THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS -
POPULAR MYTHS AND LEGENDS
And a few others thrown in as well!


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*Disclaimer* -- Some blowhards refuse to see the objective historic viewpoint and vainly cling to unfounded myths perpetrated by movies, pulp fiction, and even some so-called history books. The 93rd SHRoFLHU (whose members are all USA citizens, some of whom are US military personnel) never claims the British defeat at New Orleans was anything less than a debacle. However, the historic reasons for that debacle are not the fantasies far too many people think of as "facts".

We have already shown how the 93rd Highland Regiment did not wear kilts at this battle as they had been ordered to wear trews (trousers) on the campaign before they left Britain. The wearing of trousers or pants by Highland soldiers was not uncommon: pants were a common form of undress and fatigue duty uniform in all Highland regiments. Officers up until the time of the Crimean War rarely wore the kilt except for full dress parade occasions. A large part of this practice for officers was due to the fact that field grade officers (major and up, along with others such as the adjutant) were invariably mounted on horseback. Company grade officers (captain and below) were usually on foot with their respective companies, but at any time might be called upon to become mounted. A little practical thinking shows that riding a horse and wearing a kilt are NOT two of the most complimentary activities!


Statue of a 93rd corporal in uniform of the New Orleans campaign, on display in the Regimental Museum, Stirling Castle, Scotland.

We should add here that not all Scottish soldiers were or are Highlanders. Many Scottish regiments of the British Army wore the regular British uniform. The oldest regiment in the British Army - the 1st Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) - never wore kilts, and only in this century have they acquired bagpipers, let alone pipers wearing a kilt uniform. The same is true for many other regiments: the 21st Royal North British Fusiliers who also fought at New Orleans (today combined with the Highland Light Infantry & called The Royal Highland Fusiliers), The King's Own Scottish Borderer's, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles - now disbanded), and the Scots Guards (part of the Brigade of Guards. If you have ever seen those soldiers in the tall bearskin hats at Buckingham Palace -- you may have been looking at the Scots Guards!). Finally, of course, Scotland's famous cavalry regiment, the Scots Greys, never wore kilts...understandably.

One may have already noticed the Battle of New Orleans was a prolonged affair lasting nearly 4 weeks from the time of the British landing to their withdrawal back onboard the ships. Often it is incorrectly perceived as having all occurred on one day within the space of a few minutes. The popular thought goes something like this:
The British arrived, as part of their plan to reconquer the USA, lined up in neat rows wearing their easy to see red uniforms, marched forward with kilted Highlanders leading the way with pipes and drums blaring, to be shot down by rifle toting-backwoods-crack-marksmen along with pirate Jean Lafitte and his men helping to save the day, then the Brits ran back to their ships and sailed away, everyone learning later it was all done after the war had ended.

Rubbish.

Firstly, the British had no intention of reconquering the USA. Britain's aims in the war were twofold: 1. Keep Canada. 2. End the war.
The USA had declared war on Britain on the issues of sailors' rights, free trade and complaints of the British helping Native nations in what was then the Northwest territories. The USA then invaded Canada with the "official" line of capturing it so as to bring Britain to terms. Thomas Jefferson had even called the operation a "mere matter of marching". However, there were many whose goals were not just to use Canada as a strategic tool, but to also conquer and annex it as part of the USA. As US troops found out, most Canadians along with the regular British regiments stationed there did not take kindly to being invaded and fought back with a vengeance.
Britain was at war at the time with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was considered an extremely large threat. As part of the global strategy against Bonaparte, Britain used its huge navy to prevent Bonaparte and France from trading with other countries by sea. To this end were issued "Orders in Council". These Orders were to play a large part in the reasons for the War of 1812. The Orders included terms for the Royal Navy to stop and search other ships on the high seas looking for goods going to France as well as deserters from the Royal Navy. All very understandable in the context of war, but mistakes were made and a British ship used deadly force on at least one occasion.
Bonaparte in the meantime played a hand in all this by making a trade treaty with the USA, thus further undermining relations between the two English speaking countries. Matters continued to deteriorate. Britain did bow to US pressure and canceled the Orders In Council -- two days before the US declared war! News traveled slower in those days, but it is still questionable why the US did not rescind her war declaration after receiving the news of the canceled Orders. Especially after the initial attempts to invade Canada ended in miserable defeats for the US.
The Treaty of Ghent which ended the war was signed on 24 December 1814 (before the Battle of New Orleans was over). HOWEVER, the terms of the Treaty stated it was not valid until both governments ratified it. The US Congress did not ratify the Treaty until FEBRUARY 1815, almost 2 months later. Officially, hostilities were to cease, but technically a state of war still existed at the time of the Battle.
This is all too brief, but we must move on.

