Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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The British wasted little time in pressing their advantage following the defeat of the gunboats, but they were clearly not interested in approaching New Orleans up the Mississippi. Although British reconnaissances occurred in the area of Chef Menteur, they were advised of an unobstructed waterway along the southwestern shore of Lake Borgne that was navigable for barge-sized craft. Exploring Bayou Bienvenue, British officers aided by local fishermen determined that it proceeded toward the Mississippi, eventually joining several plantation canals that ran near the river. At the river, moreover, was a road leading directly into New Orleans. On this information, Admiral Cochrane and Major General John Keane, army commander pending Pakenham's arrival, decided to debark their troops at the mouth of Bayou Bienvenue. For reasons then unknown and never since determined the bayou had been overlooked by Jackson's men and was not blocked, although a small picket guard was posted there. Meantime, the British advance vessels had anchored off Pea Island in preparation for landing the command and on the evening of the 19th the troops were quartered in makeshift huts on the island. With insufficient craft, plans were made to carry the men in relays from Pea Island, and on the 21st they began boarding launches and barges for the trip to Bayou Bienvenue (called Bayou Catalon by the British). Next morning the troops pulled out, accompanied by some artillery. Landing was made without incident, and a body of royal engineers prepared the way through the glades and ditches bordering the bayou. [1] Latour offered the following description of Bayou Bienvenue:

This bayou, formerly called the river St. Francis, under which designation it is laid down in some old maps, is the creek through which run all the waters of a large basin, of a triangular form, about eighty square miles in surface, bounded on the south by the Mississippi, on the west by New Orleans, by bayou Sauvage or Chef-Menteur on the northwest, and on the east by lake Borgne, into which it empties. It receives the waters of several other bayous, formed by those of the surrounding cypress swamps and prairies, and of innumerable little streams from the low grounds along the river. It commences behind the suburb Marigny, at New Orleans, divides the triangle nearly into two equal parts from the summit to the lake which forms its basis, and runs in a south-easterly direction. It is navigable for vessels of one hundred tons as far as the forks of the canal of Piernas' plantation, twelve miles from its mouth. Its breadth is from one hundred and ten to one hundred and fifty yards, and it has six feet water on the bar, at common tides, and nine feet at spring tides. Within the bar, there is for a considerable extent, sufficient water for vessels of from two to three hundred tons. Its principal branch is that which is called bayou Mazant, which runs towards the southwest, and receives the waters of the canals of the plantations of Villeré, Lacoste, and Laronde. [2]

Colonel William Thornton led the first body of British into Bayou Bienvenue accompanied by General Keane. Crossing the lake the vessels were crowded and difficult to row and a heavy rain fell on the men and flooded the bottoms of the boats. By midnight the wind-tossed craft ferrying the advance of 1,800 troops out of 2,400 comprising the first division reached the mouth of the bayou. The approach alarmed the American picket guard which was ultimately captured, whereupon the flotilla passed down Bayou Bienvenue six miles to its confluence with Bayou Mazant. Then it bore left down the latter course, passing from the trembling marshlands into the broad cypress swamp and wooded tracts along the high ground bordering the Mississippi. At 4 a.m. the first barges approached Villeré's canal, which ran to within two miles of the Mississippi. There the men debarked to rest before proceeding on, and a Union Jack was raised in a tree while the band gave forth with "God Save the King." At 10 the troops pressed forward, cutting seven-foot reeds as they went to broaden the trail along the canal for those who followed. The advance reached Villeré's plantation house soon after, almost capturing Villeré's son who escaped across the river to sound the alarm. Several American pickets were apprehended on the plantation, however.

The first British forces to reach the proximity of the Mississippi one-half mile west of Villeré's composed members of the Fourth, Ninety-fifth, and Eighty-fifth infantry regiments. More than 2,500 additional troops of the Twenty-first, Forty-fourth, and Ninety-Third regiments of fusiliers, plus additional artillery, were yet enroute and awaiting the return of the barges down the bayou. Advance pickets stretched back over several hundred yards between the river and a dense wood that fell away into swampland to the right. Other pickets assumed posts behind the line. Instead of immediately marching down the road to the city, Keane decided to let his chilled command rest, thereby, according to most opinion, missing an opportunity to boldly strike New Orleans a devastating blow. The troops assumed a leisurely bivouac some 300 yards behind a four-foot high levee on the river approximately halfway between the plantation buildings of Villeré and those of LaCoste. As they worked to fashion crude huts from sugar cane stubble near the Villeré mansion some of Thornton's command labored to place two 3-pounder field guns on carriages. [3] The British position at evening, December 23, was described in some detail by Abraham R. Ellery, a New Orleans attorney:

