Chalmette Battlefield and the end of the War of 1812

Chalmette Battlefield and the end of the War of 1812

Chalmette Battlefield – originally posted on 8-January-2017.

battle of new orleans

“The Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette” Painting by Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte (1766 – 1829), a member of the Louisiana Militia who participated in the battle; painted by him after the victory based on his sketches made at the scene

Chalmette Battlefield – the Battle of New Orleans

Chalmette Battlefield, was where the main clash between the forces of the United States and Great Britain in the Battle of New Orleans took place. The land battle occurred on Jan. 8, 1815. That action didn’t end the campaign. In the aftermath of the battle, stories and myths surrounding it popped up. The real story, while not as colorful as the rumors, is still fascinating.

Naval Battle on Lake Borgne, War of 1812, by Thomas L. Hornbrook

Many think of the “Battle of New Orleans” as one confrontation in January 1815. It was actually a campaign that began in September, 1814, in Mobile Bay. Major General Andrew Jackson made the strategic decision to fall back from Mobile. So, he decided to defend the most important city on the Gulf Coast — New Orleans. The British advanced in his wake. The first engagement near New Orleans was on Dec. 14, 1814. It was the Battle of Lake Borgne. Sir Edward Pakenham arrived on the scene on Dec. 25. Pakenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force for Dec. 28. This set the stage for the main engagement. Even on Jan. 8, the British advanced on the city from both sides of the river. This forced Jackson to set up defenses on the West Bank as well as Chalmette.

Chalmette Battlefield

The Battle of New Orleans. January 1815. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after W. Momberger., ca. 1900 – 1982

The Royal Navy

The land battles of the New Orleans Campaign ended Jan. 8, 1815. It was a decisive victory for the American forces under the command of Jackson. That didn’t end the campaign, though. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, in overall command of the British expedition, sent a squadron of four ships up the Mississippi River to attack Fort St. Philip. The fort (there was no “Fort Jackson” yet, across the river). Fort St. Phillip was the main point of defense on the river. It was located in what is now the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish.

The importance of Fort St. Phillip diminished over time, as the larger Fort Jackson was built and became the focal point of the defense of New Orleans in the Civil War. The Royal Navy ships bombarded Fort St. Phillip for 10 days. The fort’s defenders did not give up. The distance bombardment was unsuccessful, which meant the RN ships could not move further upriver. This was the last chance the British had: even though Jackson found success on the battlefield, warships anchored in the river across from the French Quarter could have compelled him to surrender the city.

Pirates and Rifles

Chalmette Battlefield

Jean Lafitte (anonymous portrait)

There are many stories and legends surrounding the pirate Jean Lafitte at this time. Some attribute the failure of the Royal Navy to get upriver and assist the army to some sort of intervention by Lafitte and his crews. There’s no clear evidence to support this. Since Lafitte was not present at Chalmette, speculation continues. Lafitte’s influence on the outcome was significant. Lafitte provided two companies of skilled artillerymen to Jackson, one under the command of Dominique Youx.

Youx was one of Lafitte’s captains and a trusted subordinate. Jackson’s original concern, and his original plan for Lafitte’s men, was to place them at Fort St. John. Locals know this fort as “Spanish Fort”. It’s located where Bayou St. John meets Lake Pontchartrain. They were there to block any attempt by Cochrane to penetrate New Orleans from the north. It became clear that the British would advance from the east, via St. Bernard Parish. So, Jackson moved Lafitte’s men to Chalmette. Their expert handling of artillery batteries along the Rodriguez Canal redoubt made a major contribution to the British defeat.

Artillerymen carry the day

Lafitte’s crews made a much more significant contribution than the “Kentucky Riflemen” of legend. On Jan. 4 and 5, Jackson’s command at New Orleans was reinforced by a large contingent of men from Kentucky. Accounts place the size of that contingent at anywhere from 1,000 to 2,300 men. All accounts indicate that those men were poorly clothed and mostly unarmed. Fewer than 100 of them had their own weapons, so the overwhelming majority of these men had to be armed with whatever could be scraped together in the city.

