At critical periods in the national defense of the United States, when the resources available for the armed forces are in desperately short supply, difficult decisions must be made as to the allocation of those resources. The War of 1812 provides an example of this process and the effects of the denial of resources to a naval station in what was, for most of the war, a minor theater of action. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the Gulf Coast to British attack, the naval and military forces at New Orleans were skeletal, starving for want of resources and reinforcements. For two years, the military front for the United States in its war with Great Britain was the border with Canada. For most of the war, until the autumn of 1814, the U.S. Navy’s principal actions took place in the North Atlantic and on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain. For these reasons, the Gulf Coast had been assigned a low priority in Navy ships, men, finance, and supply.
When Napoleon abdicated in March 1814, the Royal Navy sent ships from European waters to reinforce its commercial and naval blockade of the United States and to commence an aggressive raiding strategy along the New England coast intended to bring the war home to the American people. The U.S. Navy’s few warships were either at sea or blockaded in Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, unable to assist in defending harbors and ports. The Chesapeake region had already experienced some of the harshest effects of this new strategy. Well before the attack on Washington, the British high command had determined that one of the most inviting targets would be New Orleans.1 In mid-September Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, having withdrawn his forces from the failed attack on Baltimore, was preparing to attack Rhode Island when he received new orders from the Admiralty. He immediately canceled his plans to strike New England in order to prepare for operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Valuable—but Strategically Neglected?
New Orleans was a valuable square on the strategic chessboard. This famous seaport at the head of the Mississippi Delta had become a thriving city that lived on trade in grain and livestock brought downriver thousands of miles from the Old Northwest Territory and on manufactured goods from Eastern cities transported via the Ohio River to the Mississippi. Its population of about 25,000 whites, free blacks, and slaves, was a colorful multilingual (mostly French-speaking) milieu borne of two centuries of French and Spanish rule, with a more recent admixture of Anglo-American immigrants and adventurers.
The distance from Washington encouraged local corruption and smuggling, and the city, although it had militia units, was without significant defenses and was vulnerable to attack from a well-equipped amphibious force. Situated as it was, whoever controlled the port city could regulate or tax the river trade. If the city could be captured and held, other concessions might be wrung from the bankrupt U.S. government, or under the threat of destruction, the city could be ransomed. With wealthy citizens, warehouses full of cotton bales and barrels of sugarcane, the enemy could sail away with a small fortune.
Since President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France in 1803, the only semblance of the federal government in New Orleans was the U.S. Naval Station. The city was approximately 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico by river, but there were other means of access through a web of shallow tidal creeks or bayous. Naval officers assigned to command at New Orleans had to contend with this porous geography. It became a salient cause for concern in late 1814, when the Gulf Coast became a major theater of war, and the British aimed a thrust at New Orleans and environs.
The Navy had established its station at New Orleans in 1806, when Captain John Shaw was assigned to command forces there. Succeeded by Master Commandant David Porter for a brief period (1808–10), Shaw was ordered back to New Orleans in time to participate in the suppression of a slave rebellion in early 1811. On 3 February 1812, Shaw reported to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton that he had some 400 men under his command distributed among two brigs-of-war and a dozen gunboats.2 Six months later, the hurricane of 19 August 1812 did severe damage, leaving the naval station devastated and several gunboats driven ashore or otherwise damaged.
The United States had declared war on Great Britain on 18 June 1812, but both the Army and Navy were ill-prepared for this vast challenge. Only a handful of the Navy’s 15 ships were in a state of readiness, those few standouts holding the line in a series of successful high-seas duels—Constitution-Guerriere, Wasp-Frolic, United States-Macedonian, Constitution-Java, and Hornet-Peacock—all of which took place between 19 August 1812 and 23 February 1813. The residual force, aside from these few ships, was composed of from 150 to 200 gunboats, a product of Jeffersonian naval policy. In varying states of decay, these were distributed from Maine to Louisiana. Some had even been stationed on the Mississippi at Baton Rouge and Natchez.
It took almost four weeks for news of the declaration of war to reach New Orleans, and when it did, Shaw immediately replied to Hamilton that his vessels were inadequate to guard ‘‘the extensive portion of the coast assigned to them for protection, and I may add, particularly of the islands and City of New Orleans.’’3
The brig Syren was armed with 16 24-pounder cannon, 2 12-pounders, and a crew of 60. Slightly less impressive was the brig Viper, with 12 12-pounder cannon, 2 6-pounders, and 60 men. The half-dozen gunboats still seaworthy at New Orleans were a varied collection of shallow-draft vessels, rigged either as schooners or sloops, carrying but two cannon and a variety of small arms. Although well suited for navigating in the shallow waters of the Mississippi Delta and among the bays and islands of the Gulf Coast, the gunboats’ design did not suit them well for pursuit and attack offshore. The primary peacetime duties assigned to the New Orleans station commander included the enforcement of embargo laws, the capture of smugglers, and the protection of American commerce from the harassments of British and French warships, privateers, and pirates.
