At the time of the battle, the U.S. victory over the British was so celebrated, it catapulted Andrew Jackson to national fame and, later, the presidency. Today, the Battle of New Orleans is one of the most storied fights in American military history, known even to those who may know nothing else about the War of 1812 because the stakes were high.
It pitted an estimated 8,000 professional British troops against an American force of just more than 5,000 regular troops, militia, native allies, former slaves and French pirates under Jean Lafitte. They were fighting for control of roughly half of the young United States (more on that in a second), and it came after the treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed.
Like most stories, time and retelling can exaggerate the facts surrounding what really happened, and misconceptions tend to turn into "truths." Here are just a few of those key points that might need a little clarification.
1. It Wasn't Just About the City of New Orleans.
When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, it paid Napoleon's French Empire for it. The British did not recognize any treaty made by the emperor's government, so a British victory at New Orleans might have led to Britain taking control of all the former Louisiana Purchase.
Although historians dispute what the British might have done with the large swath of land, most believe they would have created an independent country for American Indians as a buffer state between the U.S. and British North America. The worst-case scenario would have had Britain ceding the entire purchase back to Spain.
2. The Battle of New Orleans Was Actually a Series of Fights.
What we commonly think of as the Battle of New Orleans came on the east bank of the Mississippi river on Jan. 8, 1815. In the days before, however, the two sides were jockeying for better positions for their forces.
The British first sailed into Lake Borgne in December 1814, clearing it of American vessels. They then landed troops and marched to the plantation of Maj. Gabriel Villeré. After capturing his home, they made camp, but Villeré escaped and warned Jackson of the British advance. Jackson attacked the British encampment.
Jackson's forces were busy constructing earthwork reinforcements during the entire time period. Although his attack on the British failed, he gave them a pretty decent black eye. The British next launched a reconnaissance attack on Jackson's fortified position on Dec. 28, 1814, to test the defenses. On Jan. 1, 1815, the sides began an artillery duel that demoralized the British. This all happened before the decisive battle.
3. The War Wasn't Technically Over During the Battle.
The Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812 was signed in what is today Belgium on Dec. 24, 1814. Back in New Orleans, the British were still ransacking the home of Maj. Villeré, and Gen. Jackson was planning his counterattack. What Jackson didn't know was that the commander of British ground forces, Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, had orders to continue the war, even if he'd heard rumors of peace.
The enduring story of the Battle of New Orleans is that it was fought after the war ended, but according to the terms of the treaty, it didn't take effect until February 1815. The British might have saved the lives of some redcoats if they hadn't attacked New Orleans, but they were still technically at war.
4. Poor British Planning Was as Important as the American Defense.
The British made a lot of mistakes during the battle and in the days leading up to it. The British attack on the Villeré plantation allowed Jackson to deal a blow to the British troops. Even if he lost that engagement, the British were hit pretty hard. The attack and counterattack also bought the Americans time to bolster their earthwork defenses on the Mississippi River banks.
During the reconnaissance-in-force attack on the American lines, Maj. Gen. Pakenham saw his left get chewed up by the American defenders, who used two sets of cannons in an enfilading fire that devastated the British attack. What he didn't see was the right side of his line nearly break through the defenses and send American militia scurrying away from the line entirely. He withdrew before the right side could capitalize on their gains.
5. The U.S. Army Was Better than History Gives It Credit for.
At the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. Army was largely underprepared and under-equipped to take on the British Empire in a second war for independence. Two years later, the regular army was an effective fighting force, with troops as good as anyone, anywhere in the world, including the veteran British redcoats.
The British not only underestimated American regulars, but also the militia that fought alongside them. Despite the militia's performance during the British reconnaissance attack, American militia performed well behind defensive positions, just like those Jackson built to defend New Orleans.
They completely overlooked the importance of the sailors, Marines, free Black men and Choctaws who joined the battle for the Americans -- and it cost them. The Battle of New Orleans was over in just 30 minutes.
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