The War by Land in 1812 and 1813

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XV.

The War by Land—Battles on the Northern Frontier—Mason—O'Neale—Landing of General Ross—Treatment of Naturalized Citizens taken in Arms—Successes of Ross—Andrew Jackson on the Mississippi—His Career and Character—Battle of New Orleans—Peace

THE campaigns of 1812 and 1813 were chiefly fought on the Canadian frontier. Among the militia which appeared on the American border, many sons of Ireland gained distinction. The names of Brady, Mullany McKeon, Croghan, rank after those of Scott, Brown, and Wool, for services performed on that theatre of war, where, however, the greatest achievement effected was the successful defence of American territory from invasion. The defeat of Hull, and surrender of Detroit, were more than compensated by the brilliant victories of Chippewa, Bridgewater, and Plattsburg; and the work of security was completed by the utter defeat of Tecumseh and his Anglo-Indian forces, at the battle of the Thames, in the territory of Michigan.

This action, fought in October, 1813, was the last and most complete defeat of the savages of the north-western lakes. Tecumseh was supposed to have fallen by the hands of Colonel Johnson, of Kentucky; but that veteran soldier has himself said, that all he could say was, when attacked by the chief, he fired, and when the smoke cleared away, the Indian lay dead before him. The popular account attributes the deadly aim and wound to one Mason, a native of the county of Wexford, Ireland, who, though a grandfather, aged four-score, volunteered his services in that expedition. He had been an old revolutionary soldier, and fought in the ranks with his own sons, themselves men of middle age.[1]

The British "naval operations," on the northern coast, having signally failed, some of the invading force were directed to attempt the shore of the Chesapeake, and to penetrate to Washington. In May, 1813, four hundred men were despatched from Warren's fleet to burn the town of Havre de Grace, Maryland. The few militia in the place abandoned it; but John O'Neale and two others worked a small battery with deadly effect. The enemy having effected a landing, these humble Horatii retreated to the nail factory, and continued a destructive musketry fire on those who approached. A party of marines finally captured O'Neale, who was carried prisoner on board the Maidstone frigate. He would have been instantly executed but for the vigorous interference of General Miller, who threatened to execute two British prisoners, in retaliation, if his life were taken.

During this war such threats alone could have saved the naturalized citizens, formerly British subjects, when taken in arms. A proclamation, dated October 26th, 1812, and signed by the Prince Regent, (George IV.,) distinctly announced that all such prisoners would be treated as "rebels" in arms against their sovereign. In February, 1813, the naturalized citizens of Philadelphia, through Alderman John Binns, chairman of their meeting, drew the attention of President Madison to this declaration. This memorial was answered by the President, as follows:—

"WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 1813.

"GENTLEMEN,—I have received your communication in behalf of the naturalized citizens in and near Philadelphia, who were born within the British dominions; occasioned by the proclamation of the Prince Regent of Great Britain, dated the 26th of October last, and by other indications of a purpose of subjecting to the penalties of British law, such of that description of citizens as shall have been taken in arms against Great Britain.

"As the British laws and practice confer all the rights and immunities of natural-born subjects on aliens serving even a short period on board British vessels, it might have been concluded that an intention would have been neither formed nor proclaimed, by the head of that nation, which is as inconsistent with its own example as it is repugnant to reason and humanity.

"The rights of naturalized citizens being under the same guaranty of the national faith and honor with the rights of other citizens, the former may be assured that it is the determination, as it will be the duty, of the executive department of the government, to employ whatever just means may be within its competency, for enforcing the respect which is due from the enemy to the rights and persons of those who combat under the banners, and in defence and maintenance of the rights and safety, of their adopted country.

"Accept my friendly respects.



The decided tone of Mr. Madison's letter tended, in a great measure, to save the lives of many Irish-born officers and men, then in the British prisons at Quebec and Halifax.

The most painful part of the campaign of 1814 was the success of General Ross, who, in August, landed at Benedict, marched on, and burned Washington, and finally fell, by the hand of a patriotic boy, near Baltimore, after having taken and sacked that city.

