“Glorious Victory,” 8 January 1815
For his “Glorious victory” over the British at the Battle of New Orleans on 8 January 1815, Andrew Jackson was characterised as the “Savior of America.” And for some time afterwards 8 January was a day of celebration in the USA to rival 4 July. At a time when Americans were still reeling from the shock of the capture of the nation’s capital, the burning of the White House and Capitol, and the country’s finances were in dire straits, Jackson’s victory proved to be hugely important for the future stability, if not the survival, of the American “experiment.” In the words of Professor Don Hickey, the battle “transformed the entire war, at least in the eyes of Americans, into a glorious triumph and a great benchmark in the march of U.S. progress and in the broader history of mankind.”
Genius of Andrew Jackson
The traditional explanation for what happened at the Battle of New Orleans is that the genius of Andrew Jackson moulded a disparate group of people together to annihilate an elite British army. It is an inspiring, emotional story that has been characterised as the first recorded instance of strength through diversity in American history. While this depiction has an alluring appeal, certainly to many Americans, it does not bear close scrutiny. At times, during the crisis at New Orleans, American ranks were riven with defeatism and dissension – with Governor Claiborne of Louisiana at loggerheads with Jackson.
Andrew Jackson’s leadership was undoubtedly inspirational – but it was far from an unblemished record. With time we intend to explore this in greater depth. But the British army he faced at New Orleans was not the army of common perception. Less than half of the British troops who attacked the American line on 8 January 1815 were Peninsular War veterans, the famous Wellington “Invincibles.” Among the key regiments engaged in the fighting who were not Wellington men were the 1/21st, 1/44th and the Scottish 1/93rd, the latter unit having been on garrison duty in South Africa – and they did not wear kilts on the day of the battle contrary to popular perception.
Morale among many of the British troops was low by the time the battle of 8 January was fought. Indiscipline had been evident for some time too. Traditionally, on the British side, blame for the disaster on 8 January is laid at the door of Colonel Mullins of the 1/44th. It is our contention that long-running discipline problems in the 1/21st proved even more crucial in events leading to the death of the British army commander, Ned Pakenham.
Equally questionable is another common perception of the battle of the 8 January – that the British were led on in the “brave but blundering style of old”, advancing in linear formation convinced that they would march over a motley American army comprised mainly of militia, some regulars, “pirates”, African Americans and Native Americans.
Booty and Beauty
The failure of the British expedition to New Orleans has also been put down to the hubris and greed of its Army and Navy commanders who totally overestimated themselves and underestimated Andrew Jackson and the fighting prowess of his diverse American army. “Booty and Beauty,” (looting and lust) it was alleged, were the watchwords of the advancing British army. That is not to deny that there was no truth in the allegations in relation to “Booty.” There are grounds for the Duke of Wellington’s stinging accusation at the time that some British commanders at New Orleans were “sharks.”
What is not in doubt is that a crushing and hugely lopsided victory was gained by the Americans over the British who lost almost 2,500 men, killed, wounded and captured, to 350 Americans. (The Americans won the main battle on the East bank of the river, and lost the battle on the West bank). It is our intention to add to understanding of this important battle in world history, not least by drawing on extensive British documentary records, many of them never before considered.