Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Hero Tales from American History, by Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt.
When, in 1814, Napoleon was overthrown and forced to retire to Elba, the British troops that had followed Wellington into southern France were left free for use against the Americans. A great expedition was organized to attack and capture New Orleans, and at its head was placed General Pakenham, the brilliant commander of the column that delivered the fatal blow at Salamanca. In December a fleet of British war-ships and transports, carrying thousands of victorious veterans from the Peninsula, and manned by sailors who had grown old in a quarter of a century’s triumphant ocean warfare, anchored off the broad lagoons of the Mississippi delta. The few American gunboats were carried after a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, the troops were landed, and on December 23 the advance-guard of two thousand men reached the banks of the Mississippi, but ten miles below New Orleans, and there camped for the night. It seemed as if nothing could save the Creole City from foes who had shown, in the storming of many a Spanish walled town, that they were as ruthless in victory as they were terrible in battle. There were no forts to protect the place, and the militia were ill armed and ill trained. But the hour found the man. On the afternoon of the very day when the British reached the banks of the river the vanguard of Andrew Jackson’s Tennesseeans marched into New Orleans. Clad in hunting-shirts of buckskin or homespun, wearing wolfskin and coonskin caps, and carrying their long rifles on their shoulders, the wild soldiery of the backwoods tramped into the little French town. They were tall men, with sinewy frames and piercing eyes. Under “Old Hickory’s” lead they had won the bloody battle of the Horseshoe Bend against the Creeks; they had driven the Spaniards from Pensacola; and now they were eager to pit themselves against the most renowned troops of all Europe.
Jackson acted with his usual fiery, hasty decision. It was absolutely necessary to get time in which to throw up some kind of breastworks or defenses for the city, and he at once resolved on a night attack against the British. As for the British, they had no thought of being molested. They did not dream of an assault from inferior numbers of undisciplined and ill-armed militia, who did not possess so much as bayonets to their guns. They kindled fires along the levees, ate their supper, and then, as the evening fell, noticed a big schooner drop down the river in ghostly silence and bring up opposite to them. The soldiers flocked to the shore, challenging the stranger, and finally fired one or two shots at her. Then suddenly a rough voice was heard, “Now give it to them, for the honor of America!” and a shower of shell and grape fell on the British, driving them off the levee. The stranger was an American man-of-war schooner. The British brought up artillery to drive her off, but before they succeeded Jackson’s land troops burst upon them, and a fierce, indecisive struggle followed. In the night all order was speedily lost, and the two sides fought singly or in groups in the utmost confusion. Finally a fog came up and the combatants separated. Jackson drew off four or five miles and camped.
The British had been so roughly handled that they were unable to advance for three or four days, until the entire army came up. When they did advance, it was only to find that Jackson had made good use of the time he had gained by his daring assault. He had thrown up breastworks of mud and logs from the swamp to the river. At first the British tried to batter down these breastworks with their cannon, for they had many more guns than the Americans. A terrible artillery duel followed. For an hour or two the result seemed in doubt; but the American gunners showed themselves to be far more skilful than their antagonists, and gradually getting the upper hand, they finally silenced every piece of British artillery. The Americans had used cotton bales in the embrasures, and the British hogsheads of sugar; but neither worked well, for the cotton caught fire and the sugar hogsheads were ripped and splintered by the roundshot, so that both were abandoned. By the use of red-hot shot the British succeeded in setting on fire the American schooner which had caused them such annoyance on the evening of the night attack; but she had served her purpose, and her destruction caused little anxiety to Jackson.
Having failed in his effort to batter down the American breastworks, and the British artillery having been fairly worsted by the American, Pakenham decided to try open assault. He had ten thousand regular troops, while Jackson had under him but little over five thousand men, who were trained only as he had himself trained them in his Indian campaigns. Not a fourth of them carried bayonets. Both Pakenham and the troops under him were fresh from victories won over the most renowned marshals of Napoleon, andover soldiers that had proved themselves on a hundred stricken fields the masters of all others in Continental Europe. At Toulouse they had driven Marshal Soult from a position infinitely stronger than that held by Jackson, and yet Soult had under him a veteran army. At Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, and San Sebastian they had carried by open assault fortified towns whose strength made the intrenchments of the Americans seem like the mud walls built by children, though these towns were held by the best soldiers of France. With such troops to follow him, and with such victories behind him in the past, it did not seem possible to Pakenham that the assault of the terrible British infantry could be successfully met by rough backwoods riflemen fighting under a general as wild and untrained as themselves.
He decreed that the assault should take place on the morning of the eighth. Throughout the previous night the American officers were on the alert, for they could hear the rumbling of artillery in the British camp, the muffled tread of the battalions as they were marched to their points in the line, and all the smothered din of the preparation for assault. Long before dawn the riflemen were awake and drawn up behind the mud walls, where they lolled at ease, or, leaning on their long rifles, peered out through the fog toward the camp of their foes. At last the sun rose and the fog lifted, showing the scarlet array of the splendid British infantry. As soon as the air was clear Pakenham gave the word, and the heavy columns of redcoated grenadiers and kilted Highlanders moved steadily forward. From the American breastworks the great guns opened, but not a rifle cracked. Three fourths of the distance were covered, and the eager soldiers broke into a run; then sheets of flame burst from the breastworks in their front as the wild riflemen of the backwoods rose and fired, line upon line. Under the sweeping hail the head of the British advance was shattered, and the whole column stopped. Then it surged forward again, almost to the foot of the breastworks; but not a man lived to reach them, and in a moment more the troops broke and ran back. Mad with shame and rage, Pakenham rode among them to rally and lead them forward, and the officers sprang around him, smiting the fugitives with their swords and cheering on the men who stood. For a moment the troops halted, and again came forward to the charge; but again they were met by a hail of bullets from the backwoods rifles. One shot struck Pakenham himself. He reeled and fell from the saddle, and was carried off the field. The second and third in command fell also, and then all attempts at further advance were abandoned, and the British troops ran back to their lines. Another assault had meanwhile been made by a column close to the river, the charging soldiers rushing to the top of the breastworks; but they were all killed or driven back. A body of troops had also been sent across the river, where they routed a small detachment of Kentucky militia; but they were, of course, recalled when the main assault failed.
At last the men who had conquered the conquerors of Europe had themselves met defeat. Andrew Jackson and his rough riflemen had worsted, in fair fight, a far larger force of the best of Wellington’s veterans, and had accomplished what no French marshal and no French troops had been able to accomplish throughout the long war in the Spanish peninsula. For a week the sullen British lay in their lines; then, abandoning their heavy artillery, they marched back to the ships and sailed for Europe.
The Chalmette Battlefield (where this took place) is still there today, and they still do reenactments with the artillery and everything. It’s an amazing place to check out, though it’s out of the way of the city.