But the theatre of the closing campaign was now shifted to the Mississippi. On the first of December, 1814, Andrew Jackson, commander-in-chief of the seventh military division of the United States, arrived at New Orleans. This distinguished man was then in the forty-seventh year of his age, and had already acquired a brilliant reputation. Born in the Waxhaw settlement, of Irish parents, at thirteen he had fought and been wounded in the Revolutionary contest. His mother, an extraordinary woman, had died, a victim to her charity, in attending the prisoners of war, in the prison-ship at Charleston; his father died when he was a child, and both his brothers had fallen bravely in battle. At man's age he removed to Tennessee, with Judge McCay, and had filled successively the offices of representative, senator, judge of the Supreme Court, and major general of militia.

His military reputation was founded on a succession of meritorious actions. He had subdued the Creek nation, chased their British and Spanish allies into Florida, captured Pensacola, and given his eagles air from the towers of Saint Augustine and Saint Mark. With jealousy at Washington, and even at home, without a commissariat, or treasure, he had carried his brave westerns through swamps, wildernesses, and prairies, had headed them in assaulting the savage warrior's ambush, and the civilized soldier's cannon-guarded fortress. Hitherto, glory had been his shadow, as danger had been his attraction, and patriotism almost his sole resource.

In his Indian wars, Jackson had bred up Carroll, Coffee, Higgins, Armstrong, Donaldson, and other officers, some of whom were connected with him by family ties, and all by affection.[3] The greater part of these brave men were with him at New Orleans.

He found that important city almost naked of defences. The state militia, the regulars withdrawn from Florida, the volunteers from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky, gave him the command of some 6,000 men, while Packenham (having effected a landing on the 22nd of December) had halted within seven miles of the city, at the head of 14,000, the flower of the old Peninsular army.

The following is a description of the battle of the 23rd December, as detailed to President Monroe by General Jackson himself.

"The loss of our gun-boats near the pass of the Rigolets having given the enemy command of Lake Borgne, he was enabled to choose his point of attack. It became, therefore, an object of importance to obstruct the numerous bayous and canals leading from that lake to the highlands on the Mississippi. This important service was committed, in the first instance, to a detachment of the seventh regiment; afterwards to Col. De Laronde, of the Louisiana militia, and, lastly, to make all sure to Major General Villere, commanding the district between the river and the lakes, and who, being a native of the country, was presumed to be best acquainted with all those passes. Unfortunately, however, a picquet which the general had established at the mouth of the Bayou Bienvenue, and which, notwithstanding my orders, had been left unobstructed, was completely surprised, and the enemy penetrated through a canal leading to a farm, about two leagues below the city, and succeeded in cutting off a company of militia stationed there. This intelligence was communicated to me about twelve o'clock of the twenty-third. My force, at this time, consisted of parts of the seventh and forty-fourth regiments, not exceeding six hundred together, the city militia, a part of General Coffee's brigade of mounted gunmen, and the detached militia from the western division of Tennessee, under the command of Major General Carroll. These two last corps were stationed four miles above the city. Apprehending a double attack by the way of Chief-Menteur, I left General Carroll's force and the militia of the city posted on the Gentilly road; and at five o'clock, P. M., marched to meet the enemy, whom I was resolved to attack in his first position, with Major Hinds' dragoons, General Coffee's brigade, parts of the seventh and forty-fourth regiments, the uniformed companies of militia, under the command of Major Planche, two hundred men of color, chiefly from St. Domingo, raised by Colonel Savary, and under the command of Major Dagwin, and a detachment of artillery under the direction of Colonel M'Rhea, with two six-pounders, under the command of Lieutenant Spotts;" not exceeding, in all, fifteen hundred. I arrived near the enemy's encampment about seven, and immediately made my dispositions for the attack. His forces, amounting at that time on land to about three thousand, extended half a mile on that river, and in the rear nearly to the wood. General Coffee was ordered to turn their right, while with the residue of the force I attacked his strongest position on the left, near the river. Commodore Patterson, having dropped down the river in the schooner Caroline, was directed to open a fire upon their camp, which he executed at about half past seven. This being a signal of attack, General Coffee's men, with their usual impetuosity, rushed on the enemy's right, and entered their camp, while our right advanced with equal ardor.

