My first recollection of learning about the Battle of New Orleans was a song by Johnny Horton titled “The Battle of New Orleans.” The lyrics introduced the listener to a man they called “Old Hickory,” the British running through the swamps, and alligators used as ammunition. It made for a story any 10-year-old would love! Though the lyrics of the song were not an accurate account of the battle, it definitely piqued my interest.
Let’s take a look back at the War of 1812 and a January day in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans.
Picture Yourself at the Battle of New Orleans
Imagine a very cold and rainy Louisiana December in 1814 near New Orleans. You are an able-bodied man living in New Orleans, a port town and an important strategic point every nation seems to want control of. Or, perhaps, you are a British infantryman awaiting orders to march on New Orleans. Control of New Orleans and the port would ultimately determine control of the Mississippi River—and the interior of the United States.
Major General Andrew Jackson is in charge of U.S. forces here and has declared martial law in the city. If you are on the side of the U.S., you take up arms and join a hodge-podge group of men. Some of you are soldiers, some are militiamen, others of your comrades are Native Americans, free people of color, or even pirates! If you are on the side of the British, you are a British soldier under the direction of the great Lieutenant General Pakenham. You prepare to follow through with his strategy for taking over the American battery.
Little did you know both sides of the fighting forces were about to be in the last major battle of the War of 1812. You also didn’t know the war was technically over with the recent signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium. That news hadn’t reached those fighting in the U.S. yet.
The First Skirmishes
British ships had entered the Gulf of Mexico in early December 1814. On the morning of the 23rd, British forces were ferried into the bayous and began to approach New Orleans. Major General Andrew Jackson—sometimes called “Old Hickory” because of his toughness—decided to attack the British that night. This assault resulted in Jackson’s troops retreating back to the Rodriguez Canal. The retreat allowed American forces time to fortify the canal.
On Christmas Day, Lieutenant General Edward Pakenham arrived in New Orleans. Leading the British forces, Pakenham had two small skirmishes with Jackson’s forces on 28 December 1814 and 1 January 1815. After these two events, Pakenham came up with a plan to seize the American battery. To do this, he separated his forces into two fronts.
The Final Battle: The Battle of New Orleans
The main group of Pakenham’s forces moved forward on the American battery at the canal on the morning of 8 January 1815. The second, smaller group was led by Colonel Robert Rennie. Rennie led his forces along the riverbank. Within minutes, Colonel Rennie was shot and killed. His forces were left without a leader and retreated while Pakenham’s men advanced in their bright-red uniforms in a line and closely packed together.
Easily seen, close together in a line, and now with no backup, Pakenham’s British forces were easily gunned down in droves by the Americans. Some historians report the Battle of New Orleans claimed the lives of about 60 Americans but nearly 2,000 British. It was in this battle that General Pakenham was shot and killed. In fact, within less than 30 minutes, the British had lost three generals and seven colonels.
Though the British were clearly beat and by this time had retreated, they continued to attack Fort St. Philip near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The push on Fort St. Philip lasted an additional week.
Right before the British withdrawal from New Orleans, there was a public celebration, and Jackson was noted as a hero. Some historians believe Jackson’s hero status and the popularity of his success in New Orleans led to his becoming the seventh president of the United States.
The Official Ending of the War of 1812
The Treaty of Ghent had been signed on 24 December 1814, but news didn’t reach the U.S. for several weeks. The United States finally ratified the Treaty of Ghent on 16 February 1815. This officially ended the War of 1812.
Many believe there was no definitive answer as to who won the war, and some historians say the Battle of New Orleans ended in a stalemate. However, in 1815 many Americans felt they had come out victorious.
Other Significant Battles in the War of 1812
The Battle of New Orleans was significant in the War of 1812 because it was considered the greatest American land victory of the war. But what about the other major battles of the war? To learn more about other significant battles, check out this list of major battles in the War of 1812.
Discover Your War of 1812 Veteran Ancestors
Do you have ancestors who fought in the War of 1812 or the Battle of New Orleans? You can search through FamilySearch’s War of 1812 records or try out the War of 1812 relative finder to learn more about your veteran ancestors.