The Big Easy, the Big Prize: For Centuries, New Orleans Has Been a Strategically Critical City Coveted by European Imperial Powers and Visionary American Statesmen

Article excerpt

"I shall eat my Christmas dinner in New Orleans," boasted British Admiral Alexander Cochrane as soldiers under his command disembarked on the lower Mississippi on December 12, 1814. As the British troops, many of them hardened veterans of Wellington's campaigns against Napoleon, prepared for battle, it seemed likely that Great Britain would end its war against the upstart United States without suffering a single significant defeat. The U.S. campaign in Canada had ended disastrously, and the White House, along with much of the U.S. capital city, had been reduced to rubble by invading British troops. By seizing New Orleans, the British would control the Mississippi River and with it the vast interior of North America.

Informed of the admiral's boast by a captured British soldier, Major General Andrew Jackson smiled and offered a quiet but resolute reply. The British officer might very well enjoy a Christmas feast in New Orleans, Jackson said, "but I shall have the honor of presiding at that dinner." The first of three battles between British forces and Jackson's forces--built around militiamen from Tennessee and Kentucky, but including pirates led by Jean Lefitte--took place on December 23. On the following day, unbeknownst to the combatants, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty in Ghent that had ended the war. News of the treaty didn't cross the Atlantic for several weeks. But it's likely the struggle for control of New Orleans would have continued even if the news had been made available instantly, given the city's unique geostrategic value.

Thus even as the U.S. peace commissioners made their way back from Ghent, the War of 1812 went into extra innings, with major battles being fought on January 1 and 8 of 1815. General Jackson's badly outnumbered force had dug in on very defensible ground in Chalmette, about five miles downriver from New Orleans. Ten thousand British troops under General Sir Edward Parkenham mounted three separate assaults against the Americans, only to be cut down on open ground by fierce rifle and artillery fire. General Parkenham himself was mortally wounded in the final assault.

As his life ebbed away, Parkenham ordered his replacement, General John Lambert, to continue the assault. Once in command, Lambert took a sober inventory of British losses: more than 700 had been killed, and some 2,000 or more had been wounded or taken prisoner. The Americans, on the other hand, had lost 13, with 58 wounded. Regretfully but realistically defying his fallen commander's final order, Lambert ordered a withdrawal, ending the British attempt to seize New Orleans and with it the Mississippi.

Key to the Mississippi

While Great Britain at the time remained the world's most formidable military power, its attention was divided between its conflict with the U.S. in the New World and its campaign to rein in Napoleon on the continent. In addition, the Americans had been preparing for military action along the Mississippi for more than a decade.

"From this date," proclaimed Juan Ventura Morales, Spain's acting Intendant of New Orleans, on October 16, 1802, "the privilege which the Americans had of importing and depositing their merchandise and effects in this capital, shall be interdicted," thereby effectively closing the Mississippi.

America's right to use the ports at New Orleans was guaranteed by the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, under which the Spaniards could designate "another part of the banks of the Mississippi [as] an equivalent establishment." But suspicion soon flared throughout Kentucky and Ohio that the interdiction was a prelude to French seizure of New Orleans, and with it the Mississippi. Militia began to muster throughout the western states for a possible march on New Orleans to reopen the critical trade route by force.

"From whatever source the [interdiction] measure may have proceeded, the President expects that the Spanish Government will neither lose a moment in countermanding it, nor hesitate to repair every damage which may result from it," wrote then-Secretary of State James Madison. …