“The magazines exploded sending a pillar of fire and stone high into the heavens. I can only conclude that Jackson ordered them destroyed to prevent the powder, shot and arms from falling into our hands. As it was near dusk, the light was at first blinding. By the time we had recovered our senses, the fiery debris began to land all around. Fires broke out on the wharves. The cathedral’s wooden roof began to smolder, and the dry timbers beneath soon collapsed setting fire to the interior. The now abandoned government house similarly burned.”
“Meanwhile, our battalion to the north led by Major Jenkins ran into a local force of Creoles marching in from nearby St. John’s. Jenkins reported afterward that these Americans gave a good account of themselves. They retreated only when they, too, saw the explosion and concluded we had already taken the heart of the city. Consequently, Jenkins was able to sweep around the city’s perimeter, leaving small detachments at each of the tumbled down strong points.”
“By the time his troops linked up with mine at the city center, more buildings had caught fire. I believe that untended hearths in quickly abandoned homes fueled the growing conflagration. In my time on the Continent, I have also seen looters in such situations feed the flames to cover their deeds and their retreat.”
“And what about Jackson’s purported threat to burn down the city, rather than see it captured?” Pakenham asked.
“I can neither rule it out or in,” Thornton replied.
“What do your prisoners say?” the general asked.
“We did not have time to take many after the magazines exploded. Frankly, we were preoccupied with reforming our units and deciding whether to stay hold our position or retreat.”
“Obviously, you chose the latter. Why?”
Thornton instinctively became defensive and more formal. “Sir, first, I knew that we were outnumbered. We had not encountered any of the thousands of troops we had been told to expect by the troops we captured at Fish Island. Second, no longer having the element of surprise, I was increasingly concerned about concentrating my forces in a defensible position. At the time, the burning city looked less like that place with every passing minute. And third, night was quickly upon us. We would have trouble both gathering our troops and seeing the approach of the Americans from any quarter.”
“So, you took the wisest course of action, and retreated.”
“Yes, sir. I ordered the regiment to pull back to this canal. As you have seen, it is quite defensible and the Americans have only harassed us with bombardment. I have seen no signs of a direct assault.”
“Colonel, I’m quite satisfied that you chose the best course of action. You are to be commended.”
“You are quite welcome. But now we have to face two dilemmas.”
Thornton was experienced and prudent enough not to guess what those might be and paused to lift his cup once again.
“The first, is whether to reinforce this attack and recapture the city, or to retreat,” said Pakenham.
“I’m asking for your military opinion, Colonel.”
“General, I have always favored offensive action. The Americans may not have attacked because Jackson now has to reassert his authority with his forces and the civilian population. The city burned just as his accusers said it would. His army was always a composite force, and the local militia may just want him to head back upriver to Tennessee or wherever. Perhaps we can exploit divisions in his camp. One more attack and we could repeat our success in Washington.”
“Yes, a possibility. In fact, our major objective is to control the Mississippi and compel Madison to come to terms, if not surrender. But recall, that we never intended to hold Washington. Like the American capital, New Orleans is close to the sea, but surrounded by fortified points that we would have to capture or reduce to truly control the city. The fort down river, for example, blocks a direct route to the sea. It would take time to reduce it. Moreover, unlike Washington, as we saw a provincial little village, New Orleans is a small city that we’d have to defend and police.”
“Alternatively, this game may not be worth the candle. We could simply declare victory and pull back to the fleet.”
“And go where, sir.”
“Back to Fort Bowyer to the east. We didn't press out attack there in September because of our initial losses and our plans to focus on the main objective of our campaign, New Orleans.”
“Yes, we might avenge ourselves for the losses. The fort could be another bargaining chip for us at the peace talks in Ghent. Assuming, that is, that they haven’t broken down. Bower might help us defend hold Florida, too. Only a matter of time before the Americans try to take it from the Spanish.”
“But what is the other dilemma, sir?”
“The likelihood certain uproar among our allies on the Continent about us having burned another American city,” replied Pakenham.
“Who listens to those voices, sir?”
“Wellington one, and the Prime Minister for another. In October, Wellington informed Castlereagh that the attack on Washington had made things difficult for British diplomats negotiating a European peace agreement in Vienna. Moreover, French press articles that condemned the attack have been echoed in British newspapers. News of the burning of New Orleans will only make things more difficult for His Majesty’s government at home and abroad.”
“We cannot undo what has happened,” Thornton said.
“True, but we can distance ourselves from it. Geographically speaking.”
“In that case, I request permission to march back to Bienvenu and the Villere Plantation, and from there to Pea Island and the fleet.”
“Permission granted, Colonel Thornton.”
Fort Bowyer surrendered to the British on 12 February 1815. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, arrived in the United States and was ratified by the US Congress on 16 February. Pakenham’s forces, having suffered only minor casualties in the Gulf campaign, played a major role in crushing Napoleon’s army at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
A board of inquiry presided over by Major General Jacob Brown investigated the sack of New Orleans. It heard testimony regarding the British attack and the origin of the conflagration that consumed much of the city. Like the congressional investigation that found Brigadier William Winder blameless for the capture of Washington, this board exonerated Andrew Jackson. Jackson, however, resigned his commission and retired to private life, never to serve in uniform or in any public capacity, again. He retired with his wife, Rachel, and their children to his plantation, The Hermitage, outside on Nashville, Tennessee.
* * *
William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013).