As the Americans wielded picks and shovels to further improve their earthworks, Pakenham again reorganized his command and planned the next attack. He eventually developed a complex scheme of maneuver involving a river crossing and three coordinated assaults. Getting Thornton’s Light Brigade across the Mississippi required moving boats through bayou and canal, over land, and then to the river by cutting an access through the levee. After landing on the opposite bank, his 700-man brigade—comprised of his 85th Regiment of Foot, a composite Royal Marine battalion, a detachment of Royal Navy seamen, and some supporting artillery—would attack the U.S. batteries along the river and Line Boisgervais. Thornton would then turn the captured guns to enfilade Line Jackson in support of the main assault.
Once again, the twenty-one hundred men of Gibbs’ 2nd Brigade, or Right Column, would conduct the primary effort against the American left. The 4th, 21st, and 44th Regiments of Foot would advance in column, close to the edge of the swamp, where the irregular wood line would obscure the Americans’ view for much of the distance. Advancing under cover of darkness, it was imperative that the assaulting regiments reached the ditch at first light. Using bound bundles of sticks, called fascines, to bridge the ditch and ladders to scale the earthwork, the British would then assault the apparently weaker U.S. left flank. Keane’s 3d Brigade, or Left Column, twelve hundred men strong, would conduct a supporting attack against the right of Line Jackson. Colonel Rennie’s battalion, composed of the light infantry companies detached from the regiments in Brig. Gen. John Lambert’s brigade, would attack the redoubt that blocked the levee road at the extreme right of Line Jackson. The 93d Highland and 5th West India Regiments of Keane’s main column would either exploit a success by Rennie or support Gibbs by attacking the American center. General Lambert’s 1st Brigade with the 7th and 43d Foot—arguably the most reliable troops in the army—and the 1st West India Regiment, minus the light infantry companies detached to Rennie, would remain in reserve, ready to exploit a breach of the U.S. line. As Pakenham’s staff completed the plan, the last of his artillery and infantry arrived to bring his strength to more than nine thousand men. Meanwhile, British soldiers fashioned bundles of sticks into fascines for crossing the canal and ladders to scale the breastworks. Before the attack, soldiers would place the fascines and ladders in the battery positions that were abandoned after the 1 January artillery battle, and designated men of the 44th would carry them forward with the leading assault companies.
By 7 January, about five thousand men defended Line Jackson. The fortification bristled with eight batteries that mounted twelve artillery pieces of various calibers and stretched from the Mississippi River across the open fields for one thousand yards, then continued into the cypress swamp for another five hundred yards. Engineers had constructed a redoubt, or “demi-bastion,” on the right and in front of the line at a point where the canal intersected the road along the river. Maj. Howell Tatum, the topographic engineer on Jackson’s staff, noted, “Two embrasures were constructed in its base to rake the Canal and plane in front of the line, and two others in its face for the purpose of raking the Levey & road. It was encircled by a [moat].” At designated Battery One, the Americans placed two brass 12-pounders and a 5½- inch howitzer—manned by regular artillerymen and supported by a company of the 7th U.S. Infantry—in the strongpoint. A bridge over the Rodriguez Canal connected the small outwork to the main line.
Battery Two rested ninety feet from the redoubt on the main line. It consisted of a 24-pounder manned by U.S. sailors. Baratarian privateers served two 24-pounders at Battery Three, fifty yards down the line. Next, only twenty yards away, U.S. sailors manned a 32-pounder at Battery Four. Regular artillerymen manned two 6-pounders at Battery Five. Over two hundred yards separated Batteries Four and Five, but the range of the naval ordnance on the right enabled them to engage troops assaulting on the left with enfilade fire. Just thirty-six yards from Battery Five, a 12-pounder, crewed by militiamen that counted a number of veterans of Napoleon’s army among its French immigrant members, constituted Battery Six. Just before Jackson’s line entered the cypress swamp, regular artillerists and Tennesseans manned Batteries Seven and Eight. Battery Seven consisted of an 18-pounder and a 6-pounder field gun, and Battery Eight had a small brass carronade loaded with grapeshot and canister (or case shot), which contained hundreds of small musket-ball-size projectiles. Thus, the British would face heavy cannon fire as they crossed the two thousand yards of open ground that lay before Jackson’s earthwork.
