In 1959, Johnny Horton sang a song entitled “The Battle of New Orleans.” (click here to listen) In it, he told of going with Colonel Jackson down the “Mighty Mississip” in 1814. While this might have been true as far as the date of the trip, the battle did not take place until January 8, 1815, and this year is its bicentennial anniversary. It should be noted that Andrew Jackson was actually a major general both in the Tennessee Militia and the U.S. Army by then. There are two things I find very interesting about this battle, the most famous American victory in the War of 1812: first is that my direct ancestor, John Cherry, served in the battle with the 2nd Regiment of the West Tennessee Mounted Gunmen under “Old Hickory” and the other is that the battle had no affect on the outcome of the war.
Let’s address the first interesting point, well, first. Although I have had ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War (yes, I could be a Son of the American Revolution, if I wanted to take the time and effort), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (on both sides, no less), the only one who bore the Cherry name was John. The Tennessee Mounted Gunmen were militiamen, not regular army, and knew Jackson very well. In 1812, he had led them in an aborted attempt to shore up the defenses of New Orleans (a major port and the defender of the Mississippi River artery), but had to turn back when Congress refused to fund the operation (Congress has always shown such great wisdom). After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the “Red Stick” Creeks, he was made a major general in the U.S. Army, as well as the commander of the Seventh Military District, which included New Orleans. And so, in 1814, he took a little trip with the militias from Kentucky and Tennessee. That included Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry.
The British Navy sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814, and easily swept aside a makeshift American fleet. They landed troops and made camp. After a night attack by Jackson on the 23rd, the British realized that taking New Orleans might be more of a challenge than the sacking of Washington earlier that year. The British commander, General Pakenham, decided to slow his advance and to do a reconnaissance-in-force to assess the American position. This gave much needed time for Jackson to prepare his defenses. He set up eight batteries with twelve cannons and had his men prepare their earthwork defenses. Records state that Jackson had 4,732 men comprised of 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 US Navy seamen, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (of those, 400 to 600 were free Blacks), 1,352 Tennessee Militia (one of whom was John Cherry), 986 Kentucky Militia, and 150 Mississippi Militia. There were also 52 Choctows (traditional enemies of the British Creek allies), along with an unknown number of men supplied by Jean Lafitte.
An interesting side note on the the pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte, is that the British had tried to woo him to support them. The Americans had even attacked him to prevent him from helping the British, seizing property, ships and men. Lafitte had not put up a fight. He was charged with abetting piracy, but he then offered Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne his assistance in fighting the British and the governor sent word to Jackson. Jackson replied, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?” Nonetheless, Lafitte and his men manned American batteries and served on U.S. ships during the battle. In fact, they fought so well that Jackson commended them and they received pardons. Unfortunately, this leopard could not change his spots and spent his life oft overstepping the piracy and smuggling laws. He normally tried to get letters of mark so that he was a legitimate privateer, but did fudge on that. He died in 1823 attacking what he believed to be Spanish merchant vessels off the coast of Honduras. They were actually either well-armed privateers or warships. It is worth noting that he never attacked American vessels and even escorted them safely through dangerous waters at times. Whether he fought for the Americans out of loyalty to America, hatred of the British or just out of pragmatism we will never know, but I like to think it was for the first reason.
The battle has been covered in detail by many sources, including Wikipedia (click here). In summary, Pakenham’s 8000 men, although outnumbering the Americans, were delayed almost twelve hours in their “dawn” attack. They suffered under the American artillery barrages (although there is no record of an alligator being used in place of a cannon, as related in Johnny Horton’s song), then hit withering fire from the muskets and rifles. Since American forces were mainly militiamen, they did not have the inaccurate smoothbores, but rifles (called squirrel guns in the song). Known as Kentucky long rifles (although not made there), they were accurate for up to over 200 yards, twice that of a musket. Although they were slower to load and could not mount a bayonet, they were great for men sitting “behind cotton bales” and picking off British soldiers. Although the British did push back the Americans in the west, their main attacks were thrown back with heavy losses. When the battle was over, three British generals (including Pakenham) and eight colonels were among the 251 British killed. 1,259 were wounded and 484 were missing in the battle. The Americans lost a total of 11 men and 23 wounded, with no major officers in that number. It was the greatest American victory of the war. Or was it?
Here comes the second interesting point: the war was already over. On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium. However, there was no telephone to send the word to the armies. In fact, the Senate did not ratify it until February 18, 1815, for the simple reason that they did not have a copy to do so. So the battle had no effect on the outcome of the war. Save one. It restored national pride, giving Americans a land battle in which they could celebrate. The outnumbered American militiamen had righteously “whupped” some of the best professional soldiers in the world. The battle also created an American hero that came only second to George Washington in the eyes of the people: Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. And the rest, as they say, is history.
An amusing side note is that Johnny Horton found that “The Battle of New Orleans” was not selling very well in the British Isles. Wonder why? So he was convinced to make a different version with a different take on the battle, one more British biased. (click here) While Johnny was not anti-British (his song “Sink the Bismark” proves that), he should have left well enough alone. This revisionist version of the battle just doesn’t work. Sadly, Johnny died in an auto accident after four short years of hits. His rockabilly songs and historical ballads are still played and enjoyed by people like me. Thanks to Youtube, they live on.