In the course of a year, I probably write something like 250,000 words of serious copy, between this column, scripts for my radio program and a blog site which is visited by followers in ten countries at last count. None of this is done for real profit (not that I wouldn’t welcome such a boon), but because of my love for the written word and an unending sense of wonder as I look through the window of history. That said, it is easy for me to answer a frequently-asked question: “What do you think is the most personally important thing you have ever written?” The response always brings me back to a manuscript for a reading I do in person titled “IN THE COMPANY OF HEROES”, usually against a subdued musical background soundtrack of “Bring Him Home” from “Les Misérables”, and “Hymn to the Fallen” from “Saving Private Ryan”. It reflects a deeply-personal and heartfelt affinity for all those who have died, or been willing to die in the service of country and freedom. It is a theme which often shows through in the subject matter I touch upon, and for which I offer no apology.
I am reminded of all this as I write today on the occasion of a little-celebrated and historically-overlooked event which took place exactly 199 years ago on a swampy piece of farmland seven miles down-river from New Orleans.
The War of 1812 does not claim very many pages in today’s history books, and I don’t suppose the average high school student of our time could answer many questions on the subject. While it is a war we technically “won”, it was at least an unwise conflict for The United States to precipitate, and very unpopular among much of the country at the time. In fact, the most that can really be said of it is that we didn’t lose! And of course, it gave us our national anthem during the battle for Baltimore in 1814. To place it in a larger perspective, I would posit that it was actually the final battle of the American Revolution, which in the mind of the British anyway, had never really ended. It can also be said that since its conclusion, Great Britain and the United States have been the world’s closest friends and allies.
To get back to the battlefield; having failed to realize any real victory by burning our nation’s capital, humiliating President Madison in the process, and bombarding Baltimore harbor without making good an invasion there, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane proposed to finish the upstart Americans off by taking the Port of New Orleans and thereby winning control of the Mississippi River and its access to the country’s interior, where they hoped to “undo” the Louisiana Purchase.
Characteristically, the British plan for the taking of New Orleans was ambitious, complicated and reflective of a high degree of military hubris. With a commanding fleet of warships and experienced seamen and 18,000 well-trained soldiers, the campaign seemed well in hand. To begin with though, the construction of a canal which it was hoped would undermine the American defensive position went awry, and the anticipated line of fire for their cannon batteries proved untenable. Then too, they had no idea that a “backwoods” General named Andrew Jackson with his small force of 4,000 militiamen and local volunteers were waiting for them at Chalmette Plantation behind hand-built earthworks and a natural canal. Then at the height of the geometrically-perfect attack across all that open ground, the early morning fog which covered the advancing lines of British regulars in their bright red uniforms mysteriously and suddenly lifted and Jackson’s practiced squirrel hunters and 16 cannons loaded with grapeshot took a terrible toll. At the head of that attacking line rode Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, member of Parliament and perhaps the most talented and experienced of all His Majesty’s finest, a wounded and decorated veteran of a dozen military campaigns against a host of England’s enemies. Riddled with grapeshot and with his horse shot out from under him, he attempted to rally his troops before a second wounding proved fatal. With all of their officers dead or wounded, the British soldiers seemed to stand confused as more Colonial fire further reduced their numbers before a numbed Commander called retreat.
With only 13 of his defenders killed against British casualties approaching 2,000, Major General Andrew Jackson not only brought the War of 1812 to an end (negotiations at Ghent had already concluded), but was on his way to becoming his country’s 7th President. Great Britain had not only suffered a battlefield defeat, but one of England’s most famous families had lost a much-loved son and one of the country’s most promising young soldier/leaders in a faraway land.
Born at Tullynally Castle in Ireland, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, 3rd Baron Longford was 37 years old when he died in the Battle of New Orleans, the victim of “Old World” tactics ill-suited to combat in the “New World”.