Although Americans and British had worked out negotiations for peace in the Treaty of Ghent at the end of 1814, Americans’ greatest victory was in the Battle of New Orleans, fought on January 8, 1815, almost a month after the treaty was signed. Throughout the War of 1812, untrained American troops had time and time again been embarrassed by the British army, but the Battle of New Orleans was different. The Battle of New Orleans devastated a British attempt to gain control of a critical American port and elevated General Andrew Jackson’s motley militia to victory and the general himself to national fame.
Since Napoleon’s defeat in the spring of 1814, the British were free to concentrate on their war in America and begin striking offensively. Pumping their army full of veteran soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, the British were confident that they could bring a swift end to a tedious war. With their strong forces, the British had successfully—and infamously—taken Washington in August of 1814. Though defeated by Americans after attempting to take Baltimore in September of that year, the British set their sights on the coastal trade hub of New Orleans.
As part of the British strategy to demoralize coastal cities and control American trade and transportation, the British eyed New Orleans as a major target for their offensive strategy in the latter half of the War of 1812. Great Britain knew that control of New Orleans meant dominion over the Mississippi River, a main trade artery of the United States and the doorway to the American South.
Anticipating this British assault, General Andrew Jackson arrived on December 1, 1814 eager to defend the city. Jackson carried the reputation of recent victories over the Red Stick Creek Indians in August of 1814. In the Creek War Jackson had stripped Creeks of more than 20 million acres of land in Georgia and Alabama. He was eager to defeat another enemy of his republic.
The government of Louisiana was not as eager to fight the British as Jackson. When the Tennessee general arrived with his militia in New Orleans, the Louisiana Legislature discussed surrendering to the British, spurring an outraged Jackson to declare martial law, suspending their civil authority. Empowered to order affairs as he saw fit, Jackson assembled an army to defend this critical American city. The 4,700 men Jackson recruited included Chocktaw Indians and free blacks; almost all of the men were untrained and undisciplined. Yet their diversity would inspire the new democratic character of America that emerged later in the century and this bric-a-brac bunch would prove to be more than capable of opposing British invasion.
In preparation for the British attack, Jackson’s men had constructed the “Line Jackson”— a mile-long earthwork along the Rodiguez Canal east of the Mississippi River. With this strong defensive position, Jackson did not have to worry about his ragtag militia panicking when they met their more experienced enemy.
On January 8th 1815, British General Edward Pakenham collected more 8,000 men to attack the U.S. forces. British regulars under Edward Pakenham advanced across an open field at Chalmette Plantation, advancing straight toward Line Jackson, while another force advanced along the west bank of the Mississippi River. Both forces were repelled by a heavy shower of American artillery fire, and disintegrated into bedlam when their leaders Pakenham and Colonel Robert Rennie were mortally wounded. Each American volley decimated British troops and, in under a half hour, the battle was over. Americans emerged victorious and unscathed with fewer than 70 casualties. The British, however, suffered more than 2,000 causalities of some of their finest soldiers.
Though the Battle of New Orleans neither caused the end of the War of 1812 nor reflected an overall American victory, news of end of the war followed on the heels of Jackson’s victory. This coincidence catapulted the general to national acclaim, and enshrined the battle in American legend. The peace terms in the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, clearly articulated that the war had been in many ways a stalemate, but after the triumph at New Orleans, Americans could not help but see themselves as the victors and Andrew Jackson as the hero. Jackson would later become president of the United States, and he is still honored today as the face on our twenty-dollar bill.