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Chapter 39

December 27, 1814
Lake Bourgne

Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, Knight of the Bath, arrived from England on Christmas Day with three thousand fresh troops. He spent that day and the next familiarizing himself with the situation on the battle line at the Mississippi, before scheduling a conference of the top commanders of the British forces in the gulf. The conference was held in one of the rooms of the Villeré plantation house, and included his second in command, Major General Samuel Gibbs.


Pakenham and Gibbs had worked together in the Peninsular War. In fact, many people considered the two generals to have been Wellington's most capable lieutenants during that long and bitter struggle in Spain against Napoleon and his marshals.


Admiral Cochrane came from Lake Bourgne. So, ignoring his illness and continuing weakness, did Robert Ross. He had insisted, and despite the fact that he no longer had a formal place in the chain of command, no one was prepared to tell him otherwise.


Pakenham's assessment was blunt, forceful, and to the point.


"We're in a bloody bottleneck," he growled. "I can't imagine worse ground to launch an assault." Since General Keane was not present at the conference, Pakenham saw no need to spare his feelings. "Keane blundered badly, on the twenty-third. He should have kept driving forward while the Americans were still confused and disorganized."


He shook his head irritably. "Yes, yes. I understand his reasoning. I'm not accusing the man of anything improper, mind you. Looked at from one side, his caution was commendable.


He only had a portion of the army available, and some of the intelligence he'd received led him to believe the American forces in New Orleans numbered as many as fifteen thousand troops."


Robert Ross couldn't quite stymie a choking sound. Pakenham cast him a shrewd look. "I take it you didn't give any more credence to that figure than I do, Robert?"


Ross shook his head. "We heard the number from several sources, but the sources were all suspect. What's more important, how could the United States possibly have assembled such a force in so short a time? It's a republic, you know."


Ross didn't share the sharp hostility toward republicanism that was common among Britain's officer corps, but he was still no great admirer of the beast. A republic was a clumsy form of government in time of war, especially when that republic was further burdened by the creaking joints of America's intricate federal structure.


The same General Winfield Scott who had acquitted himself so well at the Chippewa had been ignominiously captured in an earlier campaign in the war because the boats that were supposed to ferry his army back across to American soil had been lodged on the opposite bank of the Niagara. The boats were under the control of the New York militia, and the militiamen had stoutly insisted that their sole responsibility was to defend the soil of New York—and Scott and his men were in Canada. So, placidly, the soldiers of one state in the union had watched federal regulars captured on the opposite bank because they refused to row across a river.


It took a peculiar sort of genius to make the armed forces of such a ramshackle nation fight effectively. Unfortunately, Andrew Jackson was just that sort of genius. There'd be no obstreperous militiamen to grease the skids for the British army here. If speeches and harangues didn't work, Jackson would simply have them shot.


There was a reason, after all, that the word "tyrant" originated from the ancient Greek republics. Who else but a tyrant could make such a risible form of government work at all, in times of crisis?


Pakenham sighed, and ran fingers through his hair. It was an easy, natural gesture. Somewhat to Ross's surprise, Wellington's brother-in-law had proven to be remarkably free—so far, at least—of any trace of the haughty stiffness he had expected.


Albeit tentatively, Ross decided he rather liked the man, for all of Pakenham's handsome looks and flashy reputation.


Like Ross himself, Pakenham came from Ireland—although, in Pakenham's case, from the upper crust of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. He was only thirty-seven years old, but, again like Ross himself, he had been fighting for many years. With his family connections, he'd become a major in the Ulster Light Dragoons before his seventeenth birthday.


Thereafter, Pakenham's rise through the ranks had been based upon his own ability. His reputation had been made solid by his impetuous headlong assault against the leading French column at the battle of Salamanca. Wellington's great victory there had opened the road into Spain during the Peninsular War.


But it was becoming obvious to Ross that beneath that reputation lay a very fine and capable military brain. And one whose experience was almost as extensive as his own.


