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Old Hickory's Christmas






At the beginning of the last century, England was fighting for her
very life against the mighty Napoleon. We remained neutral; but our
ships were doing a fine business in carrying supplies to the two
nations.

England, however, looked at us with a jealous eye, and was determined
to prevent our trade with France. On the other hand, Napoleon was
eager to shut us out from England.

Thus trouble arose. Both nations began to meddle with our commerce,
and to capture and plunder our ships. What did they care for the
rights of a feeble nation so long as each could cut off the other's
supplies?

Great Britain, moreover, could not man her enormous navy. To get
sailors, she overhauled our merchantmen on the high seas and carried
men away to supply her war ships. In 1807, nearly two hundred of our
merchantmen had been taken by the British, and fully as many more by
the French. The time had come when we must either fight or give up
our trade.

It was hard to know what was best to do. Some were for fighting both
England and France at the same time.

{186} Thomas Jefferson, who was President at this time, and James
Madison, who followed him in 1809, were men of peace, and believed
that the nation should keep out of war.

In 1811, however, the pent-up wrath of the people, roused by even
greater insults, found relief in electing a "war" Congress. Then,
through men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, President Madison
yielded to popular feeling, and in June, 1812, war was declared with
Great Britain.

It was a bold thing to do. England had thousands of well-seasoned
troops, commanded by officers who had been trained by Wellington. Our
regular army had less than seven thousand men, and our main
dependence was upon the militia, who proved of little service. To
meet England on the water, we had only six frigates and a dozen or
more little craft. England had more than two hundred war ships larger
than any of ours.

The war began, and was carried on, in a haphazard sort of way. Most
of our land battles were inglorious enough; but the story of our
naval battles is another thing. England, the "mistress of the seas,"
met with some unpleasant surprises. Out of fifteen naval contests,
with equal forces, we won twelve. Never before had the British navy
met with such defeats.

Early in the year 1814, Napoleon was driven into exile at Elba, and
Europe was for a time free from war. England was now able to send
larger fleets and more {187} troops to our shores, and planned to
capture New Orleans, the gateway to the commerce of the Mississippi.
The hour of trial had indeed come for the fair Creole city.

New Orleans was foreign in character, having been joined to our
republic by purchase, with little in common with our people except a
bitter hatred for England.

In the last week of November, a great fleet with ten thousand
veterans sailed across the Gulf of Mexico, in the direction of New
Orleans. The troops, most of whom had just served in Spain, under the
"Iron Duke," were held to be the best fighting men in the world.

The voyage seems to have been a kind of gala trip. The wives of many
of the officers sailed with their husbands; and the time was spent in
dancing, in musical and theatrical performances, and in other
festivities.

So sure were the proud Britons of taking the Creole city that they
brought officers to govern it.

On December 9, in the midst of a storm, the ships anchored off the
delta of the Mississippi.

The British, having planned to approach New Orleans from the east,
sent the lighter craft to cross Lake Borgne, some fifteen miles from
the city.

Five American gunboats, commanded by a young officer named Jones,
with less than two hundred men, were guarding the lake. The British
landed twelve hundred marines. There was a sharp hand to hand fight
for an hour, in which over three hundred of the British were {188}
killed or wounded. But it was twelve hundred against two hundred.
Young Jones was severely wounded, and his gunboats were captured.

It was now two days before Christmas. In a little dwelling house in
Royal Street all was hurry and bustle. This was General Jackson's
headquarters. Early in the afternoon, a young French officer, Major
Villere, had galloped to the door, with the word that an outpost on
his father's plantation, twelve miles below New Orleans, had been
surprised that morning by the British.

"The redcoats are marching in full force straight for the city," he
said; "and if they keep on, they will reach here this very night."

"By the Eternal!" exclaimed Jackson. His eyes flashed, his reddish
gray hair began to bristle, and he brought his fist down upon the
table. "They shall not sleep upon our soil this night."

"Gentlemen," he continued to his officers and to the citizens round
him, "the British are below; we must fight them to-night."

The great bell on the old cathedral of St. Louis begins to ring,
cannon are fired three times to signify danger, and messengers ride
to and fro in hot haste, with orders for the troops to take up their
line of march.

The people of New Orleans had heard how the rough Britons dealt with
the cities of Spain, and they knew well enough that the hated
redcoats would treat their own loved city in like manner.

{189} Jackson put every able-bodied man at work. It was a motley
crowd. Creoles, Frenchmen, Spaniards, prison convicts, negroes, and
even Lafitte, the far-famed "Pirate of the Gulf," and his crew of
buccaneers, answered Jackson's call. The people cheerfully submitted
to martial law. The streets resounded with "Yankee Doodle" and with
"The Marseillaise" sung in English, French, and Spanish.

