Theodore Roosevelt.

The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; online

. (page 34 of 42)
Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; → online text (page 34 of 42)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

I lo-gun cutter 2 26-gun flutes

2 i6-gun brigs
1 lo-gun brig
Many gunboats, etc.

VOL. II. — 14 ■' ° '

2IO Naval War of 1812

Or one navy lost three vessels, mounting 38
guns, and the other 19 vessels, mounting 830 guns.

During the same time, the English lost to the
Danes one 14-gun brig, and destroyed in return a
frigate of 46 guns, a 6-gun schooner, a 4-gun cutter,
two galliots and several gun -brigs.

In the above lists it is to be noticed how many
of the engagements were indecisive, owing chiefly
to the poor gunnery of the combatants. The fact
that both the Eurotas and the Amelia, though
more powerfully armed and manned than the He-
brus, yet failed to capture the sister ships of the
frigate taken by the latter, shows that heavy
metal and a numerous crew are not the only ele-
ments necessary for success; indeed, the Eurotas
and Amelia were as superior in force to their an-
tagonists as the Constitution was to the Java.

But the chief point to be noticed is the over-
whelming difference in the damage the two navies
caused each other. This dift'erence was, roughly,
as five to one against the Danes, and as fifty to one
against the French ; while it was as four to three
in favor of the American. These figures give some
idea of the effectiveness of the various navies. At
any rate, they show that we had found out what
the European nations had for many years in vain
striven to discover — a way to do more damage
than we received in a naval contest with England.



The war on land generally disastrous — British send expedi-
tion against New Orleans — Jackson prepares for the defence
of the city — Night attack on the British advance guard —
Artillery duels — Great battle of January 8, 18 15 — Slaughter-
ing repulse of the main attack — Rout of the Americans on the
right bank of the river — Final retreat of the British — Obser-
vations on the character of the troops and commanders en-

WHILE our navy had been successful, the
war on land had been for us full of
humiliation. The United States then
formed but a loosely knit confederacy, the sparse
population scattered over a great expanse of land.
Ever since the Federalist party had gone out of
power in 1800, the nation's ability to maintain
order at home and enforce respect abroad had
steadily dwindled ; and the twelve years' nerveless
reign of the Doctrinaire Democracy had left us im-
potent for attack and almost as feeble for defence.
Jefferson, though a man whose views and theories
had a profound influence upon our national life,
was perhaps the most incapable Executive that

ever filled the presidential chair; being almost


2 1 2 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

purely a visionary, he was utterly unable to grap-
ple with the slightest actual danger, and, not
even excepting his successor, Madison, it would be
difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the State
with honor and safety through the stormy times
that marked the opening of the present century.
Without the prudence to avoid war or the fore-
thought to prepare for it, the Administration
drifted helplessly into a conflict in which only the
navy prepared by the Federalists twelve years be-
fore, and weakened rather than strengthened dur-
ing the intervening time, saved us from complete
and shameful defeat. True to its theories, the
House of Virginia made no preparations, and
thought the war could be fought by " the nation in
arms" ; the exponents of this particular idea, the
militiamen, a partially armed mob, ran like sheep
whenever brought into the field. The regulars
were not much better. After two years of war-
fare, Scott records in his autobiography that there
were but two books of tactics (one written in
French) in the entire army on the Niagara fron-
tier; and officers and men were on such a dead
level of ignorance that he had to spend a month
drilling all of the former, divided into squads, in
the school of the soldier and school of the com-
pany.' It is small wonder that such troops were

' Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Scott, written by himself
(2 vols., New York, 1864), i., p. 115.

Naval War of 1 812 213

utterly unable to meet the English. Until near
the end, the generals were as bad as the armies
they commanded, and the administration of the
War Department continued to be a triumph of
imbecility to the very last.' With the exception
of the brilHant and successful charge of the Ken-
tucky Mounted Infantry at the battle of the
Thames, the only bright spot in the war in the
North was the campaign on the Niagara frontier
during the summer of 18 14; and even here, the
chief battle, that of Lundy's Lane, though re-
flecting as much honor on the Americans as on the
British, was for the former a defeat, and not a vic-
tory, as most of our writers seem to suppose.