Warfare, as practiced by ALL armies of the era (including the USA), was the same everywhere in the western world. Battles were fought based on "linear" tactics. Basically this meant troops lined up in shoulder to shoulder masses and marched at one another, firing until close enough to charge or the enemy broke and ran. Very basically! It was quite often more complicated, much like chess, with units attempting to flank the enemy, feints, false retreats, etc., etc. Terrain and circumstance often determined many fighting factors - including the use of marksmen and partisans, or "guerillas". The terms guerilla and guerilla warfare originated in the Peninsular War (Spain and Portugal), with the Spanish guerillas who fought with Britain against Bonaparte's France. These tactics were due to the type of weapons being used at the time. The smoothbore muskets which were the general issue of ALL armies (including the USA, which issued a copy of the French Charleville .69 calibre musket) were not very accurate and did not have much range (about 150 yards average for any kind of accuracy). Artillery rarely fired exploding shells, most ammunition was solid cannonballs or "canister" - a package containing about 12 solid balls which turned a cannon into a large shotgun. Rifles were still being developed for military use and were slower to load and fire. Hunting rifles from home could not be fitted with a bayonet and were not designed for the rigors of combat - a great discrepancy in the thick of battle when one's single shot firearm is unloaded and the enemy is closing in with 18 inches of sharp steel fitted to the end of a 5 foot musket! The unloaded hunting rifle becomes a big stick, while the unloaded musket and bayonet becomes a SPEAR. (Which would you rather have if facing an enemy)? Unloaded riflemen scattered about would also be easy prey for cavalry galloping in fast with a ton or more of horse and rider equipped with sabre or lance. It was not until later as weapons were improved and made to fire faster and farther that tactics changed as well.

Rifles were not new nor un-used by the British. A Brit officer by the name of Ferguson had even invented a breech loading rifle during the American Revolution. During the Napoleonic era Britain had created the "Experimental Rifle Corps" which included regiments such as the famous 95th Rifles. These units were armed with the Baker rifle, a military firearm designed to hold a sword style bayonet and to take the hard knocks of campaigning. The Baker was also a match in accuracy to most rifles of the time. Rifle units were trained not only in the standard drill, but also in light infantry drill and marksmanship. (Dating back to before the French and Indian War - each regular infantry regiment had a company called the Light Company. These were men trained to move quickly, spread out, work in pairs, provide cover fire for each other, take advantage of terrain, and in marksmanship from standing, kneeling and prone positions.)

Not all British soldiers wore "redcoats". Units such as the 95th Rifles wore dark GREEN uniforms with black leather accouterments. Most of the British cavalry wore varying shades of blue. The British artillery wore blue as did the Royal Navy. There were European units that wore white, pink, and even lavender! Drummers in the US Army wore redcoats! With the weapons of the time, it did not matter what colour the uniform was. A dark blue uniform with white crossbelts was just as good a "target" as a red uniform. Except for rifleman and light infantry, soldiers were not trained to "aim" - they were trained to "point" the weapon at the enemy, pull the trigger and reload as fast as possible. Trained men could fire 3 or 4 times a minute with a musket (that was "rapid fire"! Compare that to weapons today which fire 400 times a minute. Compare it to rifles of the time which could fire only once a minute & one will start to see why things were different then.) Volleys of muskets firing all at once sent out a "wall of lead" at the enemy. With several hundred firing at once, something was sure to be hit. This was part of the tactics of the era.