The American infantry took position along the line between the batteries in several brigade-size units. The brigade of regulars and Louisiana volunteer militia deployed on the right and extended to the left as far as Battery Five. Commanded by Colonel Ross, the brigade included the 7th U.S. Infantry (minus those stationed at Fort St. Philip); Beale’s riflemen; Plauché’s battalion; Maj. Pierre Lacoste’s battalion of Orleans Free Men of Color; D’Aquin’s Saint-Domingue Free Men of Color; several companies of the 44th U.S. Infantry commanded by Capt. Isaac Baker; and a company of marines under the command of 1st Lt. Francis DeBellevue. General Carroll’s division of Tennessee militia manned the line from Battery Five to a point beyond Battery Eight, supported by two regiments of Brig. Gen. John Adair’s recently arrived brigade of Kentucky militia posted behind their center. From the left flank of Carroll’s division, Coffee’s brigade held the remainder of Line Jackson into the cypress swamp, including where it turned ninety degrees to the left to refuse the flank. American skirmishers and Choctaw Indians deployed into the swamp to harass any British movement in that area, while the 10th Regiment of Louisiana militia posted in reserve behind Coffee’s brigade.
Morgan’s brigade, with the 1st and 2nd Regiments of Louisiana militia, defended the west bank. Just before the battle, Jackson reinforced them with a battalion of Louisiana drafted militia and a regiment from Adair’s Kentucky brigade. After receiving these reinforcements, Morgan had nearly one thousand men. He began to construct a second line lower down the river along the Raguet Canal to better support Patterson’s marine battery on the Mississippi’s bank, and improved his main defense on Line Boisgervais, opposite Line Jackson.
The British attack went awry almost from the start. Numerous problems hampered Thornton’s crossing and reduced the size of his assault force. When the British finally launched their boats, the Mississippi current carried them about one thousand yards below the intended landing site, causing further delay. Growing impatient, Pakenham signaled the main attack to commence at about 5 a.m. without waiting for the diversionary attack on the west bank.
Rocket and artillery batteries fired as skirmishers from the 95th Rifles and the battalion light infantry companies moved forward. Withdrawing American pickets gave the alarm, so that U.S. forces were alert and ready when the fog lifted and the British came into view. The batteries of artillery on the American left opened a heavy fire. The green-clad British riflemen rushed the canal, scrambled into the ditch, but could not cut their way up the rampart. Meanwhile, U.S. artillery fire became more deadly the closer the main British columns approached. Gibbs’ brigade inclined to the left into the open fields and presented a more lucrative target. British artillery failed to silence the U.S. guns, and as the advancing brigade came within range, the Tennessee and Kentucky infantry opened with deadly volleys of rifle and musket fire.
Although they were supposed to follow closely behind the skirmishers of the 95th, Gibbs’ column halted when officers of the 44th discovered that the fascines and ladders that were supposed to be prepositioned had not been brought forward as planned. While waiting for a detachment to bring them up, the rest of the regiment’s lead elements, contrary to orders, halted in the open and traded shots with the Americans. As small arms, grape, canister, and solid shot took their toll, many of the British fell back in disorder and took cover in furrows, ditches, or the previously abandoned artillery positions. After officers rallied their troops, the British advanced once more, but in the withering fire, only about four hundred reached the U.S. line. A few managed to claw their way up the embankment, but the British could not get enough men over the wall to overwhelm the defenders before either being killed, wounded, or captured.
