A Debt of Retaliatory Vengeance: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans
During his boyhood, Andrew Jackson suffered miserably as a British prisoner of war. He was scarred by the sword of a Redcoat officer and suffered the loss of his mother and two brothers during the American Revolution, leaving him an orphan by the age of 14. As he grew into a hardened warrior, Jackson was determined to exact revenge on the enemy that had caused him so much pain early in his life. "I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory vengeance," he wrote to his wife Rachel, "should our forces meet I trust I shall pay the debt...." Through his tireless defense of the vital seaport city of New Orleans, Louisiana during the War of 1812, Jackson achieved his long-awaited retribution against his old enemy.
After learning about British intentions to capture New Orleans, Major General Andrew Jackson rushed to the defense of the Crescent City. Despite his limited resources and manpower, Jackson worked furiously to prepare for the enemy, ultimately raising an army numbering around 4,500 men from nearly every walk of life. His motley force included Regular U.S. Army troops, sailors and Marines, freed slaves, Cherokee and Choctaw Indians, Tennessee and Kentucky Frontiersmen, and French-speaking Louisianans. Although initially reluctant to do so, Jackson also eventually accepted the services of Jean Lafitte and his Baratarian pirates to help defend New Orleans from the British. American gunboats under the skilled Commodore Daniel T. Patterson were also counted on to beat back the mighty Redcoats.
The Battle of New Orleans by Frederick C. Yohn. (Photo Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica)
On December 14, 1814, a British fleet under Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane bested an American flotilla on Lake Borgne near New Orleans. After that clash, Cochrane and temporary army commander, Major General John Keane worked together to land British troops below New Orleans from the south on December 23. Jackson wasted no time and rapidly marched out to confront the enemy, striking under the cover of darkness in what has been described as a sharp but inconclusive fight.
Following Jackson’s bold strike, he pulled his forces back two miles north to the Rodriguez Canal, where his troops quickly went to work constructing a stout defensive line. Earning the name, “Line Jackson,” the American position included a seven-foot-tall earthen rampart that extended nearly a mile from the east bank of the Mississippi River to a large cypress swamp. With strong breastworks and well-placed artillery protected by cotton bales covered with mud, Jackson’s men would be difficult to dislodge. “Here we shall plant our stakes,” the commander told his troops, “and not abandon them until we drive these red-coat rascals into the river, or the swamp.”
British soldiers advancing towards the stout American line during the Battle of New Orleans. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas Day 1814 marked the arrival of British Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham to assume command of nearly 8,000 crack Redcoats, many of whom had proven their mettle on the battlefields of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars. Feeling that his subordinates had not been aggressive enough in pushing past the Americans and driving toward the city, Pakenham eagerly set out to complete the job. After moving his army to the Chalmette Plantation, the British commander made two attempts to pierce the American line, but Jackson’s men stubbornly held on. Boosted by the arrival of fresh manpower, Pakenham decided to launch a major assault on Sunday, January 8, 1815 to finish off the Americans, once and for all.
By the night of January 7, information obtained from British prisoners revealed to Jackson that Pakenham’s attack was imminent. Word of the impending assault also reached the city, where many of the women of New Orleans joined Ursuline nuns in a vigil at the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation to pray for Jackson and his men. A sacred wooden sculpture called Our Lady of Prompt Succor, showing Mary wearing a golden robe and crown while holding Baby Jesus, was placed above the chapel entrance for this critical gathering. The Mother Superior, Sainte Marie Olivier de Vézin made a promise to God that if the defenders of New Orleans prevailed, “a solemn mass of Thanksgiving would be held in celebration and remembrance every year into the distant future,” as detailed by author Brian Kilmeade. The American line was certainly strong, but Jackson’s troops were still outnumbered. In a heavy clash against some of the finest professional soldiers in the world, victory was far from certain, and thus, those prayers and vows were sorely needed.
A mosaic honoring Our Lady of Prompt Succor and signifying the miracles bestowed on the people of New Orleans, such as the resounding American battlefield victory on January 8, 1815. (Photo Credit: Ursuline Academy)
Miraculously for the Ursuline sisters and others around New Orleans who prayed for Jackson's army, their entreaties to the Almighty were answered. Pakenham launched his attack before sunrise on the morning of January 8, and despite tremendous bravery among his troops, his assault ended in disaster. Fighting from behind their stout defenses, Jackson’s troops poured murderous levels of fire into the British ranks. One Redcoat officer described the American rampart as resembling “a row of fiery furnaces.” The field was “a sea of blood,” according to another soldier. In the end, the failed attack cost the British around 2,000 casualties, including General Pakenham, who was mortally wounded on the battlefield while attempting to rally his troops. On the American side, Jackson’s forces suffered fewer than 65 casualties, among which no more than a dozen men were killed. The future fifth President of the United States, James Monroe echoed the sentiments of many when he praised General Jackson and his men, saying, “History records no example of so glorious a victory obtained with so little bloodshed on the part of the victorious.”
Convinced that the American’s could not be dislodged from their positions, the British slowly backed away from New Orleans and reached their fleet by January 18. Andrew Jackson and his faithful fighters had held the gateway to the American West. The waters of the Mississippi River could flow freely once again. New Orleans was saved.
The Battle of New Orleans by Kurz and Allison. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Unbeknown to either fighting force at New Orleans, British and American officials had agreed to peace terms in Ghent, Belgium on December 24, 1814. Because of the slow speed of transatlantic communication, news of the Treaty of Ghent did not arrive in time to prevent the Battle of New Orleans from taking place. The document finally reached Washington D.C. on February 14, 1815, which historian Christopher Klein records was “more than a week after news of Jackson’s victory reached the capital.” These two pieces of news coming so close together provided a major morale boost to the United States, especially after a difficult war that had challenged the young nation’s very existence. The treaty was quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate and signed by President James Madison. More than a month after the Battle of New Orleans, the United States and Great Britain exchanged their ratified copies of the Treaty of Ghent, officially bringing the War of 1812 to a close.
Andrew Jackson gained much more than a “retaliatory vengeance” against the British at the Battle of New Orleans. By achieving America’s greatest battlefield victory of the War of 1812, he became a beloved national hero. Thirteen years after his triumph at New Orleans, his countrymen elected him to the highest office in the land, making Jackson the seventh President of the United States.
President Andrew Jackson. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mother Superior Olivier de Vézin did not forget her promise to God. In the years that followed the unforgettable clash, the Ursuline nuns continued to hold a solemn mass of Thanksgiving in honor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor and the Battle of New Orleans every January 8th. It is a tradition that continues to this day.
1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.
American Battlefield Trust: Battle of New Orleans.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of New Orleans.
History.com: 6 Myths About the Battle of New Orleans.
History.com: Battle of New Orleans.
Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred M. McClay.
New Orleans Historical Society: Battle of New Orleans: Old Ursuline Convent.