Thursday, January 6, 2011

History: The Battle Of New Orleans

The official date of The Battle of New Orleans is chiseled in the stone of history as January 8, 1815 but in fact the artillery battle began on New Year’s Day and continued on and off until the final bloody horror of the 8th. I won’t recount the battle here; that would honestly be an insult to all the Brethren. I will, however, offer a few tidbits of information that may be unknown to most Americans who, let’s face it, are woefully under informed about their own history (myself included). I hope that these little vignettes inspire you to dig a little deeper into the history of this battle that children are still being taught was unnecessary since peace had already been achieved via treaty.

The state of Tennessee is now known as “The Volunteer State” because of the high number of Tennesseans who signed on with General Jackson to face the British at New Orleans. Then, as now, the U.S. had a volunteer military.

Future U.S. President Andrew Jackson made his name with the victory at New Orleans. Unfortunately, he suffered mightily with dysentery before, during and after the battle. He slept rarely, was frequently snappish and unpleasant and took gin as a tonic. His shocking weight loss at the time led to his nickname: Old Hickory, because he looked tall, thin and brittle like a leafless hickory tree.

Jackson became convinced that the British would enter Lake Ponchartraine via Bayou St. John – despite intelligence to the contrary – and he therefore mounted guns and sentinels at Fort St. John overlooking the lake. He chose Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, arguably two of the best artillerists in the south if not in the country, to lead this venture. (Look, I know I’m a Beluche but it’s not bragging if it’s true.) Someone, very possibly one or both of the Laffite brothers, at last convinced the General that two such men should be on the line at Chalmette plain. Youx, Beluche and their men arrived at Rodriguez canal on December 28 and immediately took their positions at Battery number 3.

In reference to the incredible effect the Baratarians had on the battle, Jane Lucas de Grummond writes in her book The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans (pg 121):

The French genius of Jackson’s cannoniers
is evident in the names of those who directed the gun crews: Dominique You[x], Renato Beluche, Garriques Flaujeac, Bertel and Chauveau. Jackson’s 10 inch mortar was useless until Jules Lefevre, one of Napoleon’s eagles and a veteran marine artillerist, took command of it.

She goes on to point out that official reports after the battle lauded the Americans at the cannons and mortars, but conveniently left out French names like Chauveau and Lefevre.

A fine example of Baratarian determination comes in the form of a vignette about Triple P favorite Dominique Youx. At one point prior to the climactic battle he climbed up onto the earthworks before his gun, opened his telescope and began to sight the British cannon positions. Beluche, at the gun next door, called for his friend to get down. “You’ll get your ass shot off, Youx.” As Youx replied that he would not a British ball came in and grazed the captain’s arm, burning him but doing no other damage. Youx screamed curses in French: “You will pay for that, Anglais!” He turned and ordered his crew to pack their gun with deadly chain shot and ship’s canister and fire. The shot disabled the cannon that had struck him and killed six men. Beluche followed Youx’s lead and opened fire. As British Captain Hill would later recount:

The battery of theirs that did us by far the most damage was the third one from the right… This battery mounted 24-pounders which were fired alternately with great deliberation and with unvarying effect. (also via de Grummond, pgs 116-117)

The Americans used cotton bales to fortify their barricades and support their cannon. These absorbed enemy fire, although the hazard of their being set alight by hot shot was realized more than once. The British used casks of sugar which, when broken open by enemy fire, literally melted into the muddy ground, making their cannon impossible to aim.

While the Royal Navy had dragged cannon and ammunition up Bayou Bienvenue in an heroic effort to empower their army on Chalmette, they had brought very little in the way of provisions to thousands of hungry men. The British suffered with empty bellies in the cold rain, unable to build fires for fear of alerting the enemy to their positions. On the other side of the line, the Americans ate like kings. The storehouses in New Orleans were full to bursting and women came in from town to cook for and provision the troops. The famous
story of Dominique Youx making coffee for General Jackson is just one example of how comfortable the U.S. line was by comparison.

And speaking of the ladies, particularly local men turned their thoughts to them. Not everyone was perfectly certain of victory. The British force seemed overwhelming, as indeed it was, and more than one man made plans to evacuate his family. In particular Edward Livingston, acting as aid to General Jackson, approached Jean Laffite at the line and asked that – should the worst occur – Jean make sure that Livingston’s wife and daughter were safely out of New Orleans. This interchange illustrates that people knew the Laffites had ways of circumventing the usual routes in and out of the city. It also shows that respected citizens would trust their families to the so called “hellish banditti”. Or, as in this case, the Gentleman Laffite.

