December 28 1814: Reconnaissance-in-Force

On December 28 1814, Major General Pakenham, conducted a reconnaissance-in-force, advancing at dawn in two columns, against the American forces defending the rampart behind the Rodriguez Canal. American artillery and fire from the USS Louisiana slows the British Advance. The American gunners, especially the Baratarians, prove decisive. The British retreat. George Gleig describes the events from the British perspective:

It was a clear frosty morning, the mists had dispersed, and the sun shone brightly upon our arms when we began our march. The enemy’s corps of observation fell back as we advanced, without offering in any way to impede our progress, and it was impossible to guess, ignorant as we were of the position of his main body, at what moment opposition might be expected. Nor, in truth, was it matter of much anxiety. Our spirits, in spite of the troubles of the night, were good, and our expectations of success were high, consequently many rude jests were bandied about, and many careless words spoken: for soldiers are, of all classes of men, the freest from care, and on that account, perhaps, the most happy. By being continually exposed to it, danger, with them, ceases to be frightful; of death they have no more terror than the beasts that perish; and even hardships, such as cold, wet, hunger, and broken rest, lose at least part of their disagreeableness, by the frequency of their recurrence.

Moving on in this merry mood, we advanced about four or five miles without the smallest check or hindrance; when, at length, we found ourselves in view of the enemy’s army, posted in a very advantageous manner. About forty yards in their front was a canal, which extended from the morass to within a short distance of the high road. Along their line were thrown up breastworks, not indeed completed, but even now formidable. Upon the road at several other points were erected powerful batteries; whilst the ship, with a large flotilla of gun-boats, flanked the whole position from the river.

When I say that we came in sight of the enemy, I do not mean that he was gradually exposed to us in such a manner as to leave time for cool examination and reflection. On the right, indeed, he was seen for some time, but on the left a few houses built at a turning in the road entirely concealed him; nor was it till they gained that turning, and beheld the muzzles of his guns pointed towards them, that those who moved in this direction were aware of their proximity to danger. But that danger was indeed near they were quickly taught; for scarcely had the head of the column passed the houses when a deadly fire was opened from both the battery and the shipping. That the Americans are excellent marksmen, as well with artillery as with rifles, we have had frequent cause to acknowledge; but, perhaps, on no occasion did they assert their claim to the title of good artillery-men more effectually than on the present. Scarce a ball passed over or fell short of its mark, but all striking full into the midst of our ranks, occasioned terrible havoc. The shrieks of the wounded, therefore, the crash of firelocks, and the fall of such as were killed; caused at first some little confusion; and what added to the panic was, that from the houses beside which we stood bright flames suddenly burst out. The Americans, expecting this attack, had filled them with combustibles for the purpose; and directing against them one or two guns, loaded with red-hot shot, in an instant set them on fire. The scene was altogether very sublime. A tremendous cannonade mowed down our ranks, and deafened us with its roar; whilst two large chateaux and their outbuildings almost scorched us with the flames, and blinded us with the smoke which they emitted.

The infantry, however, was not long suffered to remain thus exposed; but being ordered to quit the path and to form line in the fields, the artillery was brought up, and opposed to that of the enemy. But the contest was in every respect unequal, since their artillery far exceeded ours, both in numerical strength and weight of metal. The consequence was, that in half an hour two of our field-pieces and one field-mortar were dismounted: many of the gunners were killed; and the rest, after an ineffectual attempt to silence the fire of the shipping, were obliged to retire.

In the mean time the infantry having formed line, advanced under a heavy discharge of round and grape shot, till they were checked by the appearance of the canal. Of its depth they were of course ignorant, and to attempt its passage without having ascertained whether it could be forded might have been productive of fatal consequences. A halt was accordingly ordered, and the men were commanded to shelter themselves as well as they could from the enemy’s fire. For this purpose they were hurried into a wet ditch, of sufficient depth to cover the knees, where, leaning forward, they concealed themselves behind some high rushes which grew upon its brink, and thus escaped many bullets which fell around them in all directions.

Thus fared it with the left of the army, whilst the right, though less exposed to the cannonade, was not more successful in its object. The same impediment which checked one column forced the other likewise to pause; and after having driven in an advanced body of the enemy, and endeavoured, without effect, to penetrate through the marsh, it also was commanded to halt. In a word, all thought of attacking was for this day abandoned; and it now only remained to withdraw the troops from their present perilous situation, with as little loss as possible.

The first thing to be done was to remove the dismounted guns. Upon this enterprise a party of seamen were employed, who, running forward to the spot where they lay, lifted them, in spite of the whole of the enemy’s fire, and bore them off in triumph. As soon as this was effected, regiment after regiment stole away; not in a body, but one by one, under the same discharge which saluted their approach. But a retreat thus conducted necessarily occupied much time. Noon had therefore long passed before the last corps was brought off; and when we again began to muster twilight was approaching. We did not, however, retire to our former position; but having fallen back only about two miles from the canal, where it was supposed that we should be beyond reach of annoyance from the American artillery, we there established ourselves for the night, having suffered less during the day than,from our exposed situation and the enemy’s heavy fire, might have been expected.

The ground which we now occupied resembled, in almost every particular, that which we had quitted. We again extended across the plain, from the marsh to the river; no wood or cover of any description concealing our line, or obstructing the view of either army; while both in front and rear was an open space, laid out in fields and intersected by narrow ditches. Our outposts, however were pushed forward to some houses within a few hundred yards of the enemy’s works, sending out advanced sentinels even farther; and the head-quarters of the army were established near the spot where the action of the 23rd had been fought.

(The map is from here.)

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