Liberty in Focus

Understanding and applying the outlook of personal rights and freedom.

The Battle of New Orleans: Individual Liberty, Diversity and the Defense of a Free Republic.

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On January 8th, 1815 America’s new experiment in Republican self-government, barely a generation old, faced the greatest threat thus far in its short history. The campaign by the British against New Orleans was designed to establish British control of the Mississippi, divide the new nation and provide the upper hand to the British in the then-ongoing negotiations to end the war of 1812.   

The unlikely victory of Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Militia and a motley assortment of volunteers whose ranks included free Blacks, Creoles and even Native Americans over the most powerful standing army of the British Empire inspired a generation of Americans to mark its anniversary as a “second Independence day”.

They understood that the independence of the United States of America was every bit at stake in this conflict as it had been in the Revolutionary war. Below is a short synopsis of the battle from wikipedia:

On December 13, 1814, a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane arrived off the Louisiana coast. In a brief but violent naval battle on Lake Borgne, 53 British rowing boats armed with bow-chasers overwhelmed five American dinghies protecting the waters near New Orleans.

A few days later, the British forces under Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham landed along the lower Mississippi River. At first, they met with only minor resistance. The Americans, led by Andrew Jackson (a colonel in the United States Army and a Major-General of the Tennessee militia), set up defensive positions at Chalmette, Louisiana, some five miles (8 km) downriver from New Orleans. Jackson, because he needed time to get his artillery into position, decided to immediately attack the British.

On the night of December 23, Jackson led a three-pronged attack on the British Army camp which lasted until early morning. After capturing some equipment and supplies, the Americans withdrew to New Orleans suffering 24 killed, 115 wounded and 74 missing or captured while the British claimed their losses as 46 killed, 167 wounded, and 64 missing or captured.

This stalled the British advance long enough for the Americans to bring in their heavy artillery and establish earthworks along a portion of the east bank of the Mississippi River. On Christmas Day, Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance-in-force against the American earthworks protecting the roads to New Orleans. On December 28, groups of British troops made probing attacks against the American earthworks.

When the British withdrew, the Americans began construction of artillery batteries to protect the earthworks which were then christened “Line Jackson”. The Americans installed seven batteries which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounder, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders and a 6-inch howitzer. Jackson also sent a detachment of men to the west bank of the Mississippi to man two 24-pounders and two 12-pounders from the grounded warship Louisiana.

The main British army arrived on January 1, 1815, and attacked the earthworks using their artillery. An exchange of artillery fire began which lasted for three hours. Several of the American guns were destroyed or knocked out which included the 32-pounder, a 24-pounder and a 12-pounder, and some damage was done to the earthworks. But the Americans held their ground. The British guns ran out of ammunition, which led Pakenham to cancel the attack. Pakenham decided to wait for his entire force of over 8,000 men

In the early morning of January 8th, the British ordered a two pronged assault on the American position: one attacking the west flank across the Mississippi, and one directly against the main American line.

The attack began under a heavy fog, but as the British neared the main enemy line, the fog suddenly lifted, exposing them to withering artillery fire. The British, armed only with muskets effective at close range, tried to close the gap, but discovered that the ladders needed to cross a canal and scale the earthworks had been forgotten. As a result, most of their senior officers were killed or wounded, and the British infantry could do nothing but stand out in the open and be mown down by a combination of muskets and grapeshot from the Americans.

There were three large, direct assaults on the American positions, but all were repulsed. Pakenham was fatally wounded in the third attack when he was hit by grapeshot on horseback while 500 yards from the earthworks. General John Lambert assumed command upon Pakenham’s death and ordered a withdrawal, despite the fact that Pakenham had ordered Lambert to continue the battle.

The British had suffered a loss of nearly 2,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner; while the Americans only had 13 dead, with 58 wounded.

Like the rest of the history of the war of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans has fallen into the “memory hole” of history and is known as “the Forgotten war”. Given both the significance of the conflict and the nature of the battle of New Orleans, this would seem to be a complete mystery.  As David B. Kopel has pointed out in his book review of “The Battle of New Orleans” by Robert V. Remini:

If diversity were really highly valued in our schools then the Battle of New Orleans would be known by every student in the nation. The men who fought on January 8, 1815 were a magnificent combination of professional soldiers, militia, irregulars, free Blacks, Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Indians, Anglos, lawyers, privateers, farmers, and shop-keepers.

Andrew Jackson would later explain the basis for this seemingly miraculous victory by an under-equipped and outmanned defending militia against what is generally considered to have been the most dominant military force in world history;

As long as our Government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of person and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending; ..a million of armed freemen, possessed of the means of war, can never be conquered by a foreign foe.

Perhaps it was an understanding of the necessity to cultivate this ethic defense of individual liberty that prompted Ezra T. Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, to predict even in the midst of the cold war and constant foreign threats:

If American freedom is lost, if America is destroyed, if ourblood-bought freedom is surrendered, it will be because of Americans…

This mentality of rag-tag, makeshift militia defenses combined with an insurmountable determination and sense of moral justice stands in stark contrast to the rationale used by modern advocates of foreign military intervention.  We are told that our security is in such a frail state despite a massive military capablity and expenditures which exceed the entire military expenses of the other industrial nations combined.  This irrational combination of hysterical fear and overwhelming capability, like with the Roman Empire before, has led the people of the United States to be manipulated into “defending ourselves” preemptively into an empire.   

The founders of the American republican system of government understood well the threat to liberty posed by a professional standing army, and favored a model of militia-based defense similar to the system of Switzerland.  Constitutional law attorney, Dr. Edwin Veiria, has examined the militia system as an approach to national security compatible with individual freedom in a series of detailed articles.  He writes;

The fundamental constitutional institution for “homeland security” is not even the Army or Navy.  America’s Founding Fathers profoundly distrusted standing armed forces under the control of any government as potential enemies of liberty, not least of all because of their own experiences with the British Army’s attempts to suppress freedom in the Colonies and independent States. So, in the Constitution, the Founders refused to adopt any preexisting army or navy, or to create new ones, as permanent establishments for the United States.  …nowhere in the federal system does the supreme law of the land treat an army or navy as an inevitable, indispensable, permanent, or perpetual institution.   Therefore, the fundamental constitutional institution of “homeland security” must be “a well regulated Militia” based upon “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” [per the 2nd amendment]. 

Perhaps more importantly, the body of the Constitution itself is not silent on this matter, either. To be sure, the Constitution does not create any “well regulated Militia”. It delegates no power to Congress to “raise and support” (as with an army), to “provide and maintain” (as with a navy), or in any other words to fashion from whole cloth any “well regulated Militia”. And it does not even define what constitutes such a Militia.  That is because it did not have to: In the late 1700s, every adult American knew that “well regulated Militia” had existed in the Colonies and independent States from the mid-1600s, and were established in every State of the Union even as the Constitution was being drafted and ratified. For that reason, the Constitution simply acknowledged “the Militia of the several States” as already in existence, adopted and incorporated them according to the historical legal principles by which they had long and even then operated, and thereby perpetuated them in that form.

History has demonstrated the capability of decentralized, defense by individuals acting with moral determination to preserve liberty.  History also shows, most notably in the fall of the Roman Republic, that the influence and power of professional military institutions bent on preemption and aggression is ultimately incompatible with a system of even moderately free republican government, as it will be for us.

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Written by Spencer Morgan

September 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Posted in History

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