Front Lines of Victory: Re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans

Published: Jan. 12, 2015 at 2:54 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2015 at 5:18 AM CST
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CHALMETTE, LA (WVUE) - The Louisiana Living History Foundation has gathered 1500 re-enactors in Chalmette to stage the first-ever, large-scale recreation of the Battles of New Orleans. Its a series of five engagements starting with the night of December 23, , 1814, the day that Andrew Jackson learned the British had landed and were camped near the Villere Plantation.

"What Jackson does when he knows the British are there is very unconventional and it's quite brilliant, Timothy Pickles with The Louisiana living History Foundation said. "The idea of joining together a land and a water-based attack, that's unusual but not unknown, but to do that at night is just about unheard of in this period. Jackson coordinates everything by the boat. The Carolina drifts down river and the ship fires its cannon with grapeshot and solid shot into the British camp right at dusk. What this does at a stroke is signal to all of the land troops the action has begun and by the way this is where it is, you can see the flashes in the river, well you just keep heading down the land to the same point where these flashes are and you're going to run into the British. So anybody who crops up in your front, he's the enemy, shoot them. Now there is some confusion as some of Jackson's troops actually are so close to the swamp that they actually get around behind the British but they don't know that they've done that. Andrew Jackson himself is very close to the action and he sees that one of the cannon that the Americans are bringing down is about to be out-flanked by some British, so he goes to try to make sure that the cannon is moved. You will have hand-to-hand fighting, there will be bayonet fighting, there will be officers using swords; it can get very, very nasty indeed. The night Battle of the 23rd of December was some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign and indeed just about the only hand-to-hand fighting that happened."

Andrew Jackson's surprise attack causes the british to hesitate. Major General Sir Edward Pakenham takes charge. Jackson builds his defensive line at Chalmette, and on December 28th, the British decide to test the strength of the American line.

"The idea is to go forward with enough troops that if the Americans do break, that his men can exploit that and he will have enough to break through the line and destroy that position," Pickles said. "What Pakenham does is send forward two columns, one down the river road, one close to the swamp, and a column of reserve. Of course all he sees is the line going from the river to the swamp. What he wants to find out also is how far does it go into the swamp, can he get some people around, can he get some of his men around and in the back door as it were? Actually, things go rather well for him. He is absolutely shocked at the lightness of the casualties. He is imagining he was going to get a lot more people killed than actually happened. He thinks he's got his information, he knows what is going to do next time, so he makes an absolutely fateful decision. He sends a general order that the army will withdraw, and at the point that Rennie starts reading the order, he sees the American line beginning to break. There are people running away from that position in front of where Rennie is, and Rennie is looking over there and Rennie knows he can attack and he can get over. He can maybe win the battle right now but he has an order from his Commander-in-Chief saying break off the action and pull back. So like the disciplined officer he is, Rennie orders his men back, and the British break off the action and pull back, and at that point they've lost the battle that day."

On New Year's Day 1815, Jackson decides to stage a military parade with all of his troops, but the British have a different plan. They begin firing all of their cannons at the American line.

"What happened during this day was an attack in which one side was trying to knock out the other side's artillery," Pickles said. "Pakenham did form his army for attack but his real objective on this day was to try to knock out as much of the enemy artillery as possible. If you could knock out the guns it would mean that the range at which the Americans could kill the British would be shortened. There were a couple of American cannons knocked out. There were some British cannons knocked out, but as the day was drawing to a close, the British artillery was falling silent. From the American side, what was Andrew Jackson saying? You see you're better gunners and they are you are knocking out all of their cannons. From the British side, what were they saying? Damn, we've run out of ammunition! Didn't matter, again, the British stand there cold, wet, frustrated and Andrew Jackson is going up and down his line saying what brilliant guys you are, you've beaten them again."

A key part of General Pakenham's strategy is to send a British brigade to the west bank of the river, and to over-run American troops there and turn their cannons against Jackson, but their crossing is hampered by hours of delay and strong currents.