Pakenham was still looking at Ross, the man he was replacing. The relationship between the two men was potentially fraught with difficulty. They both knew it, even though not a word had been said by either on the subject.


So, making his movements appear more weak than they needed to be, Ross levered himself upright in his chair and shook his head. "I wouldn't presume to advance any tactical opinions, Edward. You've seen the lay of the ground, and I haven't. But from what I can tell, I'd think we'd be wise to extract ourselves and try another line of attack entirely."


Pakenham took a slow, deep breath. The young general was doing his best to maintain his even expression, but Ross could tell that his words had come as a considerable relief.


"Exactly what I was thinking!" Pakenham stated forcefully, almost barking the words. He nodded toward Gibbs. "And he as well. That ground alongside the Mississippi is a slaughterhouse waiting to happen. We should pull our men out and come at New Orleans through Lake Pontchartrain, where we'd have more in the way of dry ground and room to maneuver. Instead of—blast Keane's caution on the twenty-third!—being bottled up between one of the world's biggest rivers and a cypress swamp, with less than a mile of front. With Jackson and his men busier than bees—oh, yes, I saw them myself—erecting solid fieldworks to block the way at the Rodriguez Canal."


Admiral Cochrane was now looking distinctly unhappy.


"General Pakenham, we don't have the requisite number of flat-bottom boats to go into Pontchartrain. We all agree that would be the ideal invasion route, but . . ." The admiral spread his hands. "It's simply not possible."


Pakenham and Ross exchanged a meaningful glance. Providing the proper water transport for this campaign had been the Royal Navy's job.


It dawned on Ross that the awkwardness of his relationship with Pakenham could just as easily become an asset. If the two of them worked together... Ross advancing the objections in a sharp manner, since he had no need to directly coordinate his work with the admiral, thereby giving Pakenham the leeway to compromise as need be.


"You're asking General Pakenham to lead his men into a charnel house, Admiral," Ross snapped. "And most likely a pointless one, to boot. There simply is no way any army the size of ours is going to storm fortifications like the ones Jackson is erecting at the Rodriguez Canal. Not with Jackson in command, and guns manned by professional American artillerymen and sailors. Pakenham will lose hundreds—no, thousands—of officers and men, for no purpose whatever.


"Just as," he growled, "I lost hundreds of men in front of the Capitol—which, I will point out, was a far weaker fortress than the one General Pakenham now confronts."


Admiral Cochrane was becoming angry, but Ross decided to rub salt in the wounds. He was still quietly furious at the arrogance of the naval officers.


"I'm told, by the way, that the same Captain Houston who led the American stand at the Capitol is now on the scene in New Orleans, as well, along with many of the veterans of that affair. They've promoted the young man to colonel, in fact. And among those veterans is the same Lieutenant Driscol—now promoted to major—who provided Houston with the professional expertise needed to organize the gunners."


Blithely ignoring Cochrane's glare, Ross slumped back in the chair. Again, making the movement seem feebler than it needed to be.


"I met Major Driscol, by the way, while I was in American hands. Quite an impressive fellow. One of Napoleon's veterans. I can assure you, Admiral, that you'll not be breaking the likes of Driscol with a mindless frontal assault."


There. That should do it.


Pakenham cleared his throat, causing all eyes to turn in his direction.


"I'm afraid I have to agree with General Ross, Admiral." Pakenham gave Ross what was, to outward appearance, a reproachful glance. "Perhaps he's putting the thing too crudely, but his basic point is inarguable. We are, indeed, in what amounts to a trap. The conditions are horrible for the men. They've eaten up what food they could forage from the nearby plantations, and are now reduced to their rations. The weather is much colder and wetter than we'd been led to expect, and illness is making steady inroads into our ranks.


"If there's an outbreak of yellow fever—which is all too likely, under the circumstances—the army will be effectively destroyed. And the only way out of the trap—on that miserable terrain—is a frontal assault against an army which, whatever its other weaknesses, has demonstrated well enough that it can handle such tactics."


