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


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.

us 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


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


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


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


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


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


{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


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


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


Nearer come the British regulars on the double-quick. The four lines

of sturdy riflemen wait until three fourths of the distance is


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


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


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.