While British historians often view the War
of 1812 as just one theatre of the larger Napoleonic Wars, it stands alone as a conflict
in both American and Canadian history. Its most famous battle, The Battle of New Orleans,
was also its last and featured one of the most important America military leaders – Andrew
Jackson, who led an outnumbered and undisciplined ragtag force against the world’s strongest
military. Being at war with the Napoleonic France for
a long time, Britain, started pressing American merchant sailors into the service, forcing
them to join the Royal Navy. Burgeoning United States considered this illegal and threatened
to retaliate, but as Britain needed these sailors to reinforce a blockade of France,
the practice continued. Both that and the blockade of France had a negative effect on
the American economy. Meanwhile, as the Americans expanded westward,
they faced Native American nations who fought back to defend their land. The British became
allies to these Native American nations, seeing them as a buffer to its Canadian colonies,
and provided them with weapons. As attacks on American settlers on the frontier increased,
more and more of them began to blame Britain. American war hawks proclaimed the need for
the new country to defend its national honor. On June 4, 1812, Congress declared war on
Britain, and despite the fact many New England representatives strongly opposing the war,
on June 18th President Madison signed the declaration. Britain was caught off guard
by this, as their forces in Canada were not prepared and the country was mostly preoccupied
with the war with France. Luckily for the British, the American forces were not prepared
either. In 1812, the United States had an army of less than 12,000 soldiers. While Congress
had approved the expansion of the army to 35,000, service was voluntary, the pay was
little, the army had few experienced officers and many did not want to join because they
didn’t support the war. Still, they were the first to attack, assuming
Canada would go down without much of a fight. Michigan’s territorial governor, William
Hull, led American forces into Canada, but mostly fought with words rather than artillery,
threatening the locals with a proclamation that stated to surrender or the “horrors,
and calamities of war will stalk before you.” However, on August 16th, British and Native
forces led by Isaac Brock and Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee confederation attacked Hull’s
forces at Detroit, forcing him to surrender without firing a shot.
The War of 1812 took place in three theatres: the Great Lakes region, along the East Coast,
and in the South. The Americans found little success in all three theatres. In the Great
Lakes region, after Hull’s embarrassing defeat, his replacement, William Henry Harrison,
struggled to defend a few frontier outposts constantly under threat from both Native American
and British forces. On the northeastern border with Canada, American general Henry Dearborn
struggled to prepare an attack on Montreal due to New England militias not wanting to
fight in the war. Whenever American forces did cross the border, they were often pushed
back. Dearborn was replaced with generals James Wilkinson and Wade Hampton, but their
complicated and invasion plan of Montreal completely fell apart in November 1813.
Out west, though, American luck had begun to change, as General Oliver Hazard Perry
was able to capture Lake Erie in the Battle of Put-in-Bay, fought on September 10, 1813.
This paved the way for General Harrison to take back control of Detroit, defeating Major-General
Henry Procter and his British and Native American forces at the Battle of the Thames on October
5, 1813.Tecumseh was killed during the battle, and it completely demoralized his Shawnee
confederation. In the South, influenced by the resistance
of Tecumseh and his confederation, Native American forces continued to build up to unite
to fight the American forces. The main conflict became known as the Creek War, led by a traditionalist
faction of the Creek nation known as the Red Sticks. Ultimately, American forces led by
General Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in present-day
Alabama on March 27, 1814. This ended the Creek War.
Meanwhile, along the East Coast, the British Royal Navy was dominating. Throughout the
war, they had set up a blockade from Maine all the way down to Georgia. In April 1814,
after Napoleon went into exile, Britain was able to focus more on defeating the Americans,
sending thousands more troops to North America. British forces led by Major-General Robert
Ross took over Chesapeake Bay and took the U.S. capital – Washington on August 24, 1814,
famously burning government buildings like the Capitol and the President’s home to
the ground. As Americans fled the capital, troops gathered
at nearby Fort McHenry to attempt to defend against any further British advances. During
the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814, American forces held back both sea and land
invasions by the British, killing Major-General Ross in process. This resistance eventually
inspired Francis Scott Key to create a poem which later became the lyrics for The Star-Spangled
Banner – the national anthem of the United States.
