While in Pensacola, Jackson received reports that the British had assembled a major invasion force at Jamaica with intentions to attack New Orleans. He immediately ordered his troops back to Mobile before traveling to New Orleans to supervise preparations for its defense. He arrived in New Orleans on 1 December and immediately went to work. His first objective was to prevent any British attempt to advance directly up the Mississippi River. He ordered Fort St. Philip at Plaquemines Bend, about sixty-five miles downriver from the city and thirty miles from the river’s mouth, reinforced with additional artillery. He also ordered the strengthening of the entrenchments and artillery redoubts at Fort St. Leon. Located closer to the city, its guns commanded an S-shaped bend in the Mississippi called the English Turn, where sailing vessels would be exposed to withering fire as they waited for the wind to change direction before proceeding.

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Map 1814-15 New Orleans. By Maunsel White and John Reid. 1815. Courtesy Library of Congress.

New Orleans rested on relatively high ground along the east bank of the Mississippi River. A myriad of waterways and bayous crisscrossed the surrounding landscape. An invading army would require reliable guides to traverse them. The city’s multilingual population of about twenty-five thousand, of whom a fraction were American, teemed with ethnic, racial, and social tension, which made it difficult to know who would be loyal to the United States when the British arrived. Jackson had to assume that some residents might assist the invaders and guide them through the swamps. Therefore, he imposed martial law on 15 December and posted the most reliable local militia units to guard the approaches. He kept the more experienced troops he had brought with him near the city proper. From that location, he could quickly move to block an attempted British landing as soon as it was discovered. Meanwhile, his ground forces prepared entrenchments to cover the most likely avenues of approach. To the east of the city, Jackson supplemented the defense with a naval force of seven vessels and 209 men commanded by Lt. Thomas ap Catesby Jones on Lake Borgne, a shallow body of water separated from the Gulf of Mexico by marshes. New Orleans rested on relatively high ground along the east bank of the Mississippi River. A myriad of waterways and bayous crisscrossed the surrounding landscape. An invading army would require reliable guides to traverse them.

The city’s multilingual population of about twenty-five thousand, of whom a fraction were American, teemed with ethnic, racial, and social tension, which made it difficult to know who would be loyal to the United States when the British arrived. Jackson had to assume that some residents might assist the invaders and guide them through the swamps. Therefore, he imposed martial law on 15 December and posted the most reliable local militia units to guard the approaches. He kept the more experienced troops he had brought with him near the city proper. From that location, he could quickly move to block an attempted British landing as soon as it was discovered. Meanwhile, his ground forces prepared entrenchments to cover the most likely avenues of approach. To the east of the city, Jackson supplemented the defense with a naval force of seven vessels and 209 men commanded by Lt. Thomas ap Catesby Jones on Lake Borgne, a shallow body of water separated from the Gulf of Mexico by marshes.

As it happened, the British chose to advance via Lake Borgne. Admiral Cochrane sent Capt. Nicholas Lockyer, of Sophie, in command of a squadron of forty-five ship’s boats, each armed with a bow-mounted cannon, and about twelve hundred sailors and marines to overcome the U.S. flotilla. After withdrawing up the lake, on 13 December Jones positioned the one-gun tender Seahorse to protect his stores on the shore. Seahorse fought seven British launches for a half hour before its crew abandoned ship, setting fire to both the vessel and the stores to prevent their capture.

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Painting depicting the Naval Battle of Lake Borgne, Louisiana, between U.K. and U.S. forces in the War of 1812. By Thomas L. Hornbrook. Ca. 1836-1844. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The next day Jones moored his gunboats, most of which mounted five guns each, on line in shoals between two islands. The lighter British launches closed in on them and opened fire at about 11 a.m. After quickly capturing the one-gun tender Alligator, the launch carrying Captain Lockyer assailed Jones’ gunboat. U.S. gunboats quickly sunk two enemy launches and repelled two attacks before British sailors boarded Jones’ gunboat and turned its guns on the other American craft. Having ruptured the U.S. line, the British boarded and captured the rest of the gunboats in quick succession. The battle ended by 12:30 p.m. The loss of the barges allowed the British to land troops unimpeded. They could now strike overland toward New Orleans or, if they chose, Baton Rouge, where they could cut New Orleans off from communications and reinforcement coming down the Mississippi River from the north.

When the British questioned the captured Lieutenant Jones, he convinced them that five hundred Americans with forty guns guarded the Rigolets, the narrow waterway that linked Lake Borgne with Lake Pontchartrain, a large body of water immediately north of New Orleans. Cochrane took Jones’ word at face value and ruled out an attempt to advance by Lake Pontchartrain. Instead, Cochrane decided to have his sailors row their shallow-draft vessels to a site where the British land forces under the command of Maj. Gen. John Keane would face a difficult trek through bayous and swamps to get to New Orleans.

The Royal Navy disembarked British soldiers on a pile of sand generously called Pine Island at the north end of Lake Borgne. There, the soldiers regained their land legs as the sailors prepared to row the men across to the main landing site on Bayou Bienvenu. British light infantrymen surprised a militia picket near a small fishing camp inhabited by Spanish-speaking “Isleño” residents. British officers persuaded at least one Isleño to guide their convoy of troop-laden small craft through the swamps along Bayou Mazant. The bayou connected to a canal that ended where the soldiers could disembark on dry land at the plantation home of the adjutant general of the Louisiana militia, Jacques Villeré, which was located on the east bank of the Mississippi about eight miles below New Orleans.

Keane divided his force into three brigades. On the morning of 22 December, he accompanied the sixteen hundred men of his 1st, or Light Brigade, forward. Under the command of Col. William Thornton, it consisted of the 4th and 85th Regiments of Foot, and six companies from the 95th (Rifle Corps) Regiment. The 4th and 85th were specially trained as light infantry, while the 95th, equipped with rifled muskets and green uniforms, was ideally suited for light infantry missions. All had seen considerable service in Europe against Napoleon, and both the 4th and 85th had fought at Bladensburg and Baltimore, Maryland.

After hours of moving from Lake Borgne through the swamps along Bayous Bienvenu and Mazant and the Villeré Canal, Thornton’s troops arrived at the Villeré Plantation. Riflemen from the 95th surprised and captured a small guard of about thirty militia commanded by the general’s son, Maj. Gabriel Villeré.

By questioning the prisoners and Isleño fishermen, the British discovered that Jackson might have as few as two thousand men in New Orleans. Although he actually had twice that number, the general had spread them out across the region to cover several possible avenues of approach. Thornton urged Keane to bring the rest of the available troops forward so they could move quickly on the city before Jackson concentrated his forces. Keane, however, chose to wait for reinforcements led by Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham.

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