The Museum has recently purchased a print of a painting of the Battle of New Orleans by the well-known American military artist, Don Troiani. This shows the Light Company of the 93rd, along with the other British Light Companies, in the attack on the Levee Redoubt, taken under a withering fire.
93rd in the New Orleans Campaign 1814
Ever since the American Revolution, relations between the United States and Great Britain remained fragile. During the Napoleonic Wars, America’s sympathies had lain with the French; there had been skirmishing along the Canadian border and in 1814, after a series of disastrous defeats at sea, the British frigate Shannon had at last dealt successfully with the American Chesapeake.
Once Napoleon had been defeated and sent into exile following the campaign in the Peninsula, Britain turned its attention to France’s allies across the Atlantic. A force under General Ross defeated the Americans at Bladensburg and in August 1814 invaded Washington and burnt the White House. The following month, however, Ross fell at the battle of Baltimore on 12th September.
A week later on 17th September, the 93rd embarked in three vessels: HMShips Alceste, Bedford, and Belle Poule in an expedition under Major General Sir John Keane to join the forces in America.
They sailed on the 18th September, and after a series of adventures, arrived at Nigril Bay, Jamaica, on the 23rd November. Here they were joined by the troops who had been engaged in the campaign around Washington and on the 26th the expedition, now a fleet of 50 ships under Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, set sail for their base of operations, Ship Island, about 12 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mississippi River eventually discharged itself into the Gulf of Mexico through a delta of many channels and many miles of low lying swamp. The town of New Orleans, the British objective, lay a good distance up-river. Admiral Cochrane planned to bypass the forts at the river-mouth by landing behind them using the shallow waters of Lake Borgne, a salt-water lagoon, to outflank the enemy. By the 21st December, the British force had been landed on the Ile aux Pois, a swampy islet to the south-east of New Orleans. Entry to Lake Borgne was disputed by a force of five American gun-boats which were captured after a bloody fight.
Lake Borgne was very shallow; however, there were a number of creeks and channels which offered deeper water. One of these discovered by reconnaissance was the Bayou Bienvenue nine miles up which, on the night of 22nd December, a British force of some 1,600 men was landed. Conditions were miserable; the men had been in the boats for several days and when they landed, the channel was so narrow it only admitted one boat at a time so the troops had to scramble over each boat in turn in order to reach dry land — ‘dry’ being a misnomer for swamp with reeds seven foot tall. They struck westwards until they reached the bank of the Mississippi.
Here it may be mentioned that most of the ground over which the operation was carried out was swamp — cypress trees growing out of water for much of it, the terrain hideously complicated by deep quagmires and the trunks of fallen trees. There are horrid tales of men engulfed and drowning as they struggled through the thickets. Even on drier ground where plantations were established, the ground was crisscrossed by drainage ditches and by canals; the waters of the river were held back by levees which regularly gave way and let in the floods; at few points on higher ground was the water table more than eight or nine inches below the surface.
To add to all this, the weather was unexpectedly cold, with driving sleet and hard frost; this misery fell particularly hard on the men of the West India Regiments; they were rendered virtually useless and not a few succumbed to hypothermia. Rations which had to be brought 75 miles from Ship Island were scant and drinking the swamp water brought on widespread dysentery. In a word, the conditions were miserable.
That first night the British were attacked by a hastily assembled force of Americans, some fifteen hundred in number; five hundred were sent on a move through the swamp to outflank General Keane’s right. The Grenadier Company of the 93rd who had just landed were involved in the three hour confused struggle in the dark which eventually repulsed the Americans whose undisciplined collection of troops was no match for the British.
A bold stroke by the British would have now found the road to New Orleans undefended but it was not to be. By Christmas Day, the whole British force had landed and the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Edward Pakenham, had taken over command.
The British delay had allowed General Andrew Jackson to form a defensive position along the line of the Rodriguez canal, with his right on the River and his left on thick wooded swamp. The canal in fact was dry but it made a deep ditch on the other side of which the Americans were able to build a thick breastwork of fascines and cotton bales. Behind this were deployed a large number of guns which made the position a very strong one. On the far bank of the river, the Americans had also established a gun battery sited to take any British advance in flank.
The British meanwhile with considerable difficulty had been dragging up their own artillery and establishing batteries on sugar casks. Bombardment opened on 1st January as the British advanced to the assault. In torrential rain and making no progress for several hours, they remained in the open exposed to the enemy fire before, at long last, at sunset receiving the order to retire. In this futile exercise, the 93rd lost Lieutenant Phaup and nine Other Ranks killed and ten Other Ranks wounded.
For the rest of the week the troops worked hard at bringing up guns, ammunition and stores, all the time under the enemy’s harassing artillery fire. One major task was the deepening and widening of one of the canals that crossed the isthmus and the breaching of one of the levees on the riverbank. This was so that boats could be brought across from the Bienvenue Bayou to the Mississippi; this exercise was only partially successful but enough boats were brought across to embark enough of Colonel Thornton’s force on the evening of 7th January to land some 500 men, mainly of the 85th and of the Naval Brigade. The attack on Paterson’s battery went in before dawn and the position eventually taken, thus removing the threat to the British Left Flank.
