Failure at New Orleans
A pointless waste of life?
By Adam Barnes
Much as the battle of Toulouse was fought after the declaration of Peace in Paris, in 1814, New Orleans was likewise fought after the War of 1812 had been brought to a close with the Treaty of Ghent signed on December 24th 1814.
However, owing to the distance between Ghent and New Orleans, some 4800 miles, the peace was not received until February of 1815. By this time, the final battle had been fought and, despite the British still fighting along the coast of the southern United States, they were forced to comply with the terms of the treaty.
Although only a handful of companies from the Third Battalion of the 95th were present at New Orleans, the campaign saw the conclusion of the war of 1812 at the expense of many British lives. The third Battalion of the 95th were primarily engaged during this final battle, in a light role; a role which they had perfected during the previous five years fighting through Portugal, Spain and France. With the cessation of hostilities in France, there would be no rest for the five companies of the Battalion to be deployed to America; being informed of their imminent deployment almost immediately from their return from the Peninsular. Quartermaster William Surtees states that upon his Battalion’s return from France on the 18th July 1814, they were quartered in Plymouth: “we had scarcely been a month at Plymouth till we received an order to prepare again for foreign service… At length the order arrived for our embarkation, and on the 18th September, just two months from the day of our arrival in England, our five companies were sent on board His Majesty’s ships Fox and Dover”.
Advancing to the Battlefield
New Orleans 200
During the voyage to New Orleans, the first officer of the 95th to die during the campaign was sustained; Second Lieutenant Samuel Curry fell to his death off of one of the transport ships and drowned during the voyage to the Americas.Conditions upon the transports were cramped, with the men of the 95th quartered alongside “the 93rd Highlanders, a company of artillery, some rocketeers, a squadron of the 14th Light Dragoons, without horses”. Surtees describes the conditions afforded to the men were extended to the officers as well, “We were no less than twenty-four people in the cabin, twelve of our officers and twelve gentlemen of the commissariat department, so that we were sufficiently crowded, besides being in several other respects ill provided. But all this would have been bourne with cheerfulness and good-will, had we not experienced such a total want of kindness and urbanity from a quarter where we least expected it, and from which that unkindness could be made most effectual.”
Despite the main force of the Rifles deploying in September 1814, Captain Harry Smith was deployed at an earlier date, holding the role of Assistant Adjutant General within the British Forces. As a consequence, Smith was present not just for the battle of New Orleans, but also during the engagement at Blandensburg as well as the infamous burning of Washington during August of 1814.
The Battle of New Orleans in itself was an all-out disaster for the British forces. Although a relatively small force, the British force found itself under a huge barrage of fire throughout much of the New Orleans campaign. Surtees quotes Harry Smith, a veteran of many engagements during his time in the Peninsula as saying that the intensity of the firepower experienced during the battle was unlike anything he had ever faced before.
During the advance to battle, mainly done by ship owing to the coastal location of the battle, the 95th formed an advanced guard alongside the 85th Regiment and some artillery pieces. Prior to the army’s disembarkation, William Surtees writes of how one company of the 95th secured the British forces a landing area under the cover of darkness; he states: “some light boats were sent forward with Captain Travers of ours and his company, to endeavour to surprise a regiment of the enemy, which we knew were stationed in some huts at the mouth of the creek… From the information they [the huts owners] gave, the best arrangements possible were made for effecting this; for Travers, moving silently on, and landing his men at the opposite ends of the hamlet, there remained no way of escape open for the troops in the houses. As soon as all was ready, they rushed forward and secured the whole picquet without a shot being fired, with the exception of two men, who preferred venturing into the marsh, in the rear of the huts, where it is not improbable they perished. The duty was conducted so quietly, and so expeditiously, that very few of the other troops knew anything of the matter; but this alone secured us a landing without opposition, for had a firing been begun on either side, it must have alarmed the American army, who, no doubt, would have used their endeavours to oppose our landing.” Whether the estimation of how many American troops were stationed at the creek is entirely accurate remains to be seen; as it seems highly unlikely that a single company of Riflemen would have held sufficient numbers, or firepower, to overrun an outpost held by a whole Regiment of the enemy.