The force under Shaw’s command was too small for the many obligations imposed on it. Multiple water routes through bays and bayous of the delta country made it impossible for these few vessels to guard them all simultaneously. The most that the Navy could do was to station its vessels in locations where pirates and smugglers usually sailed or anchored. One of these rendezvous was in Lake Barataria. It frequently occurred, however, that the gunboats were no match for the swift schooners that participated in the smuggling trade.
Perhaps the most fortunate event that occurred for the Navy at New Orleans during 1812 was Secretary Hamilton’s authorization for purchase of a merchantman capable of being fitted out as a warship. The owner, J. H. Laurence & Co. of New York, offered her for sale to the government at New Orleans on 4 July 1812. She was purchased, taken into the Navy in September, and given the name Louisiana. Captain Shaw immediately commenced fitting her out, but acquisition of the ship placed new demands on items in short supply, such as gunpowder. As she was being prepared to carry 16 long 24-pounders, she would need almost all of what Shaw had in the station’s magazine.4
When William Jones took over as secretary of the Navy in 1813, he let Shaw know that he considered the New Orleans Station extravagant and wasteful, and though Shaw protested that such was not the case, he made no headway in receiving requested additional resources. One of Shaw’s favorite projects was the construction of a “block ship” at his improvised Navy yard on the Tchifoncta River near Lake Ponchartrain. Had it become a reality, this floating fortress might have been quite useful in defense of New Orleans, but Jones was skeptical. Finally, by October 1813, Jones had had enough of the testy Captain Shaw. He ordered Master Commandant Daniel Patterson to take command at New Orleans and instructed Shaw to settle his accounts with the Navy Department before he could receive a new command.5
Before he relinquished command of the station, Shaw wrote to his successor, urging particular vigilance with regard to the eastern approaches to New Orleans along the Gulf Coast and across Lake Borgne. (This prescient warning Patterson took to heart and later echoed in a letter to Major General Andrew Jackson, the U.S. Army’s Gulf Coast commander, on 2 September 1814.)6 Shaw closed by stating that he was “truly mortified” at being unable to turn over to Patterson a naval force that could provide an honorable defense of New Orleans.7
This change of command coincided with major shifts in the European war, which in turn would bring greater military pressure to bear against the United States. As the situation developed, Patterson adjusted to the demands of his new post. Secretary Jones strongly impressed him with the necessity of strictly managing his accounts “to check the enormous expenditure and waste which has hitherto marked the Naval Service on that Station.”8 He also ordered Patterson to make a detailed report on the progress of the block ship and advised him that if any gunboats were too decayed for use, he would replace them with large barges similar to those used in the Chesapeake Flotilla. He promised to send plans so that Patterson could build them at New Orleans; but although the plans eventually arrived, Jones failed to authorize the building of the barges before it was too late.