When Jackson ran for president, the story of Kentuckians supporting New Orleans was embellished a great deal to make the general look more the hero. While the additional manpower along the redoubt certainly did not hurt, its impact was significantly less than the legend claims. The “Kentucky Riflemen” were no doubt good shots and could fire with accuracy from longer distances than their musket-bearing opponents, but there just weren’t enough of them. What caused the most carnage on Jan. 8 was artillery fire from the batteries along the redoubt. The American artillery fired volley after volley of “chainshot” and “grapeshot,” turning the cannons into massive shotguns. All those smaller balls and pieces of lead cut down the British officers.

The British didn’t “run”

Jackson kept his army in the field for two weeks after the carnage on Chalmette Battlefield. After the deaths of Major Generals Pakenham and Gibbs on the field at Chalmette, as well as Lt. Colonel Dane of the 93rd and a significant number of other field-grade officers, the command-and-control of the British force was destroyed. With no orders to either advance or retreat, soldiers withdrew from the rain of death coming from the American batteries, but then froze in place. By the time Major General Lambert arrived and assumed command, it was too late. The British had already suffered horrific casualties, and lacked officers to turn the commander’s orders into specific tactical instructions at the company level. All Lambert could do is order a withdrawal from Chalmette. He then pinned his hopes on the Royal Navy.

Chalmette Battlefield

Map of the British Advance on New Orleans, December, 1814 (USMA)

Victory for Jackson

When it became clear that the naval attack would not give the British the city, Lambert sent a messenger to Jackson on Jan. 18, suggesting an exchange of prisoners. Jackson agreed, and the British began a full retreat. Jackson was not in a position to pursue Lambert and the British survivors. Most of his “army” consisted of volunteers capable of holding a defensive position, but not acting as an attacking force.

Jackson did send a squadron of cavalry to harry the British, “encouraging” them to continue their retreat. Jackson finally allowed the rest of his force to return to the city on Jan. 21, arriving to a hero’s welcome on the Jan. 23. The last of the British force made it back to their ships by Jan. 27, 1815, marking the end of the New Orleans Campaign.

Last Chance

On the way out, Cochrane and Lambert made one last attempt at establishing a British foothold on the Gulf Coast. On Feb. 12, 1815, the British captured Fort Bowyer, on Mobile Bay. Word of the Treaty of Ghent came to them as they prepared an attack on the city of Mobile, so they packed up and sailed for Britain.

Changing the Course of History

There are several big takeaways from the Battle of New Orleans. The biggest is that the American victory brought the War of 1812 to a clear conclusion. Had the British captured New Orleans, they might not have acknowledged the end of the war. New Orleans was the second-largest city in the United States, and control of the Mississippi River was essential to the nation’s security and growth.

A British occupation of New Orleans may still have only been temporary, but it could have forced a reopening of treaty negotiations. The British never recognized Napoleon Bonaparte as a legitimate ruler, so they might have challenged the validity of the entire Louisiana Purchase. Certainly the culture of New Orleans as a community would have changed dramatically, under the control of a British occupation force.

Chalmette Battlefield

Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Major General Sir Edward Pakenham was Wellington’s brother-in-law

Waterloo

A second important outcome of the Battle of New Orleans was its impact on the Battle of Waterloo. The British have heralded the victory at Waterloo for almost 200 years now, but it’s important to remember that, at the time, Wellington characterized the battle as “a near-run thing.” An occupation of New Orleans and possible British expansion into the territory of the Louisiana Purchase would have stretched the British Army incredibly thin. Further speculation is the stuff of “alternative history” novels, but certainly things in Europe might have been quite different had the British not been sent home from New Orleans in defeat.

