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The Strange Tale of the Battle of New Orleans

Posted by Dave Cottrell on Mar 28th 2018

The strange tale of the Battle of New Orleans may not seem strange, at all, to modern students hearing of the glory of that day. But in consideration of the fact that many Americans hearing the stirring strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" assume the rockets that created "the rockets' red glare" were American rockets, perhaps it's time to look a little closer.

In fact, the rockets that shone their eerie light on the American flag that night were British rockets firing on Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. The heroic site of that "star-spangled banner" still flying as the cold, gray light of morning broke on the fort inspired Francis Scott Key's famous poem, which later became the US national anthem.

In fact, while the poem soon became adapted and sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," it wasn't officially the US national anthem until a century later, under President Woodrow Wilson. But as interesting as these facts are, they are not so strange in themselves. Indeed, that event happened not so very long before the end of the War of 1812, which officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814.

But there were no smartphones, and in fact, no telephones nor even telegraphs in 1814. (The first US telegram would be send some thirty years later, on May 24, 1844, by one Samuel F. B. Morse.) As a result, certain intrepid members of the forces from the Great Britain did not get the memo to come home.

As a result, on January 8, 1815, an overwhelming force of 7,500 British soldiers under the command of Sir Edward Pakenham attacked the much smaller American force of 4,500 men under the command of US General Andrew Jackson, dug in at the Rodriquez Canal, six miserable, swampy miles inland from New Orleans.

Jackson's men were quite literally dug in, too. Jackson, in hearing that the British were planning to attack by land, rather than by sea, chose Rodriquez Canal as the best place to prepare for the imminent attack. He had his men dig the canal, which was really just a ditch, both deeper and wider, piling up the muck on his side of the canal into a slippery, impassable wall. There he waited with his ragtag band of defenders for the British "surprise attack."

Indeed, it was supposed to be a surprise attack. The British were certain that the Americans would never expect them to choose such a difficult route for an attack. The ground was soft and treacherous, a terrible route for an army so large to traverse.

Perhaps it would have succeeded, except for a wily expatriate French pirate who preferred American greenbacks over British pounds. The man's name was Jean Lafitte, a privateer by profession, who discovered the British plans and passed them on to Jackson. Then, as Jackson fought the British on land, Lafitte and his men merrily plundered the British fleet at sea, while providing much needed munitions to the American defenders on land.

Another strange part of this tale is the story of Jean Lafitte, who went from being a man wanted for his crimes by the United States to being one of the great American heroes...

But I digress. The war of 1812 was officially over, even though neither side knew that as the Battle of New Orleans unfolded. That means that, officially at least, the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans are two distinct wars between the same rivals.

There is another strange fact that must not be left out of this brief history, as it is so important. While the British attack forces were made up entirely of well-trained and seasoned soldiers, Jackson's forces were a ragtag mixture of farmers, hunters, servants, laborers, adventurers and pirates. This makes this strange tale even stranger, because Jackson's small army had not even had any real time to train together before the British attack. Indeed, Jackson later praised his small force for their "untutored courage," as they defeated a trained and organized European military force.

When the British arrived at Jackson's hasty fortifications along the Rodriquez Canal, they found themselves mired in the water and muck of the freshly expanded canal, needing scaling ladders they did not have, staring up in the shocking faces of their well-armed and deadly accurate enemy. The men the British force faced that day, while not military men by profession, were incredible marksmen. Such were men of the frontier whose very survival rested on their ability to bring home game for the table, or to defend their homesteads against marauders from the surrounding countryside.

After two separate attacks by the British, the British finally retreated. General Pakenham was dead, and nearly 2000 of his soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing. Jackson's militia lost 8 men, with 13 wounded.

An important and very strange fact about the British side is that they somehow arrived at the canal without scaling ladders. Without them, they could not even attempt to get over the wall of mud and debris built by Jackson's men, and were sitting ducks in that ditch. As they tried to retreat from the depths of the deepened canal, they were climbing over one another as the Americans fired on them.

It is said that many of the bodies were found with a single bullet above the nose. Several were found with a bullet hole over each eye. Such was the marksmanship of the American defenders.

There is one final, very strange fact to ad to the already strange tale of the Battle of New Orleans. Andrew Jackson, a man without a military an academic education, much less a military one, went on to receive an honorary degree from Harvard and then to become the President of the United States in 1828. This was in spite of, as his defeated rival, John Quincy Adams said, that he was "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name."

Isn't it strange how romantic tales and heroism sometimes do more to advance a career than many years of study? Ideas, planning and strategy have their place and usually go a long way to improve chances of victory, but in the end, it is the action of those carrying out the task that ensures it.