The backwoodsmen once more came to the front, as they had done at
King's Mountain, thirty-five years before. The stern features of "Old
Hickory" relaxed a bit at the sight of Colonel Carroll and his
riflemen from Nashville. They arrived in flatboats on the same day
that the British vanguard reached the river. Clad in coonskin caps
and fringed leggins, and {190} with their long rifles on their
shoulders, these rough pioneers came tramping into the city. They
were tall, gaunt fellows, with powder horns over their buckskin
shirts, and with hunting knives in their belts.

Colonel Coffee, too, had come with his regiment of mounted riflemen,
and was encamped five miles below the city.

Now Jackson knew that if he did not have time to throw up some
earthworks, the city was likely to fall. In his usual fiery way, he
made up his mind to attack the enemy that very night.

Meanwhile the British had built their camp fires along the levee, and
were eating their supper. Not once did they think themselves in
danger.

Soon after dark, a strange vessel, dropping quietly down the river,
anchored within musket shot. Some of the redcoats thought it best to
stir up the stranger, and so fired several times at her.

Suddenly a hoarse voice was heard, "Now give it to them, boys, for
the honor of America!"

It was the Carolina, an American war schooner.

At once shot and shell rained on the British camp, killing or
wounding at least a hundred men in ten minutes. The redcoats trampled
out their camp fires, and fled behind the levee for shelter.

This was a rather warm reception, but it became a great deal warmer
when Jackson charged into their camp. For two hours in the dark was
fought a series {191} of deadly hand to hand fights. The British used
their bayonets, the riflemen their hunting knives.

At last, a thick fog from the river made it impossible to tell friend
from foe. The redcoats retreated and found shelter behind the levee.
The Americans fell back about three miles and camped.

This bold night attack cost the British five hundred in killed and
wounded, and saved New Orleans from capture. Jackson had gained his
point. He had dealt the enemy a sudden, stinging blow.



Christmas opened drearily enough for the invaders, but before night,
to their great joy, Sir Edward Pakenham arrived from England, and
took command. The British had now about ten thousand men, led by
three veterans. Surely, it would be nothing but boy's play for the
great Sir Edward to defeat the "backwoods general" and his motley
army. On his return home, his reward was to be a peerage.

Pakenham went to work bright and early the next morning. Within two
days, eleven cannon and a mortar were brought from the fleet, and
mounted in a redoubt on the bank of the river. The battery at once
began {192} to throw red-hot shells at the two war vessels in the
river. The little Carolina soon blew up, while the Louisiana was
towed out of range and escaped.

The next morning, Sir Edward thought that by marching out his army he
might get a look at the enemy. He was not disappointed, for after
advancing nearly three miles, he stumbled on the Americans in good
earnest.

No sooner were the British columns in sight than they were driven
back by a brisk fire of shot and shell. Then followed a furious
artillery duel. In vain the British pounded away with field pieces,
rocket guns, and mortars; they were forced back by the cannon of the
Americans.

The British commander now saw that he must lay regular siege to the
American position.

Shortly after midnight, on New Year's morning, his men silently
advanced to within three hundred yards of Jackson's first
intrenchments, which were made of cotton bales, and threw up a
redoubt of mud and hogsheads of sugar. When the fog lifted at ten
o'clock, the Americans were surprised to see the British cannon
frowning upon them.

The artillery began to roar. Jackson's cotton bales were soon
burning. On the other hand, the Louisiana and a water battery did
fine work with their raking fire, and soon blew the sugar barrels
into thousands of pieces. The British guns were quickly silenced, and
only the gallantry of the sailors from the war ships saved them from
capture.

{193} Sir Edward had boasted that he should pass this New Year's
night in New Orleans; but his reception had been so warm that he was
now forced to withdraw. Jackson had made it so lively for the
invaders that they had been without sleep and food for nearly sixty
hours.

The British admiral tried a grim joke by sending word to Sir Edward
that, if he did not hurry and capture the city, he should land his
marines and do up the job himself.

The British now decided to carry by storm the American lines on both
sides of the river, and chose Sunday morning, January 8, for the
attack.

Jackson gave himself and his men no rest, night or day. He had
redoubts thrown up even to the city itself.

The main line of defense, over which not a single British soldier
passed, except as prisoner, was a mud bank about a mile and a half
long. In front of it was a ditch, or half choked canal, which ran
from the river to an impassable cypress swamp on the left wing.

All Saturday night, January 7, was heard in the British camp the
sound of pickax and shovel, the rumble of artillery, and the muffled
tread of the regiments, as they marched to their several positions in
the line of battle.

After a day of great fatigue, Jackson lay down upon a sofa to rest.
At midnight, he looked at his watch and spoke to his aids.

"Gentlemen," he said, "we have slept long enough. The enemy will be
upon us in a few moments."