Again, he cleared his throat. "We need to face reality, Admiral. This is now a siege, not a battle, and we're in the wrong place to wage a siege. For all practical purposes, the Americans have us under siege."


Cochrane slapped his hands on the arms of his chair with exasperation. "But what else can we do, General Pakenham?" He shot a stern look of reproach. "Or does General Ross propose that we simply abandon the campaign entirely?"


In point of fact, Ross had come to the conclusion that abandoning the campaign wasn't such a bad idea at all. The more he considered it, the more it seemed to him that this entire gulf campaign was a disaster in the making. They were no longer fighting a war, really. The British forces in the gulf—especially the army—had been given the thankless task of being cutpurses rather than soldiers. They were supposed to quickly grab the outlet of the Mississippi before the advent of peace made that impossible. As if the tactics of armies on campaign could be reduced to the simple tactics of armed robbers!


Bah. Neither the terrain nor the nature of the enemy made such a quick grab of terrain possible—or, if it was possible, at all, only by suffering horrendous casualties. What looked plausible to statesmen in London looked very different to a general on the ground half the world away.


Since he couldn't say all that outright, Ross went about it indirectly. "I've said no such thing, Admiral. Allow General Pakenham to plan a campaign, and I have little doubt that he will hand you New Orleans, along with control of the Mississippi."


He didn't add the deadly words: sooner or later. All that Ross had said was true enough. If Britain was prepared to fight a war for the Mississippi, Pakenham—or Ross himself, if his health returned—could win the thing. But that would require a patient and carefully planned campaign, not this hasty and ill-planned attempt at a quick victory. And the fact was that Britain wasn't prepared to wage the war much longer. For all Ross knew, a peace treaty had already been signed and was on its way across the Atlantic.


So, he'd concluded, under the circumstances his chief loyalty was to his own men. Robert Ross would not see his soldiers sacrificed, simply because of the carelessness and stupidity of politicians, or the thoughtless arrogance of admirals.


Pakenham wouldn't see things the same way, of course. For Pakenham, this assignment was a chance to cap his career with a final moment of triumph. Still, it was already obvious to Ross that Pakenham was no more willing than he was to throw away the lives of good soldiers.


Cochrane shook his head. "Robert, I have already explained to you that we don't have the time to consider a completely different campaign. We either do this thing now, or we might as well abandon the enterprise entirely."


"Let me propose a compromise," said Pakenham. "The one weakness in the American position is that they are lightly guarding the opposite bank of the river. Plenty of artillery, but little in the way of infantry to support them." He chuckled harshly. "Of course, they don't need to, since as long as they've got the only warships on the river we can't cross it anyway. But I believe that situation can be remedied."


Cochrane winced, and Ross actually felt a moment's sympathy for him. He knew the admiral wasn't at all happy at the showing the navy had made in the campaign thus far. True, they'd defeated Jackson's flotilla on Lake Bourgne, but given the absence of flat-bottomed boats, the victory had been meaningless. So, once again, what should have been a naval matter was being handed over to the army to solve.


"How do you propose to do that, Edward?" Cochrane asked.


Pakenham looked to Gibbs.


"By the simplest of all methods, Admiral," said Gibbs. "We propose to haul the big guns out of our naval vessels and transport them to the Mississippi. The eighteen-pounders, at least. Our artillery officer, Colonel Alexander Dickson, tells us that he thinks he can destroy at least one of the American ships tonight just with hot shot from the twelve-pounders we already have in place. Give Dickson a battery of eighteen-pounders, and we believe he can clear a way across the river for us."


Cochrane was starting to look intrigued. "You do realize you're proposing to haul enormous cannons across tens of miles of bayous and swamps. Your men won't thank you for it."


"I imagine they'll curse me for days." Pakenham shrugged. "And so what? Cursing officers is a soldier's favorite pastime anyway. They'll still do it."


Where the admiral had raised a military objection, Ross raised a naval one. "And how do you propose to cross the river itself, assuming we can clear away the ships and the defending battery? There's no point sending a few men across. I'd estimate we'd need at least a regiment to do the job properly. Do we have boats to transport that many men?"


