One of the strangest battles ever fought by the U.S. Army ended 198 years ago yesterday.
One of the strangest battles ever fought by the U.S. Army ended 198 years ago yesterday. The battle was strange in many ways, with perhaps the strangest thing being it was fought two weeks after the war it was part of had ended. Where was a cell phone when one was needed in 1815?
Another strange aspect was who fought against whom. On one side were some 8,000 battle-hardened British troops, the attackers. They were opposed by some 5,000 troops, but about as disparate a group one could ever find.
The Army's official history book lists them as the 7th and 44th Infantry Regiments, a force of New Orleans sharpshooters led by a major, two battalions of free Negroes, some Louisiana militia troops led by a general, a band of Choctaw Indians, a group of Baratorian pirates, and "a motley battalion of fashionably dressed men of the New Orleans aristocracy."
The Army history book does not name the leader of the pirates, but the Chronicle of America identifies him as the famed pirate Jean Lafitte and his two brothers, Pierre and Dominique.
The American side was under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the British under Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Packenham.
The British force had landed on Christmas Eve, the day the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium that ended the war with a British surrender. Only, absent cell phones, Facebook, Fox News, etc, the combatants in America and on ships at sea were unaware the war had ended.
Packenham was killed leading a charge against the entrenched Americans. He was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Samuel Gibbs, who was also killed. The Army history says British casualties were 2,000, while "American losses were trifling." It also says "Packenham and one other general were killed."
The Chronicle named him, and gave American losses as 45. That may just be the most lopsided victory in military history: 2,000 enemy KIA plus two generals, versus 45. My math skills preclude me figuring the enemy to friendly kill percentage, but it was certainly in our favor.
Strangely, in spite of the overwhelming British defeat, its soldiers waited 10 days, unmolested by American forces, then re-boarded ships and sailed off to invade Mobile, Ala. They landed south of Mobile and overwhelmed a small force at Fort Bowyer, at the entrance to Mobile Harbor, but before they could assault the city itself word finally reached commanders the war was over. It had been over for a month and a half by then.
Older readers will probably remember the famous Johnny Horton song of several years ago about The Battle of New Orleans. I have a copy around the house somewhere and must play it again for old times sake when I track it down.
The war boosted the reputation of the Army Corps of Engineers, as young officer graduates from the military academy at West Point had proven to be very capable in their construction of forts at several of the key battles.
Neither book said what happened to the U.S. forces at New Orleans after the famous victory. We assume the pirates returned to their private island and to pirating, the free Negroes remained free, and the fancy men from New Orleans returned home and continued living their fancy lives.
And we know that Maj. Gen. Jackson left the Army and was later commander-in-chief as president of the United States.
The War of 1812, called by some America's Second War for Independence, is in its bicentennial period from 2012 to 2015, but I've seen precious little about it in any news media. But now at least readers are reminded about one of our strangest battles in history, 198 years ago yesterday.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.