Battle of Lake Borgne – 14 December 1814
With the arrival of the main British fleet at the outer anchorage near Cat Island on 10th December the decision window began rapidly to close on the British commanders. With Mobile ruled out and their larger vessels being unable to cross the bar and navigate up the Mississippi direct their choices for an assault on New Orleans now centred on two key choices; firstly, transporting the troops from the fleet into Lake Ponchartrain via Lake Borgne, through Les Rigolets, and then descend from the north on the city by Bayou St Jean; or, second, convey them across Lake Borgne and then by some backdoor route to the city via the intricate system of bayous.
Both options presented real dangers for the British: First there were the many logistical difficulties caused by shallowness of both lakes that prevented the ingress and smooth passage of all but the lightest vessels and of which the British had a woefully and critically short supply. This situation necessitated the use of the Isle aux pois (or Pea Island), a swampy islet near the mouth of the Pearl River, as a half-way staging post to first collect troops before then striking at New Orleans.
The second danger was a military one in the shape of a flotilla of five light draft American gunboats and two support vessels that barred, or at least threatened to do so, the progress of the troops from the fleet towards the lakes and spied on British activities. Simply put the British had to eliminate the American flotilla and in the process, if possible, capture these vessels intact and use them to offset their shortage in light draft craft.
By 12th December then the stage was set for the Battle of Lake Borgne. Against the backdrop of the troops being shuffled to begin the task of disembarkation and transport them over to the Isle aux pois some 48 row barges of the British fleet were allocated to the task of attacking the American flotilla. The American gunboats, strong and sturdily built, were commanded overall by Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones USN and crewed by young skilled men eager and determined to defend the honour of their country. The British sailors and marines were commanded overall by Lieutenant Nicholas Lockyer RN and were equally cast and what their craft lacked in size and strength relative to the American flotilla they made up for in quantity.
After a ‘tedious’ chase of 36 hours in open boats exposed to bone chilling cold, the British at last ‘cornered’ the now stranded Americans between Malheaureux Island and the mainland, with the tide working in favour of the British moving the American vessels slowly and inexorably out of their planned defensive line, and battle was joined on 14th December. With the tactic of working from one gunboat to the next, the British crews led on by the example of Lockyer cut their way in through anti-boarding nets and at sword, bayonet and pistol point eventually succeeded in overcoming tough American resistance and captured all five gunboats and one supporting vessel (the other was lost by fire) but not before suffering heavy causalities, 19 dead and 75 wounded including a severely wounded Lockyer. The Americans lost 6 killed, 35 wounded, including a seriously wounded Jones, and 86 captured. The captured vessels were patched up, individually re-christened and all taken into the service of the Royal Navy as the New Orleans flotilla.
All sources agree that for the men on both sides the Battle of Lake Borgne was tough and brutal. Yet for the British it was a much needed victory providing a boost in morale and materiel. For the Americans it was a potential disaster, for as historian Robert Remini remarked, Jackson had lost his “eyes on the lakes.”