"In fact, I propose to send over a thousand men. Between now and then, Jackson may well send some reinforcements across. The Eighty-fifth—Thornton's our best regimental commander, I believe—with the Fifth West India in support. Plus a party of marines and sailors to handle the guns once they're captured. And to answer your question, I think we can round up enough boats to ferry the men across. Mind you, they'll be a lot of little boats, not the few big ones I'd prefer. That'll introduce an element of disorganization, obviously, but I don't believe the problem will prove to be critical."


Ross was becoming intrigued himself. A thousand men— and, yes, Thornton and the Eighty-fifth would be the best. With the gunners to properly use the captured American cannon...


"I see," he mused. "Then you'd have Jackson's right flank under enfilade fire across the river, instead of him having our left." He sat up straight, completely forgetting to exaggerate his condition. "Yes, it just might work. If Jackson has an outstanding weakness, it's the other side of his strength. He tends to focus on a problem too narrowly, for all the energy he brings to solving the problem itself. Consider how he delayed so long at Mobile. He must have been convinced that we intended that as our invasion route. Right now he seems focused entirely on his front, along with keeping enough forces in the north to guard against a thrust we might make up the Chef Menteur Road. He may well be oblivious to the danger from across the river."


Pakenham nodded. "I think he is, in fact. The battery over there is solid, yes. But without good infantry to protect it, even the best battery can be overrun."


Admiral Cochrane, sensing the growing eagerness of the three army generals, looked back and forth from one to the other. "I'm still a bit puzzled. The fact is that a force on the west bank of the Mississippi can't take the city. So what good does it really do us, even if we capture that side? We still have to break through Jackson on the east bank."


Pakenham and Ross stared at him, then glanced at each other. Gibbs, more diplomatic, simply gazed off into space. Admiral Cochrane would have understood instantly the significance of a warship crossing the T on another. But it didn't seem to occur to him that the same principle applied to land warfare.


Ross cleared his throat. "Admiral, if Thornton can seize the American battery across the river, they've got eighteen-pounders and at least one twenty-four pounder over there. With enough men to shift them upstream, he can bring Jackson's entire line on the Rodriguez Canal under enfilade fire. The American right wing at least. It's one thing to defend breastworks against fire from the front. It's another thing entirely to do so when round shot is ripping your lines from an unprotected flank."


 


He moved his gaze to Pakenham and Gibbs. "If it can be done—if, I say—then a well-planned and determined frontal assault on Jackson's lines could indeed carry the day. But it would all depend on our success across the river."


Ross was tacitly offering Pakenham and Gibbs a bargain. If Pakenham agreed not to launch a frontal assault without a prior success on the west bank, Ross would support him fully—not only here in the gulf but back at home if need be, once they returned to England—in the event the campaign failed. Understandably enough, Pakenham and Gibbs were concerned for their reputations. But if Ross, whose injuries and illness made him no longer liable for whatever failure might occur, gave them his full public support, then the two generals had much less to worry about. Ross and their patron Wellington could shield them from any public criticism or censure.


Pakenham understood the nature of the bargain, clearly enough. He nodded, a bit stiffly, and said: "You may rest assured that I will not subject your men to needless casualties, Robert. If the assault on the west bank fails, I won't send the rest of the army forward."


He gave the admiral a look that wasn't quite steely, but bordered on it. "In that event—damn the treaty and its awkward timing—we'll have no choice but to withdraw, and begin preparing an approach from Lake Pontchartrain. Flat-bottom boats can be built, after all."


He didn't bother to add the corollary: that doing so would require weeks, quite possibly months. Which, of course, would in all likelihood make the whole thing a moot point. By then, presumably, the war would be over.


Cochrane wasn't a stupid man. He studied Pakenham for a moment, then Gibbs, then Ross, and clearly realized that he'd pushed them as far as they could be pushed.