The fact is, lining up was not "stupid" -- it was the way battles were fought! The US drill manual called for the same line formations, and itself was basically a translation of the French Army drill manual. Using rifles was not new to the British, nor was the use of dark green uniforms, nor marksmen and skirmishers spread out over the countryside taking cover and careful aim at the enemy. In fact, according to the documents of the time there is a good possibility the British at New Orleans had almost as many riflemen as Jackson, if not more. Not every man in the US militia troops dubbed as "Rifle" units at New Orleans had rifles! Many had smoothbore muskets. In fact, two-thirds of the approximate 2000 Kentucky militia showed up without weapons! 500 firearms of various sorts were scrounged from around the city and distributed to these men, but even Jackson described these arms as in bad condition of not much worth. The British had half of the 3rd Battalion/95th Rifle Regiment present at New Orleans -- 500 men. During the assaults on Jackson's line the 95th deployed out in front and across the field in skirmish order. By the end of the assault many of the 95th were in the ditch trying to cut steps into the parapet with their sword bayonets.
The rest of the assault force did not line up across the field and march forward in neat rows. The British formed in 2 attack columns (a column being more of a line backward than across) and one reserve column. Both attack columns advanced under cover of darkness and fog. One column was next to the river, the other - the main - column advanced on the other side of the field next to the cypress swamp. The swamp, due to its trees and the way it bulged out in places gave the column further cover until about 100 yards from the US parapet. As the British were utilizing every element of surprise they could, they moved as close as possible with as little noise as possible. Once battle commenced, drummers and pipers would then have started up, the drummers being used for signaling commands by drumbeat over the noise of battle. Since the British were on the 2 extremes of the field, the entire center of the US line - except for the artillery - probably never fired a shot! The British were out of range of the US muskets in the center and any American rifleman foolish enough to climb atop the parapet to get a "better shot" would have been picked off by the 95th, or possibly hit by British artillery fire. The US artillery in the center could have fired at most only twice on the 93rd as they crossed the field, due to: 1. Rate of loading time. 2. Windage (the fact that after a certain point on the horizon, the 93rd would have moved past a cannon's field of fire due to the limitations imposed by the embrasures in the parapet. In other words, the muzzle of the cannon could only be swung to the left or right only so far before it was blocked by the parapet structure.) The fact the 95th suffered only 11 casualties attests to the fact of their skirmish order being harder a target for artillery and the overrating of US marksmanship. All eyewitness accounts state that the US troops did not show their faces over the parapet. And it is well concluded by all experts that the majority of British casualties were caused by the US artillery - not rifles or even muskets. If the myth of the rifle being such a dominant factor on the field was true, then US casualties would have been much higher than the reported 13 or so, due to the rifles in the hands of 500 trained British marksmen.

The battle of New Orleans was a siege operation against a fortified position. As such, the attacker anticipates higher casualties than a normal battle in the open, even if victorious. Jackson's parapet was minuscule compared to fortifications defended by professional soldiers, which many of these same British soldiers had stormed and captured in the wars against Napoleon. The attack on Jackson's parapet by all standards of the time should have been a "walk over".
That said, Packenham realized his assault force was not numerous enough. Then, as now, any such assault "by the book" is to be done with an attacking force 3 times greater than the defender. Packenham had barely a 2 to 1 superiority. He could have waited and disembarked more regiments still waiting on the ships but to do so would have caused yet more delay, and the men already on the ground were sagging in morale from the weather, and the lack of further gains against the enemy. Hard choices for any commander.

The following is a portion of the book, "Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns in Portugal, Spain, France and America During the Years 1809-10-11-12-13-14-15" by Sgt. John Spencer Cooper. Cooper was an eyewitness with the 7th Fusiliers at New Orleans. We have added comments of our own to clarify and point out certain items in Cooper's text.

"The Campaign for New Orleans"
Sergeant John Spencer Cooper, 7th Royal Fusiliers
"On the 31st we made the mouth of the Mississippi. The land here is very low, and the sea not more than four fathoms. The fog still continuing, we cruised for several days in search of the fleet. At last we discovered it, near Cat Island, where we anchored. Several regiments had landed, and been engaged in the night time with the Americans. They stole upon the English on their hands and knees, in Indian fashion, and penetrated the very camp; but they were driven out in quick time. This encounter took place several days before we arrived."

