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The War of 1812 (1809-1815)

New Orleans

Treaty of Ghent (December 1814)

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Summary

After repairing the damage to his fleet from the Battle of Baltimore, in late 1814, British Admiral Thomas Cochrane was finally ready for an attack on New Orleans. For the US, Andrew Jackson, already a hero of campaigns against the Creek Indians, was placed in command of southern forces. Jackson commanded a ragtag group of soldiers, who were neither particularly experienced nor organized. Also among his charge were two regiments of black volunteers from the New Orleans area.

After Robert Ross's death in the invasion of Baltimore, Major General Edward Packenham was put in command of the British ground forces in the New Orleans invasion. It would take him some time to arrive from Britain, and as a result, poor leadership and inadequate preparation plagued the British ground forces.

While the British prepared their invasion, Jackson was busy finishing up a campaign against the Creek Indians in the South, as he was also hoping to take Spain's city of Pensacola in Florida. Furthermore, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicholls of Britain was engaged in some minor maneuvers in Florida, probably as a diversion. Jackson was so obsessed with Florida that he allowed Nicholls movements with a tiny force to distract him from preparing for the massive attack on New Orleans. Instead of marching his men to New Orleans right away, Jackson remained in the Pensacola area, sending his men on all kinds of wasteful operations. Even when he was directly ordered by his superiors to march his troops to New Orleans, he still dallied in Pensacola for quite a while, convinced that Britain had secret designs on Florida. Finally, on November 12, 1814, Jackson, having been completely fooled by British misdirection, realized it was time to march his men to New Orleans.

Jackson set up his men and his fleet in what he believed would allow him to challenge the British amphibious landing. Jackson miscalculated, however, and Cochrane decided to press through the small American fleet on Lake Borgne, in order to land the redcoats so they would have a route to New Orleans along a path Jackson had not defended. The US fleet on Lake Borgne stood no chance, and was immediately wiped out. Jackson quickly moved the US troops to New Orleans.

Cochrane, though, had trouble finding good landing ground, a process that took into December of 1814. Once landed, the British attempted an initial surprise attack; Jackson's men repelled them, and Cochrane fell back to wait for General Packenham and plan a full assault. Packenham arrived on Christmas Day, a day after the signig of the Treaty of Ghent. Meanwhile, Jackson's army busied itself building earthwork defenses, largely using local slave labor "volunteered" by their masters.

On January 8, 1815, Packenham ordered an attack at 6:00 AM. Expecting another Bladensburg, the British forces made a frontal assault on Jackson's ragtag army. Under Jackson, the American forces didn't run, and the British army was soundly defeated.

Commentary

In attacking New Orleans, Cochrane's hope was to prevent US ships from entering and exiting the Mississippi River, cutting off America's most important inland transportation and shipping route. Cochrane also wanted to attack New Orleans because it had a vast stockpile of valuable goods like sugar and tobacco that had been piling up over the years of embargo.

The American navy at New Orleans was a particularly haphazard, ramshackle mixture, which gave Cochrane an initial advantage with his rested, repaired fleet. Also, although Jackson was and is remembered as an American military hero, his command was far from perfect. Blunders abounded, including his foolish decision to keep his forces in West Florida, leaving New Orleans undefended, for such a long time. After winning the battle of New Orleans, Jackson became a national hero and his popularity eventually propelled to the presidency. However, his victory in New Orleans owed as much to luck as to sound strategy. The death of Ross and the slowness with which Packenham arrived to command his troops greatly aided Jackson, as did the very geography of the New Orleans region. In terms of the popularity his victory generated, Jackson also lucked out: though the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, because news of the victory swept the US before news of the treaty, many Americans assumed Jackson's victory ended the war.

In reality, as important as the War of 1812 seemed in the United States, on the world scale it was a mere shadow compared with the far vaster Napoleonic Wars. In many ways the War of 1812 can and should be considered as an outgrowth of the conflict in Europe. Regardless, the war certainly meant a lot to the young American nation, which dubbed the War of 1812 the "Second War for American Independence." Many hyper-patriotic Americans went so far as to announce that the War of 1812 had announced the United States' role as a world power. Although there was much to be proud of in the war, this was far from the case. The US had started a war and then barely defended itself, allowing Washington to be looted and burned in the process. However, the War of 1812 was a start. Fending off Britain did allow the US to focus on internal growth and consolidation during a near century of isolationism in which the US was for the most part left alone by the other powers of the world.

And while the War of 1812 was neither the military triumph Americans often painted, nor an announcement of global power, the American exaggeration of the war does stand testament to one of the war's effects: a dramatic increase in American nationalism. In the aftermath of the war, schools replaced British textbooks with American, the Bank of the United States was resuscitated (1816), and artists began to produce a distinctly "American" literature. Politically, Henry Clay's visionary "American System" called for linking the nation into a single marketplace by building a transportation infrastructure of railroads. The tremendous period of the American nineteenth century, with its isolationism, incredible industrialization, westward expansion, increasing sectionalism, secession and Civil War, all resulting, ultimately, in America's ascension to the world stage, can be seen as emerging from the seeds planted in the War of 1812.

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