1814: How Washington Was Saved, imagined how the Nation’s capitol was successfully defended from the British attack, leading to an early termination of the War of 1812. As they say, “Turn about is fair play.” This alternate history of Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans is written from the perspective of the British victors. In history, Major General John Keane paused nine miles outside the city waiting for the main body of troops to arrive, despite the urgings of Colonel William Thornton to immediately attack the city while they still had the element of surprise. According to Alexander Walker’s 1856 Jackson and New Orleans, “. . . there can be no doubt in the mind of any person, who views the condition of affairs in the city at this juncture, that it would have required a miraculous intervention to have saved it from destruction if Colonel Thornton’s council had prevailed.”
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Colonel William Thornton, commanding the 85th Foot Regiment, slowly rose from his cot. He had gotten only a few hours of sleep after two grueling days and nights. His aide, who had just awakened him, put a hot pot of tea and a light breakfast on the table after apologizing for waking him with urgent news.
“Tell the lieutenant that I will see him, now,” Thornton said.
“Yes, sir,” his aide replied. Thornton slipped on his jacket and poured himself a cup of tea. He had barely brought it to his lips when the young officer entered.
“Lieutenant Fitzgerald, sir,” he said with a smart salute.
“At ease, Lieutenant. You have news?”
“Yes, sir. General Pakenham arrived at the Villere plantation one hour ago with some 2,000 men. He instructed me to inform you to expect him by mid-morning, sir.”
“Very well. Please give him my regards and that I am delighted at his arrival. I will brief him on our situation when he arrives.”
“Lieutenant, get some thing to eat for yourself and your escort before you depart.”
“Yes, sir. Thank-you, sir,” he said, saluting before exiting the tent.
“And, Merry Christmas.”
“And to you, sir.”
Thornton emptied his cup, poured himself another and snatched a biscuit from the plate. He pushed his way through the flap in the tent into the freezing morning air. If he didn’t know any better, Thornton might have thought that the sun was rising in the west. Orange-tinted light colored the great pillars of smoke rising in the distance as it had the day before.
Four months earlier, he had seen from a similar distance the fainter glow from the fires that consumed the American house of parliament, the President’s mansion, and the Washington navy yard. At that time, he was a badly injured, prisoner-of-war in the small town of Bladensburg, Maryland. It was ironic that in the months since being exchanged, he was watching another American city burn. No, he corrected himself, this time it was a city. Washington was little more than a village.
Quickly finishing breakfast, Thornton shaved, changed into the clean uniform set out by his orderly and pulled on a clean pair of polished boots. They would not stay clean for very long. With his aide and personal guard in tow, he set out on his routine morning inspection. Half of his troops were still sleeping in their positions along the Rodriquez Canal. The other half were standing watch and eating a cold breakfast.
He doubted that they’d see any action today. Yesterday, the Americans had scouted and probed his position. They had also sent a gunboat to fire down the left flank of his line, but he had anticipated this attack and used captured cannon, powder, and shot to drive the steamboat off after less than half an hour. Now, his troops deserved a quiet, restful Christmas. They had earned it.
At mid-morning Thornton’s aide interrupted him while he was writing a letter to wife, wishing her a holy Christmas and a happy New Year. He had already written her such a letter a month earlier that she might have received by now. But, he wanted her to know that he was thinking about her, today.
“Sir, the vanguard of General Pakenham’s force is approaching,” his aide interrupted.
“Did you see the general?” Thornton asked.
“Good, lad. I’ll be there in a moment.”
Thornton greeted Pakenham formally. Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, who joined the British army in 1794, was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. Thornton had met Pakenham when they both served under Wellington on the Iberian Peninsula. They were well aware of each other’s capabilities and accomplishments. Both had been born in Ireland, the general in 1778, and the colonel in 1779. Pakenham had accepted command of the invasion forces for Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s Gulf coast campaign even though he was questioned the viability of the plan and the reporting it was based on. Thornton set his rank aside and asked the first question.
“Your Excellency, do you have word of General Keane’s condition?”
“Let us dispense with the titles, John. He is back on Pea Island, and recovering.”
