January 8, 1815 -- The Battle of New Orleans begins, the last major battle of the War of 1812.
The battle ensured that the British could not occupy Louisiana, forcing the United Kingdom to ratify the Treaty of Ghent ending the war.
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The War of 1812 had gone very, very badly for the United States. America lacked a navy, and relied primarily on militia for its army. But few people supported the war, and what militia did turn out were barely more than farmers with muskets. Meanwhile, the professional U.S. Army was small, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led. British warships effectively blockaded the United States, causing the economy to collapse, and the British burned the capitol at Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814. But the British were also fighting Napoleon on the continent of Europe, and could not maintain the North American campaign. That's all that saved the United States from a humiliating defeat.
Britain offered the United States peace negotiations in 1813, and these negotiations dragged on for more than 18 months. A peace treaty (the Treaty of Ghent) had been agreed to on December 24, but news of the armistice would not reach American shores for at least three weeks, and it was unclear whether Britain would agree to the treaty. The war was going so badly for the United States that some in Parliament were arguing that the British should continue to press the war. Even with miniscule forces, it was believed, Britain could defeat the pathetic American naval and land forces and secure a major new foothold in North America that would lead to the re-absorption of the United States. At the very least, capture of Louisiana would allow the United Kingdom to lay claim to the Louisiana Purchase and prevent the United States from moving west of the Mississippi.
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On December 12, 1814, a large British fleet with 8,000 soldiers, under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane, anchored in the Gulf of Mexico east of Lake Pontchartrain. Two days later, the British defeated an American "mosquito fleet" (small gunboats) and entered Lake Borgne. This brought the British Army forces, under the command of General John Keane, to within 30 miles of New Orleans. Keane's forces moved west, and seized the east bank of the Mississippi River on December 23.
Now the British made a fateful decision: New Orleans was completely undefended. Had the British marched up the river road, they could have seized the city and devastated American hopes of holding Louisiana. Instead, Keane decided to encamp at Lacoste's Plantation and wait for reinforcements.
Major Andrew Jackson, commanding United States Army forces in the area, hit Keane's encampment on the evening of December 23. Jackson was defeated, and withdrew to the north bank of the Rodriguez Canal. But the raid convinced Keane he needed more reinforcements.
The British now made a second mistake: General Edward Pakenham argued that the British Army should advance on New Orleans. But Admiral Cochrane argued that the Royal Navy should transport the troops toward New Orleans. Pakenham lost the argument.
As the British debated how to move on the city, Jackson dug in on the canal. Massive earthworks were raised, with sharpened timbers facing the canal. A number of artillery pieces were placed in earthworks for protection, and his ill-equipped army of 4,732 men were supported by the American warships USS Louisiana and USS Carolina and the steamboat Enterprise on the river.
Pakenham attacked the canal on January 1, 1815. Several of the American guns were knocked out, and the American line nearest the river broke and ran. But the British ran out of artillery ammunition, and amazingly Pakenham never knew that he'd panicked the American forces. Pakenham decided to wait until his entire 8,000-man force arrived before challenging the canal again.
On January 8, the British attacked again. Pirate Jean Lafitte was fighting for the American side, however, and he warned Jackson about the British attack. By this time, Jackson had constructed two more lines of earthworks in back of Rodriguez Canal, further strengthening his defensive position.
The British plan of attack was to send a small force to the west bank of the Mississippi and fire on the American flank from there. On the east bank, two columns would attack the main line at the riverbank and at the edge of a swamp on the far British right.
Things went badly for the British from the beginning. Colonel William Thornton's 85th Regiment dug a canal to get their boats from Lake Borgne to the Mississippi, but the canal broke and ran dry, forcing his men to haul their boats over mud. Exhausted, his men did not cross the Mississippi until after daybreak. They then successfully overran the small American battery there. But Thornton was severely wounded, and the attack bogged down afterward.
Fog provided the main British assault columns with cover, but it lifted just as they approached the canal, and the American fire decimated the advance troops. Major General Samuel Gibbs, leading the right column was killed, as were numerous British officers in both columns. The British then realized they had forgotten the ladders and fascines (bundles of brushwood) needed to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Pakenham then ordered Keane's 93rd Highlanders to move across the open field between the two columns and join the British column on the right. As they did so, Keane was wounded by American rifle fire. The weakened British left captured an outlying American redoubt, but the Americans moved up swiftly and massacred the British troops. As the battle ended, Pakenham was fatally wounded by grapeshot fired from an American cannon.