The misery of war is often best illustrated in numbers and the Battle of New Orleans is no different. When the sun set on January 8th the U.S. would count six dead and seven wounded on Rodriguez canal. The British would suffer over 1,900 dead and wounded including commanding Generals Packenham and Gibbs, killed by enemy fire.

And then there’s the Treaty of Ghent which was signed on December 24, 1814 and allegedly ended the war prior to the fighting at New Orleans actually did no such thing. Signed it was on the 24th, but it was not ratified by the U.S. Congress until after the New Year. The quibble was a clause “ante bellum”, inserted specifically by the British, which stated that any land in North America occupied by the British at the time the treaty was ratified would be ceded to the British. If the British had been on Chalmette plain, and the treaty had been ratified by Congress as it was, they would have controlled the mouth of the Mississippi going forward. This would have effectively closed the Mississippi to trade for the United States, accomplishing the original goal of the War of 1812: economic victory for Britain. It is reasonable to assume that the U.S. would now be part of Canada.

It is a shame that the Battle of New Orleans, which was in fact the culmination of the United States’ second war for independence, is no more than a foot note in our history now. It is even more a shame that very few Americans know the incredible contribution of the combined force of “backwoods rabble” and “pirates” that quite literally saved their country. But, as I noted earlier, we’re not just bad at math, we’re even worse at history.

Header: The Battle of New Orleans by Dennis M. Carter


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Speaking of being bad at history, remember a few years ago when you mentioned "Old Hickory" to me and I asked you if that was the name of Jean Laffite's boat?

Gawd, I'm an idiot.

Thanks for straitening me out back then and continuing to enlighten us all with another fun and informative post.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! We all have our moments, and that one was hilarious!

I just love this stuff though. Can ya tell?

Capt. John Swallow said...

Actually, a good part o' the (now) US was part o' (now) Canada - then New France - until that idiot Napoleon practically gave it away! In fact La Louisiane alone ran from the bayous of Barataria to the bedrock of the Great Lakes...

No wonder that even after the Spanish ran all over it, the British tried to steal it (AND expelled Les Acadiens) and the Americans finally took "control" of it (a relative term to be sure where Louisiana is concerned - especially New Orleans which still hangs onto some of the old Napoleonic Law)...even after all of this, it became home to so many of French Ancestry (whether via France itelf, L'Acadie, Quebec, the French Caribbean, or further afield) and it's French history, culture, flavours & joie de vivre surpassed any other stamp upon it!

Today, raise a tankard to the Maid of Orleans, the Lafittes and all who hold La Nouvelle Orleans et La Louisiane in their hearts...salud!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Captain and thankee indeed. You've always plenty of righteous history to add.

Of course my only quibble, being - like the Laffites - Creole is that we like to think we brought our own brand of joie de vivre to the bayous :) But no place embraces all quite like La Louisiane. It only makes her that much more colorful and flavorful (and for those of us away, that much easier to miss).

Salud, mon ami, et touts les bon temps!

Charles L. Wallace said...

A good history lesson, Pauline, and thank you. School lessons certainly gloss over the fact that the Treaty of Ghent was not ratified until 1815, and completely ignore the British Possession Codicil ;-0 Thank you for learning us that one.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thankee! The whole "Treaty of Ghent ended the war before NOLA" thing just gripes me. And no one bothers to mention that both Spain and Britain refused to recognize Napoleon's sale of the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. making the entire area, in their politics, up for grabs.

Capt. John Swallow said...

BTW, I'm still havin' a chuckle over Timmy's "Ol' Hick'ry" post...Timmy, yer a good lad to have a sense o' humour about it, just go easy on the RUM.

Although, Timmy, shouldn't feel too embarrassed by it - just last year (2010) a writer at a prominent New Orleans publication Referred to Gen. Andrew Jackson as "Stonewall"...only off by a President, one human being and +/- 40 years! (actually, the Battle Of New Orleans was fought 9 years before Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was even BORN - Ol' Hick'ry was 48 at the time o' the battle).

Pauline said...

And again, MORE righteous history; thankee indeed, Captain. The "Stonewall" is a good one; although that Jackson loved his Louisianans as well.

(And ye have it, mate; we've been tellin' ol' Timmy to watch his tankard for a while now...)

Anonymous said...

Actually, the "ante bellum" clause would have returned the countries to the former status quo, land possession wise. You must be thinking about the other situation, "Uti possidetis", which would indeed have left a winner Britain in control of the Mississippi.

But great info none the less.

Pauline said...

Thank you for adding your insight to this post, Anon. I very much appreciate your taking the time to do so.