Napoleon and New Orleans: the Emperor’s First Surrender and its Impact on Britain in the Last Major Battle of the War of 1812

Samantha A. Cavell
Southeastern Louisiana University

The first two weeks of April 1814 brought about three important events in the global conflict that played out on both sides of the Atlantic, as the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the War of 1812 in North America. The first occurred on April 1 when Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane assumed command of the Royal Navy’s North America Station with every intention of escalating the war with the United States and bringing the conflict to a rapid end in Britain’s favor. The second, which took place on April 6, was the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte after his defeat in the Battle of Paris. Five days later, he signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau and agreed to the terms offered by Prussia, Austria, and Russia to give up control of his empire and accept exile to Elba. An end to the war on the Continent theoretically enabled Britain to focus on North America and siphon off ships and troops that would allow Cochrane to broaden aggressive action on the eastern seaboard. The third event, on April 14, was U.S. President James Madison’s repeal of the trade embargo that had been in place, in various forms, since 1807. 1  In an effort to stave off U.S. bankruptcy and brewing rebellion in the Federalist northeast, Madison sought ways to boost revenue to meet the increased threat from Britain. 2  

James Madison by Chester Harding

Together, these events address the world-wide scope of war in 1814, and the interconnectedness of political, economic, and naval/military factors involving three nations engaged in two nominally-separate conflicts. The degree of reciprocity suggests, however, that these were two theaters in the same struggle, hinged on Great Britain, whose position as an imperial and commercial hegemon faced a dual challenge, albeit from vastly asymmetrical threats. That the United States understood its relative weakness in military and naval matters was evident in the opportunism with which Madison’s government declared war while Britain was focused on the existential threat posed by the Napoleonic juggernaut. The relationship between the two wars was indeed foundational. The predations of Britain and France on neutral American shipping provided Madison with a justification for war against both. Yet the lure of Canada and the emotional appeal of impressment raised public support for a war with Britain, an action that would never have been considered without the all-consuming distraction provided by France. In April 1814, however, the relationship between the three nations was at a turning point. 

Madison’s ambition to “emancipate” Canada 3  may have faded, but he could now adopt new strategies to break Britain’s slow strangulation of the U.S. economy. 4  Conversely, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s government was now free to craft an endgame for America and his war cabinet got to work on the primary goal of securing Canada while a series of diversions on the U.S. coast, culminating in an attack on New Orleans, would prevent the Americans from amassing forces in the north. Britain’s uncertainty over the terms and conditions of Napoleon’s capitulation, however, caused problems for planners in London. Elba was too close to France, both in its proximity and its imperial loyalties and the threat of Bonaparte’s return loomed large. The rapidly-changing political, diplomatic, and naval/military circumstances on the Continent throughout 1814 also confused objectives in North America. Although Britain sought the immediate submission of Madison’s administration and a quick end to the war, Liverpool was less willing to negotiate moderate terms now that greater military and naval effort could be directed towards a crushing and punitive American defeat. The means by which this victory would be achieved vacillated, between small-scale coastal raids and full-blown military engagements, depending on the threat level of a Napoleonic restoration. Moreover, action in North America had to be considered in relation to talks with European heads of state who sought to remake the Continent in Napoleon’s wake. Actions that would bolster the crown’s bargaining position in these negotiations, which began formally in Vienna on October 1, also had to be considered. With so many factors in play, confused and sometimes contradictory plans resulted in Whitehall, and devolved onto commanders like Cochrane who made dubious or ill-informed decisions in the field as a result. Nowhere was this more evident than in the humiliating defeat of Britain’s combined forces at New Orleans. The process by which British plans in North America were influenced and ultimately derailed by events in Europe, is visible in the rapidly changing climate of global politics between April 1814 and the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans in February 1815. 