‘Expectations . . . Only Too Accurate’
Patterson swiftly obeyed these orders but soon found himself running toward the same reefs that had threatened Shaw. Having made his tours of inspection, Patterson began to complain of an insufficient number of seamen, too few vessels, inadequate supplies, and the need to complete the block ship.9 The secretary acted to put an end to this carping. He wrote that Patterson had ordered too many supplies, that men could not be stripped from northern stations and sent to New Orleans, and that the block ship, so highly regarded by Shaw, was a “worthless hulk.” Jones directed that all construction cease and that the Tchifoncta shipbuilding establishment be broken up.10
Patterson must have winced when Lieutenant Daniel Dexter discovered extensive rot in the gun deck of the Louisiana and, after a survey, pronounced her unfit for the naval service. Fortunately, she would remain in commission long enough to take part in the Battle of New Orleans.11 Patterson informed Jones of the Louisiana’s condition and urged him to authorize the building of galleys or barges. In June 1814, disturbing news arrived from Pensacola: The British were sending arms to the Creek Indians and had landed men and supplies. He fully expected an attack on Mobile and an attempt on New Orleans during the winter.12
Patterson’s expectations were only too accurate. In September the British mounted an attack on the approaches to Mobile, but they were shocked by their severe repulse at Fort Bowyer. Americans destroyed one British ship and damaged three others in the process.13 General Jackson had requested the assistance of Patterson’s naval force in defending Fort Bowyer, but the master commandant respectfully declined, pointing out that they would be of better service at New Orleans.14 The Navy had a more immediate use for its gunboats and the recently arrived 14-gun schooner Carolina. Secretary Jones had sent Master Commandant John D. Henley in this vessel to aid Patterson in the suppression of piracy on Lake Barataria. Patterson’s raid on Barataria came off successfully, but there was no time to waste in celebration.15
By 12 December a large British expeditionary fleet had anchored east of New Orleans near Cat Island in Mississippi Sound. The fleet included the 74-gun HMS Tonnant (Admiral Cochrane’s flagship), Plantagenet, Royal Oak, and Vengeur; the 38-gun Armide; the 28-gun Seahorse and Rota; the 26-gun Sophie; the 20-gun Herald; the 18-gun Carnation; the 10-gun Aetna, Meteor, and Pygmy; and many others serving as troop transports and escorts. The ships and transports drew too much water to advance any closer than 60 miles from the city. The British would have to use oar-propelled barges to approach through shallow Lake Borgne. Patterson ordered Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, commanding five gunboats and two tenders, the Alligator and Seahorse, to keep watch on the enemy’s movements and to defend Pass Christian at the mouth of Lake Borgne. If threatened, Jones was to drop back on the strait known as Les Rigolets, adding his guns to those of Fort Petites Coquilles, which guarded the entrance to Lake Ponchartrain.
As it happened, Jones had to improvise. Cochrane’s plan of attack was to send ships’ boats (or barges) loaded with sailors and infantry across Lake Borgne and then through the Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Mazant, following the channels are far as possible. From there, the troops would have to slog through the swamp to the firmer ground on the Mississippi’s left bank (facing downriver), where the Villere plantation was located. This was to prove a time-consuming and difficult route. But first, the British had to contend with Jones’ gunboats deployed across the approach to Lake Borgne. The battle was joined on 14 December. Faced with little wind and an unfavorable tide, Jones aligned his boats as best he could for mutual defense, in a line abreast with antiboarding nettings drawn up by the rigging. Thus, armed with long guns and carronades as well as cutlasses, pikes, and sidearms, the Americans faced an attack of 45 barges and some 1,200 of the enemy. In a two-hour battle, the British boats prevailed, but at a cost of 17 killed and 77 wounded. Jones, who had 182 men and 23 guns, suffered 6 killed and 35 wounded, including himself. While the British gained access to Lake Borgne, the sacrificial battle won valuable time for General Jackson and Commodore Patterson, allowing them to strengthen defenses and call for more reinforcements for New Orleans.16
Naval Guns for General Jackson
Faced with a battle that could mean the loss of a major seaport and access to the nation’s central river system, Patterson then had to readjust his meager forces to meet the British on the Mississippi. Neither the Syren nor Viper would factor in; Navy Secretary William Jones had ordered them to sea to attack British convoys or take targets of opportunity, but they were eventually captured by British blockaders. Working closely with Jackson, he prepared the Carolina and Louisiana to harass the British forces that had invaded the Villere plantation six miles below New Orleans. The field was a sodden piece of ground, subject to flooding, with no natural cover to use for protection from either the enemy or the weather. The British troops had to be delivered to the site by barges, which made dozens of round trips by rowing to the fleet anchorage to pick up men and ordnance for the battlefield. The on-scene commander, British Major General John Keane, commandeered the Villere plantation house as his headquarters and waited for reinforcements. Meanwhile, Jackson’s troops, militia, volunteers, and slaves were put to work building defensive works along the Rodriguez Canal, running perpendicular to the river from Cypress Swamp on Jackson’s left flank.17
By 23 December some 1,500 British soldiers had arrived, and Jackson decided to attack while the numbers were still in his favor. In the night action that followed, Patterson’s Louisiana and Carolina fired on the British lines at almost point-blank range from anchorages on the river. This was followed by Jackson’s stealthy attack from Cypress Swamp on the enemy’s right, causing a fever-pitch melee for which the British were unprepared yet still put up a good fight.