(As he states, this was before he landed on the main shore. His account is based on 2nd hand knowledge he got from others. He is describing the night attack of the 23rd/24th near Villere Plantation, which is documented elsewhere very well by eyewitness participants.)

"As the fleet could not approach within about forty miles of the position, all the artillery, ammunition, and provisions, etc., had to be brought to us in boats. While all went on so tardily, the Americans were cutting trenches, mounting cannon, etc., across a narrow plain, which had the mighty Mississippi on the right, and a marshy dense wood on the left."

(He here means the enemy's - Americans - point of view as to left and right.)

"A frigate also was posted on the river in such a situation that it could rake the whole line."

(Frigate is an overstatement. It was barely a sloop. But this is a soldier speaking, not a sailor, so; sloop, brig, pinnacle, frigate...what does he care: it's a big boat with guns!)

"The force which the Americans had to defend this narrow front was said to be about 14,000"

(According to other primary source documents, captured US troops told the British this number, so as to overawe them with exagerrated numbers. This was and still is nothing new in warfare.)

"On the day before the battle, I, with three or four more, was selected to join my old comrades in the Light Company, from which I had been transferred when made sergeant; but the captain would not let me go back. This probably saved my life, for the Light Company, with a company of the 43rd, and one of the 85th, stormed the right redoubt next day, and would have established themselves there, had they been supported."

(The 43rd and 85th were regiments made up entirely of Light Infantry.)

>"...This did not satisfy us, so we hurried to Head Quarters, to speak to Sir Edward Pakenham, but he was out viewing the enemy's defences."

(So Packenham was off doing what a general ought to be doing. How surprising!)

"Early in the morning of January 8th, 1815, we were assembled within cannon shot of the American entrenchments, as the reserve or second line. This was certainly a grand mistake, for the troops in front were composed of two black West India regiments, and other corps that had not been employed in sieges, etc., as we had in Spain."

(The two black units were indeed "in front" of the 7th, of course. Firstly: the 7th being part of the reserve, so the 1st W. Indies was "in front" by being part of the river side column -- and behind the 93rd. Their original disposition was to be part of the force with Thornton crossing the river, but due to the problem with the boats and the dam, they were placed behind the 93rd as part of that column -- however, they apparently did not diagonally cross the field with the 93rd. The 5th W. Indies was also part of the reserve --minus their Light Company, which was part of the force moving forward through the swamp next to the main column of attack.)

"Just as the day was breaking, a rocket whizzed aloft. All stood ready for the assault. At the word "Forward!" the two lines approached the ditch under a murderous discharge of musketry;"

(Note he says "musketry".)

"but crossing the ditch and scaling the parapet were found impossible without ladders. These had been prepared, but the regiment that should have carried them left them behind, and thereby caused, in a few minutes, a dreadful loss of men and officers; while the enemy suffered little, being ensconced behind the parapet.
The front line now fell into great confusion, and retreated behind us, leaving numerous killed and wounded. We then advanced to within musket shot; but the balls flew so thickly that we were ordered to lie down to avoid the shower. In the meantime our Light Company and the two companies before mentioned, had gained a footing on the right of the American works; but having no support at hand, the enemy returned in force,"

(Again, the American "right", which was the British "left". This American "force" would have been the 58 Marines, part or all of the 7th US, and Beale's Rifles (probably the only US unit present able to fully claim the title "Rifles".)

"and drove them into the ditch, where they were exposed to a plunging fire from above, and a flank fire from the frigate.

(Again, sloop - - though most of its guns were removed to the west bank battery.)

"One of the officers in the ditch vented his spleen at the enemy above by throwing stones."

We should point out that officers on foot at this time did not carry firearms, which was why this fellow resorted to throwing stones in his anger and frustration.

"At last, the companies bolted from the ditch and ran off stoopingly in different directions. One of them, named Henry Axhorn, a smart young fellow, received a ball above his hip, which ran up his body, and stuck near his eye. It was extracted in a hospital at New Orleans. He joined us again after the peace, much altered in shape, and not fit for further service. Our Light Company went into this action sixty-four strong, and returned sixteen-having lost forty-eight. That part of our force which was despatched to storm the enemy's works on the other side of the river, pushed off when the rocket was fired; but being few in number, they effected nothing of importance."