{194} Long before daylight, "Old Hickory" saw to it that every man
was at his post. Leaning on their rifles, or grouped about the great
guns, the men in silence saluted their beloved general, as he rode
from post to post, in the thick fog of that long, wakeful night.

The lifting of the fog in the early light revealed the long scarlet
lines of British veterans, in battle array. Surely it was only
something to whet their appetites for breakfast, for such
well-trained fighters to carry that low, mud earthwork.

The bugle sounded, and the red-coated grenadiers and the kilted
Highlanders moved steadily forward in columns. Not a rifle cracked,
but the cannon from the mud earthwork thundered furiously. Grape and
solid shot tore long lanes through the advancing battalions.

General Gibbs led the attack on the left, which a deserter had told
Pakenham was the weakest part of the earthwork. So it was; but on the
day before the battle, Jackson had stationed there his Tennessee
riflemen.

Nearer come the British regulars on the double-quick. The four lines
of sturdy riflemen wait until three fourths of the distance is
covered.

Suddenly the clear voice of General Carroll rings out, "Fire!"

A sheet of flame bursts from the earthwork. The advancing columns
falter, stop, break, and run. Not a man reaches the redoubt.

{195} It was said that an old thirty-two-pounder had been loaded to
the muzzle with musket balls, the first volley of which killed or
wounded two hundred of the enemy.

"Here comes the Ninety-Third! Rally on the Ninety-Third!" shouts
Pakenham, as this splendid regiment of eight hundred kilted
Highlanders advances amid the confusion.

The brave men now rally for another desperate charge.

"Hurrah, boys! the day is ours!" shouts Colonel Rennie, as he leads
the attack on the right flank.

But the day is not theirs. A few officers and men actually get across
the ditch, but every one of them is shot dead the moment his head
shows over the earthwork. The wavering columns stagger and give way.

Sir Edward leaves General Lambert in command of the reserve, and,
with generals Gibbs and Keane, now leads the assault. The mud
earthwork again belches its sheets of flame, as the backwoods
riflemen fire their death-dealing volleys. Again the proud columns
give way.

"Forward, men, forward!" cries Pakenham, ordering the bugler to sound
the charge.

A rifle ball carries away the bugle before a note is sounded.

"Order up the reserve!" shouts the British commander, and leads his
men to another deadly charge.

A rifle bullet shatters his right leg, another kills his horse, and
finally a third, fired by a negro, instantly {196} kills him. Gibbs
and Keane are both severely wounded. The officers in the brilliant
uniforms are easy targets for the sharpshooters.

It is what Bunker Hill might have been if the patriots had had
stronger breastworks and plenty of ammunition.

The eight hundred Highlanders, with pale faces but firm step, advance
to the ditch, and, too proud to run, stand the fire until few more
than a hundred are left. These slowly retire with their faces still
toward the Americans.

The battle lasted only twenty-five minutes. During this time the
American flag was kept flying near the middle of the line. A military
band roused the troops. Just after the fight, Jackson and his staff
in full uniform rode slowly along the lines. The wild uproar of that
motley army was echoed by thousands of spectators, who with fear and
trembling had watched the issue of the contest.

In the final and decisive action on that Sunday morning, the British
had about six thousand men, while Jackson had less than three
thousand. Of the British, seven hundred were killed, fourteen hundred
wounded, and five hundred taken prisoners. The Americans had only
eight killed and fourteen wounded!

It was the most astonishing battle ever fought on this continent.
There had never been a defeat so crushing, with a loss so small.

{197} For a week or more, the British kept sullenly within their
lines. Jackson clung to his intrenchments. He was a fearless fighter,
but was unwilling to risk a battle with well-tried veterans in an
open field. He kept up, however, a continual pounding with his big
guns, and his mounted riflemen gave the redcoats no rest.

In about three weeks, General Lambert skillfully retreated to the
ships, and, soon afterwards, the entire army sailed for England.

Such was the glorious but dreadful battle of New Orleans, the
anniversary of which is still celebrated.

{198} Honors fell thick and fast upon "Old Hickory." Fourteen years
later, he became the seventh President of the United States.

The sad part of this astounding victory is that peace had been
declared about two weeks before the battle was fought. A "cablegram,"
or even an ocean greyhound, could have saved the lives of many brave
men.

When peace was made, nothing was said about impressing our sailors,
or about the rights of our merchantmen. From that day to this,
however, no American citizen has been forced to serve on a British
war ship, and no American vessel has ever been searched on the high
seas.

The war of 1812 was not fought in vain. The nations of the world saw
that we would fight to maintain our rights. Best of all, perhaps,
this war served to strengthen the feeling of nationality among our
own people.





Next: A Hero's Welcome

Previous: Old Ironsides



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