Battle or New Orleans – Chalmette, Louisiana

December 2, 2018

I want to clear up some misconceptions about this battle. These were “facts” I had been taught way back when I was in elementary, junior high, and high school.

First, the Treaty of Ghent that formally ended the War of 1812 was signed on December 24, 1814 in Ghent, Netherlands. The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815. This was after the peace treaty was signed but before both countries had approved it. The British signed the treaty on December 30, 1814. The United States didn’t ratify the treaty until February 17, 1815.

Second, the Battle of New Orleans wasn’t fought in New Orleans. It was fought in Chalmette, Louisiana.

I was taught that the battle was fought after the war ended. Maybe educators back then didn’t think my young mind could wrap itself around the concepts of before and after. After all I did go to school long before Sesame Street went on the air.

I wasn’t taught that the battle was fought in Chalmette rather than New Orleans. I guess they also thought New Orleans would be easier to remember and pronounce than Chalmette.

We spent the morning at the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park & Preserve.

I’m reading a book about the War of 1812. (Our wanderings usually require that I buy at least one book related to where we are.) As with most wars, who started the war depends on who you ask. So I’ll skip that part.

For the first few years, the war seesawed back and forth with neither side being able to gain an advantage. On the one hand, the British were too busy fighting Napoleon in Europe to devote the troops, ships, and resources necessary to defeat the Americans. On the other hand, the Americans were too overconfident and unprepared to fight a real war. Its army and navy were pitifully small and state militia and privateers couldn’t take up the slack. (FYI: Privateers were legally sanctioned pirates, a pretty good gig if you became one and survived.)

The key battlegrounds were Canada, the Northwest Territories (in 1812 that was US territory west of Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi River, and north of the Ohio River), the Great Lakes (especially Lakes Ontario and Erie), and the Mississippi River, especially its mouth.

Battle of New Orleans

In 1814 the British realized that New Orleans was the key to the Mississippi River. If it were captured a significant chunk of US commerce could be blocked. Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, claimed that the capture of New Orleans would make “the Americans little better than prisoners in their own country.”

General Andrew Jackson, commander of the American forces, arrived at New Orleans on December 1, 1814 and started to make defensive improvements, recruit militia, and gather supplies.

American entrenchments

The American forces were a motley crew – regular army troops, marines, Tennessee and Kentucky militia, Louisiana and New Orleans militia, free men of color, Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates, and sailors.

The British, commanded by General Sir Edward Parkenham, arrived on December 8, 1814. On December 14 British ships entered Lake Borgne, routed the American opposition, and took control of the lake. Unfortunately for the British to get to New Orleans its invasion force had to row 60 miles across Lake Borgne. The first 1,600 soldiers across captured a plantation home only nine miles from New Orleans. The British were indeed coming.

Gen. Parkenham’s plan involved two simultaneous attacks. The main attack would hit the center of the American lines. The supporting attack would cross the river and drive back the American forces on that side, capturing their artillery in the process. That artillery would be turned against the Americans on the other side of the river, thus supporting the main attack.

Main attack

Supporting attack

The supporting attack was fraught with delays and, while ultimately successful, was too late to assist the main attack. The British attacked well-entrenched Americans supported by artillery and were unable to penetrate their lines for very long. Gen. Parkenham was killed while directing the main attack.

After a few days of licking their wounds, the British retreated to their boats and sailed away. American casualties were very small in comparison.

(Irreverent note from Holly: Yes the British were coming and the Americans weren’t ready. It sounded like the British had a great plan and it probably would have worked had it been successfully carried out. But first the British took a long time to get upriver. This gave the Americans time to gather forces and seriously trench in. They built a long log and earth rampart along one side of an existing irrigation canal and dug the canal deeper – in some areas making it over 8 feet deep. To get to the Americans the British had to cross the open field, then the deep water-filled canal and finally scale the rampart. The British were prepared with ladders and such. However, the group in charge of getting the ladders and carrying them forward in battle were sent to the wrong place to pick them up. They apparently became confused and wound up milling around in front of the advancing British troops, blocking them from the attack. Then the commander of the Highland troops was killed and those well trained troops wouldn’t move without a commanding officer’s order so they stood there… under fire… dying. Add in the fact that the group that was supposed to capture the American cannon across the river was late… and you have a huge loss for the British. By the numbers: Americans: about 5,000 in the battle, fewer than 20 casualties. British: about 7,000 in the battle, more than 2,000 casualties (casualty refers to dead, wounded, captured). It was a big loss for the British and brought instant hero status to Andrew Jackson. AND it brought all the different groups in New Orleans together so that they agreed, for once, that they were on the side of the Americans.

Chalmette Monument

Construction of the Chalmette Monument, built to commemorate the battle, was begun in 1855 but not completed until 1908. A little thing called the Civil War, as well as its consequences on the South’s economy, got in the way. The original plans called for the monument to stand 150 feet tall, but around 1900 it was discovered that the foundation couldn’t support the structure’s weight. So the height was limited to 100 feet.

Chalmette National Cemetery

The 17.5 acre Chalmette National Cemetery was established in 1864 as a burial or reburial place for Union soldiers who died in the Gulf area during the Civil War. It now contains the remains of 15,000 veterans from all of America’s wars and conflicts including four from the War of 1812 but only one from the Battle of New Orleans. More than 6,700 are unknown.

As I walked among the gravestones I noticed that many of them were for soldiers who were members of the USCT – United States Colored Troops. These troops, both free blacks and freed slaves, were recruited and served during the Civil War.

J

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