(After all was said and done, the west bank capture of the US line eventually was for naught.)

"On our part, just before the order was given to lie down,"

(What's this "order to lie down" business? After all, the "stupid British" just lined up in neat red rows to be mowed down....right...??? )

"my right hand man received a bullet in his forehead, and fell dead across my feet. This man was drunk the night before, and cursing the seven years' men for wishing to be discharged. Poor Fitzpatrick had been considered an honest man; but his knapsack, when opened, showed him to have been a sly thief.
Another man, about ten or twelve files on my right, was smashed to pieces by a cannon ball.
I felt something strike my cap; I took it off, and found sticking to it a portion of his brains, about the size of a marble. A young man on my left got a wound on the top of his head, and ran to the surgeon behind us; he was dressed and sent into his place again. Close to him, another man had his arm so badly fractured near the shoulder that it was taken out of the cup. A few yards behind sat a black man, with all the lower part of his face shot away; his eyes were gone, and the bones of his brow all jagged, and dripping blood. Near him, in a ditch, lay one of the 43rd, trying to hold in his bowels. The enemy kept pounding away at us all day; during which a shower of grape came whizzing like a flock of partridges, and struck Major King dead. "

("Shower of grape".... Grape shot and canister are very similar, and in battle from the receiving end, indistinguishable. Both are loads of balls (usually larger than musket balls) fired from cannon. These were the 1815 form of ultimate close range antipersonnel loads.)

"We lay on the ground under the enemy's fire until dusk, when we retired four or five hundred yards, and took up our quarters in some huts made of sugar canes. Here, without a single breastwork, battery, or ditch, we remained ten days; while the enemy threw shot and shell into our lines day and night. However, they took care not to leave their works.
The day after the battle, a truce for six hours being agreed upon, a party of us was sent to bury the dead. In this sad duty, the Americans brought ours to a ditch between our lines and theirs, and laid the bodies in rows. We then took them and threw them into ditches. While this was being done, an American officer strutted about, sword in hand, on his side of the ditch, to our great amusement. An American soldier, looking at the long rows of the slain, exclaimed, "I never saw the like of that!" One of our party sneeringly said. "That's nowt, man; if you'd been wi' us in Spain, you would ha' seen summat far war!"
While removing the bodies, I stripped two poor fellows of their shirts; they were bloody enough, but I wanted them sadly.
The funeral being over, and the truce having expired, we retired to our huts in haste, and then the game of cannonading began again.
The Americans were highly elated at having beaten the Britishers, and I believe they boast of it to this day.
But all things considered, they had little reason. Let us recapitulate - they were in number about 14,000, behind strong breast works, and a deep ditch; a frigate protected their right flank, a wood and morass their left. Cannon were plentiful all along their front.
Our force numbered about 7,000, including perhaps 1,000 sailors. We had no works, no ditch, and only three small guns. Shelter we had none, for the ground in front of the enemy's works for about a mile was as flat as a bowling green,"

(Again, the US had about 5-6000 men not 14000, and a sloop not a frigate.)

"Of the 1,200 that should have crossed the river, no more than three or four hundred could be supplied with boats. But the chief cause of our failure was the want of ladders, which a certain regiment should have carried, but did not. Had Wellington been there, the Americans would have had less to boast of. Why did not the redoubtable General Jackson, when we were reduced one third, attack us? Nay, why did he not do so, when all but about 1,800 of us had embarked?

(No chasing them "down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico"??? )

