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