Society members at the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans
Major C.R. Forrest, acting as Assistant Quartermaster General during the campaign however, mentions this action briefly in his account of the campaign, stating; “30 men of the Advance, under Captain Travers 95th. Regiment were sent forward in two Boats, and succeeded in surprizing them.” Despite these doubts regarding numbers of troops in the picquets, sources suggest that Captain Travers’ success came mainly due to the picquet being asleep during at the time of engagement.
As a part of the advance, the 95th upon reaching the battlefield, took up advanced posts in front of the main body of the army. It was here, again that the picquet positions occupied by the 95th came under contact with American forces first, before much of the army. Surtees writes of his displeasure, having been attached to one of the companies acting as the picquet, under the overall command of Captain Hallen; as, having gained some intelligence from an unwitting prisoner that a large body of American troops were moving towards his position, he deployed some men of the company using the best cover he could find. This order was to be overruled by a fellow junior officer, Lieutenant Daniel Forbes, who redeployed the men on the open road “with a hedge and ditch in the rear, both of which they would be compelled to pass the moment the enemy pressed upon him.” Such an act of foolish behaviour seems to have been uncommon in the Rifles throughout the period, with only the best candidates for commission being considered. The consequences of Forbes’ actions, reported once again by Surtees, shows that his foolishness did in fact render his position useless; having been set upon by “perhaps more than twenty times his number… being himself wounded, his sergeant killed, and losing nearly the half of his men.” Surtees however reports that he himself used his initiative, and, despite reportedly coming within “a yard or two of a strong body of the enemy”, successfully managed to reach the British Lines to relieve the picquets and regain the original positions. During this engagement, one officer, Captain Hallen, and about forty men of the 95th were either injured or killed by American troops. The casualty rates for the regiment may well have been higher, were it not for Captain Hallen’s quick thinking when presented with two Battalions worth of American troops. The commands given to the Battalions to “make ready” and “present” were easily audible to the waiting soldiers of the 95th, who without warning, lay down, thus rendering the volleys useless, before standing up and pouring their own fire into the American ranks. The defence put up by Hallen has been described by his fellow officer Jonathan Leach as, “an affair of posts but rarely equalled, and never surpassed in devoted bravery… Had the expedition terminated more favourable, it is to be presumed that the brave commander of the company would not have gone unrewarded.” As it was, owing to the fact that the expedition ended in failure, the exploits of junior officers, such as Captain Hallen, went all but unnoticed. As was the case, by 1824, when he retired from the service of the Army, Captain Hallen still held the rank of Captain, a rank which he had obtained in May 1809.
The way in which Surtees writes of the Battle of New Orleans seems to imply that much of the action, be it disaster or success, seems to have been taken in great humour by most of the British Army, suggesting that despite the mounting overwhelming odds, from a numerically superior force, backed up by naval firepower, spirits seemed to remain high. One such instance of this humour came during the fight to regain the advanced picquets, Surtees writs that several naval Captains were present during this, and after each enemy volley, one captain would cry “Now, my lads, up and give them another broadside!” This repeated outcry, Surtees accredits to keeping the confidence of the outnumbered British troops at a high level.
To compound matters even further, the combat for the picquet saw the Commandant of the 95th, Major Mitchell being taken prisoner. This early engagement saw the numbers of the 95th reduced by an estimated 120 men who were wounded or killed, according to Surtees; effectively wiping out over one company of the 488 men deployed with the regiment. This appears to be a large number of casualties taken by the regiment, however, despite around one quarter of the 95th’s effective strength being wiped out, only two of the officers appear to have been wounded. Given the odds faced by the regiment, with Surtees suggesting at times the odds were twenty to one against the Rifles, this loss is seemingly small under the circumstances. One suggestion, once again posed by Surtees for this, is that the Rifles advance guard, consisting of no more than 100 men were able to hear the commands given to the American Battalions to make ready, present, and fire, thus giving them time to find cover closer to the ground, recover and return fire.
The Death of Pakenham at the Battle of New Orleans
It has since been suggested that the British troops, whom Surtees does not amount to more than 1,800 during this skirmish, were surrounded on three sides by American forces, thus the influence and conduct of the officers would have been critical in keeping the morale of the men up high, as well as needing a cool head to act competently under pressure.