Field, Robert; Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), Governor of Guadeloupe (National Galleries of Scotland)

Cochrane’s assumption of command of the North America Station was an ordeal of patience, more than two months in the making. 5  His predecessor, Admiral John Borlase Warren, refused to relinquish control of his flagship, HMS Tonnant, or of his command, which included ships stationed from Halifax to Bahama. 6  An unexpected benefit of the delay was that by April 1 Cochrane was fully briefed on the disposition of the roughly forty-five ships and vessels on station and ready to roll out aggressive new policies designed to make life so unbearable for the coastal populations of the United States that they would pressure their government into quickly ending the war. Cochrane’s plans for destructive, flying attacks on east coast towns and cities, combined with a continuation of Warren’s blockade of the Chesapeake and New York, represented the diversionary half of Whitehall’s strategy to, once and for all, eliminate the threat to Canada. This would be achieved by reinforcing General George Prevost’s army in Quebec with 30,000 troops to push the American invaders back to a safe distance and protect the border. Only a fraction of these men would, however, come from the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsula army. Wellington and Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, shared a deep skepticism about the security of Napoleon’s island prison and refused to release troops who might be needed in Europe at a moment’s notice. Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, who had been on the Continent since January 1814 as Britain’s representative in the treaty negotiations, refused to sign at Fontainebleau in protest of the feeble measures taken for dealing with the deposed emperor. 7  He was also in a position to know just how fragile the situation was in France. Although instrumental in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Castlereagh was well aware of Louis XVIII’s weaknesses and his illegitimacy in the eyes of the French people. He was also aware of the unpopularity of the Bourbons among members of the Whig opposition at home who levelled heavy criticism at his apparent support for ancien regime despots. Several prominent Whigs, supported by Lords Holland and Brougham, began making pilgrimages to Elba for audiences with Bonaparte. The stream of high-ranking Britons flocking to Bonaparte’s court was a deep embarrassment to Liverpool’s government, both at home and in Europe. 8  In all, the circumstances did not bode well for Napoleon staying put and unified fears at the highest levels ensured the maintenance of an army ready to deal with all possibilities.  

At the Admiralty, Lord Melville was hamstrung by the situation. Like his colleagues, the First Lord understood the need to maintain the strength of the Mediterranean and Channel fleets. After April 14, however, Cochrane’s demands for more ships in North America took on new urgency to answer Madison’s lifting of the embargo. Melville, like Liverpool, recognized the need for a rapid end to the American war which had become deeply unpopular at home. 9  The financial burden it placed on a tax and war-weary population, who now saw light at the end of a twenty-year-long tunnel, was a leading cause for complaint. The government understood that America’s move to raise revenue through the resumption of trade was a symptom of their own fiscal desperation and that Melville’s proposal to send more ships and allow Cochrane to expand the blockade was a necessary measure, even if it bled naval power from European waters. 10  By the end of July, Cochrane’s demands were answered. He now commanded more than seventy ships which formed a continuous blockade of ports as far north as Maine and as far south as the Mississippi delta. 11  

Pressure to bring about a quick, decisive end to the war in North America also forced Bathurst and Wellington to relax their grip on army resources. In addition to the 30,000 troops sent to Prevost in Canada, they also agreed to augment raiding forces in the U.S., with 2,100 men to Maine, an additional 1,200 to the Chesapeake, and 6,000 to Bermuda as active reserves to be used as needed. Finally, 7,500 regulars would be sent to take New Orleans, the largest city west of the Appalachians and a vital entrepôt for trade to and from the center of the country. 12 

For Cochrane, New Orleans had always been a target. He spent his early career cruising the American coast, and in a memo to the Admiralty sent before the war began, he named the Chesapeake and New Orleans as the most strategically important and militarily vulnerable places in the U.S. 13  With the Chesapeake already bowing under the weight of Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross’s combined force, New Orleans became a priority. Under Warren, plans for Louisiana had been shelved due to the shortage of men and resources. Now circumstances were different. On April 27 Bathurst wrote to Wellington confirming plans to send 7,500 men to Louisiana under the command of Lieutenant General Rowland Hill. Assignment of Wellington’s most trusted general in the Peninsula War spoke to the importance of the mission. Lord Hill accepted the appointment and began assembling his team of senior officers, most of whom had distinguished themselves in battles from Salamanca to Vitoria. Such a line-up also suggested that this campaign would be more than a hit-and-run attack or coastal raid. New Orleans was planned as a massed military operation of overwhelming force. To ensure its success, Cochrane also devised diversionary attacks on the coast of Georgia and the Gulf Coast of Florida to prevent American reinforcements from coming to the city’s defense.

