On the evening of January 7, 1815, the Ursuline sisters gathered in the church attached to their convent on Rue Chartres in the French Quarter, along with a number of local residents. They began to pray, in particular to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, that their city, New Orleans, be spared from the ravages of the British Army which was camped a few miles down the Mississippi River near the Chalmette Plantation. The next morning, January 8, Father William Dubourg said Mass at the convent and the Prioress, Mother Ste. Marie Olivier de Vezin, promised to have a Mass sung annually in thanksgiving if the city would be spared. The church next to the Old Ursuline Convent is now St. Mary’s Italian Church, and they do indeed sing that Mass every year.
Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane of the Royal Navy was not able to deliver on his boast that he would spend Christmas, 1814, in New Orleans. By New Year’s, he was still on his flagship in Lake Borgne, as Sir Edward Pakenham planned to advance from Chalmette onto the city of New Orleans. To get there, though, Pakenham and his force of over 7,400 soldiers and 1,500 Royal Marines would have to get past the Rodriguez Canal, where Major General Andrew Jackson, U.S. Army, and over 4,000 men waited for them.
Jackson knew his force of Army regulars, volunteers, and pirates was vastly outnumbered, but he had geography and marksmanship on his side. Pakenham ordered his force to advance, under the cover of fog. As the sun rose, however, the fog burned off, offering the British lines as juicy targets to American artillery.
Then the mistakes compounded themselves. The 44th Foot (East Essex) forgot the ladders they would need to cross the Rodriguez Canal and the rampart behind which the American forces were firing. The 85th Foot (Bucks Volunteers), reinforced by other troops, had crossed the Mississippi down river from the battlefield, but was now unable to cross back to the east bank to support the main advance. American Riflemen began to pick off the British officers as the units came into range, causing a serious command-and-control breakdown. Over twenty senior British officers were killed, including Major General Samuel Gibbs, commander of the inland column. Major General John Keane, commander of the second column, advancing along the river, was wounded. The command breakdown was costly. The 93rd Highlanders, whose light company actually broke through to the redoubt on the left (inland) flank of the American forces, were ordered to cross the main battlefield. Their commander, Lt. Col. Dale, was killed during this movement. With no officers able to take the initiative, the main body of the regiment was mowed down in the center, contributing a major portion of the 291 British killed at Chalmette.
Then came the most severe blow to the British advance: Sir Edward was struck in the knee by a grapeshot from the American guns. Attempting to remount on his aide’s horse, he was then shot in the arm. Mortally wounded, Pakenham’s last words were orders for Maj. Gen. Lambert to bring up his reserves. But it would be too little, too late. The 85th, stuck on the west bank, were unable to bring guns to bear on the American positions across the river, much less cross themselves. Lambert was advised that it would take 2,000 men to defend Thornton’s position. This, combined with losses on the east bank, forced him to withdraw from the battlefield and return to the fleet.
Cochrane and Lambert allowed a planned attack on Fort St. Philip, just north of the mouth of the Mississippi River, to proceed on January 9. The Royal Navy bombarded the fort unsuccessfully for ten days, before withdrawing on January 18. Lambert concluded that continuing the attack on New Orleans would be too costly, so the fleet left the area on February 5, 1815.The British mounted a successful attack on Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay on February 12, but withdrew from there once they received word of the Treaty of Ghent, ending hostilities in the War of 1812.
Major General Jackson returned to the city a hero, along with his ragtag force. Praises of their deeds and valor on January 8, 1815, are still sung to this day.
And Catholics still give thanks to Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
Edward Branley is the author of Maison Blanche Department Stores, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpunditon Twitter.