"There can be but little doubt that we should have succeeded on that occasion, with our inferior force, in destroying or capturing the enemy, had not a thick fog, which arose about eight o'clock, occasioned some confusion among the different corps. Fearing the consequence, under this circumstance, of the further prosecution of a night attack, with troops then acting together for the first time, I contented myself with lying on the field that night; and at four in the morning assumed a stronger position, about two miles nearer the city. At this position I remained encamped, waiting the arrival of the Kentucky militia and other reinforcements. As the safety of the city will depend on the fate of this army, it must not be incautiously exposed.

"In this affair the whole corps under my command deserve the greatest credit. The best compliment I can pay to General Coffee and his brigade, is to say, they have behaved as they have always done while under my command. The seventh, led by Major Pierre, and forty-fourth, commanded by Colonel Ross, distinguished themselves. The battalion of city militia, commanded by Major Planche, realized my anticipations, and behaved like veterans. Savary's volunteers manifested great bravery; and the company of city riflemen, having penetrated into the midst of the enemy's camp, were surrounded, and fought their way out with the greatest heroism, bringing with them a number of prisoners. The two field-pieces were well served by the officers commanding them.

"All my officers in the line did their duty, and I have every reason to be satisfied with the whole of my field and staff. Colonels Butler and Platt, and Major Chotard, by their intrepidity, saved the artillery. Colonel Haynes was everywhere that duty or danger called. I was deprived of the services of one of my aids, Captain Butler, whom I was obliged to station, to his great regret, in town. Captain Reid, my other aid, and Messrs. Livingston, Duplissis, and Davezac, who had volunteered their services, faced danger wherever it was to be met, and carried my orders with the utmost promptitude.

"We made one major, two subalterns, and sixty-three privates, prisoners; and the enemy's loss, in killed and wounded, must have been at least———. My own loss I have not as yet been able to ascertain with exactness, but suppose it to amount to one hundred in killed, wounded, and missing. Among the former, I have to lament the loss of Colonel Lauderdale, of General Coffee's brigade, who fell while bravely fighting. Cols. Dyer and Gibson, of the same corps, were wounded, and Major Kavenaugh taken prisoner.

"Col. De Laronde, Major Villere, of the Louisiana militia, Major Latour of Engineers, having no command, volunteered their services, as did Drs. Kerr and Hood, and were of great assistance to me."

On the 28th December, and 1st of January, the enemy again stormed his cotton breast-works, and were again repulsed. On the 8th the memorable battle was fought, which established a second time, American Independence.

