By contributor Timothy Pickles
The Battle of New Orleans is fast approaching its bicentennial year. It never ceases to amaze me how many things in history, or life in general for that matter, are taken at face value or just assumed and suddenly take on the stature of Holy Writ when, in fact, the assumptions are wholly wrong.
10 Things You Didn’t know about the Battle of New Orleans: The Myths, the Legends and The Truth
The Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson stands on the parapet of his makeshift defenses as his troops repulse attacking Highlanders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Almost all common assumptions about the battle are, to quote Douglas Addams “Apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.” So here is the list of 10 myths and legends and, to set the record straight, the real truth:
1. The battle was fought after the war was over.
A peace treaty had been signed on December 25th 1814 BUT the treaty did not end the war, the war was ended when both sides ratified the document their agents had signed, and the United States did not ratify the treaty until February 18th, over a month after the battle.
2. This was the last clash of arms between the US and Great Britain.
When the British sailed from the New Orleans area they did not sail for home, but to Mobile Bay where they attacked and captured Fort Bowyer which guarded the entrance to the Bay. This was preliminary to capturing Mobile, a port, unlike New Orleans, usable by British capital ships where the army could be landed, then march to Baton Rouge once called New Richmond when it was part of British West Florida.
Then, cutting off New Orleans from the North, the army would march down the river road and take the city with the whole British army arriving at the same time rather than piecemeal as it did. The plan was only abandoned after the British successfully captured the fort when news of the treaty arrived 3 days later. It is well to remember that at this time the treaty had still to be ratified by the US!
3. The US won because the British were not clever enough to use rifles and hide while the American did.
In actual fact, though many of the US volunteers had rifles, the only regular rifle troops at New Orleans were British! The 95th Foot (rifles) were formed to use the new form of weapon that was more accurate than the musket, but they were only used in specialized situations.
Though rifles were accurate they took a long time to load correctly, twice as long as a musket, so one gained accuracy but lost firepower. Like the British the US army was mainly made up of well-drilled musket men. The myth of the coonskin-cap-wearing volunteer, with his rifle winning the battle, was fostered in later years and bolstered in the immediate pre Civil War years by Southerners as a warning to Yankees.
4. It was a battle won and lost in one day.
Hardly. Though sometimes presented this way, what is often presented as a battle was in fact a month long campaign starting in December 1814. It encompassed a naval battle, an amphibious landing, amphibious operations in the Mississippi river and land artillery attacking US naval vessels.
5. At the end of the battle Andrew Jackson knew he had beaten the British.
Actually, at the end of the Battle Andrew Jackson was certain another attack would come and was fairly certain he would loose. The battle took place on both sides of the river and while on the East bank Andrew Jackson won the day brilliantly, on the West Bank the British, under Colonel Thornton, drove the Americans out of their main positions and two miles upriver.
In effect, Jackson’s right was destroyed and the British had all but a clear road upriver to the city. A badly wounded Thornton requested 2,000 reinforcements to take the last American position, but Maj. Gen John Lambert, the last general officer on his feet, refused, being badly shaken by the deaths of Pakenham and Gibbs and the wounding of Kean. Essentially, he grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory.
6. Andrew Jackson saw Edward Pakenham killed.
The story is often told, I am sure, that in the aftermath many a rifleman shouted to Jackson that he had shot the British General and Jackson shouted back that he had seen it. However, his aide records that the first indication Jackson had that Pakenham was dead was a note from Lambert requesting that a truce be called to collect the dead and treat the wounded, in which he signed himself ‘John Lambert Commander of His Majesties Forces’; Jackson sent back to find out who this ‘Lambert’ was as he had never heard of him before.
7. Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham was killed by a rifle shot.
A popular romantic story which has no basis in fact, Pakenham was hit twice by multiple projectiles, the first blast breaking his right arm, wounding him in the leg and killing his horse, the second killing him. The descriptions make it quite clear that he was killed by grape shot. Cannon fire not a rifle ended his life.
8. The highlanders marched across the field wearing kilts and feather bonnets.
It is amazing how many serious historians get this wrong. In fact, the 93rd Foot (Sutherland Highlanders) were ordered to have their tartan cloth for their kilts made up into ‘trews’ (a type of Tartan trouser) for the New Orleans campaign. They also removed the black ostrich feathers from their feather bonnets and so they did not look very ‘highland’ like on the campaign, though the bagpipers would certainly identify them as such.
In fact, this was the only battle fought up to WW2 where the Sutherland (later Argyle and Sutherland) Highlanders did not wear the kilt and it was the only defeat they ever suffered. Of course, regimental tradition states that the reason for the defeat of the British at New Orleans was the lack of the kilt!
9. The British were great targets as they marched across the field in long straight lines.
While it is true that the standard formation for British troops in battle was the line, which allowed them to bring maximum firepower to bear on the enemy, this was NOT the formation they used at New Orleans. The Americans were hunkered down behind their thick barricade, impenetrable to both musket and artillery and the British had to assault the defense works. This was not done in line but in column.
The idea was to attack a small area of the works with an unending stream of men, the only way to take this sort of position because all fire was useless. While musketry and rifles certainly did do great damage to the British, by far the most effective and devastating fire came from the artillery which was very skillfully served.
10. The British way outnumbered the Americans.
Actually, for the battle they were fighting, they didn’t. Though the British did outnumber the US almost 2 to1 the Americans were behind a very well constructed earthwork. By all rules of war the ratio of attackers to defenders for this type of operation is supposed to be 3 to1, so, in effect, the British army was at least 6,000 men weaker than it should have been to attempt the attack.
This is why Pakenham tried to concentrate his troops at particular points and outnumber in detail what he could not outnumber in toto. He came very close to achieving his goal but in war there is no prize for second place.
So there you have it, some fascinating and unknown facts about the Battle of New Orleans that helps to dispel some of the many myths behind this famous and world-changing event.
Timothy Pickles is an author, film and TV producer for the History Channel, historical advisor on numerous Hollywood films, and coordinator for historical events. Originally from Yorkshire, England, he now lives and works in New Orleans.