Keane’s brigade fared no better. Patterson’s naval battery on the west bank commenced firing as the column advanced along the river. Pakenham rode forward toward Gibbs’ column and sent orders for Keane’s men to follow him. Keane complied, and in an effort to minimize the damage from Patterson’s guns on the west bank, he led most of his men obliquely across the American right to assault the center. When they came within range, the American infantry—standing four ranks deep behind a protective parapet—fired withering volleys of rifle and musket fire, as the guns of Battery Four opened at point-blank range. The 93d Highlanders took a severe punishing as they approached the American line. Their attack ground to a halt, broken, and they withdrew leaving behind many dead and wounded.
Rennie’s battalion came on in a rush along the levee road and initially enjoyed some success. After driving in the U.S. pickets it reached the redoubt. Not wanting to hit their withdrawing pickets, the Americans in the bastion had held their fire until it was too late and had to evacuate as the redcoats entered the position. With Keane’s brigade no longer following them, the success could not be exploited. Consequently, some U.S. regulars and Beale’s riflemen poured fire into the attackers, killing Rennie and two other officers as they tried to lead an attack across the bridge into the main line. Infantrymen of the 7th Regiment then attacked and drove the surviving British out of the bastion. The entire action lasted about twenty-five minutes. The withdrawing British light infantry continued to suffer under heavy infantry and artillery fire.
By that time the entire attack had stalled, Lt. Col. Timothy Jones’ flanking maneuver through the swamp had failed, with Jones mortally wounded. Back with the main body of his brigade, Gibbs too fell mortally wounded. A messenger reported that Keane had been seriously wounded and was out of action. Pakenham came forward to rally the troops but was also mortally wounded. It is said that before he was carried to the rear where he died, he ordered Lambert to commit the reserve, but U.S. fire had pinned it down as well. In an hour and a half, hundreds of British lay dead and wounded on the field, and many units were badly disorganized. With many senior officers killed or wounded, General Lambert assumed command and halted the attack on the east bank.
On the west bank, Thornton’s brigade, reduced in number to about five hundred sixty men due to a shortage of boats, had finally advanced after the attack on the east bank had already started. It first moved to capture Patterson’s guns that were enfilading the attack on Jackson’s line. The British quickly routed the forward deployed pickets of Maj. Paul Arnaud’s Louisiana battalion and Col. John Davis’ Kentucky regiment, who withdrew to the line along the Raguet Canal. Thornton then attacked the U.S. line and Patterson’s batteries, forcing the Americans to retreat to Line Boisgervais. Although the withdrawing U.S. sailors managed to spike some of the cannon, most fell intact to the British, who lost six killed and seventy-six wounded, compared to one dead, three wounded, and fifteen missing Americans.
Ultimately, Thornton advanced to about twelve hundred yards from Morgan’s second line. As a detachment of his men destroyed the U.S. naval batteries, Thornton sent word to Lambert that he would need two thousand men to assault the main U.S. entrenchment and hold the west bank position. Lambert, having already decided not to renew the attack on Line Jackson, ordered Thornton to retire and withdraw back across the Mississippi. The battle was over.
Lambert asked Jackson for a truce to gather the dead and to treat the wounded. The two sides agreed to a 300-yard-wide zone extending from Line Jackson in which the Americans would recover and care for the British casualties that remained on the field. British casualties in the battle on the east bank amounted to 285 killed, 1,265 wounded, and 484 captured or missing. The Americans suffered 13 dead, 30 wounded, and 19 captured or missing in the main battle.
For the next week, the U.S. and British troops watched each other across their lines and contemplated their next moves. As the British buried their dead and evacuated their wounded seventy miles to the fleet, a general air of defeat hovered over the camp. Naval officers like Admiral Cochrane wanted to make another attempt, but the army officers had had enough. Some of Jackson’s subordinates urged him to attack, but he realized that the American army had the good fortune of fighting from behind prepared positions, and he did not care to risk a battle in the open. Since 23 December, the land battles had cost a total of 333 U.S. and 2,459 British casualties.