"On the west bank, the British have just won the battle," Pickles said. "What has happened there is that (Colonel William) Thornton realizing how late he is, has ordered fix bayonets, load your muskets. At the first defense works he gets to, one shot, one volley, then charge with the bayonets. The Americans there, mainly Kentuckians, do nothing but throw rocks. Not their fault, that's all they had to throw. They were sent to the west bank and were supposed to have picked up muskets from the arsenal in New Orleans. When they got to the city and got to the arsenal, they were told we don't have any muskets, you better just go out there. The defenses on the west bank have been very badly made. On the second of the barricades, Thornton again does his one volley which fixes the main people behind the barricades and sends a detachment around the edge of the barricade and again, sweeps it clear. They then charge the American guns and (Captain Daniel) Patterson and his men just have time to spike them. He drives the American defenders to the last barricade which is two miles upriver. There are maybe 2,000 Americans and he has about 1,500 British left, but he sends back to the British command and says send me 2,000 more troops over here, we've got it. This is the last defense works, once we've taken this we have a clear road up to the City of New Orleans on the other side of the river. Jackson doesn't have a right flank anymore, and he gets the message back, the incredible message back, pull out. We are not going to stay there."

Knowing that the British attack on the west bank is critically behind schedule, General Pakenham decides he will wait no longer, and he begins his main assault against Jackson's line at Chalmette.

"Pakenham had decided that he would have two main columns of attack as he had before, one going down the river road, one going down the swamp, and a column of reserve coming up the center of the field," Pickles said. "The main attack would be on his right, the American left by the swamp, commanded by Captain Thomas Mullins, Captain and Lieutenant Colonel. He messed up somewhat. The fascines were to be thrown into the Rodriguez Canal, then the ladders were to be placed over the cane bundles. The fascines and then (General Samuel) Gibb's column was to attack over this improvised bridge. In the morning, he went to the wrong position to pick up the ladders and fascines and when they weren't there, began to march away towards the enemy. Eventually one of his officers convinced him that he should've gone elsewhere. They went back, they found the ladders and fascines, they pick them up, they were beginning to carry them forward but by this time the attack had been signaled. They were getting fire from the Americans. They were slowed down because the mist was burning off and some of the shots were getting more accurate. So things were going seriously wrong there. Strangely on the opposite flank, on what was supposed to be a diversionary mission, things were going incredibly well. Colonel Robert Rennie with his battalion of detachments of light companies. This is the light companies from all of the regiments there. They attacked the Americans right by the Mississippi River and they got into the first position. They were counter-attacked by Beale's rifles, a local militia unit from New Orleans and the Seventh U.S. Infantry. Everybody that got in was either killed or captured. The 93rd Foot, The Sutherland Highlanders, following their orders, began to oblique march across the field and join in the main attack with Gibb's column. So the highlanders march across the field and what do they see when they get there, complete and utter disarray. The highlanders were coming up and the Americans were pouring cannon shot into him. Colonel (Robert) Dale, their commander, gives the order to halt and is himself killed almost immediately. The fact that he has just given the order, not everybody realizes that he is dead, and so for several minutes the Sutherland Highlanders just stand there and a parade ground halt with American cannons blasting holes in them. General Pakenham rides forward, and as he gets to the head of the Highlander regiment, he is hit by a blast of grapeshot. It kills his horse, it smashes his knee and breaks his left arm. He is hit by another blast of grapeshot. He falls off the horse dying. It's sort of the end of that attack. Some troops begin to move away, some troops march away, some troops certainly run away. The Highlanders absolutely do not run away. There are accounts from both sides of the line that the Sutherland Highlanders turned and march in parade ground fashion away from the line. The scene on that battlefield when the smoke cleared was fairly horrific. They were fish in a barrel, they were just presenting themselves in front of cannons and muskets and rifles to be shot at."

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