On Christmas Day came 3,000 more British troops and their artillery, led by Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, who, as senior officer, took over command from Keane. Two days later, the British guns had been positioned to destroy the Carolina, which had constantly harassed the enemy encampment with grape and round shot. The British artillerymen dealt out hot shot heated in a field furnace. One of the rounds penetrated the Carolina’s hull and started an unquenchable fire that consumed and blew up the schooner, though not before most of the crew escaped with two of the ship’s guns. The Louisiana’s crew pulled her upriver and out of harm’s way.18
Patterson ordered two of the Carolina’s officers, Lieutenants Ortho Norris and Charles Crawley, and their gun crews to serve naval batteries in Jackson’s line.19 He sent Lieutenant Francis de Bellevue and his Marines to man two gun batteries (totaling nine guns) on the right bank of the Mississippi, where lines had been built to prevent the British from outflanking Jackson’s lines.20 Pakenham’s next move was a reconnaissance-in-force on 28 December. He marched his troops to within a half-mile of Jackson’s line, but they were forced to turn back in the face of heavy and accurate fire from Jackson’s artillery and the Louisiana’s guns. Concerned that the Louisiana might suffer the Carolina’s fate, Patterson then hauled her out of range upriver and transferred some of her sailors and two 12-pounder guns from her unengaged side to the batteries on the right bank where they could enfilade the next British attack.21 Major General David B. Morgan and his weakly armed Louisiana militia were posted, widely dispersed, just south of the batteries, protecting their right flank. Meanwhile, reinforcements had continued to strengthen Jackson, whose troops swelled to 4,000 on the front line with 1,000 men held in reserve.
The British Repulsed
The climax of the New Orleans campaign took place on 8 January 1815. A British reinforcement of 2,000 men had arrived on 6 January under the command of Major General John Lambert, bringing the strength of all available British troops to 7,700. This determined the timing of Pakenham’s main assault. In an effort to outflank Jackson’s lines on the Rodriguez Canal, he ordered Colonel William Thornton to cross the Mississippi with 600 men in flatboats to move up the right bank, attack Morgan’s troops, and capture Patterson’s guns. They nearly succeeded, but Thornton’s timing was thrown off by the swift currents, carrying them downriver and upsetting Pakenham’s planned coordination. The impatient commander refused to wait for Thornton and began his assault on Jackson’s fortified line. This failed utterly, as his troops, falling under a rain of rifle, musket, and cannon fire, were unable to scale the mud and timber wall protecting the American troops and batteries.
General Pakenham was fatally wounded and Keane severely so, while their troops suffered hundreds killed and more than 1,200 wounded. At about the same time, however, Thornton, on the right bank, was able to surprise Morgan’s troops and overrun their position. Patterson’s men, suddenly exposed, spiked their guns and retreated upriver. This enabled Thornton to capture the position, clear the guns, and threaten to rake Jackson’s right flank. At that moment, General Lambert, who had been in charge of the British troops held in reserve, assumed command in the midst of mass confusion and flight. He recalled Thornton to support the main army in its distress. Patterson immediately recaptured his guns and harassed the British as they withdrew. In reporting to Secretary Jones, Patterson gave high praise to Captain John D. Henley, erstwhile commander of the destroyed Carolina, who, despite his wounds, commanded a battery of two 24-pounders on the right bank.22
At the end of the battle, there was neither a surrender nor a peace parley. Generals Jackson and Lambert exchanged notes and agreed to a day’s truce. They arranged for care of the badly wounded British and agreed to provide an accounting of the missing, who were, presumably, prisoners of war. Then the two sides exchanged prisoners. It is likely that all this time, General Lambert was awaiting news from a naval flotilla that Admiral Cochrane had sent some days before to attack Fort St. Philip at the Plaquemine Turn on the lower Mississippi.
Five Royal Navy ships, brigs, and mortar vessels bombarded the well-prepared fort for nine days. The fort’s defenders gave back in equal measure and were well supported by boats from New Orleans bringing supplies, ammunition, and fuses for the fort’s huge 13-inch mortar. Unable to pass or destroy the fort, the flotilla gave up and sailed downriver on the 18th. On the same day, Lambert ordered his troops to begin a stealthy retreat to their boats. Thus passed the last opportunity for the British to gain a victory at New Orleans.
‘A Model . . . of Duty and Bravery’
Lieutenant Catesby Jones’ gallant stand with 5 gunboats against 45 barges from the British fleet was a model in terms of duty and bravery in a vital delaying action. In retrospect, this should have been just the beginning and not the end of the Battle of Lake Borgne. Three times as many gunboats, augmented by barges such as those belatedly authorized by Secretary Jones, could have bedeviled and imperiled the British waterborne attack on the New Orleans bayous.23 A stout blockship, strategically located, might also have lured the British into a costly attack, diminishing their resources for an invasion. The rest of the U.S. Navy’s participation in the Battle of New Orleans is stirring.
