It's that time of year again: you guessed it! Triple P is gearing up for the 196th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans when a bunch of back woods rabble and those pirates of my ancestry held the line at Rodriguez Canal for freedom, glory, Andrew Jackson and the life of the infant U.S. Many a well meaning historian has mistakenly disparaged this battle as a useless waste of life and even an after thought. After all, hadn’t the Treaty of Ghent which ostensibly brought the U.S. and Britain into a peace agreement been signed prior to the outbreak of fighting? Well, not really.
We’ll discuss all the things that are wrong with that theory as we approach January 8th but, for today, let us look at an almost forgotten but equally important battle fought on the waters of Lake Borgne, Louisiana, on December 14, 1814.
As early as September of the same year the British had begun to focus heavily on conquering the City of New Orleans, amassing ships from their Jamaica Station at Pensacola and Mobile. She was a ripe storehouse full of every imaginable commodity, including lovely Creoles and quadroons. By October the British rallying cry for the taking of New Orleans was “for beauty and booty”, and they weren’t talking about architecture or palm trees under the heading of beauty.
The U.S. Army led by General Jackson and the U.S. Navy led by Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson knew that if the British took New Orleans, the Mississippi as a trade route would be closed off for the entire U.S. It would be a very easy thing from there to starve the newly settled interior and set aside the Treaty of Ghent, which was still in the negotiation phase. As Jackson scrambled about looking for arms – which he found through those French pirates the Laffite brothers – Patterson got wind of a flotilla of British ships heading from Pensacola to Lake Borgne. Something had to be done to at least hold off the British invasion, which was obviously planning to stage at the lake, east of the city, and then march through Bayou Bienvenu to the Mississippi. From there, NOLA was only a hop, skip and a jump away. There was not a moment to lose.
Patterson sent word to Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who was in charge of a small squadron of five gunboats and two pirogues at the mouth of the lake. The Lieutenant was ordered to hold the lake at all costs, turning the British back if possible. Jones and his men had been stationed at the lake for two weeks prior to receiving Patterson’s communiqué, and they were more than up to the task. The problem – as was the case with the every engagement during the battle of New Orleans – was numbers, and Jones was on the short end of that stick.
The Lieutenant’s worst anxieties were confirmed at sunrise on the morning of December 13th when he caught sight of forty-five barges rowing toward the mouth of the lake. It is estimated that 1,200 British sailors and marines sat in those boats, over twice as many men as Jones had under his command. Jones, a gamer all his life, didn’t let the numbers get the better of him and order his men to prepare for a fight. He would, he said in his written report after the battle, “… give the enemy as warm a reception as possible.”
The two forces danced about one another until a calm rendered Jones’ gunboats immobile. The parties clashed at 11:03 AM on December 14th according to Jones’ report with cannon fire from both sides (the barges were fitted with guns at bow and stern). The American forces sank several of the barges outright but the problem was the number of boats they were forced to confront and the better maneuverability of the barges. By afternoon the British had boarded the American boats and bloody hand-to-hand fighting ensued. All of the American gunboats were captured by the British and a pirogue was deliberately set alight to prevent its capture. Jones was injured as were thirty-four of his men; six others were killed.
On the British side, things were even more horrific. Ninety-five men were killed and wounded and this slowed down their ability to start the planned invasion, which should have begun on the night of the 13th. One U.S. sailor later reported witnessing four inches of stagnant blood in the bottoms of some of the British barges.
Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones – whose unusual name is Welsh, with the ap being equivalent to the Irish O’ or Ni meaning son or daughter of respectively – and his crews were taken prisoner and lodged aboard a frigate on Lake Borgne. Their freedom would be negotiated in January by the attorney Edward Livingston whose brother, Robert, was one of the U.S. Ambassadors involved in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent.
Though Jones’ engagement with the British seems a failure on paper, the bravery of he and his crews allowed Jackson to collect arms and recruit men before the British appeared on Chalmette plantation almost a full two weeks later. It was a heroic endeavor, and clearly one that the 24 year old Lieutenant was more than up to.
Header: The Battle of Lake Borgne by Thomas L. Hornbrook c 1836