January 8, 1815 – The final act of the War of 1812 — the Battle of New Orleans — was fought. General Andrew Jackson and a rag-tag army of American militia, regular army soldiers, Indians, free blacks, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates defended the city against a ferocious British attack, inflicting over 2,000 casualties and killing the British commander. Tragically, both sides in this battle were unaware that peace had already been declared two weeks earlier with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Europe.
As negotiations to end the War of 1812 were being carried out in Europe in November of 1814, British Major General Edward Pakenham and Admiral Alexander Cochrane conceived of a plan to capture the major U.S. port city of New Orleans, which controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River. As Cochrane sailed towards his target with Pakenham and 8,000 British soldiers, U.S. General Andrew Jackson, who had recently defeated the Red Stick Creek Indians in Alabama at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, raced to assemble an army to defend New Orleans.
By December 23, 1814, the British army had landed and were advancing on New Orleans. Jackson scrambled to defend the city, having his men work feverishly to dig defensive ditches and throw up redoubts to protect his artillery. Jackson’s ragtag army was as eclectic as it was outnumbered: he had, under his command, an assortment of U.S. army soldiers, U.S. marines, sailors, local Louisiana militia (including about 500 free blacks), Tennessee militia that had come with Jackson from his home state, Choctaw Indian allies, and local pirates working for the legendary Pirate Captain Jean Lafitte (who had turned down an offer from Admiral Cochrane to fight for the British). Jackson’s defenders were outnumbered about 2-1 by 8,000 regular British soldiers, all battle-hardened and experienced.
After two weeks of maneuvering, Pakenham’s assault on the city began on the morning of January 7, 1815. From the start Pakenham’s carefully laid out battle plans went awry. A unit sent to flank the American positions simultaneous with his main assault had been delayed in getting into position, and the unit with ladders necessary to breach the American redoubts went missing. The main attack force advanced anyway into the teeth of the American defenses and were ripped apart with cannon and musket fire. While a few British soldiers made it to the top of the redoubts, they were easily repulsed.
The plains before the American lines became a killing field. Pakenham and his second in command, General Gibbs, were mortally wounded and died on the battlefield along with 300 others before the retreat was finally sounded. Overall, the British suffered over 2,000 casualties; the Americans, fewer than 100. Several days later the British abandoned its attempt to take New Orleans and set sail for Mobile, Alabama, to try to take that port city. On February 13, 2015, however, before the attack could begin, news arrived that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War, had been signed.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, and ratified by the British government on December 28, neither side gained or lost anything. Instead, it simply returned both sides to the status quo ante bellum. Since neither the Americans nor English gave anything up, there was no resentment on either side over the treaty. In fact, the years soon after the war saw English and American relations warm into a lasting friendship.
At the moment, however, the tragedy still remained that the treaty had been ratified 10 days before the Battle of New Orleans was fought. The battle, which cost so many brave soldiers their lives, should never have been fought. It did, however, propel Jackson – the “hero” of the Battle of New Orleans – into the presidency 14 years later, proving once again that killing large numbers of men do not necessarily make one qualified for public office.
As a footnote, the Battle of New Orleans also accelerated the demise of the Federalist political party. In the fall of 1814, before New Orleans, when American prospects in the war looked particularly bleak, opposition to the war swelled in New England. New Englanders had never supported the war in the first place; every coastal state in New England, along with New York and New Jersey, had voted against Madison (and thereby the war) in 1812. Early in the war, in fact, New England merchants had even sold food to the English. Then, as the war progressed, the British blockade had particularly crippled the New England economy. New Englanders were simply fed up.
Accordingly, in December 1814, Federalist leaders from the five New England States held a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, where they publicly denounced the war and proposed several amendments to the Constitution to increase the power of the New England states. Then came the victory in New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent.
The successful end of the war did more than just make the Hartford Convention seem pointless; most Americans saw it as being terribly unpatriotic. Since it had been led by New England Federalists, the public backlash effectively ended the Federalist Party. In the 1816 presidential election, the Federalists – the party of Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams – ran their last candidate for president, Rufus King. He was trounced by Republican James Monroe.