But the war had a dual aspect. It was partly a
contest between the two branches of the English
race, and partly a last attempt on the part of the
Indian tribes to check the advance of the most
rapidly growing one of these same two branches ;
and this last portion of the struggle, though at-
tracting comparatively little attention, was really
much the most far-reaching in its effect upon his-

' Monroe's biographer (see James Monroe, by Daniel C.
Oilman, Boston, 1883, p. 123) thinks he made a good Secre-
tary of War; I think he was as much a failure as his prede-
cessors, and a harsher criticism could not be passed on him.
Like the other statesmen of his school, he was mighty in word
and weak in action; bold to plan but weak to perform. As
an instance, contrast his fiery letters to Jackson with the fact
that he never gave him a particle of practical help.

2 14 Naval War of 1812

tory. The triumph of the British would have dis-
tinctly meant the giving a new lease of life to the
Indian nationalities, the hemming in, for a time,
of the United States, and the stoppage, perhaps
for many years, of the march of English civihza-
tion across the continent. The English of Britain
were doing all they could to put off the day when
their race would reach to a world-wide supremacy.
There was much fighting along our Western
frontier with various Indian tribes ; and it was es-
pecially fierce in the campaign that a backwoods
general of Tennessee, named Andrew Jackson,
carried on against the powerful confederacy of the
Creeks, a nation that was thrust in like a wedge
between the United States proper and their de-
pendency, the newly acquired French Province of
Louisiana. After several slaughtering fights, the
most noted being the battle of the Horse-Shoe
Bend, the power of the Creeks was broken forever ;
and afterward, as there was much question over
the proper boundaries of what was then the Latin
land of Florida, Jackson marched south, attacked
the Spaniards, and drove them from Pensacola.
Meanwhile, the British, having made a successful
and ravaging summer campaign through Virginia
and Maryland, situated in the heart of the country,
organized the most formidable expedition of the
war for a winter campaign against the outlying
land of Louisiana, whose defender Jackson, of

Naval War of 1 812 215

necessity, became. Thus, in the course of events,
it came about that Louisiana was the theatre on
which the final and most dramatic act of the war
was played.

Amid the gloomy, semi-tropical swamps that
cover the quaking delta thrust out into the blue
waters of the Mexican Gulf by the strong torrent
of the mighty Mississippi, stood the fair, French
city of New Orleans. Its lot had been strange and
varied. Won and lost once and again, in conflict
with the subjects of the Catholic king, there was a
strong Spanish tinge in the French blood that
coursed so freely through the veins of its citizens ;
joined by purchase to the great Federal Republic,
it yet shared no feeling with the latter, save that
of hatred to the common foe. And now an hour
of sore need had come upon the city ; for against it
came the red English, lords of fight by sea and
land. A great fleet of war vessels — ships of the
line, frigates, and sloops — under Admiral Cochrane,
was on the way to New Orleans, convoying a still
larger fleet of troop ships, with aboard them some
ten thousand fighting men, chiefly the fierce and
hardy veterans of the Peninsular War,' who had

^ "The British infantry embarked at Bordeaux, some for
America, some for England." {History of tlie War in the
Peninsula, by Major-General Sir W. F. P. Napier, K.C.B.
New edition. New York, 1882. Vol. v., p. 200.) For discus-
sion of numbers, see farther on.

2i6 Naval War of 1812

been trained for seven years in the stern school of
the Iron Duke, and who were now led by one of the
bravest and ablest of all Wellington's brave and
able lieutenants, Sir Edward Packenham.

On the 8th of December, 18 14, the foremost ves-
sels, with among their number the great two-decker
Tonnant, carrying the admiral's flag, anchored
off the Chandeleur Islands ' ; and as the current of
the Mississippi was too strong to be easily breasted,
the English leaders determined to bring their men
by boats through the bayous, and disembark
them on the bank of the river ten miles below the
wealthy city at whose capture they were aiming.
There was but one thing to prevent the success of
this plan, and that was the presence in the bayous
of five American gunboats, manned by a hundred
and eighty men, and commanded by Lieuten-
ant-commanding Catesby Jones, a very shrewd
fighter. So against him was sent Captain Nicholas
Lockyer with forty-five barges, and nearly a thou-
sand sailors and marines, men who had grown
gray during a quarter of a century of unbroken
ocean warfare. The gunboats were moored in a
head-and-stern line, near the Rigolets, with their
boarding-nettings triced up, and everything ready
to do desperate battle ; but the British rowed up
with strong, swift strokes, through a murderous
fire of great guns and musketry ; the vessels were

* See ante, p. 151.