The officers and men of the Carolina and Louisiana performed essential and valuable services by harassing the British lines night and day with accurate cannon fire. Major Daniel Carmick’s Marine detachment joined vigorously in the battle, manning a battery on the right bank of the Mississippi. Carmick himself was severely wounded by a British rocket. Two officers from the Carolina served batteries with their men on the right bank after the British destroyed their ship with red-hot shot.
The root of the Navy’s main problem at New Orleans lay in the weakened financial condition of the nation. The British commercial blockade had strangled the U.S. income stream and the antiwar New England states had refused financial assistance to the nation. Secretary Jones, who had been appointed to secretary of the Treasury as well as the Navy Department, must have been overwhelmed by these burdens. While Jones may have had a blind spot where New Orleans was concerned, Master Commandant Patterson, his officers, and men clearly played a vital supporting role in the victory at New Orleans with the resources they had on hand.24 It is yet ironic that the one U.S. naval station that was truly suited for a gunboat navy had only five such vessels at the time of its greatest need.
2. John Shaw to Paul Hamilton, 3 February 1812; College Park, MD: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group (RG) 45, Microfilm (M) 125, Captains’ Letters (CL) received by the Secretary of the Navy, vol. 1, no 28.
3. Shaw to Hamilton, 4 August 1812, NARA, RG45, M125, CL, 1812, vol. 2, no. 156.
4. J. H. Laurence & Co. to Hamilton, 4 July 1812, NARA, RG45, M125, Miscellaneous Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy (MLR), vol. 50, no. 24. Shaw to Hamilton, 27 August 1812, NARA, RG45, M 125, CL, 1812, vol. 3, no. 147. Wilkinson to Hamilton, 22 December 1812, NARA, RG45, M124, MLR vol. 52, no. 196. (Criticizes Shaw on use of the Louisiana as cruiser instead of block ship.)
5. See Christopher McKee, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794–1815 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 306–7.
6. Patterson to Jackson, 2 September 1814, NARA, RG45, Masters Commandant Letters received by the Secretary of the Navy, MCL, 1813–1814, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 39 (encl. to no. 38, Patterson to Jones, 4 September 1814).
7. Shaw to Patterson, 21 December 1813, NARA, RG45, M125, CL, 1813, vol. 8, no. 94.
8. Jones to Patterson, 18 October 1813, NARA, RG45, M149, SNL, roll 11, 122–24.
9. Patterson to Jones, 25 January 1814, MCL, M147/5, no . 25.
10. Jones to Patterson, 7 March 1814, NARA, RG45, M149, SNL, roll 11, 234–36.
11. Jones to Patterson, 26 March 1814, NARA, RG45, M149, SNL, roll 8, 257–58.
12. Patterson to Jones, 13 May 1814, MCL, M147/5, no. 127. Patterson to Jones, 24 June 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 1, no. 151. Patterson to Jones, 8 July 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 2.
13. Percy to Cochrane, 16 September 1814, PRO Adm 1/505, 311–19. Wilburt S. Brown, The Amphibious Campaign for West Florida and Louisiana, 1814–1815: A Critical Review of Strategy and Tactics at New Orleans (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1969), 44–58.
14. Patterson to Jones, 4 September 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 38, and two enclosures.
15. Jones to Patterson, 8 July 1814, NARA, RG45, M149, SNL, roll 8, pp. 369–70. Patterson to Jones, 20 August 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 22. Henley to Jones, 24 August 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 36. Patterson to Jones, 4 September 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, nos. 64–65. Patterson to Jones, 14 October 1814, NARA, RG45, MCL, M147/5, vol. 2, no. 67.
16. Gene A. Smith, Thomas ap Catesby Jones: Commodore of Manifest Destiny (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 13–32.
17. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of the American Empire, 1767–1821 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 255–75.
18. Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974), 268–69.
19. A. LaCarriere Latour, Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814–1815 (Philadelphia: H. P. Nugent, 1816), 121–23.
20. Brown, Amphibious Campaign, 119–20.
21. See Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1905), vol. 2, 393.
22. Patterson to Jones, 13 January 1815, NARA, RG45, MCL, 1815, vol. I, no. 11.
23. Spencer C. Tucker, The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 154–70.
24. Robert V. Remini, The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory (New York: Viking, 1999), 36. Edwin N. McClellan, “The Navy at the Battle of New Orleans,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 50, no. 12 (December 1924), 2041–59.