At about noon on 23 December, after he had learned that the British had landed, Jackson ordered some of his most reliable troops to assemble from all around the city for an immediate attack. He pledged, “By the eternal they will not sleep on our soil tonight!” After ordering Maj. Gen. William Carroll’s division of Tennessee militia to remain in reserve at New Orleans, Jackson assembled a number of militia and regular units, including an artillery detachment with two 6-pounder field pieces. While Jackson’s dragoons reconnoitered the British positions, Maj. Jean Baptiste Plauché’s volunteer militia battalion answered Jackson’s call. Determined to get in the fight, the French-speaking men jogged from Fort St. John. Hearing the commotion when he saw Plauché’s men approaching, Jackson bellowed, “Ah, here come my brave Creoles!” At two o’clock in the afternoon, the general ordered his force of roughly 2,100 men to advance.
Halting at the de la Ronde Plantation, five hundred yards from the British camp, Jackson organized his units into line of battle with two divisions and advanced at dusk. The Right Division, under his personal command, consisted of a brigade commanded by Col. George Ross, which included the regulars of the 7th and 44th U.S. Infantry regiments; Plauché’s battalion; Maj. Louis D’Aquin’s battalion of Saint-Domingue Free Men of Color; and a detachment of Choctaw Indians. This division would attack the British left flank, extending to the left from the levee road, while the two-gun artillery detachment went into a battery astride the road, and a company of marines supported them from the levee road right to the riverbank. The Left Division, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Coffee, consisted of a brigade of Tennessee volunteer mounted riflemen fighting on foot, Capt. Thomas Beale’s Orleans Rifle Company, and Col. Thomas Hind’s squadron of Mississippi dragoons. To protect his flanks from British advancing from the direction of Lake Borgne, Governor Claiborne commanded the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Regiments of Louisiana militia, totaling around twenty-five hundred men to the northeast, while Brig. Gen. David Morgan commanded a force of three hundred fifty Louisiana militiamen posted downriver at English Turn.
In the twilight, British soldiers saw the masts of a ship on the Mississippi River adjacent to their position. Believing it to be a Royal Navy vessel, soldiers ran to the levee and began hailing the ship. They realized their mistake when the U.S. Navy’s twelve-gun schooner Carolina, commanded by Capt. John D. Henley, opened fire with a broadside of grapeshot. Meanwhile, advancing under cover of darkness and guided by the British campfires, the American divisions assaulted the camp on both flanks. The attacking Right Division drove the camp’s pickets before them. Fighting spread inland and Coffee’s Left Division pressed the British right in an attempt to encircle the defenders. The surprised redcoats initially retreated but soon rallied. They counterattacked along the road and nearly captured the two American cannon before U.S. infantry drove them back once more. The fighting became general, confused, and hand to hand in the darkness, with some U.S. units becoming separated or lost in the dark.
At about 0400, Col. Arthur Brooke’s 2d Brigade began arriving to support the British defenders. Jackson ordered his men to disengage and retire. The 7th and 44th U.S. Infantry, along with some attached militia, covered the retreat against a possible counterattack, but Keane’s army was in no condition to pursue. Perplexed over the rapid and undetected American advance, and their camp in shambles, Keane ordered his men to take defensive positions. U.S. casualties amounted to 24 killed, 115 wounded, and 74 missing or captured. British losses included 46 killed, 166 wounded, and 64 missing.
Although he considered the battle a victory, Jackson realized that the British outnumbered his force. After falling back in reasonably good order, Jackson’s troops re-formed along the Rodriguez Canal, the boundary between the Chalmette and Macarty Plantations, and started throwing up earthworks. Named “Line Jackson,” the newly established defenses ran along the canal from the east bank of the Mississippi River to a cypress swamp. No longer used for irrigation, the canal had a dry bottom and caved-in banks for much of its length when Jackson’s engineers started work. Soldiers cut the levee to flood the canal for much of its length—to a depth of five to six feet in some places. They raised a rampart on the canal bank by constructing two double walls of logs, filled the space in between with the excavated spoil, and added a parapet.
General Pakenham arrived on Christmas Day and assumed command of the British land forces. The armies cautiously watched each other for the next few days. The new commander reorganized his men into three brigades as the Royal Navy ferried more troops and artillery ashore and evacuated the wounded. Pakenham realized that the U.S. Navy’s vessels on the Mississippi River could enfilade his left flank in any move toward New Orleans. Under the command of Master Commandant Daniel T. Patterson, who held the local rank of commodore, the Mississippi Flotilla consisted of Carolina, riding at anchor; the unfinished converted sixteen-gun sloop-of-war Louisiana, anchored about one mile farther upriver and being used as a floating battery under Lt. Charles Thompson’s command; and two gunboats. To deal with this threat, Pakenham ordered his chief of artillery, Lt. Col. Alexander Dickson, to sink Carolina and, if possible, Louisiana. After cutting embrasures in the levee during the night of 25 December, the British erected furnaces for heating “hot shot,” and waited for more ammunition.
The British opened fire at dawn on 27 December. With guns firing round shot and howitzers firing shell, the artillerymen quickly found the range to Carolina. Both Louisiana and Carolina returned fire, but only the forward 12-pounder aboard the latter could reply effectively. Patterson ordered both ships and the gunboats to withdraw upstream. Shot and shell raked the deck as Carolina struggled against the current and northwest wind. A hot shot penetrated to the hold and started a fire. When he realized the flames were out of control, Captain Henley ordered the crew to abandon ship before the fire spread to the magazine and ignited the powder. The resulting explosion destroyed the ship at about 10:20 p.m. Although at maximum range, British artillerymen now turned their attention on Louisiana, but the crew used their boats to tow the ship upstream to safety. The men of Carolina later salvaged some guns from the sunken hulk and served on shore.