Naval War of 1812 217

grappled amid fierce resistance; the boarding-
nettings were slashed through and cut away ; with
furious fighting the decks were gained ; and one by-
one, at push of pike and cutlass stroke, the gun-
boats were carried in spite of their stubborn de-
fenders ; but not till more than one barge had been
sunk, while the assailants had lost a hundred men,
and the assailed about half as many.

There was now nothing to hinder the landing
of the troops ; and as the scattered transports ar-
rived the soldiers were disembarked, and ferried
through the sluggish water of the bayous on small
flat-bottomed craft; and, finally, December 23d,
the advance guard, two thousand strong, under
General Keane, emerged at the mouth of the canal
Villere, and camped on the bank of the river,' but
nine miles below New Orleans, which now seemed
a certain prize, almost within their grasp.

Yet, although a mighty and cruel foe was at
their very gates, nothing save fierce defiance
reigned in the fiery Creole hearts of the Crescent
City. For a master-spirit was in their midst. An-
drew Jackson, having utterly broken and destroyed
the most powerful Indian confederacy that had
ever menaced the Southwest, and having driven
the haughty Spaniards from Pensacola, was now
bending all the energies of his rugged intellect and

' Letter of Major-General John Keane, December 26,

2i8 Naval War of 1812

indomitable will to the one object of defending
New Orleans. No man could have been better
fitted for the task. He had hereditary wrongs to
avenge on the British, and he hated them with
an implacable fury that was absolutely devoid of
fear. Born and brought up among the lawless
characters of the frontier, and knowing well how
to deal with them, he was able to establish and
preserve the strictest martial law in the city with-
out in the least quelling the spirit of the citizens.
To a restless and untiring energy he united
sleepless vigilance and genuine military genius.
Prompt to attack whenever the chance offered
itself, seizing with ready grasp the slightest van-
tage-ground, and never giving up a foot of earth
that he could keep, he yet had the patience to
play a defensive game when it so suited him, and
with consummate skill he always followed out the
scheme of warfare that was best adapted to his
wild soldiery. In after years he did to his country
some good and more evil; but no true American
can think of his deeds at New Orleans without
profound and unmixed thankfulness.

He had not reached the city till December 2d,
and had therefore but three weeks in which to
prepare the defence. The Federal Government,
throughout the campaign, did absolutely nothing
for the defence of Louisiana; neither provisions
nor munitions of war of any sort were sent to it,

Naval War of 1 812 219

nor were any measures taken for its aid.' The
inhabitants had been in a state of extreme de-
spondency up to the time that Jackson arrived,
for they had no one to direct them, and they were
weakened by factional divisions ^ ; but after his
coming there was nothing but the utmost enthu-
siasm displayed, so great was the confidence he
inspired, and so firm his hand in keeping down all
opposition. Under his direction earthworks were
thrown up to defend all the important positions,
the whole population working night and day at
them; all the available artillery was mounted,
and every ounce of war material that the city con-
tained was seized; martial law was proclaimed;
and all general business was suspended, every-
thing being rendered subordinate to the one grand
object of defence.

Jackson's forces were small. There were two
war vessels in the river. One was the little
schooner Carolina, manned by regular seamen,
largely New Englanders. The other was the
newly built ship Louisiana, a powerful corvette;
she had, of course, no regular crew, and her officers
were straining every nerve to get one from the
varied ranks of the maritime population of New

' Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisi-
ana (by Major A. Lacarriex Latour, translated from the
French by H. P. Nugent, Philadelphia. 1816), p. 66.

^ Latour, 53.

2 20 Naval War of 1812

Orleans; long-limbed and hard-visaged Yankees,
Portuguese, and Norwegian seamen from foreign
merchantmen, dark-skinned Spaniards from the
West Indies, swarthy Frenchmen who had served
under the bold privateersman Lafitte, — all alike
were taken, and all alike by unflagging exertions
were got into shape for battle.' There were two
regiments of regulars, numbering together about
eight hundred men, raw and not very well dis-
ciplined, but who were now drilled with great
care and regularity. In addition to this, Jack-
son raised somewhat over a thousand mihtiamen
among the citizens. There were some Americans
among them, but they were mostly French Creoles,^
and one band had in its formation something that
was curiously pathetic. It was composed of free
men of color,^ who had gathered to defend the
land which kept the men of their race in slavery ;
who were to shed their blood for the Flag that
symbolized to their kind not freedom but bond-
age ; who were to die bravely as freemen, only that
their brethren might live on ignobly as slaves.
Surely, there was never a stranger instance than
this of the irony of fate.