Their extreme left rested on the River near which the levee not only served as a strong flanking entrenchment, but from its being also in many places double, left a convenient inter one, for pushing forward advanced, & laying ambuscades. Their extreme right was protected by the swamp, & their right partially covered by the standing cane & high herbage of the different plantations, where they could sort of conceal their riflemen & sharp shooters. Their centre occupied the open fields & the road. In front there was ground enough upon which to form & fight an army of twenty thousand men, presenting an area containing about two miles square intersected only by a few small ditches & open fences. There they had a fine field, upon which to form & maneuvre their troops... [4]

Ellery described the cultivable land along the river as frequently being subjected to the flooding of the Mississippi. The ground was inclined toward the swamp and averaged about one mile wide. The ground occupied at Villeré's was depicted as being "unusually wide, and no position upon the river could have been better taken for either defensive or offensive operations." [5]

Andrew Jackson learned of the British position seven miles below New Orleans on the afternoon of their arrival. While initially suspecting the movement as a feint to divert attention from a landing at Chef Menteur, he soon comprehended the reality of the British presence. He wasted no time in bringing all his available forces together, determining to march immediately and strike the enemy before the advance proceeded. Reviewing the troops at old Fort St. Charles, Jackson called out his regulars, the Seventh and Forty-fourth infantry regiments, also Lieutenant Samuel Spotts's artillery contingent, a party of marines, a corps of New Orleans volunteers, and a corps of freedmen of color. He called in Coffee's recently arrived Tennesseans from above the city, and Carroll's brigade camped to the east. Jackson counted on these militia, plus Hinds's Mississippi dragoons and two units of riflemen and Louisiana mounted gunmen, to bolster his command. Still worried lest the British attack on two fronts, Jackson supported his defenses on the Gentilly Plain with three regiments of Louisiana militia commanded by Governor Claiborne.

Some of Carroll's Tennesseans were sent to offer additional support. The remaining troops gathered below New Orleans at the Montreuil plantation. They came from all around the city, from Fort St. John and Fort St. Charles and from camps on the right bank. Once assembled, the army marched downstream along the levee road, Coffee and the van reaching the area of Rodriguez Canal between the Chalmette and Macarty Plantations about 4 p. m. At the approach, General Keane sent a skirmish line forward from Villeré's to protect his front. An American reconnoitering party advanced cautiously, but retired when fired upon by the British with two of Jackson's men being wounded and a horse killed. The British remained in bivouac, the troops building fires for cooking and for countering the evening chill. A slow fog enveloped the camp stretched out between an area some distance back from the levee on the left and the cypress swamp on the right. The right of the line angled back from the swamp as if anticipating attack from that quarter. Slowly Jackson's force occupied the de la Ronde plantation grounds between the canal and the enemy bivouac. Keane's army did not move.

Near 6 o'clock Jackson began maneuvering part of his command to flank the British right. He sent Coffee's riflemen, together with the New Orleans sharpshooters under Captain Thomas Beale and the Mississippi dragoons by a circuitous route to the edge of the swamp behind de la Ronde's where they might turn and charge the British, pressing them toward the river. Coffee's riflemen advanced in the growing darkness, then stationed themselves along the line separating the de la Ronde and La Coste properties. Meantime, Jackson arrayed his remaining soldiers nearer the river. He placed his artillery, marines, and part of the Seventh regiment along the levee road with the balance of the Seventh and the Forty-fourth regiments to their left, followed by the militia battalions of Plauche and Daquin on across the level ground to the de la Ronde home. He directed the schooner Carolina, Commander Patterson in charge, to pull up along the left bank of the river opposite the British camp and at the appropriate time deliver broadsides of grapeshot against the bivouac. Once Carolina began her barrage, the other forces were to close quickly on the camp. Meanwhile, Morgan's command at English Turn was instructed to cause a disturbance downriver during the night to divert the attention of the British. [6]

At dusk, December 23, the opposing forces consisted as follows:


Regular Light Artillery62
Seventh U.S. Infantry460
Forty-fourth U. S. Infantry335
Detachment U. S. Marines66
Major Jean Baptiste Plauche's Battalion Louisiana Militia289
Major Louis Daquin's Battalion of Free colored212
Captain Pierre Jugeat's Company of Choctaws52
Brigadier General John Coffee's Mounted Rifles625
Captain Thomas Hinds's Mississippi Dragoons118
Captain Thomas Beale's New Orleans Rifles68


