I mentioned before that you can’t do better than old copies of American Heritage. I’ve got a stack of them in the throne room. In the same edition as the story of Jane Honeyman, August 1957, there’s a story by C. S. Forester (the author of the famous Captain Hornblower series) about Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, along with a picture of the battle by a guy who was there, rendered by a French lithographer.
Ever hear that song, “Eighteen-fourteen we took a little trip,/ Along with Colonel Jackson down the Mighty Mississipp./ We brung a little bacon and we brung a little beans,/ And we fought the Bloody British in the Town of New Orleans.”?
There’s also a picture of Sir Edward Pakenham the British infantry commander, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington. Turns out the great Wellington, who was later to cook Napoleon’s goose at Waterloo, was offered the command and turned it down, saying, in effect, it was a dumb idea.
I guess that was enough to persuade Sir Edward to give it a go, just to show his stuck-up brother-in-law a thing or two.
Well Forester lays the whole thing out — Jackson’s preparations, the brave offer of assistance by the pirate Jean Lafitte, British blunders in not taking control of the river, et cetera et cetera. Stuff I won’t bore you with, but which I really love.
Forester suggests that Pakenham might have been napping during a War College lecture about infantry attacks on open ground against entrenched opponents without sufficient artillery preparation. His regulars had broken a line of American militiamen during the preliminary skirmishes, so he decided to give it a go.
The result we can hear from what I consider a primary source, i.e. somebody who was there:
“We fired our guns and the British kept acomin’/ There warn’t as many as there was a while ago./ Fired once more and they began arunnin’/ Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Now when you’re dealing with original sources, you’re going to find extraneous material that you can’t always consider reliable. For instance: “We fired our cannon til the barrel melted down/ Then we grabbed an alligator and we fired another round./ We filled his jaws with cannonballs and powdered his behind/ And when we set the powder off the gator lost his mind.”
There’s another inaccuracy, I think, in the old song that was probably made for the sake of the meter: “Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise if we didn’t fire our muskets ’till we looked ’em in the eyes.”
The part about Old Hickory’s orders is right, but I think we’re talking about rifles here, not muskets. I’m basing that on the next two lines of the verse: “We held our fire ’til we seen their faces well/ Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave ’em … / Well we fired our guns, etc.” Hunting squirrels with a musket would be a pretty futile proposition.
I’m also basing my conjecture on the number of British casualties: 2,000 (compared to 21 for the Americans – can’t find a breakdown of killed/wounded) and one other vital statistic: number of bullets that struck Sir Edward Pakenham as he led his futile charge: 3.