President Andrew Jackson

Chalmette Battlefield

Jackson Statue, from King’s Hand-book of the United States planned and edited by M. King. Text by M. F. Sweetser

The single individual to benefit most from the New Orleans Campaign was Andrew Jackson. The victory on Jan. 8 made Jackson not only a hero in New Orleans, but a national figure.

He became Military Governor of Florida in 1821. Jackson led battles against the Seminole tribe. Success in the Seminole War returned him to the U.S. Senate in 1823. He ran for president in 1824. After losing an acrimonious campaign to Adams that year, he ran again, four years later. Jackson won, becoming the nation’s seventh president. In New Orleans, the Place d’Armes in front of St. Louis Cathedral was renamed “Jackson Square” in 1851. An equestrian statue of Jackson was commissioned and erected in the square five years later.

Chalmette Battlefield.

Chalmette Battlefield

Chalmette National Battlefield (NPS photo)

The final big takeaway of the Battle of New Orleans was its impact on tourism. The land that is Chalmette Battlefield, near the Rodriguez Canal, was considered hallowed ground by many in the city, and the State of Louisiana purchased this land in 1855. Plans began to construct a monument on the battlefield, which was finally completed in 1908. The state turned the battlefield over to the federal government in 1930.

Up to the start of the Civil War, Jan. 8 was considered a major day of celebration in New Orleans, and many would make the trek down to Chalmette to visit the battlefield. The Union Army sectioned off a portion of the “British side” of the battlefield property to make a military cemetery for both Union and Confederate troops in 1864. The cemetery, along with the battlefield, passed to the National Park Service in 1933.

NPS maintains the Chalmette National Battlefield as part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. It is open year-round. Early January is a busy time at the battlefield. Volunteers gather to present “living history” demonstrations, include a re-enactment of the 8-January-1815 battle. Events for 2017 are from January 4-8. This is typical for the annual commemoration of the battle.

Visiting the Battlefield

If you’re coming to New Orleans this year, consider a trip down to the battlefield as part of your plans. It’s a short drive from downtown along St. Claude Avenue and the St. Bernard Highway. The Steamboat Natchez goes past the battlefield as part of its daily tours on the Mississippi, and the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen actually docks at Chalmette, allowing you time to explore the battlefield.

While it’s a lot of fun to get down to the battlefield, many folks don’t have time. Be sure to check out the exhibits at The Cabildo, one of the Louisiana State Museum’s properties. Located next to St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square, the Cabildo features a number of BNO-related items. Additionally, take a look at tours, lectures and other events sponsored by the Friends of the Cabildo.

Key to Victory

Key to Victory

“Key to Victory” was published in the 7-January-1968 of the Dixie Roto Magazine.

key to victory

“Deep in Dixie” was a regular series in the Dixie Roto, the Sunday magazine insert in the Times-Picayune. It’s no surprise that the edition that came out the day before the commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans would be an 1815 vignette. Here’s the piece (image of the page at the bottom):

That raw, cloudy morning of Jan. 3, 1815, found Major General Andrew Jackson pacing the floor in his headquarters at McCarty Plantation, a few miles below New Orleans.

Jackson was worried, and with good reason: Farther down, across the broad plains of Chalmette, 10,000 enemy soldiers crack the British troops under the command of Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, were massing for a crushing assault against New Orleans.

To repulse the British–who were trained in the traditional European military style–Jackson had managed to muster a little more than 4,000 men, mostly civilians who had become soldiers only in the sense that they would defend the city to the finish.

Adding to the hard-pressed general’s frustration was a late report from his naval commander, Daniel T. Patterson: Fort St. Philip, 50 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River, was in dire need of cannon and shot. The British had blockaded the river’s mouth–and would be firing into New Orleans within a week, unless they were stopped by Patterson’s men at the fort.

Jackson fumed. Even if his 4,000 men beat back the crack British regulars, New Orleans could still be taken from the river. Fort St. Philip was a key position. It alone kept the British out of the upper river.

The British, however, had placed batteries in a commanding position between New Orleans and Fort St. Philip. The fort might be cut off from its supplies.

