A major American battle occurred just a mile from my home, earlier this week I visited the old battlefield.
The War of 1812 was started by the Americans, who were mad at Britain for still mingling in their affairs. Grievances included abducting American sailors into the Royal Navy and inciting Indian tribes to repel American expansion. The last significant battle of the war occurred on January 8, 1815, when British troops advanced on New Orleans but were thwarted by General Andrew Jackson and a largely ragtag band of American soldiers. The site where the battle occurred is now the Chalmette Battlefield & National Cemetery.
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The battlefield is sandwiched between a Domino Sugar Factory and an oil refinery. On the day I visited there had been several days of rain and much of the battlefield was flooded. A large flock of white ibis pecked about the soggy field, looking for aquatic insects. At the foot of the field is a watery ditch known as the Rodriguez Canal, dug weeks before the battle by slaves from a nearby plantation. With the soil they dug up they built an earthen rampart, which extended from the Mississippi River across the battlefield and into the cypress swamp to the north. Behind the rampart the Americans placed a series of batteries to fight off the British.
The build-up to the fight began on December 14, 1814, when a large British fleet defeated a flotilla of American gunboats and gained entry from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Borgne. The British established a garrison on Pea Island, about 30 miles east of New Orleans. From there they marched toward the city. On the afternoon of December 23, thanks to intelligence provided by a unit of dragoons from Mississippi, General Jackson learned the position of the British encampment. He attacked that evening—“By the Eternal they shall not sleep on our soil,” said Jackson.
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Some 46 British soldiers were killed, the Americans lost 24 men. Thereafter, the British advanced more cautiously, giving the Americans time to construct the Rodriguez Canal and fortify the rampart. The Americans installed eight batteries along the rampart, included in their arsenal were canons ranging in size from 6 to 32 pounds. The British attacked in the wee hours on January 8, under darkness and heavy fog. The results were disastrous. The British were mowed down by American artillery and blasted to bits by the canons. Most of the senior British officers were killed. At the end of the day the British had lost 2,042 men, while the Americans had 71 casualties. The British retreated east along the Gulf coast toward Mobile. They were preparing to attack the city but finally got news that a peace treaty signed some months earlier in what was then the Netherlands had ended the war.
I walked the length of the rampart, reading a series of placards about the structure. The section closest to the swamp was covered by the Kentucky and Tennessee militias and a group of swamp-savvy Choctaw Indians. Many of the men from Tennessee and Kentucky arrived in New Orleans without weapons or winter clothes and ended up being outfitted by residents of the city. Closer to the river, and in the center of the line, was a battery operated by combat-proven soldiers who had fought with Jackson against the Creek Indians. This part of the line was responsible for killing the most British soldiers. The middle of the line was manned by a battalion of men who had emigrated from Haiti after the revolution. Closer to the river, a pair of batteries were manned largely by Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates. Jackson had crossed swords with them before but was now happy to have their artillery expertise. The battery closest to the Mississippi River was made up of a battalion of black and Irish soldiers and a group of French Creole elite known as the Beale’s Rifles. These men manned a redoubt by the river which was briefly taken by the British but then taken back.
The most imposing part of the battlefield today is a 100-foot monument that looks like a miniature version of the Washington Monument and honors the battle’s artillerymen. Construction began in 1855 but the state of Louisiana ran out of funding and the project was halted. The monument stood half-built until 1908 when Congress appropriated money to complete the structure. On the far side of the battlefield is the cemetery, where buried beneath simple gray headstones are the remains of about 16,000 soldiers. The cemetery was created in 1864, mainly to receive Louisiana men killed during the Civil War—on July 17, 1862, President Abe Lincoln approved legislation to establish a series of national cemeteries for American forces. The men buried in the Chalmette National Cemetery died in American conflicts, from the Civil War up through the Vietnam War. Interestingly enough, there are only four soldiers from the War of 1812 buried here. And of those, there is just one who actually fought in the Battle of New Orleans.
I visited the cemetery early one morning to see if I could try and find the graves of the four soldiers killed in the War of 1812, and maybe even single out the grave of the one soldier who died in the Battle of New Orleans. A map on a placard showed the position of the four graves and I set out along the rows of simple headstones searching for them. But the graves were crumbling to bits and the writing on most tombstones was completely illegible, not to mention much of the surface was covered by brown, black and red lichen. Some graves were just square stumps, without any writing at all. Without a more thorough map, finding the one Battle of New Orleans grave would be impossible.
But, as my father pointed out to me, there is another way to remember the battle, through the 1959 country song by singer Johnny Horton:
“We took a little bacon and we took a little beans, And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans…We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin… We fired our cannon ’til the barrel melted down. So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.”