There is little in the correspondence to suggest that Britain planned a permanent occupation or annexation of New Orleans or Louisiana territory. Its capture reflected broader strategic goals designed to hold the city long enough to strike a death blow to American trade and commerce. It would also be useful as a “hostage” in negotiations with the Americans, which aimed to protect Canada. Bathurst addressed these objectives in his instructions to Ross during the planning stages of the campaign:

First, to obtain command of the embouchure of the Mississippi, so as to deprive the back settlements of America their communication with the sea; and, secondly, to occupy some important and valuable possession, by the restoration of which the conditions of peace might be improved, or which we might be entitled to exact the cession of, as the price of peace. 14  

This last point spoke to the general British, and wider European, belief in the illegality of the Louisiana Purchase. Raising a rebellion among the French and Spanish populations in the southern sector would be the first step in challenging American claims to the region. 15  Ross was to encourage Louisianans to either assert their territorial independence or return to “the dominion of the Spanish Crown.” Bathurst also directed that, “You will discountenance any proposition . . . to place themselves under the dominion of Great Britain.” 16  While permanent acquisition of New Orleans was not Britain’s goal, its motives in returning Louisiana to Spain were hardly altruistic. For a start, Liverpool’s government was well aware that Spain, in 1814, was incapable of asserting geopolitical power on any level. Louisianans’ acceptance of such an offer would, however, help delegitimize Napoleon’s sale of the territory, foment civil strife, humiliate the Madison administration, present options for the creation of an independent territory for Britain’s Native American allies, and at least temporarily, disrupt U.S. expansion. It would also upset trade, reducing the threat posed by American commerce to British mercantile interests in the West Indies and beyond. The appearance of support for Spain could also provide Britain leverage in the talks in Vienna which would decide the future of European alliances and international commercial agreements. 

With the navy and army working in concert, Melville wrote to Cochrane on July 29 authorizing him to proceed with plans for the attack on New Orleans. By then Cochrane had already begun his advance work and sent Commander Hugh Pigot to scout the area between Apalachicola and Pensacola and assess the level of support that could be counted on from local Native Americans. In June he reported Pigot’s findings to First Secretary Croker at the Admiralty; “I have no doubt that 3000 troops landed at Mobile where they would be joined by all the Indians, with the disaffected French and Spaniards would drive the Americans entirely out of Louisiana and the Floridas . . . .” 17  He also sent 4,000 muskets, with powder and ammunition, to arm the new allies and intended to send 2,000 more. 18  A month later, Cochrane expressed even greater confidence in the Native American contribution and wrote to Bathurst that just “Two thousand men [regulars] would give to Gt. Britain the command of that Country and New Orleans.” 19  

Cochrane’s enthusiasm for the campaign was such that he committed to “attend the expedition myself.” 20  Melville too, began logistical preparations and wrote to Admiral Dommet in Cork asking his opinion on the best time for the troops to set sail for Louisiana to ensure they would not arrive before December 1, as the risk of tropical disease was too great before that time. 21  

By August 10, however, the situation in London had changed. Whether circumstances were altered by Castlereagh’s spies on Elba who conveyed Napoleon’s growing interest in returning to France, or the appearance of newspaper stories that reported his escape as a fait accompli, is unknown. 22  The result was that Croker wrote to Cochrane announcing that circumstances no longer permitted a force of 7,500 troops being shipped to New Orleans. Instead, he could count on 2,200 men under Major General John Lambert to augment Ross’ force, bringing their total number to 6,000. 23  It was a far cry from the brigades of fresh troops under Lord Hill and meant that, when the time came, Ross’ men would have to be pulled from operations in the Chesapeake, and would not be available to augment the diversions in Georgia and Florida. Cochrane, nonetheless, remained sanguine. Pigot and Marine Major Edward Nicolls, stationed on the Gulf Coast, assured him that at least 3000 Native Americans were ready to march as part of a “Colonial Marine” guard. 24  