The general pondered. Suddenly, his flinty eyes sparkled. He whirled and snapped to an aide: “Get back to New Orleans–and bring me Captain Shreve.”

The aide clattered away to the city. Within an hour, 29-year-old Henry Miller Shreve stood before Jackson.

One month prior, Shreve had received orders from the War Department to transport sorely needed ordanance and ammunition from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Shreve’s steamboat, the 80-foot sternwheeler Enterprise, made the 2,000-mile trip in 14 days. When he arrived in New Orleans, there was great rejoicing in the city, and he was sent back upriver to town down three keelboats loaded with small arms. Again he made this trip in lightning time. Then he set about working the Enterprise back and forth from New Orleans to Jackson’s campsite.

Now, the peppery Jackson eyed the young captain sternly: “Captain Shreve,” said Jackson curtly, “I understand that you are a young man who always does what he undertakes. Can you pass the british batteries commanding the river and transport supplies to Fort St. Philip?”

Shreve thought fast. “I can do it, General,” he said, “but only if you give me my own time.”

Jackson scowled. Time was scarce. In recent campaigns against the Creek Indians, he had often been hampered by contractors who took too much time and too few risks. Was this serious and seemingly capable young riverboat captain just another of these?

“How much time do you require,” he asked.

“Twenty-four hours, General.”

Jackson nodded his assent–and turned to other pressing matters.

By that afternoon, Shreve had loaded the desperately needed supplies aboard the Enterprise. He then fastened cotton bales to the sides of his boat with iron hooks. He hoped the bales would act as a shield against British gunshot. He muffled the sterm paddle wheel with sackcloth.

By the time night fell, Shreve had steamed away from New Orleans and concealed himself along the riverbank–out of sight or hearing of British sentries.

Near midnight, a dense fog loomed up and concealed the Enterprise. As the wily young captain had expected, it was made to order for the task ahead of him. He ordered a slow head of steam and eased the boat into the river. Slowly, almost drifting, the riverboat slipped down toward the deadly guns. The crewmen held their breath. Nobody moved.

Silently, the riverboat passed the batteries. Apparently, it was neither seen nor heard. Not a shot was fired.

When Shreve was certain he was out of range, he ordered full steam. The enterprise fairly flew down the swift current. The riverboat reached Fort St. Philip early the next morning. Cheering garrison troops gratefully unloaded the precious supplies.

But for Shreve, the job was only half finished. He still had to run the Britisn guns on his return trip. In order to reach them at night, he left the fort immediately.

However, there was no mantle of fog to offer concealment. Only the swiftest action could surprise the British gunners–and give the captain the few minutes he needed to pass out of range.

Shreve seized his chance. “Steam her up boys,” he cried. “We’re going through.”

The Enterprise punched into the current. She went barreling toward the menacing guns. Cannon flashes cut through the darkness. Booming reverberated over the water. Shot screamed around the boat. Fortunately for Shreve and his crew, the cotton bales worked. Shots hitting them bounced into the river. “Steam, boys, steam,” cried the captain.

With the boiler near the bursting point, the Enterprise drove away from the guns. Shot fell behind her–and she was in the clear.

The steamboat was met in New Orleans by loud cheering. Shreve had accomplished what had seemed almost impossible.

Later, with the big British only a day away, Shreve presented himself to General Jackson. The general sent him to help him man a gun on the American battle line. There, on Jan 8, the riverboat captain served with distinction.

On the following day, the guns of Fort S. Philip beat back a British attempt to pass upriver.

After the American victory, Shreve’s steamboat helped ferry British prisoners in the Gulf.

Later, the resourceful captain helped perfect steamboat travel on the Mississippi, and he opened the Red River to steamboat traffic.

In 1835, Capt. Shreve made a permanent name in history by founding the city of Shreveport. The Young man who proved himself to be so capable in the service of General Jackson later became one of the great river pilots in America.

