THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS

Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory

By Robert V. Remini

Viking. 226 pp. $24.95

In the fall of 1814 and the early winter of 1815, the fate of America hung in the balance, or so it seemed to residents of New Orleans and the few thousand troops who had assembled there under the leadership of Andrew Jackson. Though peace talks were underway at Ghent, in Belgium, with the aim of ending the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, communications between the isolated city in Louisiana and the rest of the world were irregular and unreliable. No one knew that the war was nearly over; what everyone did know was that the British had dealt severe losses to the United States elsewhere and that the United States could well be doomed should the British take New Orleans.

That was not merely possible but likely. The British force that headed into the Gulf of Mexico in November 1814 was, as Robert V. Remini puts it, "extraordinary": about 60 ships and an army that eventually reached around 10,000. These men, commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, "were 'Wellington's heroes,' and about as professional in discipline and military skill as could be found in Europe."

Against them were arrayed--"arrayed" is hardly the word--at first "fewer than 1500 volunteers and militiamen from Tennessee and Kentucky, a number of whom had served with [Jackson] in the Creek War" and whose knowledge of the military arts was limited to "one thing: how to pick out a target, draw a bead on it, and drop it to the ground." In time they were joined by various others, so that by New Year's Day 1815, "it is probable that Jackson . . . had between 4,000 and 5,000 men in and around New Orleans."

That is the day of the first artillery exchanges in what quickly became known as the Battle of New Orleans, but it had been preceded by weeks of maneuvers and feints, skirmishes and sea engagements, the sum effect of which was astonishing: Though, in the words of an earlier historian, "never was a city so defenseless, so exposed, so weak, so prostrate, as New Orleans in the fall of 1814," Jackson's ragtag band managed to thwart the British at almost every turn. By the end of 1814 the invaders still had the upper hand in manpower, in firepower and--or so it was assumed--generalship, yet "all their plans, all their hopes, all their dreams of easy conquest had come to nothing."

The American troops may have been little more than "rabbit hunters," but "a rabbit hunter hardly ever missed when he drew a bead on a target." Snipers repeatedly picked off British sentries and others foolish enough to expose themselves to American view. The result was that the defending force's self-possession steadily rose, along with "boldness," "risk-taking" and "exuberance." The British, heavily armed and serenely overconfident, simply could not imagine that in a serious engagement they could be defeated by such transparent inferiors; this is nothing if not eerily reminiscent of the same attitude that the American armed forces brought to their war against the guerrillas of Vietnam a century and a half later.

No one's self-assurance was more serene than Pakenham's: "Arrogant and overconfident, he undoubtedly assumed that he was facing an inferior force of undisciplined frontiersmen who would run as soon as charging infantrymen with fixed bayonets came barreling at them. Despite the previous incidents of American ability and courage he could not conceive of a rabble, a ragtag collection of misfits, defeating the greatest army on the continent if not in the world." Thus he rushed to the attack south of New Orleans on Jan. 8, ignoring strong evidence that the British were far more vulnerable, and the Americans far stronger, than he cared to believe.

The result, as Remini says, "was simply frightful." The British line "melted away under this unrelenting fire." "The horror of the scene was orchestrated by the rolling thunder pounding out from the American rampart, by the pitiful screams and cries of wounded and dying men, by the incessant whoosh of the rockets, the roar of the cannons, the blast of chain shot and grape, and the bark of musketry."

The British "reported 2,037 casualties, of which 291 were killed, 1,262 wounded, and 484 taken prisoner"; the American "total came to 333, of which 55 were killed, 185 wounded, and 93 missing." Of the five British generals on hand, three were killed, Pakenham included. On both sides there was bravery aplenty, but the American victory was clear, decisive and, so Remini argues, not merely "an unparalleled triumph" over a vastly superior force but "one of the great turning points in American history":

"In that one glorious moment the nation had demonstrated that it had the strength, will and ability to defend its freedom and prove to the world that it was here to stay, that its sovereignty and rights were to be respected by all."

Remini, the author of several much-esteemed books about Andrew Jackson, tells the story of the battle with authority and brio. He gives each member of its large cast of characters his (or her, in a few cases) due moment onstage, and he brings order to the confusion and chaos of the battle itself. Like the War of 1812 itself, the battle is now largely forgotten beyond New Orleans, so this admirable book may help restore it to its proper place in the nation's history.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.