Battle of New Orleans Pod, Number 1, Thursday, October 16th, 2014
Map of New Orleans in 1812
Welcome to the Battle of New Orleans Pod! From now through January, we’ll be doing two NOLA History Guy pods each week. The Tuesday pod will be verious history subjects, and on Thursdays, we’ll do the Battle of New Orleans Pod. As most of you know, next year, 2015, marks the 200th anniversary of the battle. We’ve been observing the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 since the summer of 2012, and it all comes to a conclusion early next year.
While the war was already two years old by 1814, it wasn’t until the end of the war in Europe that the United Kingdom could actually turn its attention to her former colonies. The defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, who abdicated his throne as Emperor of the French on April 6, 1814, meant the British could focus more of its resources in North America. Just a few days before Bonaparte’s abdication, then Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane was appointed commander of the “North American Station,” which was an expansion of the Royal Navy’s traditional Jamaica Station. Cochrane worked with the Army commanders to bring the force of the RN to bear wherever they could.
On the American side, defending the Gulf Coast was more about fighting Native Americans than fighting the British. Andrew Jackson and and James Wilkinson were wrapped up fighting the Creek warriors since the summer of 1813. A year later, Wilkinson occupied Mobile, and Jackson was given the command of the US 7th Military District. He was appointed Major General, and set up his headquarters in New Orleans.
The British made their first moves in the Gulf in August of 1814, as troops under the overall command of Major General Robert Ross occupied Pensacola. At this time, remember, the Gulf Coast, from Mobile through Florida, was Spanish colonial territory. With the British now in Florida, Jackson shifts his command to Mobile, to counter.
The capture of Washington, DC, returns the focus back to the Northeast. The British attempt to take Mobile on 16-September, but the attack fails.
Also on 16-September, the commander of the American naval station at New Orleans decided to go on a pirate raid. He went down to Barataria, disrupting Jean Lafitte’s operations at that base by capturing half a dozen schooners and other small craft. That commander, Captain Daniel Patterson, defended the action as a regular anti-piracy sweep, but it also cemented the bad blood between the Lafitte brothers and the US Navy. Nonetheless, Patterson’s planning was a significant factor in preventing the British from taking New Orleans.
September 12 is a significant day with respect to the Battle of New Orleans. On that date, the two sides engaged near Baltimore in what is now called the Battle of North Point. It was basically a holding action by the Americans that eventually ended with their orderly retreat from the area. What’s important about this battle is that Major General Ross was killed by a sniper. That meant HM Government had to dispatch a new commanding general to America. The appointment was given to The Honourable Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington. More on Ned later in this series. What’s important for now is that Ross’ death turns out to be huge.
Two weeks after Ross is killed, we have a naval engagement in the Azores. The British ordered a three-ship squadron to the Jamaica Station, in preparation for an invasion of Louisiana. The three Royal Navy ships were Plantagenet, 74 guns, a ship of the line, Rota, 38 guns, a frigate, and Carnation, 18 guns, a sloop.
Battle of Fayal
The Azores Archipelago was a regular stop for ships traveling from Britan or France to North America. Ships would make their way out of port, down to the Spanish coast, then turn out into the Atlantic. A stop in the Azores, and then finish the crossing. So, this small squadron approaches Fayal Roads on September 26, 1814, to make port, they spotted a seven-gun brig. Not knowing the nationality of the brig, Captain Robert Loyd of the Plantagenet, in his role as Commodore of the squadron, sends a boat under the command of one of his lieutenants to check things out. As the boat approached the brig, Captain Samuel Chester Reid identified the vessel as the brig General Armstrong. The General Armstrong was licensed by the US government as a privateer, and Reid was not prepared to simply surrender his vessel to the British. Reid warns the British that he’ll fire upon any boat that approaches. So, what happens? The British boat approaches—because of rough seas, they couldn’t stop, actually. General Armstrong fired on the boat, killing two and wounding seven. The boat returned to Plantagenet. Loyd ordered the Carnation to move in position for a “cutting out” expedition, where a several boats are sent under the cover of darkness to the target ship. The men in the boats board the target, take control of the ship, and sail it out to the main force. Four boats were sent from Carnation. The General Armstrong repulsed that attack, killing twenty. This was around 8pm. An hour later, a larger force, including Royal Marines, was carried by twelve boats from Plantagenet and Rota to the General Armstrong. A combination of American gunnery and the current going against them caused the British to take three hours to close into range with the American brig. That bought the Americans time to beef up their defenses by off-loading three guns to establish a shore battery. With three guns on the high ground of shore, and the four still on the ship, they had formidable firepower to repel unarmed small craft.
The British abandoned the expedition around 2am. Captain Loyd planned to send the Carnation into Fayal Roads at dawn to engage the General Armstrong, but Captain Reid and his crew scuttled their brig and made it to shore, where the Portuguese refused to let the British pursue them.
The narrative in the wake of the War of 1812 is that Captain Reid and the crew of the General Armstrong helped delay the execution of the British invasion of Louisiana, but this doesn’t pan out when you take a closer look. The British squadron continued on from the Azores to Jamaica, while Admiral Cochrane, in command of the North American Station, ordered the British fleet out of the Chesapeake Bay, also back to Jamaica.
Cochrane’s intention in October of 1814 was to do an end-around on the Americans, taking control of the Mississippi River, giving their army an approach to the populated areas from the west. In addition to Loyd’s squadron, Cochrane was given a number of other ships that were on blockade duty in the English Channel, prior to Bonaparte’s abdication. All he needed now was a ground force commander to make the invasion happen.
By mid-October, 1814, Jackson is in Mobile, Patterson in New Orleans, Cochrane in Jamaica. Pakenham was en route from Great Britain. Royal Navy forces converge on Jamaica.
The mood in the city of New Orleans is calm but concerned. While they weren’t worried about Native American attacks, the notion of British forces on the Florida Gulf Coast was problematic. While Patterson did not fully appreciate the asset that Lafitte and his privateers would be in the defense of the city, he still developed a solid plan for protecting New Orleans.
And that’s were we are, just about three months out from the Battle of New Orleans. We’ll continue the story next week! Be sure to look for photos and links to references at NOLA History Guy dot com.