–Submitted by John H. Mutter, Covington, La.

key to victory

Cutting Out Lake Borgne

Cutting Out Lake Borgne

Cutting out Lake Borgne – American defense delayed the British.

cutting out lake borgne

Cutting out Lake Borgne

“British and American Gunboats in Action on Lake Borgne, 14 December 1814.” This painting by Thomas L. Hornbrook depicts the “cutting out expedition” of the Royal Navy on five gunboats of the United States Navy. The Americans defended New Orleans by patrolling Lake Borgne. The Royal Navy cleared the lake of opposition in order to land troops. This action cleared the way for the epic Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815.

Landing the troops

cutting out lake borgne

“93rd Highlanders with 7th and 43rd Regiments at the Battle of New Orleans” by Don Troiani

Before the British Army could approach New Orleans from downriver in January, 1815, the troops needed to depart the ships that transported them from Europe. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane commanded the Royal Navy squadron in the Gulf. He operated from HMS Tonnant, 74. Large warships such as Tonnant could not enter Lake Borgne. They required deeper water. So, Cochrane sent small craft in. He gave command of all the small boats in his squadron to Nicholas Lockyer, Master and Commander of HMS Sophie, 18, a brig-of-war. Lockyer assembled the boats and moved into Lake Borgne.

Boarding operations

cutting out lake borgne

Gunboat similar to the five American vessels guarding Lake Borgne.

Boarding naval ships and vessels is an ancient tactic of war. By the Napoleonic period, “cutting out” a ship or ships developed into complex movement. One of the most well-known cutting-out maneuvers was the recovery of HMS Hermione, on 25-October-1799, at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Author C.S. Forester used the story of the Hermione for much of the tale of Horatio Hornblower’s time on the fictional HMS Renown in his novel Lieutenant Hornblower.

The cutting out of the Hermione is typical of this type of operation. The British rowed into Puerto Cabello at night, boarded the Hermione (re-named Santa Cecilia by the Spanish), and sailed her out of the harbor after a bloody fight.

Daylight Action

cutting out lake borgne

Map of the Battle of Lake Borgne, from The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, Benson Lossing.

The capture of the American “mosquito squadron” in Lake Borgne did not follow the typical pattern for a cutting-out. Lockyer moved on the American vessels with forty launches and barges, each armed with a gun. Those guns ranged in size from twelve to twenty-four pounders. He also sent in two launches with “long guns” capable of more accurate fire from a distance. These boats, along with three unarmed gigs carried a force of 980 sailors and marines into Lake Borgne.

Lockyer’s boats rowed for 36 hours to approach the American positions. Once there, he ordered them to line up across the lake, then advance in the daylight.

Imagine being Lieutenant David ap Catsby Jones, USN, seeing a line of over forty armed boats approaching! Jones ordered his five gunboats, along with the USS Alligator and USS Sea Horse, to engage. The British engaged the two larger ships separately. The bulk of Lockyer’s boats swarmed the gunboats. A boat from HMS Tonnant captured one of the gunboats. The British turned the guns of that vessel on the other American gunboats, who in turned surrendered.

Aftermath

While the Battle of Lake Borgne wasn’t the Hornblower-style action, it still was a cutting out. None of the main British navel force engaged the enemy. The British captured the American gunboats and the USS Alligator. The crew of the USS Sea Horse beached their vessel and burned it.

The Battle of Lake Borgne was an unqualified British victory. Lockyer accomplished his objective. The British cleared the lake. This enabled the army to land and move on New Orleans. The action did buy time for the Americans, however. By delaying the troop landings, the Americans strengthened their positions below New Orleans. The British opted to wait for the arrival of their new commander, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham.

First Chalmette Monument

First Chalmette Monument

The First Chalmette Monument was the Grand Army of the Republic monument.

first chalmette monument

First Chalmette Monument

Photo of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Monument, by George François Mugnier. Undated photo, likely from the 1880s. This monument stands in the Chalmette National Cemetery, on the end closest to the river. The Latin inscription translates to, “While they are silent, they shout.” Locals referred to it as the “First Chalmette Monument.” The 1907 obelisk claimed the title “Chalmette Monument” upon its completion.