Fourth Regiment of Foot916
Eighty-fifth Regiment of Light Infantry797
Ninety-fifth Regiment (Rifle Corps)717
Detachment Sappers and Miners100
Detachment Rocket Brigade80

As directed by Jackson Carolina and two subordinate gunboats opened the unusual nighttime engagement. The schooner carried ninety men, many of them Baratarians, and fourteen guns. Carolina reached a position opposite the British camp when at 7:30 p. m. Patterson opened his artillery, roaring forth one broadside of grape after another into the bivouacked command. The British responded with confusion, trying to extinguish their fires and throwing forward their artillery and Congreve rocket detachment to meet the threat. But rockets and musketry did no good, the artillery was deemed too ineffective to use, and the troops were forced to pull back beyond range of the vessel's discharges. Some took positions behind the low levee; already many men were wounded by the onslaught.

One half hour after Carolina began the attack her guns fell silent. Then the red, white, and blue trail from a rocket dashed across the sky. To the west Jackson's command began closing, the marines pressing forward along the moonlit road running along the levee, the Seventh and Forty-fourth infantry regiments marching in column to their left. As the river curved to the left, pushing the men of the Seventh farther inland, they pressed Plauche's and Daquin's battalions to the rear of the formation. Approaching the still-flickering campfires of the British, Jackson abruptly brought his force into line and directed the charge. The two 6-pounders on the road began firing, causing the British to try to take them, but troops of the Seventh Infantry responded to save the guns and the marines, although one of the pieces overturned during the melee. The American troops surged ahead toward the British encampment, the Seventh and Forty-fourth regiments making initial contact and routing the British from behind a hedge and ditch. Once again, Carolina opened her guns to rake the levee. Meantime, Coffee's brigade drove swiftly forward from its position 1,000 yards from Jackson's command near the woods and swamp in a movement that caught the right flank of the British unaware and succeeded in capturing the commanding officer of the Ninety-fifth Rifles and about fifty soldiers. Almost simultaneously, Plauche's New Orleans battalion rushed onto the ground and shattered the line held near the river by the newly arrived British Forty-fourth Regiment of Foot. The Fourth Regiment of Foot was held in reserve throughout the conflict.

The swift stroke succeeded and the British fell back, complete in their surprise over the attack. Jackson's Forty-fourth Infantry continued forcing the flank of the British as Plauche's battalion pressed its advantage. In the close fighting friend and foe became indistinguishable and, reportedly, some Americans fell at the hands of their own troops. As Jackson consolidated his position toward the river, Coffee attended to matters on the left with certain difficulty. The British at that end of the field, principally members of the Eighty-fifth and Ninety-fifth regiments, had not been intimidated by the schooner and they offered keener resistance to the Americans. Coffee's men drove the Eighty-fifth back, but the regiment regrouped and charged forward again and again. Coffee committed several tactical errors, too, that threatened his previous gains. For one thing, he had opened the action somewhat prematurely and found himself having to extend his line farther left, a movement that spread his command thinly and permitted gaps in his front through which large numbers of the enemy passed. Meantime, additional reinforcements of four companies of the Twenty-first Fusiliers arrived to help beat the Tennesseans back, finally securing the right flank. Consequently, the British captured nearly half of Beale's riflemen while the fighting under Coffee degenerated into a host of small encounters in the smoky darkness between bayonet-thrusting British soldiers and ax-wielding Tennesseans. Four hours after the struggle began the British held a line on the Lacoste Plantation bordering Lacoste's canal. By then Coffee's command had merged with Jackson's and was pushing toward the levee. Many of the Eighty-fifth had withdrawn behind an abandoned secondary levee from whence they directed a stiff musketry against Coffee's men. Near 11 p.m. the British suddenly closed the encounter, pulling back in the direction of the Villeré mansion. Despite the arrival of General Carroll and his Tennesseans, Jackson decided not to pursue but to reassemble his scattered command. He yet feared the British might strike New Orleans by an alternative approach and did not want to commit his army to a prolonged engagement after dawn. He ordered Coffee to withdraw to the de la Ronde plantation where his troops had first joined the battle. Soon more British reinforcements arrived at Villeré's canal, notably the remaining men of the Twenty-first and Ninety-third, and Keane ordered them out in skirmish order, advancing toward the former British encampment area. The movement provoked additional shooting between the reinforcements and Coffee's Tennesseans, but the larger engagement was over. The British took up a line consisting of the Ninety-fifth next to the Mississippi, followed by the Eighty-fifth, the Twenty-first, the Ninety-third, and the Forty-fourth, the latter posted in the woods adjoining the swamp. Later, to protect the troops from the still-firing Carolina, Keane withdrew some of them to near the debarking point at Villeré's Canal. It became clear that the British must somehow destroy the potent schooner. [9]