For the time being, operations under Cockburn and Ross in Maryland proceeded well and on August 24 victory at Bladensburg led to the burning of the American capital and the capitulation of Alexandria. News of the destruction of the Presidential Palace and other official buildings was not well received by European heads of state or by British opponents to the war who saw such brutality as akin to “the Bonapartian style” of war. 25  Wellington had to calm tempers in Paris and assure the French government that British intentions did not include the elimination of the government of the United States. 26  For the peace negotiations that had begun in Ghent in mid-August, these events tilted talks decidedly in Britain’s favor. 

September, however, brought nothing but bad news in North America. Prevost’s attempt to capture U.S. territory in the northeast and create a more advantageous and secure border for Canada did not go as planned. His invasion force descended on Lake Champlain and was defeated at Plattsburgh, New York on September 11. A day later, the opening salvos in the combined operation against Baltimore saw General Ross killed by a sniper. The resistance offered by local regulars and militia was surprisingly strong compared to their experiences in Bladensburg, Washington, and Alexandria, and Ross’ men were vastly outnumbered in the land attack. Cochrane had soured on the idea of attacking Baltimore weeks before the campaign began, citing concerns about the warmness of the climate and the shallowness of the harbor, which limited his ability to offer the army and marines close support from his ships. Persuaded by Ross’ enthusiasm and the ease of earlier conquests, Cochrane reluctantly agreed. His fears about Baltimore Harbor were well founded, as evidenced by the failure of his long-range naval bombardment on the night of September 13-14 to reduce Fort McHenry. Although Melville considered the attempt as a continuation of the harassment strategy, Cochrane saw Baltimore as a failure, one which fueled his desire for retribution and a redeeming success. Aware that peace talks had begun in Ghent, he wrote to Melville expressing his anxiety that the war might be over before he’d given the Americans their due; “if the Peace makers will only stay their proceedings until Jonathan is brought to the heels of Gt. Britain, future Wars will be prevented.” He was also keen to point out the need for harsh punishments to school Americans, and the American negotiators, out of their belligerence; “like Spaniels they must be treated with great severity before you can ever make them tractable.” 27  The dual specters of vengeance and pride informed his desire to move forward with the campaign for New Orleans with all speed. 

Troubles in the south dogged Cochrane throughout September. His initial plan for New Orleans involved landing the troops and supplies at Mobile and marching them overland to Baton Rouge. From there they would follow the Mississippi River south to New Orleans. His diversion at Pensacola was designed to draw American attention towards Florida; a plan which, to a large extent, succeeded. The next step was to secure access to Mobile by subduing Fort Bowyer, a palmetto log and sand battery, at the mouth of the bay. The September 14-15 attack, which was intended as a simultaneous pincer movement of Colonial Marines on land and a naval bombardment from four Royal Navy brigs, was an uncoordinated failure. Attempts to lure the assistance of the privateer, pirate, and smuggler Jean Laffite to open a back door to New Orleans via Bayou Lafourche were equally unsuccessful. The only remaining avenue to reach the city was through Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, bodies of water that were notoriously shallow and only navigable by shallow-draft boats. Dozens would be needed to land the materiel, supplies, and troops in sufficient numbers to be effective.

