At the end of the War of 1812 the United States fought a major battle against Great Britain. Just why is the Battle of New Orleans of 1815 important and what was so unusual about it?
In American history the War of 1812 is largely a forgotten war. For almost the entirety of the war the United States’ performance was anemic and left deep divisions among the population.
By mid-1814 the nation was nearly bankrupt and on the verge of fracturing. Peace discussions began at the neutral Dutch city of Ghent in August 1814, but while diplomats worked on potential terms, the war continued on.
The British were bolstered by Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba, bringing what would be a temporary peace to the European mainland. This pause in fighting allowed Britain to send seasoned veterans from the Napoleonic campaigns to fight in the Americas.
This increase in military firepower led Britain to go on the offensive. This resulted in the burning of Washington, DC as well as a planned invasion from Canada.
Fortunately the United States won key victories at the Battles of Plattsburgh and Baltimore, forcing the British to change plans. Instead, the British concentrated their efforts on the key strategic port city of New Orleans.
General Andrew Jackson headed an American force operating in the southeastern US. When he learned of the British plans to attack New Orleans, he rushed forces from his headquarters in Mobile to prepare to defend the city.
The resulting American victory at the Battle of New Orleans was incredibly important and helped lead to a surge in post-war nationalistic sentiment throughout the United States.
Andrew Jackson’s Preparation for Battle
Andrew Jackson was a widely-respected general in the United States military primarily due to his contributions in the Creek War (1813-1814) and particularly at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.. However, it was his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans that catapulted him to fame.
Jackson arrived in New Orleans on December 1, 1814 after receiving word of British plans to attack the city. He immediately personally inspected the defenses of the city and outlying area to determine any potential British invasion routes.
The city of New Orleans was included in the Louisiana Purchase and thus had not been part of the United States for very long. As such the city had a mixed population of people with strong Spanish, French, and British ties.
Jackson had many misgivings about the loyalty of the local citizens and militia. He received several reports detailing suspected enemy spy rings and grew concerned over the legislature’s refusal to obey direct orders from the Louisiana governor.1
After receiving guidance from two prominent local lawyers on Constitutional law, Andrew Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans on December 16th. The order suspended free speech and movement among the local populace and turned New Orleans into virtually a military barracks reporting solely to Jackson.
It was an unprecedented move at the time and betrayed the Jeffersonian ideals of the time period.1
Every able-bodied man was summoned to serve in the militia. Even the jails were emptied in return for service in the militia and financial obligations were suspended for those to help ease the burden on those charged with defending the city.
On December 23rd the British were finally able to grab a foothold on land. Jackson personally led a skirmish to halt the British in their tracks and buy time for the defenders to construct well-positioned defenses.
Jackson ordered a breastwork (low wall) built that was located between the Mississippi River and an impassable swamp, forcing the British into a head-on assault. On January 8th, 1815, the British did exactly that.
Why Was the 1815 Battle of New Orleans Important?
The Battle of New Orleans featured an extremely important American victory over the British in what would be the last major battle of the War of 1812. The outnumbered Americans heroically fought off the British attackers and forced them to retreat without completing their objective.
The Battle of New Orleans was widely celebrated as a sort of “redemption” for the United States after its poor performance throughout the War of 1812. The wide disparity in casualties proved the US could stand against the British and helped to restore national honor.
The British indeed suffered an enormous number of casualties in the battle. Out of roughly 11,000 available men (though only 8,000 were involved in the attack), nearly 700 were killed, 1,400 wounded. and 500 taken prisoner.2
In comparison the Americans lost just 52 men killed and wounded. It was a stunning victory that very few anticipated.
General Andrew Jackson’s battle strategy was a masterstroke in planning. His defensive position was well-crafted where both his flanks were protected and forced the British into a head on frontal assault.2
The extensive work to the breastwork proved incredibly important as it helped absorb artillery fire while providing cover from the British infantry. In the process Jackson caused over $160,000 worth of damage to private property requisitioning materials for the defense.1
For ten days after the battle the British remained nearby, determining their next move. Finally, they withdrew to their fleet and sailed away.3
Jackson was determined to remain vigilant despite the removal of the immediate British threat. He continued martial law in New Orleans for another two months after the battle despite complaints from the local citizenry.1
What was Unusual about the Battle of New Orleans?
What was most unusual about the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 is that it was almost completely unnecessary. The battle participants did not know it at the time, but the important Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed just two weeks earlier.
The Treaty of Ghent ended the war upon formal ratification by both countries. However, due to the slow speed of trans-Atlantic travel, the treaty did not arrive in the United States until mid-February. Thus, the British technically lost over 2,000 men in the Battle of New Orleans when the war was already over.
While the battle can largely be seen as irrelevant from a historical perspective, some historians believe that should the British have won at New Orleans, the peace treaty could have been altered.4
A specific clause in the treaty called for the treaty to take effect upon ratification by both nations. If the British had caught word that they won at New Orleans, held the city, and thus controlled trade on the Mississippi river, they could have rescinded their ratification before the Americans had a chance to sign the treaty themselves.
As control of the Mississippi River was critical to trade and halting potential US expansion, this could have appeared very attractive to the British. Despite this theory, historians generally believe that the British had no such intentions.4
The Battle of New Orleans was also unusual in regards to the makeup of the defenders. There was a wide range of people that came together to defend the city.
There were US army regulars, local militia and militia units from as far away as Tennessee and Kentucky, free men of color, and local citizenry. Even more bizarrely, the battle featured the famous Baratarian pirate Jean Lafitte fighting for a legal pardon.4
The Significance of the Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans was a monumental and important victory for the United States, but its true significance lies in what occurred in its direct aftermath.
The victory over New Orleans solidified the American claim to the Louisiana territory despite the hopes of both the British and Spanish to potentially claim some of that territory back. In fact, the US occupied some of the territory consisting of Spanish West Florida in 1813.5
The Treaty of Ghent did not force the United States to leave that portion of West Florida, and thus it was occupied until the formal signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.
The American victory over the British at Battle of New Orleans and the subsequent Treaty of Ghent helped to restore its national honor and led to a heightened period of nationalistic sentiment across the United States.
A timeline of the Era of Good Feelings shows that this sentiment lasted roughly until the end of the decade. The divisive and important Missouri Compromise as well as the effects of the Panic of 1819, however, helped bring this era to a screeching halt.
Andrew Jackson perhaps gained the most from his success at New Orleans. “Old Hickory” gained national prominence for his role in the battle, which directly led to his emergence as a political force in the 1820s.
Jackson narrowly lost the election of 1824 or “corrupt bargain”, though he would eventually ascend to the Presidency in 1828. His opponents criticized his use of martial law in New Orleans which helped lead to the nickname “King Andrew.”
Though the Battle of New Orleans may have been fought after the war was over, its importance and significance in US history cannot be understated.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Matthew Warshauer. “The Battle of New Orleans Reconsidered: Andrew Jackson and Martial Law.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 39, no. 3, Louisiana Historical Association, 1998, pp. 261–91, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233516.
2) Tompkins, William F. “A Brief Account of the Battle of New Orleans with a Foreword.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 61, no. 1, Virginia Historical Society, 1953, pp. 60–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245902.
3) Remini, Robert V. “Andrew Jackson’s Account of the Battle of New Orleans.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, Tennessee Historical Society, 1967, pp. 23–42, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42622915.
4) CARR, JAMES A. “The Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent.” Diplomatic History, vol. 3, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 273–82, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24910113.
5) Cook, William C. “The Early Iconography of the Battle of New Orleans, 1815-1819.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, Tennessee Historical Society, 1989, pp. 218–37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42626823.