"On the seventh, a general movement and bustle in the British camp indicated that the contemplated attack was about to be made. Everything in the American encampment was ready for action, when, at day-break, on the morning of the memorable eighth, a shower of rockets from the enemy gave the signal of battle. A detachment of the enemy, under Colonel Thornton, proceeded to attack the works on the right bank of the river, while General Pakenham with his whole force, exceeding twelve thousand men, moved in two divisions under Generals Gibbs and Kean, and a reserve under General Lambert. Both divisions were supplied with scaling-ladders and fascines, and General Gibbs had directions to make the principal attack. Nothing could exceed the imposing grandeur of the scene. The whole British force advanced with much deliberation, in solid columns, over the even surface of the plain in front of the American intrenchments, bearing with them, in addition to their arms, their fascines and ladders for storming the American works. All was hushed in awful stillness throughout the American lines; each soldier grasped his arms with a fixedness of purpose, which told his firm resolve to 'do or die;' till the enemy approached within reach of the batteries, which opened upon them an incessant and destructive tide of death. They continued, however, to advance with the greatest firmness, closing up their lines as they were opened by the fire of the Americans, till they approached within reach of the musketry and rifles; these, in addition to the artillery, produced the most terrible havoc in their ranks, and threw them into the greatest confusion. Twice were they driven back with immense slaughter, and twice they formed again and renewed the assault. But the fire of the Americans was tremendous; it was unparalleled in the annals of deadly doing; it was one continued blaze of destruction, before which men could not stand and live. Every discharge swept away the British columns like an inundation—they could not withstand it, but fled in consternation and dismay. Vigorous were the attempts of their officers to rally them; General Pakenham, in the attempt, received a shot, and fell upon the field. Generals Gibbs and Kean succeeded, and attempted again to push on their columns to the attack, but a still more dreadful fatality met them from the thunders of the American batteries. A third unavailing attempt was made to rally their troops by their officers, but the same destruction met them. The gallantry of the British officers, on this desperate day, was deserving of a worthier cause, and better fate. General Gibbs fell mortally, and General Kean desperately wounded, and were borne from the field of action. The discomfiture of the enemy was now complete; a few only of the platoons reached the ditch, there to meet more certain death. The remainder fled from the field with the greatest precipitancy, and no further efforts were made to rally them. The intervening plain between the American and British fortifications was covered with the dead; taking into view the length of time and the numbers engaged, the annals of bloody strife, it is believed, furnish no parallel to the dreadful carnage of this battle. Two thousand, at the lowest estimate, fell, besides a considerable number wounded. The loss of the Americans did not exceed seven killed and six wounded. General Lambert was the only superior officer left on the field; being unable to check the flight of the British columns, he retreated to his encampment.

"The entire destruction of the enemy's army would have been now inevitable, had it not been for an unfortunate occurrence, which at this moment took place on the other side of the river. General Pakenham had thrown over in his boats, upon that side of the stream, a considerable force, under the command of Colonel Thornton, simultaneously with his advance upon the main body of the American works. They succeeded in landing at the point of their destination, and advanced to assault the intrenchment defended by General Morgan. Their reception was not such as might have been expected, from the known courage and firmness of the troops under his command; at a moment, when the same fate that met their fellows on the opposite side of the river was looked for, with a confidence approaching to a certainty, the American right, believing itself to be outflanked, or for some other reason never satisfactorily explained, relinquished its position, while the left, with the batteries of Commodore Patterson, maintained their ground for some time with much gallantry and spirit, till at length, finding themselves deserted by their friends on the right, and greatly outnumbered by the enemy, they were compelled to spike their guns and retreat.

"This unfortunate result totally changed the aspect of affairs. The enemy were now in occupation of a position from which they might annoy the Americans with little hazard to themselves, and by means of which they might have been enabled to defeat, in a very considerable degree, the effects of the success of our arms on the other side of the river. It therefore became an object of the first consequence with General Jackson, to dislodge him as soon as possible. For this object, all the means in his power, which he could use with any safety, were put into immediate requisition."

But, under cover of the night, the enemy, totally disheartened, retreated silently to his ships, and sailed sorrowfully from the place of his punishment, the much-coveted Mississippi. The British loss, in officers and men, was about 5,000, including their general-in-chief; the American loss less than 300.

Well might William Cobbett read a lesson to the British oligarchy from the battle of New Orleans ! Well might he exult over the punishment which had fallen upon them, from this "son of poor Irish emigrant parents."[4]

While at New Orleans, Jackson received news of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, and the new-made peace consequent thereon.

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[1] In a cotemporaneous view of the battle, he is represented as firing at Tecumseh, over Colonel Johnson's shoulder, with a rifle, while Johnson is discharging a pistol.

[2] Printed from the autograph, presented to the author by Mr. Binns.

[3] In his despatch to Major General Pinckney, containing the account of the battle of Emuckfaw, 27th March, 1814, Jackson alludes to an Irish pioneer. "The militia of the venerable General Doherty's brigade, (acted) in the charge, with a vivacity and firmness which would have done honor to regulars."—Eaton's Life of Jackson, p. 85.

[4] Cobbett's Life of Andrew Jackson. This biting pamphlet was intended to be a vehicle of Cobbett's radicalism, on the questions of the day in Great Britain. It is conceived in a very angry spirit, but executed with great ability. See the Dedication to "The People of Ireland."