September and October in Ghent brought both sides no closer to resolution. American intransigence was seen as folly and Liverpool expressed his confusion as to their motives; “I confess I cannot believe that with the prospect of bankruptcy before them, the American government would not wish to make peace, if they can make it upon terms that would not give a triumph to their enemies [the Federalists].” 28  Liverpool was aware of his own enemies within and that the tangle of negotiations at Ghent and Vienna had mutual repercussions. 29  One example was the new threat to a European balance of power that arose from Russia, and the potential for a destabilizing Russian-Prussian axis. This danger echoed in Anglo-American negotiations as Russia offered her services as mediator. British rejection of the proposal was greeted by mixed reviews at home, as liberal papers cast doubt on Liverpool’s true desire for peace, calling for “moderation” and warning of the consequences of proffering “degrading terms” in the negotiations. 30  American delegates pushed for a status quo antebellum agreement to protect their borders against what may come. They were aware of British intentions to hold American territory in the north after Plattsburgh and such fears were underlined by the crown’s demand for terms uti possidetis. Negotiators like Henry Goulburn, Bathurst’s deputy, felt confident that the capture of New Orleans would make up for Prevost’s failure in the north and that a hostage New Orleans would constitute a means to drive a hard bargain. 31  Trading New Orleans for a new northern border or neutral buffer zone to protect Canada from future invasion, and a guarantee of land for Britain’s Indian allies, was seen as the last best option to guard against the rapaciousness of American expansionism. 32  

November 20 saw the rendezvous of the first reinforcements for New Orleans at Point Negril, Jamaica. Cochrane’s outlook was grim as he assembled his forces from the Chesapeake, Bermuda, and the new arrivals from Britain. First and foremost, he was seriously short of men. Nicolls was unable to raise more than 500 Colonial Marines, and Whitehall’s alternative to sending more troops from Wellington’s stock was for Cochrane to take them from Canada. His pleas to Prevost to release one battalion for southern operations, in a season when no campaigning could take place in the north, fell on deaf ears. 33  Furthermore, his request to the Admiralty for “25 or 30 . . .  flat bottomed Vessels,” 27  essential as troop transports for the lakes, was ignored despite the plethora of “Dutch schuyts and doggers in England.” 35  Cochrane’s Captain of the Fleet, Commodore Sir Edward Codrington, addressed the absence of artillery noting that, “our battering train, with the proper means of transporting guns . . .” was nowhere to be seen. 36  Worse, Cochrane learned that his secret requests to the navy’s Agent for Transports in Jamaica, to gather flat-bottomed boats for New Orleans, had been widely advertised. Cochrane also learned the consequences of this publicity. Mr. Hudson, a New Orleans merchant visiting Jamaica, had rushed details of the campaign to General Andrew Jackson in Pensacola where he remained after capturing the town on November 7. 37  Whether it was Hudson’s news of an impending attack on New Orleans that caused Jackson to act, or the barrage of letters he received from Secretary of War, James Monroe, begging him to go immediately to the defense of the city, Jackson moved quickly, arriving in the French Quarter on December 1.

Battle of New Orleans (Library of Congress)

Cochrane too, rushed to action. His only chance was to strike New Orleans swiftly before the Americans could assemble a defense of any size. He began the campaign with a force of roughly 4,000 regulars and West India regiments and 1,000 marines, nine line of battle ships plus dozens of frigates, brigs, and transports 38  — but with no flat-bottomed boats for use as landing craft, no mobile artillery or artillery transports, insufficient provisions, and without the senior army commander for the campaign. 39  Major General Sir Edward Pakenham would not arrive in Louisiana until December 25. 

It is difficult to overstate the exertions required to transport a force of 5,000 men, naval guns, ammunition, powder, and supplies across seventy miles of shallow lakes and bayous in ships’ boats and small tenders powered only by oars. The weather offered little help as one of the coldest, wettest winters on record blanketed the Louisiana coast in sleet and ice. The die, however, was cast and Cochrane would exert every energy to achieve his goals of seizing New Orleans, taking retribution on the Americans, and redeeming his professional reputation after Baltimore. 