Early the same morning, before dawn, the remainder of the army fell in in three columns; the Light Company of the 93rd formed part of the left column which was to attack up the line of the riverbank; the right column was to provide the main assault while the 93rd with various detachments was in the centre, placed to support either left or right as opportunity best offered. In front was a screen formed by three companies of the 95th Rifles (now RIFLES) and 200 men of the 44th (now ANGLIANS) while 250 men of the latter Regiment had been detailed to bring up ladders and fascines to help penetrate the enemy position.
Things began to go wrong from an early stage; the commander of the 44th tasked with bringing up the ladders and fascines ‘lost his nerve’ and his party had to go back 500 yards to the Engineer Store having been under fire for three hours. The battery on the other side of the river took longer to subdue due to the insufficient number of boats floated across from Bayou Bienvenue and the troops accordingly were left in the open under a galling fire until 5am when Pakenham’s signal to attack at last was given.
The Light Companies on the left advanced under a hail of fire but succeeded in taking the right hand American redoubt. There was no support or follow-up however, and after a while they fell back, severely mauled. The 93rd lost Captain Hichens in a total British loss of 8 Officers and 180 Other Ranks killed or wounded.
Meanwhile the main body of the 93rd had veered to the right and advanced to within a hundred yards of the enemy’s position where they received a peremptory order to halt. Men of the 93rd fell regularly but the Regiment did not flinch; here they stood, steadfast and immoveable, awaiting orders which never came. Frustration was even greater since the Americans were adept at firing over cover without ever exposing themselves.
The attack on the right, led by the 21st, (now 2 SCOTS) got up to the enemy parapet but then faltered as both the Americans and the British broke and ran; the British attack petered out as the men took cover in the swamp and straggled to the rear. The 93rd were left standing in the open under a heavy fire; they did not flinch.
As Lieutenant C H Gordon’s diary had it:-
“The 93rd moved from its bivouac and advanced in close column. As we neared the enemy’s lines day began to dawn, yet we waited in vain, and in intense anxiety, for the signal rocket, which was to be considered the signal for the assault. By this time, the enemy could perceive us plainly advancing, and no sooner got us within 150 yards of their works than a most destructive and murderous fire was opened on our Column of round, grape, musquetry, rifle and buckshot along the whole course and length of their line in front, as well as on our left flank. Not daunted, however, we continued our advance which in one minute would have carried us into their ditch, when we received a peremptory order to halt — this indeed was the moment of trial. The officers and men being as it were mowed down by ranks, impatient to get at the enemy at all hazards, yet compelled for want of orders to stand still and neither to advance or retire, galled as they were by this murderous fire of an invisible enemy, for a single American soldier we did not see that day, they kept discharging their musquets and rifles without lifting their faces above the ramparts, the fire from their muzzles being only visible over the parapet. How long the 93rd continued in so very trying a position the writer of this cannot say himself being himself carried off the field wounded….. I heard a Staff Officer say as he rode away ‘93rd! Have a little patience and you shall soon have your revenge”.
The gallantry of the 93rd availed them little; Colonel Dale was killed early on and Colonel Creagh took command. Of Colonel Dale, RANK Surtees of the Rifle Brigade wrote:-
“This officer being unwilling to retire his regiment without effecting the objective aimed at, although the men were literally mown down by the murderous fire of the enemy, and the other column (ie the right) had given way, still endeavoured to advance, but was at length reluctantly compelled to retrograde, taking care to keep his men together. This showed a fine and noble feeling in him and is equally honourable to his gallant regiment, but unfortunately it tended only to swell the list of killed and wounded on this lamentable occasion……”
There was no senior command; General Pakenham was killed; General Keane wounded and no-one took control until General Lambert gave the order to retreat. The British lost heavily with nearly 300 killed and some thirteen hundred wounded plus nearly 500 missing. Of these, the 93rd lost 3 Officers, 1 Sergeant and 52 Other Ranks killed, 12 Officers, 1 Sergeant and 367 Other Ranks wounded with 1 Officer, 3 Sergeants and 117 Other Ranks missing. Of these last, 3 Sergeants and 36 Other Ranks died of wounds in New Orleans.
The behaviour of the 93rd attracted much comment on both sides, one American officer even remarking ‘Whatever was the name of that regiment’ (it was the 93rd) ‘they were the most surprising instance of cool determined bravery and undaunted courage I ever heard of, standing in the midst of a most destructive fire, firm and immoveable as a brick wall.’
General Lambert now had to extricate his force. A road had to be constructed back to Lake Borgue through the swamp; made of logs and fascines it took nine days to complete, during which the British bivouacs were constantly under artillery fire. During this period a number of British soldiers were seduced by former compatriots to desert to America; it is on record that none of the Rifle Brigade or the 93rd succumbed.
Eventually they reached the boats who took off what number they could; the 93rd were with the remainder who lived cold, wet and starving for two days until they too could be embarked. Here their wives and children re-joined them and the fleet sailed on 5th February with the intention of launching an attack on the town of Mobile.
But before that could happen news came that the preliminaries of peace had been signed on December 14th. The transports carrying the 93rd accordingly turned for home.
It was cruel irony that the Battle had all been unnecessary; it was established that out of an original strength of 919, the 93rd had lost during the campaign 64 killed, 423 wounded (of whom two weeks after the battle 62 had died) and 81 missing.
The 93rd Highlanders had gained much renown as a result of their conduct but it came at a heavy price.