Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Invading Louisiana

At Antoines
Founded 1804
New Orleans, LA

Today New Orleans is invaded on a daily basis by an army of tourists and conventioneers that cruise along Bourbon street hoping to “Laissez les bons temps roulez” (Let the Good Times Roll).  But nomads first came to the area today known as Louisiana around 10,000 years ago.  Humans living near Poverty Point built mounds two thousand years before Christ.  Many tribes, such as the Natchez and the Chocktaw, inhabited the Gulf coast region when the Spanish explorers first began arriving in the 16th century.  In 1519 the Spanish explorer and cartographer, Álvarez de Pineda, seems to have arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River.  He encountered a substantial native American population.  Hernando de Soto, the Spanish Conquistador, explored the Mississippi in 1541 and died, possibly in Louisiana, in 1542.

The Spanish were soon followed by the French.  In 1718 Jean-Baptiste Le,Sieur de Bienville, a French Canadian, founded New Orleans.  Louisiana was named in honor of Louis XIV -- the Sun King.

From 1762 until 1802 Louisiana was a part of New Spain.  This vast territory stretched North from New Orleans up the Mississippi into the Midwest.  Alejandro O'Reilly, a Spanish Marshall who had been born in Dublin, became governor of Louisiana earning the nickname “Bloody O'Reilly” for his execution of a number of creole citizens.  Canary Islanders were recruited to populate the new colony.

Could not hold Louisiana
The Third Treaty of San Ildefonso signed in 1800 assigned Louisiana from Spain back to Napoleonic France.  The Napoleonic Code was imposed  on Louisiana’s legal system where it had an enduring impact.  Napoleon attempted to reinforce his hold on Louisiana by dispatching General Charles Leclerc, his brother in law, with and army of 40,000 men to the new world .  Their mission was to crush the Haitian rebellion and then to proceed to and reinforce New Orleans.  Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great Haitian leader of history’s most successful slave rebellion, had other plans.  Leclerc and many of his men were killed by Yellow Fever and never proceeded on to Louisiana.

Thomas Jefferson
Bought Louisiana for USA

In 1803 Napoleon, unable to defend his New World holdings and strapped for cash, sold the  Louisiana territory to the Untied States for the sum of $15 million.  At the stroke of a pen,Thomas Jefferson had doubled the size of the United States.

The most consequential invasion of Louisiana was surely that launched by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812.

In the summer of 1812 James Madison induced Congress to declare war on Britain. The war did not at first go well with Britain repulsing a series of invasions into Canada and burning the US White House and capitol in 1814.  New England, never happy about Mr. Madison’s War, threatened to secede from the Union at the Hartford Convention.

It was at this point that Britain dispatched a fleet and Army to invade Louisiana.

Since Nelson’s decisive victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 Britain was indisputably the greatest naval power in the world.  This meant that Britain could effectively land troops on any coastline in the world.  A British army, led by the Duke of Wellington, had, by 1814, driven Napoleon’s forces from Portugal and Spain.  British infantry were widely thought to be the finest in the world.

In 1814 Britain chose to invade Louisiana.  Their fleet was led by the able Lord Cochrane who had distinguished himself in numerous sea battles.  Cochrane expected to earn massive prize money for seizing the “beauty and booty” that the rich commercial entrepôt of New Orleans offered.  The land forces would be led by Sir Edward Pakenham – the Duke of Wellington’s brother in law.  The Duke’s appraisal of Pakenham was that “Pakenham may not be the brightest genius, but my partiality for him does not lead me astray when I tell you he is one of the best we have.”

Pakenham commanded ultimately had at his disposal an Army of over 10,000 soldiers supplemented by 1,500 Royal Marines.  The British outnumbered the ragtag bunch of Americans that were hoping to defend New Orleans.  Most of the American defenders of New Orleans were not regular soldiers but rather a mix of state militia and other groups.  There were more Tennessee volunteers than any other state.  A group of 2,368 sharpshooting Kentuckians arrived on January 3, 1815 just five days before the Battle of New Orleans.  These militia were augmented by forces from Louisiana, Baratarian privateers led by Jean Laffite, free black soldiers,  and even Chocktaw Indians.  The British never foresaw that Andrew Jackson would manage to weld this diverse group into a devastatingly effective fighting force.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was a veteran of the American Revolution.  As a young man he had served with British forces acquiring a powerful anglophobia.  After not polishing a British officer’s boots correctly, he was slashed at with a sword which left and scar on his face and on his soul.  By 1814 Jackson was the veteran of amny a campaign against native Americans.  At New Orleans Jackson would take his long awaited revenge.  By 1814 Jackson was the veteran of many successful campaings against the Indians.

The British invasion force landed at Lake Borgne on December 14, 1814.  By Christmas eve they had proceeded to within seven miles of New Orleans to the Villere’s Plantation.  When Jackson learned of the British approach he immediately ordered a daring night counterattack.  Jackson was forced to withdraw but British casualties exceeded those of the Americans.  The American schooner Carolina attacked the British troops with grapeshot until it was finally set on fire by heated “red hot shot”.   On December 16, Jackson declared martial law in Louisiana placing himself in total control of the population.

