Outside New Orleans on January 8, 1815, a badly outnumbered, motley collection of regular soldiers, backcountry riflemen and lawless pirates led by Major General Andrew Jackson scored a lopsided victory against the mighty British army. The surprising triumph not only boosted American pride and transformed Jackson into a national hero, it also quickly became shrouded in mythology. Learn the truth behind six common misconceptions about one of the most famous showdowns of the War of 1812.
MYTH #1: The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the formal end of the War of 1812.
Contrary to popular belief, Great Britain and the United States were still officially in a state of war when they clashed in New Orleans. While British and American diplomats negotiating in Ghent, Belgium, agreed to a peace accord on Christmas Eve in 1814, the treaty stipulated that “orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two powers to cease from all hostilities” only “after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties.” Great Britain ratified the Treaty of Ghent within days of its signing, but the document did not arrive in Washington, D.C., after its slow trans-Atlantic ship journey until February 14, 1815, more than a week after news of Jackson’s victory reached the capital. The U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty on February 16, 1815, and President James Madison, displaced from the White House after its burning by the British, signed the agreement in his temporary home, the Octagon House. The exchange of ratified copies between the two countries then brought the War of 1812 to its official conclusion, more than a month after the Battle of New Orleans.
MYTH #2: The Battle of New Orleans was the final military engagement of the War of 1812.
While Jackson’s stunning victory was the last major battle of the War of 1812, it wasn’t the final time that British and American forces traded shots. Driven from New Orleans, the British fleet sailed east along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and launched an amphibious assault on Fort Bowyer, which guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay. American forces inside the fort had repulsed a smaller British attack in September 1814 but could not withstand the larger onslaught that began on February 8, 1815. The fort’s commander surrendered three days later. Thirteen Redcoats died in the battle along with one American. British plans to seize the port city of Mobile were abandoned when news of the peace treaty finally arrived.
MYTH #3: The Battle of New Orleans was a one-day conflict.
The fight for New Orleans was actually a drawn-out affair that lasted more than a month. British ships first clashed with American gunboats on Lake Borgne near New Orleans on December 14, 1814. Three days before Christmas, British troops landed on the east side of the Mississippi River, and the following evening Jackson halted the Redcoats by ambushing them in their camp. The two sides dueled several times before British General Edward Pakenham ordered an all-out assault on Jackson’s heavily fortified position along the Rodriguez Canal on January 8, 1815. Even after suffering a calamitous defeat, the British continued to bombard Fort St. Philip near the mouth of the Mississippi River for more than a week and did not withdraw from the vicinity of New Orleans until January 18.
MYTH #4: The Battle of New Orleans was only fought on land.
Jackson’s exploits overshadowed the key roles played by the navies in the Battle of New Orleans. The fight in southern Louisiana was ultimately for control of the Mississippi River, the economic lifeline to the North American interior, and it was the Royal Navy under British Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane that managed the campaign against New Orleans. The British victory on Lake Borgne allowed the Redcoats to stage an amphibious landing that threw New Orleans into a panic and prompted Jackson to impose martial law in the city. British attempts to sail up the Mississippi River, however, were ultimately repulsed by American forces at Fort St. Philip.
MYTH #5: Kentucky riflemen were responsible for the American victory.
Days before the main battle on January 8, upwards of 2,000 untrained Kentucky militiamen arrived in New Orleans, ready to defend the city. Most of the poorly equipped riflemen, however, lacked an important accessory—a rifle. Fighting with makeshift weapons, the Kentucky volunteers had little impact on the fight and even infuriated Jackson by taking flight in the midst of battle. “The Kentucky reinforcements, in whom so much reliance had been placed, ingloriously fled,” the general wrote the day after the battle, “thus yielding to the enemy that most formidable position.” Although cannon and artillery fire from the army regulars ultimately inflicted the most damage on the British forces, a popular 1821 song penned by Samuel Woodworth, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” rewrote history by exaggerating the role of the backcountry marksmen. Even though the tune lionized the fighting men Jackson once cursed, its popularity among his political supporters on the frontier persuaded “Old Hickory” to adopt it as his campaign song on his way to winning the White House in 1828.
MYTH #6: Pirate Jean Lafitte was a battlefield hero.
The French-born pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte plied the waters of Barataria Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1800s and remains a legendary figure in New Orleans. Courted by the British, Lafitte instead offered his services and weapons to Jackson in return for pardons for some of his men arrested by the United States. The Baratarian pirates composed only a small percentage of the American forces on January 8, but their experience manning cannons on privateering ships proved valuable along the artillery batteries. Lafitte was hailed as a hero in the war’s aftermath, but there is no evidence that he was anywhere near the front lines fighting alongside his men during the main battle.