After the British Navy won the battle of Lake Borgone on 14 December, Pakenham laid plans to send Major General John Keane and Thornton’s regiment from Pea Island to Bayou Bienvenu, stopping en route to seize Fish Island. From Bayou Bienvenu they would row to Bayou Mazant, and up the Villere Canal to the left bank of the Mississippi before marching nine miles to New Orleans.
“Thank-you, sir. I am relieved,” said the Pakenham.
“I must say that you decision to press on with the attack and leave him behind was appropriate under the circumstances.”
“When the general fell ill en route from Pea Island, I thought it prudent to leave him on Fish Island with an armed guard until we could send boats back to return them to the fleet. Unfortunately, at that point he was quite delirious and unable to make such a decision, himself.”
“It was a necessary risk,” Pakenham reassured him, “and Keane approved of your decision when he regained his senses.”
“I appreciate his support and understanding.”
“Yes, quite,” Pakenham nodded. “Now, if I could trouble you some something warm to drink, we can then get down to discussing our current situation.” He paused looking to the west as the plumes of smoke. “And, how we came to this juncture,” he added.
“Yes, sir. Gentlemen, please this way,” Thornton replied.
When they were settled in his tent and sufficiently warmed, Pakenham began his inquiry.
“I must ask why you left the Villere plantation on Bienvenu to attack New Orleans without waiting for all of our forces to arrive.” The plantation was home to retired Major General Jacques Phillipe Villere, commander of the Louisiana militia, and his son, Major Gabrielle Villere. The main house was a single story affair with wide galleries at the front and rear.
“General, it was my intention to follow orders and do so, but Major Villere’s attempted escape might have robbed us of the element of surprise.”
“Yes, I saw his freshly dug grave.”
“I can assure you, sir, that the sentries fired on my orders and had they not done so, the major most certainly would have warned General Jackson.”
“I see,” Pakenham nodded, clearly agreeing.
“So, I ordered a quick march on the city.”
“I cannot emphasize enough how fortunate we were that none of the local inhabitants, the Creoles, alerted the Americans of our presence. They were quite aware of our location after the guards fired numerous shots at Maj. Villere. Based on this edict issued by Jackson’s aid-de-camp, I now have a better understanding of how his unpopularity with the locals presented us with an opportunity.”
Thornton reached into the portfolio of papers on his table and handed a printed flyer to the General.
“Apparently, rumors that Jackson planned to burn the city preceded our arrival. His aide-de-camp issue this document, warning that we would sack the city, referencing the unfortunate circumstances that occurred in Hampton, Viriginia last year.
“Yes, a despicable event,” Pakenham noted. In June 1813, after the British captured the town, their Independent Companies of Foreigners—former French soldiers who now fought for the Crown—engaged in a spree of vandalism, rape, and murder.
“As you can read, Jackson also threatened any collaboration with death, and called upon the city to identify those persons who spread what he called an ‘unfounded report’ that he planned to burn the city rather than see it fall into our hands. He ended this missive with a particularly threatening message. I quote, ‘should the general be disappointed in this expectation, he will separate our enemies from our friends—those who are not for us are against us, and will be dealt with accordingly.’"
“Go on,” Pakenham said.
“Assuming that might have support among the locals, I immediately quick marched the regiment that afternoon to New Orleans. We met with no opposition.
“None?” the general asked.
“None. Apparently, the American forces had yet to converge to defend the city. We had been told by the militia that we captured on Fish Island that some 12 to 15 thousand defended it.”
“And, so you marched against it with a tenth as many?” Pakenham asked with a wry smile.
“Yes, sir. Given how we had routed the militia at Bladensburg, and entered Washington unopposed, I was confident of our chances. We later learned that Jackson had far fewer men under arms, all scattered throughout the area.”
Pakenham paused to lift his cup, which Thornton refilled, taking a sip from his own.
“We reached the gates of the city after two hours, late in the afternoon. As you can see on this map, battlements and a series of forts protect New Orleans. They were in poor repair and lightly manned. We crossed the bridge and seized Fort St. Charles meeting only limited resistance. Most of the defenders fled when they saw our approach. I sent one battalion northwest along the inner wall to take Fort St. John and then southwest to the gate guarded by Fort St. Ferdinand. I led the main body into the heart of the city to capture the barracks that fell immediately, and magazines and the government building at the center of the waterfront. And then, everything went wrong.”
Read part 2 tomorrow!
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William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013).