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Saving New Orleans

In a new book, "Patriot Fire," the author of "Forrest Gump" paints an uncommonly vivid picture of an overlooked chapter in American history -- and its unlikely hero.

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When the British army came into view, it must have been both a magnificent and a disturbing sight. With drummer boys beating out an unnerving cadence, there soon appeared thousands of redcoats in two columns, 80 men abreast. They pressed forward until midafternoon, with American rifle fire—especially from the Tennesseans' long rifles—and the artillery taking their toll. Finally, the British commander, Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, had seen enough; he called off the assault and took his army out of range of the American guns.

Much of the effective American artillery fire probably was the work of Laffite's Baratarian gunners. Laffite himself, some accounts say, had supervised the installation of two of the largest and most powerful guns in the line, the 24-pounders, which Jackson had ordered dragged down from New Orleans a day or so earlier. If so, Laffite had thus deliberately placed himself in a perilous position; had he been captured by the British, he would surely have been hanged for his double cross, if not on piracy charges. One gun was commanded by Dominique You and the other by Renato Beluche.

Then came New Year's Day, 1815. At 10 a.m., the British artillery began blasting away. Singled out for particular attention was the Macarty plantation house, Jackson's headquarters, wrecked by more than 100 cannonballs during the first ten minutes. Miraculously, neither Jackson nor any of his staff was injured. Covered with plaster dust, they rushed out to form up the army for battle.

According to the German merchant Vincent Nolte, the main British battery, situated near a road that ran through the center of sugar cane fields, "directed its fire against the battery of the pirates Dominique You and Beluche." Once, as Dominique was examining the enemy through a spyglass, "a cannon shot wounded his arm; he caused it to be bound up, saying, 'I will pay them for that!'...He then gave the order to fire a 24-pounder, and the ball knocked an English gun carriage to pieces and killed six or seven men." Not long afterward, a British shot hit one of Dominique's guns and knocked it off its carriage. While it was being repaired, someone asked about his wound. "Only some scratch, by gar," he growled, as he ordered his other cannon loaded with chain shot that "crippled the largest British gun and killed or wounded six men."

By noon, two-thirds of the British guns had been put out of action. General Pakenham had just learned that a 2,000-man brigade of British reinforcements had arrived in the Mississippi Sound. It would take a few days to transfer them to his army; after that, Pakenham determined to go all out at the Americans, now a force of about 5,000. For the British, the matter of supplies was becoming desperate. Their army of 8,000 to 10,000 men had been on the Mississippi for nine days and had devoured their provisions, in addition to ransacking the surrounding plantations for food.

With New Orleans just a few miles in the rear, Jackson had no such problem, and Laffite's supply of munitions seemed endless. Still, Jackson was fearful. He was outnumbered; his position on the Rodriguez Canal was just about the only thing standing between the British and New Orleans. On January 7, he spent most of the afternoon in the heavily damaged Macarty house, observing the British encampment. "They will attack at daybreak," he predicted.

On Sunday morning, January 8, the final battle began. Despite heavy fire from the Americans, the British came on relentlessly. Then, on Jackson's left, the British 95th Regiment waded across the ditch in front of Jackson's line and, since no fascines or scaling ladders had yet arrived, began desperately trying to carve steps into the rampart with their bayonets. Meanwhile, against orders, the leading companies of the British 44th stopped and began to shoot at the Americans, but when they were answered by a ruinous volley from Carroll's Tennesseans and Gen. John Adair's Kentuckians, they ran away, setting into motion a chain of events that would soon shudder through the entire British Army. "In less time than one can write it," the British quartermaster E. N. Borroughs would recall, "the 44th Foot was swept from the face of the earth. Within five minutes the regiment seemed to vanish from sight."

At one point Jackson ordered his artillery batteries to cease firing and let the clouds of smoke blow away, in order to fix the British troops clearly for more of the same. In Battery No. 3, he observed Capt. Dominique You standing to his guns, his broad Gallic face beaming like a harvest moon, his eyes burning and swelling from the powder smoke. Jackson declared, "If I were ordered to storm the gates of hell, with Captain Dominique as my lieutenant, I would have no misgivings of the result."

In only 25 minutes, the British Army had lost all three of its active field generals, seven colonels and 75 other officers—that is, practically its whole officer corps. General Pakenham was dead, cut down by American rifle fire. By now the entire British Army was in irredeemable disarray. A soldier from Kentucky wrote, "When the smoke had cleared and we could obtain a fair view of the field, it looked at first glance like a sea of blood. It was not blood itself, but the red coats in which the British soldiers were dressed. The field was entirely covered in prostrate bodies."

Even Jackson was flabbergasted by the sight. "I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day," he later wrote, as scores of redcoats rose up like dim purgatorial souls with their hands in the air and began walking toward the American lines. "After the smoke of the battle had cleared off somewhat, I saw in the distance more than five hundred Britons emerging from the heaps of their dead comrades, all over the plain, rising up, and...coming forward and surrendering as prisoners of war to our soldiers." These men, Jackson concluded, had fallen at the first fire and then hidden themselves behind the bodies of their slain brethren. By midmorning, most of the firing had ceased.


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