The Battle of New Orleans (in reality, a series of engagements leading to the one-sided slaughter of 8 January 1815) was one of the greatest defeats suffered by the British Army in the nineteenth century until Isandlwana in 1879, when a comparable number of British soldiers were killed in combat during the invasion of the Zulu Kingdom, and where a similar mixture of hubris and incompetence resulted in disaster.
By the end of 1814, after two years of war with the United States, a powerful British expedition was mounted against New Orleans. The city—sold in 1803 along with 828,000 acres of prime land to the United States by Napoleon prior to his abdication—was key to control of the Mississippi River and all trade from as far north as Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The British denied the legality of Napoleon’s transaction, asserting the vast Louisiana territory was never his to sell. Time was of the essence, as His Majesty’s government was engaged in peace negotiations with the Americans; if New Orleans was conquered before a treaty was signed, Britain would keep a strong occupation force in the city, thereby choking off western expansion of the United States and ensuring the young Republic would forever be a minor power.
Flush with victory after easily defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, on 24 August 1814, occupying Washington DC and burning the White House and other public buildings, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief, North America, believed that his Peninsular War veterans would just as effortlessly rout the defenders of New Orleans led by the sickly General Andrew Jackson and his army of uncouth backwoodsmen, mixed-race and French creole militia, free blacks, Indians, and a handful of inexperienced American regulars. Cochrane assumed that the heterogenous population of New Orleans would quickly cast off Yankee rule and welcome the British. The invasion plan therefore relied heavily on ´Indians, Negroes, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and anyone else who opposed the United States´ rising to welcome their ´liberators.´
Twelve British battalions took part in the battle, including the 95th Rifles, the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders and two dismounted squadrons of the 14th Light Dragoons (on foot because their horses were left on transports anchored off the Louisiana coast due to the impossibility of transporting the mounts). British forces included the 1st and 5th West India Regiments which ´distinguished themselves by their desperate valour, so much so, indeed, as to win encomiums from the American general, Jackson. ´ The Army was ably supported by the Royal Navy and Marines who endured terrible privations to complete the Herculean task of transporting some 8,000 soldiers and their supplies across eighty miles of sea and swamps.
After three suicidal frontal assaults against ´Line Jackson,´ a hastily constructed fortification defended by artillery and thousands of skilled American marksmen, the British retreated to their transport ships. In less than thirty minutes during the final battle on the morning of 8 January 1815, the attackers lost three generals, eight colonels, and ninety other officers, a total of over two thousand officers and soldiers, amounting to almost two-thirds of the strength of the two assault brigades. Out of over five thousand men in the attack, only four hundred actually made it to the American works, all of whom were killed, wounded, or captured. Yet two fresh battalions, recently arrived, were inexplicably held in reserve.
Why was the battle such a dismal failure for the British? Private Neil McIntosh, one of the survivors of the 93rd Highlanders, perhaps expressed it best when he wrote home afterwards, that “‘General Mismanagement’ commanded throughout.” Although the courage shown by the majority of British troops was exemplary, the campaign was characterized by ambiguity in the chain of command, incompetence, and senior naval officers driven by avarice. Admiral Cochrane was a prime culprit.
Contemporaries described Cochrane as ´a rough, brutal and overbearing officer´. Cochrane shamed Major General Edward Pakenham – ostensible commander of the ground forces – into precipitate action by sneering that ´if the soldiers could not take the city´ … the sailors would, and the “soldiers could then bring up the baggage.´ Harry Smith, who served with Pakenham in the Peninsula and admired him, wrote that the General ´lost his gallant life from not following the dictates of his own good sense and ability.´ Pakenham’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Wellington, admitted that however gallant, the General was not a commander ´of the highest genius.´
Wellington believed that Cochrane was largely responsible for the failure of the New Orleans campaign and the death of Pakenham. Eulogizing the latter, he said ´I cannot but regret that he was ever employed on such a service or with such a colleague [Cochrane]. The expedition to New Orleans originated with that colleague … The Americans were prepared with an army in a fortified position which still would have been carried, if the duties of others, that is of the Admiral, had been as well performed as that of he whom we now lament.´ Wellington also justifiably thought that plundering New Orleans was Cochrane’s main objective, writing that ´the Admiral took care to be attended by a sufficient number of sharks to carry the plunder off from a place in which he knew well he could not remain.´ The Army rank and file universally agreed with the Iron Duke that ´The admirals, whose greed for prize money is said to have prompted the whole expedition, were callous and incompetent.´
Despite bearing a large part of the blame for the New Orleans catastrophe, Sir Alexander Cochrane was promoted to Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief, Plymouth. His former superior, Sir John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent, said ´The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family.´ Harry Smith, the great chronicler of the Peninsula, wrote that New Orleans was ´a record of lamentable disaster, and anything but honour to our military fame.´