January 1 1815: New Year’s Artillery Duel

On New Year’s Day, 1815, a thick fog obscured the sun, and a haze obscured the plain separating the British and American lines near New Orleans. Andrew Jackson, believing no attack was imminent, was parading his troops for inspection behind the American works. Then, suddenly, at nine o’clock, British artillery opened fire. Thus commenced a consequential artillery duel between the two armies. The Americans recovered after the initial surprise and confusion and returned fire accurately and to great effect.The British positions were pounded repeatedly. The British guns stopped firing at one in the afternoon. The Americans suffered about  eleven killed and twenty-three wounded. The British had thirty-one killed and thirty-nine wounded. George Gleig describes the events from the British perspective:

One half of the army was accordingly ordered out on the night of the 31st, and marched to the front, passing the piquets, and halting about three hundred yards from the enemy’s line. Here it was resolved to throw up a chain of works; and here the greater part of this detachment, laying down their firelocks, applied themselves vigorously to their tasks, whilst the rest stood armed and prepared for their defence.

The night was dark, and our people maintained a profound silence; by which means, not an idea of what was going on existed in the American camp. As we laboured, too, with all diligence, six batteries were completed long before dawn, in which were mounted thirty pieces of heavy cannon; when, falling back a little way, we united ourselves to the remainder of the infantry, and lay down behind some rushes, in readiness to act, as soon as we should be wanted.

In the erection of these batteries, a circumstance occurred worthy of notice, on account of its singularity. I have already stated that the whole of this district was covered with the stubble of sugar-cane; and I might have added, that every storehouse and barn, attached to the different mansions scattered over it, was filled with barrels of sugar. In throwing up these works, the sugar was used instead of earth. Rolling the hogsheads towards the front, they were placed upright in the parapets of batteries; and it was computed that sugar to the value of many thousand pounds sterling was thus disposed of.

THE infantry having retired, and the gunners taken their station, dawn was anxiously expected. But the morning of the 1st of January chanced to be peculiarly gloomy. A thick haze obscured for a long time the rays of the sun, nor could objects be discerned with any accuracy till a late hour.

But at length the mist gave way, and the American camp was fully exposed to view. Being at this time only three hundred yards distant, we could perceive all that was going forward with great exactness. The different regiments were upon parade; and being dressed in holiday suits, presented really a fine appearance. Mounted officers were riding backwards and forwards through the, ranks, bands were playing, and colours floating in the air; in a word, all seemed jollity and gala; when suddenly our batteries opened, and the face of affairs was instantly changed. The ranks were broken; the different corps dispersing, fled in all directions, whilst the utmost terror and disorder appeared to prevail. Instead of nicely-dressed lines, nothing but confused crowds could now be observed; nor was it without much difficulty that order was finally restored. Oh, that we had charged at that instant!

Whilst this consternation prevailed among the infantry, their artillery remained silent; but as soon as the former rallied, they also recovered confidence, and answered our salute with great rapidity and precision. A heavy cannonade quickly commenced on both sides, and continued during the whole of the day; till, towards evening, our ammunition began to fail, and our fire in consequence to slacken. The fire of the Americans, on the other hand, was redoubled: landing a number of guns from the flotilla, they increased their artillery to a prodigious amount; and directing at the same time the whole force of their cannon on the opposite bank against the flank of our batteries, they soon convinced us that all endeavours to surpass them in this mode of fighting would be useless. Once more, therefore, were we obliged to retire, leaving our heavy guns to their fate; but as no attempt was made by the Americans to secure them, working parties were again sent out after dark, and such as had not been destroyed were removed.

Of the fatigue undergone during these operations by the whole army, from the General down to the meanest sentinel, it would be difficult to form an adequate conception. For two whole nights and days not a man had closed an eye, except such as were cool enough to sleep amidst showers of cannon-ball; and during the day scarcely a moment had been allowed in which we were able so much as to break our fast. We retired, therefore, not only baffled and disappointed, but in some degree disheartened and discontented. All our plans had as yet proved abortive; even this, upon which so much reliance had been placed, was found to be of no avail; and it must be confessed that something like murmuring began to be heard through the camp. And, in truth, if ever an army might be permitted to murmur, it was this. In landing they had borne great hardships, not only without repining, but with cheerfulness; their hopes had been excited by false reports, as to the practicability of the attempt in which they were embarked; and now they found themselves entangled amidst difficulties from which there appeared to be no escape, except by victory. In their attempts upon the enemy’s line, however, they had been twice foiled; in artillery they perceived themselves to be so greatly overmatched, that their own could hardly assist them; their provisions, being derived wholly from the fleet, were both scanty and coarse; and their rest was continually broken. For not only did the canon and mortars from the main of the enemy’s position play unremittingly upon them both by day and night, but they were likewise exposed to a deadly fire from the opposite bank of the river, where no less than eighteen pieces of artillery were now mounted, and swept the entire line of our encampment. Besides all this, to undertake the duty of a piquet was as dangerous as to go into action. Parties of American sharpshooters harassed and disturbed those appointed to that service from the time they took possession of their post till they were relieved; whilst to light fires at night was impossible, because they served but as certain marks for the enemy’s gunners. I repeat, therefore, that a little murmuring could not be wondered at. Be it observed, however, that these were not the murmurs of men anxious to escape from a disagreeable situation by any means. On the contrary, they resembled rather the growling of a chained dog, when he sees his adversary and cannot reach him; for in all their complaints, no man ever hinted at a retreat, whilst all were eager to bring matters to the issue of a battle, at any sacrifice of loves.

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