Major Thomas Wilkinson was the most senior officer left on the field. Commanding the British right, he led a late attack on the canal which was wildly successful. His troops actually crossed the canal and reached the top of the earthworks before American soldiers fired on them from below and killed him. Now leaderless, the British soldiers stood around on the field of battle while American musketeers and cannoneers picked them off. Major General John Lambert, commanding the reserve, finally reached the field of battle and ordered a retreat.
Lambert's decision was made too early: The American lines were not holding, and a number of artillery had been captured undamaged. Jackson was so dismayed by this that he was planning to abandon his line and retreat.
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The Battle of New Orleans had taken just 25 minutes. The British lost 700 killed, 1,400 wounded, and another 500 were taken prisoner – fully a third of their entire force. The Americans had lost just seven killed and six wounded.
Worse, the real battle had yet to begin. After all, the British plan was to attack New Orleans via the river, not land.
In order to carry out their plan, the British needed to reduce Fort St. Philip, which protected New Orleans from an amphibious assault. The British attacked the fort on January 8 as well. But despite 10 days of withering gunfire, the American forces held.
As the Royal Navy bombarded Ft. St. Philip, General Lambert learned on January 11 that Thornton's forces had been captured. He held a council of war that day, and his officers convinced him that a land campaign against Jackson's entrenched forces would be too costly. The decision was made to evacuate. When the naval bombardment failed on January 18, the British attempt to capture New Orleans ended.
The Royal Navy fleet left Lake Borgne on February 4, 1815, with all the British troops aboard.
The British decided to attack Mobile, Alabama, instead – which was closer to their base of operations in Spanish Florida. They captured Fort Bowyer (at the mouth of Mobile Bay) on February 12. But the next day, the British army learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified by Parliament on December 24, ending hostilities.
Although the Battle of New Orleans did not change the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, the defeat compelled Britain to abide by the treaty. General Pakenham had been given secret orders to continue fighting regardless of any peace treaty. The defeat at New Orleans, however, had so reduced his forces that he could no longer do so.
* * * * * *What if?
What if the United States had lost the Battle of New Orleans?
It would have been a disaster. Britain would have controlled the Mississippi River and its mouth. With British bases in Spanish Florida, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a British pond. American commerce there would have ceased, stunting the growth of the Deep South permanently. The swiftly growing American cotton industry would have become a slave to the British garment industry, providing cotton at ultra-low prices to British factories and keeping the Deep South permanently poor. Mississippi (which did not become a state until December 10, 1817), Alabama (which did not become a state until December 14, 1819), Missouri (which did not become a state until August 10, 1821), Arkansas (which did not become a state until June 15, 1836), and Florida (which did not become a state until March 3, 1845), would probably never have joined the Union. It's not even clear that Louisiana would have remained in American hands. In time, there would have been agitation for Lousiana to secede from the United States and become an autonomous colony of Great Britain again. Texas would never have been settled by Americans, and it -- and the entire Southwest United States -- would have remained in Mexican hands.
Although the United States had moved to the Mississippi River, America's "Manifest Destiny" as a continental power would have ended. The British were firmly entrenched in Ontario, and control of the Mississippi would have led to an intense effort to colonize the Great Lakes region. This would have been opposed by the United States, which would have effectively undertaken a campaign of swift and intensive settlement of Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But that's where American expansion would have stopped. Iowa (which did not become a state until December 28, 1846) and Minnesota (which did not become a state until May 11, 1858) would most likely have become part of "Upper Canada" and British.
With British control of the Mississippi and major colonies in Minnesota and Iowa, the British would have blocked the United States from assimilating the Pacific Northwest. The discovery of gold in California would have created a conflict over that territory, as Americans flooded west to seek their fortunes. But the British, with their strong bases and colonies in the Pacific Northwest, may well have engaged in a military conflict over California, blockading ports like San Francisco and San Diego and forcing California to enter the British Pacific domain.
In time, treaties would have allowed the United States to use the Great Lakes and Mississippi River without harassment. But onerous tariffs would have left the United States with trading ports only on the East Coast (in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston). Without access to the Great Plains, there would be no great American railroads. Without access to the iron ore of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, there would be no great American steel and coal industry. The Plains Indians probably would have been left alone. Utah would probably have become an independent nation, retaining polygamy.
Canda would be a vastly expanded nation, breadbasket to the world, with massive iron and steel industries around the Great Lakes. By now, British California would probably be a distinct nation. Mexico would have a huge industrial and agricultural region in Texas and Oklahoma, with major shipping ports along the Mississippi River. British Southeast would be largely agricultural to this day. The Gulf of Mexico would be like the North Sea -- dotted with British oil rigs. Canada, not the United States, would have saved Britain during World War II, and Toronto (not Ottawa) would be the Canadian capital.