But if Jackson had been forced to rely only on
these troops. New Orleans could not have been

1 Letter of Commodore Daniel G. Patterson, December 20,


2 Latour, no. 3 Latour, xii.

Naval War of 1 812 221

saved. His chief hope lay in the volunteers of
Tennessee, who, under their Generals, Coffee and
Carroll, were pushing their toilsome and weary way
toward the city. Every effort was made to hurry
their march through the almost impassable roads,
and at last, in the very nick of time, on the 23d of
December, the day on which the British troops
reached the river bank, the vanguard of the Ten-
nesseeans marched into New Orleans. Gaunt of
form and grim of face, with their powder-horns
slung over their buckskin shirts, carrying their
long rifles on their shoulders and their heavy hunt-
ing-knives stuck in their belts, with their coon-
skin caps and fringed leggings, — thus came the
grizzly warriors of the backwoods, the heroes of
the Horse-Shoe Bend, the victors over Spaniard
and Indian, eager to pit themselves against the
trained regulars of Britain, and to throw down the
gage of battle to the world-renowned infantry of
the island English. Accustomed to the most law-
less freedom, and to giving free rein to the full
violence of their passions, defiant of discipline and
impatient of the slightest restraint, caring little
for God and nothing for man, they were soldiers
who, under an ordinary commander, would have
been fully as dangerous to themselves and their
leaders as to their foes. But Andrew Jackson was
of all men the one best fitted to manage such
troops. Even their fierce natures quailed before

222 Naval War of 1812

the ungovernable fury of a spirit greater than
their own; and their sullen, stubborn wills were
bent at last before his unyielding temper and iron
hand. Moreover, he was one of themselves; he
typified their passions and prejudices, their faults
and their virtues ; he shared their hardships as if
he had been a common private, and, in turn, he
always made them partakers of his triumphs.
They admired his personal prowess with pistol and
rifle, his unswerving loyalty to his friends, and the
relentless and unceasing war that he waged alike
on the foes of himself and his country. As a
result, they loved and feared him as few generals
have ever been loved or feared ; they obeyed him
unhesitatingly; they followed his lead without
flinching or murmuring, and they ever made good
on the field of battle the promise their courage
held out to his judgment.

It was noon of December 23d when General
Keane, with nineteen hundred men, halted and
pitched his camp on the east bank of the Missis-
sippi ; and in the evening enough additional troops
arrived to swell his force to over twenty -three hun-
dred soldiers.' Keane's encampment was in a
long plain, rather thinly covered with fields and

J James {Military Occurrences of the Late War, by Wm.
James, London, 1818), vol. ii., p. 362, says 2050 rank and file;
the English returns, as already explained, unlike the French
and American, never included officers, sergeants, drummers,
artillerymen, or engineers, but only "sabres and bayonets"

Naval War of 1 812 223

farmhouses, about a mile in breadth, and bounded
on one side by the river, on the other by gloomy
and impenetrable cypress swamps ; and there was
no obstacle interposed between the British camp
and the city it menaced.

At two in the afternoon word was brought to
Jackson that the foe had reached the river bank,
and, without a moment's delay, the old backwoods
fighter prepared to strike a rough first blow. At
once, and as if by magic, the city started from her
state of rest into one of fierce excitement and
eager preparation. The alarm-guns were fired;
in every quarter the war-drums were beaten;
while, amid the din and clamor, all the regulars
and marines, the best of the Creole militia, and
the vanguard of the Tennesseeans, under Coffee, —
forrning a total of a little more than two thousand
men,' — were assembled in great haste; and the

(Napier, iv., 252). At the end of Napier's fourth volume is
given the "morning state" of Wellington's forces on April 10,
1814. This shows 56,030 rank and file and 7431 officers, ser-
geants, and trumpeters or drummers; or, in other words, to
get at the real British force in an action, even supposing there
are no artillerymen or engineers present, 13 per cent, must be
added to the given number, which includes only rank and file.
Making this addition, Keane had 2310 men. The Americans
greatly overestimated his force, Latour making it 4980.