Quite how the casualty rate of the 95th remained so low, , having come under fire throughout the majority of the campaign from an American Schooner, able to pour fire from 18 pound cannon onto the British flank. The British were unable to return fire upon the Schooner effectively, with no heavy cannon, nor naval vessels able to engage the ship, meaning the Schooner was able to menace the British at every given opportunity. Surtees himself was lucky not to be killed by the ship’s fire, having vacated a hut just a minute or two before it came under fire from the schooner. It does seem that it was not just Surtees who led a charmed life under the fire of the Schooner, but also some of the wounded of the regiment, who, having been placed in another house found themselves under fire. Surtees states thus: “One shot which he fired went through the front of a house in which some of our wounded men were lying, and, striking low, it carried the knapsack out from under the head of a man of ours named Rayour, which he had put for a pillow, without doing him the smallest injury.”
As with Buenos Aires, it is suggested, this time by Surtees, that the British would have followed up initial success with victory had they pressed home their advantage immediately on the 23rd December, rather than waiting for the main bulk of the army to arrive on the 25th. This belief is substantiated by Surtees stating that General Jackson, the American commander, “had some trouble in keeping them [American forces] together after their defeat on the night of the 23d, and the only mode in which he could get them to form was, in planting the first who retired in line near the road, and as each successive detachment arrived from the fight they were made to form on their left.” It does appear that once again, like nine years previously, that an outnumbered British force managed to rout a numerically superior enemy force, yet failed to deliver a decisive blow, opting to sit and wait for the remainder of their force to arrive. Instead, having waited for the bulk of the army to arrive, the British advanced towards what was now, a well dug-in American position outside the city of New Orleans.
The delay from the primary skirmish by the British forces between December 23rd 1814 and the commencement of the main battle on January 8th, to allow the commanders time to reorganise the Brigades to their now battle-ready strengths, gave the American forces enough time to fall back to a pre-chosen defensive position, and bolster the defences. The position chosen by the American forces saw the enemy flanks secure on the left, by the Mississippi river, and on the right by cypress swamps. The consequence for General Pakenham, now commanding the British forces, being that a full frontal assault on American lines was now the only option for success.
Between the end of the skirmish of the 23rd December, and the main engagement of the 8th January, the 95th fared lightly, suffering very minimal casualties and just two men going missing. None were officers, a feat not replicated across the army. This low casualty rate seems miraculous as, during the advance, the British once again came under fire from another American gunboat. According to Commodore Daniel Patterson, on the 29th December 1814, the captain of the second gunboat made the enemy suffer “a great loss in that day’s action, by the heavy fire from this ship and General Jackson’s lines, where the cannon was of heavy calibre, and served with great spirit.”
Map of the Battlefield of
Note the advanced position of the 95th Rifles, where they occupied throughout the duration of the battle
Source: American Batttleield Trust
The main assault on the 8th of January 1814 saw the 95th facing almost insurmountable odds, as disaster after disaster hit the British Army, starting first with the 44th Regiment of Foot failing in its duty to head the advance carrying fascines and ladders in order to assault the American defences, through to the negligence of troops in carrying out the orders of General Gibbs, an act which saw the British Commanding Officer, Major General Edward Pakenham killed whilst trying to rally the troops. The death of General Pakenham, and the subsequent woundings of General Gibbs, commanding the attack on the right; and General Keane, commanding the attack on the left; left the Army with no clear chain of command. Both of the attacks failed owing to several factors, most notably the loss of command, but also Pakenham’s failure to use the veteran Battalions that he had under his command as the spearhead of the assault. Instead he left the battle-hardened 7th and 43rd Regiments, having only just arrived, behind as his reserve; opting to use relatively fresh and unseasoned troops as his main source of attack.
The 95th fared comparatively well during the battle, being in an extended line formation around 150 yards from the main American line. Having been exposed from the rest of the British force, the 95th were forced to retire, suffering very little loss in the process. Despite the failure of the attacks, some members of the 95th reported that the ditches could have been passed, however no supporting attack came, and to enter the enemy works alone would have meant almost certain destruction.
With the formalities of the day over, the 95th were forced to retire, being the last British troops to withdraw from the battlefield, having put up a gallant fight all day. The cost to the regiment was fairly low, losing just eleven men. However, a fairly large number received wounds. William Cope lists “Captain James Travers (severely and Nicholas Travers (slightly), Lieutenants John Reynolds, Sir John Ribton, John Gossett, William Backhouse and Robert Barker (severely)” as those injured during the main engagement of the 8th January.
Major General Andrew Jackson