The 'miracle' of New Orleans, 1815
Divine intervention or a commander's ire?
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How then could brave men, firm in the cause in which they were enrolled, neglect their first duty, and abandon the post committed to their care?
Posterity loves a battle where one side was significantly outnumbered but emerged victorious. (Wikipedia even has a list of ‘military victories against the odds’.) One such was the Battle of New Orleans, on 8th January 1815. I won’t go into the minutiae of the events here, but this conflict was a coda to the ‘War of 1812’ between Britain and America, and took place only 18 days after the Treaty of Ghent had supposedly ended that war. In a classic case of ‘perfidious Albion’, the government secretly gave orders to Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, commander of the British forces in America, to seek the capture of New Orleans and the wider strategically important state of Louisiana.
Exactly how lopsided the conflict was is a matter of debate. Estimates by the American Battlefield Trust based on contemporary sources and later analysis suggest around 5,700 US troops faced 8,000 British ones, with 60–70 casualties for the former (only 13 of them known to have died, one of them being Pakenham) and 2,000 for the latter, although other claims over the years have gone as low as 2,000 for the US and as high as 12,000 for the Brits.
Another trope of conflict is divine support or intervention, and in this case the victory for the American forces, led by Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson (who would become the 7th US President 14 years later) was partly attributed to the support of the Ursuline nuns at New Orleans, at whose convent many concerned city folk had gathered. Looking into all this, I’ve found that many websites describe Jackson visiting the nuns after his victory and giving a speech where he referred to the “blessing of heaven” for “one of the most brilliant victories in the annals of the war”.
But in fact it turns out that those widely quoted words – certainly celebrating his success, in a battle which allegedly only lasted less than two hours (some say only 30 minutes) – were in fact part of a speech to his troops on the day of the battle, and in fact most of the tone is very much admonitory. His forces were mainly on the left (east) bank of the Mississippi, with a defensive battery on the right bank – but the British managed to capture this (partly because of the ineptitude of its commander, General David Morgan), and Jackson’s speech1 is mostly a stern rebuke to Morgan’s men…
While by the blessing of Heaven directing the valour of the troops under my command, one of the most brilliant victories in the annals of the war, was obtained by my immediate command; no words can express the mortification I felt at witnessing the scene exhibited on the opposite bank.
I will spare your feelings and my own by entering into no detail on the subject; to all who reflect, it must be a source of eternal regret, that a few moments exertion of that courage you certainly possess, was alone wanting to have rendered your success more complete than that of your fellow citizens in this camp, by the defeat of the detachment which was rash enough to cross the river to attack you. To what cause was the abandonment of your lines owing? To fear? No! You are the countrymen, the friends, the brothers of those who have secured to themselves by their courage, the gratitude of their country; who have been prodigal of their blood in its defence, and who are strangers to any other fear than that of disgrace — to disaffection to our glorious cause? No, my countrymen, your general does justice to the pure sentiments by which you are inspired. How then could brave men, firm in the cause in which they were enrolled, neglect their first duty, and abandon the post committed to their care? The want of discipline, the want of order, a total disregard to obedience, and a spirit of insubordination, not less destructive than cowardice itself, this appears to be the cause which led to the disaster, and the causes must be eradicated, or I must cease to command; and I desire to be distinctly understood, that every breach of orders, all want of discipline, every inattention of duty will be seriously and promptly punished, that the attentive officers, and good soldiers may not be mentioned in the disgrace and danger which the negligence of a few may produce. Soldiers! you want only the will, in order to emulate the glory of your fellow citizens on this bank of the river — you have the same motives for action; the same interest; the same country to protect, and you have an additional interest from past events, to wipe off the stain and show, what, no doubt, is the fact, that you will not be inferior in the day of trial to any of your countrymen.
But remember, that without obedience, without order, without discipline, all your efforts are vain, and the brave man, inattentive to his duty, is worth little more to his country than the coward who deserts her in the hour of danger…
Not exactly getting out the bunting, is he? Nonetheless the 8th of January later became a federal holiday – The Eighth – after Jackson was elected President, and it was a major occasion even rivalling Independence Day for festivities, until it ceased in 1861. Sic transit…