' General Jackson, in his official letter, says only 1500; but
Latour, in a detailed statement, makes it 202J.; exclusive of
107 Mississippi dragoons who marched with the column, but
being on horseback had to stay behind, and took no part in the
action. Keane thought he had been attacked by 5000 men.

224 Naval War of 1 8i 2

gray of the winter twilight saw them, with Old
Hickory at their head, marching steadily along
the river bank toward the camp of their foes.
Patterson, meanwhile, in the schooner Carolina,
dropped down with the current to try the effect
of a flank attack.

Meanwhile, the British had spent the afternoon
in leisurely arranging their camp, in posting the
pickets, and in foraging among the farmhouses.
There was no fear of attack, and as the day ended
huge camp-fires were lit, at which the hungry sol-
diers cooked their suppers undisturbed. One di-
vision of the troops had bivouacked on the high
levee that kept the waters from flooding the land
near by ; and about half-past seven in the evening
their attention was drawn to a large schooner
which had dropped noiselessly down, in the gather-
ing dusk, and had come to anchor a short distance
off shore, the force of the stream swinging her
broadside to the camp.' The soldiers crowded
down to the water's edge, and, as the schooner
returned no answer to their hails, a couple of mus-
ket-shots were fired at her. As if in answer to
this challenge, the men on shore heard plainly the

' I have taken my account of the night action chiefly from
the work of an EngUsh soldier who took part in it: Ensign
(afterward Chaplain-General) H. R. Gleig's Narrative of the
Campaigns of the British Army at Washington, Baltimore, and
Neiv Orleans. (New edition, Philadelphia, 182 1, pp. 286-

Naval War of 1812 225

harsh voice of her commander, as he sang out:
" Now then, give it to them for the honor of Amer-
ica"; and at once a storm of grape hurtled into
their ranks. Wild confusion followed. The only
field-pieces with Keane were two light 3-pounders,
not able to cope with the Carolina's artillery ; the
rocket-guns were brought up, but were speedily
silenced; musketry proved quite as ineffectual;
and in a very few minutes the troops were driven
helter-skelter off the levee, and were forced to
shelter themselves behind it, not without having
suffered severe loss.' The night was now as black
as pitch; the embers of the deserted camp-fires,
beaten about and scattered by the schooner's
shot, burned with a dull red glow ; and at short in-
tervals the darkness was momentarily lit up by
the flashes of the Carolina's guns. Crouched be-
hind the levee, the British soldiers lay motionless,
listening in painful silence to the pattering of the
grape among the huts, and to the moans and
shrieks of the wounded who lay beside them.
Things continued thus till toward nine o'clock,
when a straggling fire from the pickets gave warn-
ing of the approach of a more formidable foe. The
American land-forces had reached the outer lines
of the British camp, and the increasing din of the

' General Keane, in his letter, writes that the British suf-
fered but a single casualty; Gleig, who was present, says
(p. 288) : "The deadly shower of grape swept down numbers
in the camp."

VOL. II. — 15

2 26 Naval War of 1 812

musketry, with ringing through it the whip-like
crack of the Tennesseean rifles, called out the
whole British army to the shock of a desperate
and uncertain strife. The young moon had by
this time struggled through the clouds, and cast
on the battle-field a dim, unearthly light that but
partly relieved the intense darkness. All order
was speedily lost. Each officer, American or Brit-
ish, as fast as he could gather a few soldiers round
him, attacked the nearest group of foes; the
smoke and gloom would soon end the struggle,
when, if unhurt, he would rally what men he could
and plunge once more into the fight. The battle
soon assumed the character of a multitude of in-
dividual combats, dying out almost as soon as they
began, because of the difficulty of telling friend
from foe, and beginning with ever-increasing fury
as soon as they had ended. The clatter of the
firearms, the clashing of steel, the rallying cries
and loud commands of the officers, the defiant
shouts of the men, joined to the yells and groans of
those who fell, all combined to produce so terrible
a noise and tumult that it maddened the coolest
brains. From one side or the other bands of men
would penetrate into the heart of the enemy's
lines, and would there be captured, or would cut
their way out with the prisoners they had taken.

Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; → online text (page 34 of 42)