Chalmette National Cemetery

New Orleanians buried Enslaved Americans, along with troops fighting on both sides of the Southern Rebellion, as early as 1861, in Chalmette. So, in 1864, the Union Army formalized this burial ground. They designated 17.5 acres of land from the “back” of the Chalmette battlefield as a National Cemetery. Locals know this area as the “British side” of the battlefield. The British advanced to this location on 8-January-1815. Of the approximately 15,000 people buried in the cemetery, over 6,500 are unidentified. Additionally, most of these are United States Colored Troops (USCT), whose graves are marked only by numbered headstones. While most of the burials here date to the Southern Rebellion, four veterans of the 1815 battle rest here.

Grand Army of the Republic

The Grand Army of the Republic was a Union Army and Navy veterans organization, founded in 1866, at Springfield, Illinois. The organization claimed membership of 410,000 by the 1890s. Union veterans established local chapters, known as “posts” across the country, including many cities in the former rebel states. The GAR post in New Orleans funded and erected the monument in Chalmette Cemetery in 1874. It stands on the river side of the cemetery, because that side was the main entrance for years. So, over time, the levee system along the Mississippi River grew, swallowing up River Road near the cemetery.

The National Park Service took over management of both the battlefield and cemetery in 1933. They moved the entrance from the river side to the St. Bernard Highway (LA 46) side. Visitors now enter the cemetery from St. Bernard Highway, circle around the GAR monument at the other end, and exit back to the highway.

 

Chalmette Monument 1930s #battleofneworleans

Chalmette Monument 1930s #battleofneworleans

Chalmette Monument 1930s is a photo from a WPA-sponsored arts program.

chalmette monument 1930s

Chalmette Monument 1930s

Photo of the monument at Chalmette National Battlefield commemorating the Battle of New Orleans, on 8-January-1815. The obelisk, 100 feet in height, looks over the battlefield, which is one of the five sites of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Building the Obelisk

The Chalmette Monument 1930s originated in 1840. New Orleans marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle in 1840. The battlefield was essentially a sugarcane field in 1840. So, city leaders formed the Jackson Monument Association. They purchased the battlefield site. The association also acquired state funding. Part of the preservation plans included a large-scale monument. Members of the association gathered at the battlefield. They laid the cornerstone of the obelisk.

Construction of the obelisk moved slowly. While Jackson’s death in 1845 sparked interest in the project, the turmoil leading up to the Southern Rebellion stalled the project. So, the actual rebellion completely stalled the project.

Chalmette Cemetery

The Southern Rebellion itself renewed interest in the battlefield site. While the site was privately held during the Union occupation, the US Army seized a portion of the land. They built a cemetery for both Union and rebel soldiers. Most of the early burials in the cemetery were United States Colored Troops. Rebels buried there were, over time, re-interred to other local cemeteries.

After the rebellion, the cemetery continued as a burial site for military personnel. The cemetery helped renew interest in preserving the overall battlefield site. The federal government designated the battlefield a National Historical Park in 1907. Federal ownership accelerated work on the monument.

The monument and the city

While there are much higher monuments around the US, the Chalmette Monument 1930s offers an incredible view of the battlefield. Chalmette is only about five miles from the city. So, that’s about the length of Canal Street.

Chalmette Battlefield was a long-standing destination for eighth-grade class field trips, as those students studied Louisiana History.

The Photo

Chalmette Monument 1930s photo was shot by photographer Erol Barkemeyer. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) sponsored a number of arts and historic preservation projects in the late 1930s. So, these programs helped employ people across the nation during the Great Depression. Additionally, WPA programs contributed much to the citys infrastructure. The photo is part of the State Library of Louisiana’s WPA collection.