on a somber trip.
The site is also home to the Chalmette National Cemetery.
Began during the Civil War some 16,000 are interred there with the bulk (75%) coming from that conflict. There are four graves from War of 1812 vets to include one who fought at the Battle of New Orleans. The small square markers are for unknowns.
Sadly, many of the markers have been consumed by oaks over time and most are for soldiers unknown but to god.
Nevertheless, the very soil of that cold, wet field, venerated with the life’s blood of over 2000 of His Majesty’s fighting men, there will always be a part of Louisiana that will forever be British.