"Exposed as we were to the enemy's fire, brushing and parading were continued. Getting myself ready for parade one morning, I saw a man who was doing the same, struck by a round shot. Another, lying in his hut, had both his legs shot off. One day I had occasion to fetch water from a ditch in front of our lines; seeing a smoke rise from the enemy's batteries, I perceived a ball coming straight at me. To avoid it, I fell flat. However, it struck in boggy ground just before me, and sank. A shell fell one night within three feet of the hut in which four of us slept; it burst, made a large hole, but did no harm. I never heard the explosion. Another of these ugly customers passed over us, dropped upon a man's knapsack, and drove it several feet down in the soft earth.
Being on picquet about a quarter of a mile in front, we were alarmed one day by the rattling of musketry on our right. Not seeing any enemy, our officer asked three of us to go with him into the thick wood to reconnoitre. After wading mid-leg deep in water among stumps and tangled fallen trees, we found it next to impossible to proceed, and therefore gave up the enterprise. Our picquet post was a narrow mound of earth, about twenty paces long by two and a half broad, with water on both sides. By continued trampling this wet spot became a puddle. No fire could be lighted, lest we should draw the enemy's shot upon us. Having no alternative, I broke small branches from the bushes, and lay down in the mire. My stockings and shoes being wet, sleep I could not for shivering. Several of our men deserted while we remained in our lines.
Our situation now grew more critical every day, for nearly all the troops encamped behind us had embarked; the 40th regiment and ours alone remained.,br> On the evening of the 18th, the order to retreat came, and we began to move after darkness set in, leaving the picquets at their respective posts. The road we took had never before been trodden by man, and it was both difficult and dangerous. To construct it, small parties had been employed in treading down the tall reeds or canes that grew on the edge of a deep creek. These being twelve or fourteen feet in length overlapped each other when trodden down, and so formed a kind of basket road. This strange path, being underlaid by a stratum of rotten bog, was deceitful; and the night being dark, no one could see where to step. One officer slipped through this bending, swinging path, and sank to his armpits. A canteen strap put under those parts served to hoist him out of his dilemma. A bugler of the 95th Rifles sank overhead and was lost. I had a taste of the same, but only with one leg; the other stood on firmer stuff.
We marched in this way till near daybreak, when we were completely stopped by a wide, deep bog, like a cesspool. Till the foremost got over, we lay down till daylight among the wet grass. In this horrible swamp three or four poor fellows were sticking up to their middles. They were still sinking, and would have perished, when a boat having Admirals Malcolm and Cochrane on board, came down the creek. The boat stopped, and some sailors with shovels cut the prisoners out.
I made a short circuit, and got safely over, by stepping on the roots of some large plants that grew there. Just beyond the bog lay a splendid dead alligator, twelve or fourteen feet long. At length we reached the sea side, and encamped. Not a shot had been fired at our rearguard during the retreat.
About three days after this, we embarked on board the Fox frigate. Here several boats came alongside, full of women belonging to the 93rd regiment, seeking their husbands; but as that corps had lost five or six hundred men on the 8th, many of these poor creatures would seek in vain.
We sailed the same day, but the old Fox ran aground, and stuck fast on a sand bank. Leaving the planks of the Fox, we were conveyed in small craft to Dauphin Island.
In this short passage, a young Swedish sailor slipped over the bow of the vessel into the sea. We looked for him astern but he never rose.,br> Having landed, we constructed huts. This island is nothing more than a great sand bank about twenty miles long, by one and a half broad. There was only one house upon it, and perhaps the reason it is not more inhabited is its want of fresh water. We made holes in the sand, which soon filled; but the water was brackish.
From this place troops were sent to take Fort Boyer, near Mobile. This was soon done, and our men returned, bringing the starred and striped colours of the 2nd Yankee regiment."

(Look there! A battle after the Battle of New Orleans...)

"Next day a frigate arrived " (A Sloop of War, actually...but again, he's a soldier, not a sailor.)

"with the news that peace had been concluded between England and the United States. Had the ship conveying this information arrived sooner, the battle of New Orleans would not have been fought."

(Again, the Treaty had yet to be ratified by Congress...also, the British command had strict orders not to accept any news of the Treaty unless it came direct from the Prince Regent. This news was indeed from the Prince Regent.)

"Hearing this, the surviving seven years men, including myself, became impatient to be sent home; instead of which, we were ordered to construct a theatre. One was presently built of the branches of trees; scenes and dresses wee improvised, and plays were acted; both officers and men taking part."

(Thus ends Cooper's New Orleans narrative.)

Oh yes, before we stop for the moment - some of the Baratarian pirates were present, serving very effectively as artillerymen with the US troops. Jean Lafitte himself, however, was no where near the battle. If this famous and infamous pirate was present, why do no first hand accounts or papers mention him? His brother is mentioned many times, but not Jean. Like any good pirate king, he was probably off counting his loot...

To be continued.....