Again, he slapped hands on the arms of his chair. "There it is, then! We're all agreed."


Pakenham launched the first stage of the new plan at two o'clock on the morning of the twenty-seventh. Having moved their guns into position under cover of darkness, Dickson's artillerymen began heating their shot in hidden fires. Shortly after daybreak, they opened fire on the Carolina.


Incautiously, because they assumed the British still had no heavy artillery, the Americans had kept the 230-ton schooner moored well within range of the guns.


"They were safe against the three-pounders we had before," Dickson said to his commanding officer. He was practically chortling. "They aren't safe from this battery."


Pakenham followed his artillery officer's admiring gaze. The British forces on the river now had a battery consisting of two nine-pounders, four six-pounders, two 5.5-inch howitzers, and a 5.5-inch mortar. They'd be using heated shot, to boot.


Dickson's veteran gunners found the range quickly. The nine-pounders fired the heated shot while the six-pounders raked the schooner with antipersonnel munitions. The howitzers and mortar added solid shot and shell. Long before the startled Americans could get the ship under way, the British gunners brought down the Carolina's rigging.


The schooner was helpless, trapped with no means of escape. Then a round of heated shot fired in the second volley from the nine-pounders struck squarely.


Soon enough, the Carolina began to burn.


Cochrane was watching the action with them. "I think the round lodged in the hold under her cables, where it couldn't be quickly removed," he guessed. "If so, they'll have to abandon the ship—and they'd best do it quickly."


He proved to be right. Not more than half an hour after the bombardment began, they saw the Americans start leaving the ship. Their captain, obviously enough, had no choice. He and his sailors clambered into boats and made their escape to the western bank of the river, shielded from British fire by the bulk of the burning schooner.


At nine thirty in the morning, the Carolina blew up. Andrew Jackson had only one ship left to defend the waterway—and Dickson's gunners turned their attention to it. The sixteen-gun sloop of war Louisiana was moored more than a mile farther up the river. Still within range of the British guns, but far enough away that the quick destruction they'd made of the Carolina would be unlikely.


Still, the wind and the current both kept the Louisiana from moving upstream. With persistence...


But if Jackson had been caught napping, he must have awakened quickly. From his headquarters on the Macarty plantation house, he must have sent orders immediately to get the ship out of danger, whatever it took.


Soon enough, Pakenham could see a small fleet of boats setting out from the shore and attaching cables to the sloop. Within a few minutes, rowing like mad, the Americans had the Louisiana well out of range. From what Pakenham had been able to discern at the distance, Dickson's battery had struck the sloop with only a single shot, which hadn't done much damage.


"Well, that's it for the moment," Pakenham announced to Cochrane, lowering his eyeglass. "We'll have to wait until you can get the eighteen-pounders to us."


"That'll take a week, I estimate," the admiral said confidently. "Not more than ten days."


Pakenham brought the glass back up and began studying the American battery across the great river. "Good. Then we'll take those guns, and New Orleans with them."


That same morning, in Ghent, John Quincy Adams stood on the docks staring out over an expanse of water that dwarfed even the mighty Mississippi. The North Sea, which was but an extension of the great Atlantic.


The ship carrying the peace treaty had left those docks two days earlier. Two days—and it would require weeks for it to cross the ocean, even if the ship encountered decent weather. Fortunately, it wasn't hurricane season. But the Atlantic in winter was still no sailor's paradise.


The American ambassador had come down to those docks the morning it sailed, and both mornings since, moved by an impulse that he fully recognized was pure superstition but could not resist. A ship was driven by winds and currents created by the will of God, not the heartfelt desires and wishes of a mortal human diplomat.


"Weeks," he sighed. "Six weeks at best, before the news can reach the Gulf of Mexico. If Jackson can hold New Orleans and the Mississippi until then..."


Pure superstition. So, as he had for three mornings, Adams scolded himself for his lapse into savagery, turned away from the ocean, and began walking toward his lodgings. He decided he'd spend the rest of the day—as he had the three previous ones—reading the Bible.


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