In the last year of the War of 1812 New Orleans became the objective of an attempted British invasion of the Mississippi Valley. Throughout the war an attack had been anticipated, but it was not until after the sack of Washington that the British turned their attention to the Gulf. The Spanish port of Pensacola was used as a base, from which a campaign was conducted against General Andrew Jackson. The Lafitte brothers, Pierre and Jean, who had built up a lucrative privateering business at Barataria, were invited to join forces with the British.
Although the British offered him rank as captain and protection for his buccaneering enterprises, Jean Lafitte rejected the offer, but, feigning acceptance, sent the letters of the English official to Governor Claiborne, along with an offer of aid in the defense of New Orleans. The 'hellish banditti,' with whom Jackson was loath to associate, later acquitted themselves bravely during the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson and his troops arrived in New Orleans on December 2, 1814, six days after General Sir Edward Pakenham had left Jamaica with his fleet and the pick of Wellington's Peninsular Veterans. Immediate preparations were made for the defense of a town which looked to the future with 'distrust and gloomy apprehension,' in which banks because of lack of specie had suspended payment on notes for several months, and which hoped to be saved 'only by miracle.' The outlying forts at Chef Menteur, the Rigolets, and along the river were inspected and reconditioned; the coastal bayous were ordered to be blocked against the British ascent.
The enemy arrived at Chandeleur Island December 10, 1814. Since Lake Borgne was too shallow to permit the frigates to land troops, a transfer was made to small boats. An engagement for the control of the waterway occurred on December 14, in which the British with forty-five open boats manned by twelve hundred men defeated five American gunboats detailed for scouting purposes in Lake Borgne. During the following week, while two British officers' succeeded with the help of some Spanish fishermen in reconnoitering Bayou Bienvenue as far as the Villeré Plantation, seven miles below New Orleans, seven thousand troops were transferred to the mainland.
News of the defeat on Lake Borgne excited feverish activity in the city. Jackson assumed dictatorial powers and declared martial law. Lafitte's men were enlisted and messengers were sent to hurry Carroll and Thomas with their detachments of Tennessee and Mississippi volunteers; Coffee and his men, who had been sent to Baton Rouge, were ordered to advance by forced marches. Great patriotic fervor swept the town; the Marseillaise, Yankee Doodle, and Chant du Départ rang through the streets, as men of many nationalities -- white, black, and Indian -prepared to repulse the redcoats who were coming from no one knew what direction.
At noon, December 23, 1814, the vanguard of the British army succeeded in advancing unseen, via Bayou Bienvenue, as far as the Villeré Plantation, where Major Villeré and the militia under his command were captured. While the British set up camp and brought up troops from the fleet at anchor in Lake Borgne, General Andrew Jackson, having been notified of the strength and position of the invaders, mobilized his men and drew up plans for an immediate attack. The war-schooner 'Carolina' was to anchor off of the levee close to the enemy encampment and give the signal for a general attack by pouring a broadside of hot shot at the British. Coffee and his Tennesseans, who had previously marched 120 miles in two days, were to move through the cypress swamps and fall upon the British flank and rear, while Jackson and his regulars, Plauché's city volunteers, who ran all the way to New Orleans from Fort St. John (now commemorated in the Jackson Day Run), d'Aquin's colored battalion, McRea's marines, and eighteen Choctaw Indians were to strike along the river.
At 7:30 P.M. the 'Carolina' sidled up to the levee and opened fire upon the unsuspecting British as they were cooking supper and preparing their bivouacs. Confusion reigned as the redcoats put out their fires and ran for shelter behind a secondary levee. Simultaneously, Jackson and Coffee advanced to the attack. In the 'hand-to-hand combat in the dark, in which bayonets, tomahawks, hunting knives, and fists were used to advantage, the Tennesseans made murderous inroads on the British right flank, although Jackson's charge was met with stubborn resistance. After two hours' fighting a heavy fog terminated the battle, neither side having gained any decisive advantage.
The American forces retreated two miles toward New Orleans during the night and established a breastwork on an abandoned canal between Chalmette and Rodriguez Plantations. During the following week, while the intervening area was flooded by a break in the levee to impede an advance by the enemy, eight batteries were erected and preparations made for the British attack. The army under Jackson consisted of about five thousand men made up of volunteers, free Negroes, Choctaw Indians, Baratarians, and volunteers from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. This motley crew, as strange a force as ever served under one flag, was expected to withstand the assault of between eight and nine thousand British veterans.
The British, with Pakenham now at their head, brought up more troops and artillery. On January 1, in an effort to open breaches in the American fortifications, twenty-four English guns began a steady fire upon the entire extent of Jackson's line. The Americans, with twelve or thirteen guns, replied with enthusiasm. Round after round rattled down the breastwork from the river to the swamp as the defenders of the city manned their batteries in the manner that had won for Americans the reputation of being the best artillerymen of their day. So steady were their rounds of fire and so deadly their aim that within an hour the fire of the enemy was broken. By three o'clock in the afternoon the British ceased firing and abandoned their guns, conceding victory to Jackson's men, among whom none handled their guns better than You and Béluche, battle-scarred members of the Barataria brigade.
Pakenham now elected to wait for reinforcements to come up from his fleet. Jackson benefited little by the delay, for although two thousand Kentuckians arrived, few could be put into service due to a shortage of guns and equipment. While rumors circulated to the effect that New Orleans was to be burned to the ground in the event of defeat, or was to be surrendered to the British by the city officials who were unduly alarmed by the reputed watchword of the enemy, 'Beauty and Booty,' preparations went ahead for a major encounter.