By this time, peace negotiations were already underway in the city of Ghent, in modern-day
Belgium. On Christmas Eve, 1814, a deal was struck to end the war. However, the news of
that would not reach America until a few weeks later and British forces were well on their
way to the city of New Orleans, a strategically important port city located where the Mississippi
River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Capturing it would have allowed them to take over the
Louisiana Territory. Britain had sent sixty ships with approximately 14,450 soldiers and
sailors aboard, all under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane.
On the other side, was Andrew Jackson, who by this time had become one of the most successful
if not the most successful American leaders of the war. When he had first arrived to New
Orleans, he found the city completely defenseless. He immediately declared martial law and collected
civilians to garrison the outskirts of the city. The army he built was mostly made up
of untrained militiamen and volunteers. It was a ragtag bunch which included free blacks,
New Orleans aristocrats, and members of the native Choctaw nation. His troops were so
diverse that orders had to be given in English, French, Spanish, and Choctaw.
The night before the peace treaty was signed, Jackson led his 2,131 men in a surprise attack
on British camp nine miles south of New Orleans. Completely unwitting British troops. Managed
to fight off Jackson’s forces, 46 of their soldiers were killed, 167 wounded, and 64
missing. Jackson’s attack had shocked them. They expected a quick victory with their superior,
experienced forces, but everything looked more complicated now.
The British responded with a sortie on December 28 and artillery bombardment on New Year’s
Day. Both failed due to successful American counterfire. By the early days of January,
reinforcements had arrived for both sides, with the British soldiers now over 8,000-strong
and Jackson’s troops numbering 4,732. Jackson’s men built up fortifications near the Rodriguez
Canal, which branched off the Mississippi River and was about five miles south of New
Orleans. Jackson used slaves to widen the canal into a defensive trench and used the
extra dirt to build a seven-foot tall rampart supported by timber. This barrier, nicknamed
“Line Jackson,” stretched from the Mississippi to the marsh, which was next to impossible
to get through. Jackson told his soldiers, “Here we shall plant our stakes, and not
abandon them until we drive these red-coat rascals into the river, or the swamp.”
Despite the imposing fortifications, the confident British Lieutenant General Edward Pakenham
planned a two-part frontal attack. The first part involved a small British force crossing
the west bank of the Mississippi and taking over an American battery. After getting those
guns, the plan was to turn them on the Americans, catching the defense in a barrage of crossfire.
The second part involved a force of 5,000 men charging forward in two columns to overwhelm
the main American line at the Rodriguez Canal. Seeing heavy fog on the morning of January
8, Pakenham decided that was the day to execute his plan just before dawn. His main force
charged toward the canal near the swamp. They were met by shots from Jackson’s 24 canons.
Along the riverbank, Colonel Robert Rennie advanced forces, dominating over an American
redoubt. Before Rennie could claim victory, however, he was shot dead and his men frantically
retreated. Unluckily for the British, the fog quickly lifted, giving American gunners
clear sight of the enemy forces. Cannon fire successfully split the British line in several
places. Jackson’s soldiers, many of them hunters of the frontier, fired with stunning
precision. Pakenham, who was up front with his forces, was a victim of that accuracy.
He was hit and died minutes later. The lead British commander on the battlefield was now
gone as well. Meanwhile, the British force who was supposed
to take over the American battery were delayed. They captured it and were moderately successful
at taking out some American troops, but by that time it was too late. At Line Jackson,
the British soldiers were retreating in huge numbers. The British attack on Jackson’s
fortification was a failure and they lost around 2,000 men, including three generals
and seven colonels. The whole battle last less than 30 minutes. Jackson’s underdog
unit lost less than 70 men. The British army remained in Louisiana for
several days. After its naval force failed to take Fort St. Philip on January 18, the
British had to retreat back to the Gulf of Mexico. Soon, both sides had finally received
the message that a peace treaty had already been signed.
The Battle of New Orleans was the final major battle of the War of 1812 and is often considered
the most important battle of the war, despite being fought after a peace treaty was negotiated.
The battle was significant for the Americans, as they were huge underdogs in Louisiana,
and expected the worst. This victory raised the profile of Andrew Jackson, who now was
a national hero. And while most historians conclude today that the War of 1812 was a
stalemate, it felt like a victory to Americans after the victory at New Orleans. In fact,
this victory increased national pride to a level it hadn’t seen since first becoming
a country, and the popularity of Jackson would escalate him to the presidency 14 years later.
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