Chalmette Monument
New Orleans

Jackson established a defensive line that ran about 800 yards along the Rodrigez canal from the Mississippi River to a swamp.  Along this line strong breastworks were established.  Some of the thirteen American cannon along the line were manned by Baratarian privateers led by Laffite and his two brothers.  The night before the Battle of New Orleans Jackson shared a cup of coffee with Laffite’s brother Dominique You joking that their supply of coffee was so good that it must have been smuggled. *

On January 8, 1815 the British launched a frontal assault against the Jackson line.  The Chalmette plantation, offering no cover, became a deadly killing ground.  Three British generals were killed that day including Pakenham himself.  The battle was a one sided American victory with 13 Americans killed against hundreds of British and almost 1,300 wounded.   A truce was arranged for burial of the dead and, soon after, the British withdrew to their waiting ships.

Andrew Jackson
Jackson Square, New Olreans

The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium ending the War of 1812 on Christmas eve 1814.  Some have argued that it was, therefore, a “pointless” battle.  The treaty would not be ratified by the US Senate until February.  Had the British succeeded in capturing New Orleans it is not, however, clear that they would have surrendered it despite the provisions of the treaty.  The American’s unexpected victory at the Battle of New Orleans led to a surge of national pride throughout the country and the 8th of January was celebrated throughout America for half a century.  Moreover, the battle launched the political career of Andrew Jackson eventually catapulting him to the White House.
Napoleon did NOT sleep here!
New Orleans, LA
Louisianans plotted in the 1820s to bring one of history’s greatest invaders to their shores.  A conspiracy was formed to rescue the exiled Napoleon from his British captors on the rocky island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.  Ships were obtained and a crew was forming.  A house was built to suit the emperor for his sojourn in the New World.   From this house future Napoleonic invasions directed against the possessions of the dying Spanish Empire in Central and South America would be hatched.  Today the Napoleon House in New Orleans remains a watering hole for thirsty tourists who may savor its grilled alligator Po-boys while enjoying its historic atmosphere.   Napoleon himself foiled the conspiracy by dying, most likely of stomach cancer, in 1821 prior to the execution of the plot.

Louisiana joined the Confederacy in 1861 shortly after the secession of South Carolina in December 1860.  Louisiana was a slave state but she was also the most diverse Southern state with a substantial population of free blacks.  In May of 1861 a Regiment of Free Men of Color began forming among these men in support of the Confederate cause.  Italian-Americans from New Orleans also raised a “Garibaldi” Legion that served in Confederate grey.

Recognizing that New Orleans was the largest city in the South and its most important port, General Winfield Scott of Union Army proposed the Anaconda Plan that would strangle the rebellious southern states by seizing New Orleans and denying access to the Mississippi.  Not all of this plan was adopted but a blockade of the South became a keystone of Union strategy in the war.  In April of 1862 David Farragut of the US Navy led a squadron of 17 ships that would invade New Orleans with far more success than Lord Cochrane’s efforts during the War of 1812.  The Confederates had two forts (Jackson and St. Philip) defending the approach to the city.  They also stretched a chain in order to block entrance to the Mississippi River.  By April 19 the Union navy broke through the Confederate barriers and began battering the Confederate forts with guns and mortars.  Lacking a leader of the calibre of Old Hickory, the Confederates surrendered Fort Jackson on April 28.   Major General Butler led approximately 15,000 Union troops that occupied the city on May 1, 1862.  His harsh treatment of the Louisianans earned him the nickname “Beast Butler” but the Confederacy would never regain New Orleans.

On May 29 Farragut landed forces that would capture the Louisiana state capitol at Baton Rouge.  On August 5, 1862 Union forces would win the Battle of Baton Rouge and maintain their control of the city.   Eighty-four men were killed on each side that day.

After the Civil War ended Louisiana would be subject to Reconstruction imposed by the Union victory.

During World War II Louisiana played its part in American invasions of other countries involving the production of landing  craft and…Tabasco sauce.  Thousands of wooden Higgins boats played a crucial role in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and many others American targets would be manufactured in New Orleans.  Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, known as “Tabasco Jack,” served as a Brigadier General in the US Marine Corps at Guadalcanal.  This resident of Avery Island became the CEO of the Tabasco company after the war and introduced the zesty sauce to the K-Rations of generations of Marine Corps veterans.

On July 30, 1942 a German submarine, U-166, that had earlier sunk four merchant in the Gulf ships was herself sunk by a US Navy Patrol boat off the coast of Houma, Louisiana.  The wreck of U-166 was discovered in 2001.

Source: Louisiana chapter of America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American

* Jackson said, “That smells like better coffee than we can get.  Where did you get such fine coffee? Maybe you smuggled it in?”  (Source: Patriotic Fire, Winston Groom, 2007, p 187).

Invading Commander's Palace
Travel Notes: New Orleans has some fine cooking.  Love Antoine's for the Osyters Rockefeller ( and Commander's Palace anytime (  Napoleon House is great for a cocktail (  Garden District has my favorite bookshop (  Finally, enjoyed my stay at the Roosevelt Hotel (

Signed copies of America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American Soil can now be found and Garden District Bookshop ( and

Regular copies may be purchased from

Or on