Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Military Geography of the Battle of New Orleans, 8 January 1815


The Battle of New Orleans was the last great battle of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent, the treaty that ended that war, was signed on 24 December 1814, but news did not reach the American and British forces until after the completion of the battle.

This post examines that battle from a historical perspective, taking a regional approach, at a tactical and operational scale, in the context of wartime.

Strategic Importance

Capturing New Orleans would have been a major success for the British – it would cripple the United States economically, for it was the port through which the Midwest’s farm produce got to market. Further, its capture would give British forces access to the interior of the former colonies. Finally, it was feared that the Louisiana Purchase would be nullified upon British victory, precluding westward expansion.

Physical Environment

The battle took place at Chalmette Plantation, a flat one-square mile swampy field located 5 miles downriver from New Orleans. Chalmette was bounded on the north by a cypress swamp and on the south by the Mississippi River. At the time, there were many tree trunks entangled along the banks of the Mississippi. Past the cypress swamp were wet marshlands. The western edge was bounded by Rodriguez Canal which was four feet deep by 10 feet wide. The eastern edge was delimited by drainage ditches running perpendicular to the river. (Greene, n.d., pp. 52-84)

Prior to the battle, in response to an earlier British advance, Andrew Jackson widened the Rodriguez Canal and constructed a 7-foot-tall parapet parallel to the canal, on the opposite side of the canal from the field. These ramparts would later be known as Line Jackson. The Line ran approximately one mile from the Mississippi to the cypress swamps. It then hooked westward, and the left flank was protected by Choctaws and Tennessee militiamen.

In anticipation of the battle, America had placed an artillery battery on the opposite (west) bank of the Mississippi within range of the Chalmette Plantation. The river was approximately 800 yards wide at that point.

Cultural Environment

New Orleans was the largest city in the region, and outside of that the area was rural. A network of canals was dug for transport, irrigation, and drainage in support of the agricultural economy. The dominant languages in New Orleans were English and Louisiana Creole, a variant of French.

The people of New Orleans knew that their city was a valuable target for the British, and immediately prior to the Battle there were rumors that the mayor and city council would surrender to the British. The rumors were so persistent that Andrew Jackson locked the town hall to prevent them from voting on the issue.

Composition of the British and American Forces

There were approximately 8000 British troops involved in the battle, all under command of Major General Sir Edward Pakenham. The commanders directly under him, including Pakenham himself, were all veterans of the recently concluded Napoleonic Wars.

The American forces were commanded by Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee Militia. Under him were approximately 4600 men, 74% of which were from four state militias; the remainder were from the regular Army, Marines, Navy, as well as 52 Choctaw warriors and a number of Jean Lafitte's privateers. (Roosevelt, 1882, p. 341-346)

Prior to the Battle

The Battle of New Orleans was the culmination of the Gulf Campaign, the British plan to capture New Orleans and surrounding parts of Louisiana and Florida. Several earlier events are relevant:

23 Dec 1814 - A British advance was halted by a night attack by Jackson. Both sides fell back, with Jackson moving to the Rodriguez Canal, where he begins construction of Line Jackson.

25 Dec 1814 - Maj. Gen. Pakenham arrives and takes charge of British forces. To flood the ground between the British and the Americans, the Americans breach the Chalmette Levee. The effect is minimal, however. (Roosevelt, 1882, p. 341)

1 Jan 1815 - British and Americans engage in an artillery duel. The British exhaust their ammunition after 3 hours while the Americans continued firing. Pakenham withdraws.

The Battle

Pakenham’s strategy was to attack Line Jackson along two fronts. On the east bank of the Mississippi, he planned to attack the center and both ends of the Line. Meanwhile, British forces under command of Colonel William Thornton would land downriver of Chalmette, advance upriver along the west bank, capture the American artillery placed opposite Chalmette, and use it to shell Line Jackson by firing across the river.

Troop Movement 8 January 1815 (Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, n.d.).

The construction of Line Jackson began near the end of the previous month, and behind which Jackson emplaced artillery - two howitzers and thirteen 8-to-24-pound cannons. The British planned to cross Rodriguez Canal and storm the ramparts using ladders, but the ladders never arrived.

The battle began on the morning of 8 Jan 1815, with the British hoping to use the fog to their advantage. Unfortunately, the fog lifted too early. On the west bank, Thornton ran into problems with the soggy ground almost immediately: his movement was slowed considerably, and he was unable to widen a canal to move equipment needed for the assault.

Pakenham began multiple attacks against Line Jackson. On the right flank, the part closest to the river, Col. Robert Rennie’s force attacked, partially collapsing the Line before being repelled. The largest thrust was by Major Generals Sir John Keane and Samuel Gibbs against the middle of the Line - they also had to retreat. Finally, a third force attacked the left flank by crossing the cypress swamp but was repulsed by West Tennessee militiamen and Choctaws.

As all retreat paths led through the field, the British were under constant fire from Jackson’s troops, both while advancing and retreating - apparently the British were unfamiliar with the concept of open danger areas. This long exposure to fire explains the high number of British fatalities and casualties.

Meanwhile, Thornton's troops overran the American artillery on the west bank. There were two problems, however: the retreating Americans sabotaged the artillery, and by the time Thornton arrived, the battle on the opposite bank was over.

The overall battle took no more than two hours.


Jackson’s forces suffered 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing or captured. Packenham suffered 291 dead, 1262 wounded, and 484 missing or captured. Among the fatalities were three of the British commanders: Gibbs, Rennie, and Pakenham himself. John Keene was wounded. No American commanders were killed.


Greene, J. (n.d.). The New Orleans Campaign of 1814-1815 in relation to the Chalmette Battlefield. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Last retrieved 13 February 2024 from

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. (n.d.) Troop movement map, New Orleans Campaign, 1814-1815: Engagement of January 8, 1815. United States Department of the Interior / National Park Service. Last retrieved 14 February 2024 from

Roosevelt, T. (1882). 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. G.P. Putnam's Sons.