Casualties in the December 23 night engagement would probably have been much greater had the event occurred in daylight. Twenty-four Americans died and 115 men were wounded, while 74 were declared missing and presumably were captives of the British. The British themselves lost 46 killed, 167 wounded, and 64 missing, the latter captured by Jackson's command. [10] During the fighting the American command of General Morgan stationed at English Turn advanced to a point at Jumonville's plantation just below the British at Villeré's. Some of Morgan's scouts exchanged musketry with British rearguard pickets on a muddy tract east of the main fighting, but no injuries occurred. After the battle died Morgan waited until 3 a.m. before turning his 350 troops back toward English Turn. [11]

There was much significance to the battle of December 23. Jackson's surprise attack dulled the British reflexes and inclined their leaders toward caution giving the Americans the necessary time to assume and consolidate a strong defensive position. Jackson had hoped to bloody the enemy and drive him into precipitate retreat, but in this he did not succeed. The assault nonetheless deluded General Keane and his subordinates into thinking that American troops and resources were far greater than they were. Latour stated that "the result of the affair ... was the saving of Louisiana," because it stalled a British approach that would likely have marched next day on New Orleans with highly disciplined troops encountering only what little impediment the militia could provide. Further, the engagement gave confidence to Jackson's command and enhanced their confidence in his leadership. [12] As a contemporary observer noted, "the battle of the eight of Jan'y was won on the 23d of Dec'r." [13] On the other hand, the British regarded the outcome as a victory for them, since they managed to withstand the shock of Jackson's surprise and ward off his troops under trying conditions. [14]

Following the cessation of firing near midnight, Jackson withdrew his army back to the de la Ronde plantation buildings where they remained until 4 a. m. Then he pulled back one and one-half miles across the plains of the de la Ronde, Bienvenue, Chalmette, and Rodriguez plantations and took up a position he had occupied the previous afternoon behind Rodriguez Canal next to the Macarty plantation. The withdrawal was orderly, covered by Plauche's battalion. The artillery was ordered to assume a position on the levee road near its juncture with Rodriguez Canal so that it might sweep the front should the British decide to advance. Jackson left the Seventh Infantry, Hinds's Dragoons, and a unit of Feliciana cavalry posted on the de la Ronde land to keep abreast of developments in the British camp. While desirous of renewing the attack during daylight, Jackson learned of the arriving British reinforcements from his scouts and decided not to risk another encounter. The decision seems to have been made in consultation with Captain Henri de St. Geme, who had earlier made a personal study of the defense of the city. St. Geme advised Jackson not to reopen the battle because Keane's large army would quickly defeat the militia on open ground. He urged Jackson to take up a defensive position behind Rodriguez Canal, the same canal reportedly pointed out to St. Geme years earlier by a French fortification strategist as a most suitable line of defense for inexperienced troops. A natural advantage lay in the fact that at that point the cypress swamp jutted toward the river, thereby narrowing the tract before the canal to about 600 yards. Furthermore, directly behind the line stood the galleried, two storied Macarty mansion, providing an excellent vantage point from which Jackson might survey the terrain in all directions. [15]

As the Americans retired onto the Macarty property Jackson directed his engineers to cut the levee in several places, flooding the open land between his position and that of the British. The high Mississippi waters cascaded through the crevices, overflowing the plantation tracts and furnishing some security for the soldiers beginning their labors at Rodriguez Canal. Indeed, the water quickly filled the canal. In about a week's time, however, the river level fell sharply and the advantage of the inundation proved only temporary, though the affected terrain was thoroughly drenched in the interim. The device successfully retarded British efforts at reconnaissance, although by the evening of December 24 their troops had advanced to occupy the Lacoste plantation. Moreover, the flooding of the canals enabled the British to transport their heavy artillery more easily. [16] Next day Jackson ordered Morgan to move his troops across the Mississippi. One hundred were sent to occupy Fort St. Leon while the remainder were directed to ascend the right bank and post themselves opposite Jackson's force on the Flood plantation. Morgan also received directions to cut the levee at Jumonville's, just below the British camp, similar to the operation conducted upstream. The British later filled in the gap, however. [17]

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004