December saw other battles afoot in Vienna, and much infighting among the delegates over issues ranging from the sovereignty of states to minor commercial agreements. The ongoing failure of talks in Ghent became a source of embarrassment for Britain in the European discussions. It was difficult for Castlereagh to assert the merits of liberty and moderation, and the value of British arbitration in Continental affairs when its own “colonial” matters were in such disarray. The neutrality of European states in the Anglo-American war meant that most harbored a natural sympathy for U.S. claims to neutral trading rights. Some, like Russia, were prepared to use neutrality as a weapon against British attempts to block alliances that advantaged Tsar Alexander’s interests. 40  Unpopular involvement in foreign policy-making fed domestic political unrest, and a deepening hatred for the American war among Britons. Although Liverpool acknowledged that continuing the war for another year would certainly yield a better outcome for Britain, the weight of domestic and Continental factors necessitated an immediate settlement at Ghent, which was signed on December 24. The war, however, would not be over until both parties ratified the treaty. 41  The news was received well at Vienna by Britain’s allies in negotiations, particularly France and Austria, but less so by Russia who saw the advantages to be gleaned from an ongoing Anglo-American war. 42  Circling over all the negotiations, however, were growing concerns about the insecurity of Elba as a prison, the consequences of Napoleon’s escape, and the necessity of a more distant exile to St. Helena. This news, along with reports from France of Louis XVIII’s ineptitude and unpopularity, spurred Bonaparte to action. It is debatable whether he had ever intended to remain as the “King of Elba”, but the threat of being sent to the ends of the earth, and the certainty of a warm welcome in France made his return essential. 43  

The Death of Pakenham at the Battle of New Orleans by F. O. C. Darley (Creative Commons)

The battle on the Plain of Chalmette, six miles south of New Orleans, on January 8, 1815 was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army. Pakenham was killed in the opening barrage of grape and cannister along with many of his senior officers. Yet, on the West Bank of the Mississippi a force of 600 soldiers, sailors, and marines under the command of Colonel William Thornton, a veteran of Ross’ campaigns in the Chesapeake, eliminated every obstacle in their path. From atop the levee just across the river from the city, they realized the objective. Half a dozen guns on the Algiers embankment, where none of Jackson’s forces remained, reduced the French Quarter to rubble, and at this moment the British had their victory. The last army commander left standing on the East Bank at Chalmette was Major General Lambert who commanded more than 2000 men in reserve and the necessary guns. Lambert though, was frozen with shock by the carnage before him. Even the news from Thornton could not break his belief in total defeat. He ordered Thornton’s men to fall back across the river and sent a messenger under a flag of truce to Jackson, handing triumph to his enemy.

Cochrane had little to say, even privately, on his disappointment at New Orleans. His official dispatches lamented the fallen and praised the worthy, entrusting their Lordships with a duty to reward the deserving with promotion. On December 30, a week before the battle took place, the Prince Regent had signed the treaty and Croker wrote to Cochrane recalling him to England, contingent upon an American ratification. 44  The recall did not reach Cochrane until mid-February 1815, by which time the fleet had returned to Mobile Bay and captured Fort Bowyer in a half-hearted bid to take Mobile in preparation for an attack on Georgia’s southern flank. Cochrane determined that such a demonstration, combined with Cockburn’s force on the Atlantic coast of Georgia, would be sufficient to keep the Americans from turning their attentions back to Canada. 45  This was in accordance with strict orders from Bathurst that hostilities must continue, even if rumors of peace circulated, until official word arrived that ratification was complete. Madison’s was the last signature added to the document on February 17, by which time Cochrane was in route to Halifax, via Havana and Bermuda, in preparation for his journey home. As Codrington noted, the defeat at New Orleans made “a very sad story to relate in return for all our laborious exertions.” As for the outcome of the treaty he lamented, “I cannot help viewing the terms of this peace as discreditable to the country, and I feel it the more since our failure at New Orleans.” 46  Within a week, the disasters of North America would be overshadowed by events in Europe.

Cochrane’s defeat at New Orleans ended his career at sea. The magnitude of the shame demanded that it be shouldered by someone in high authority: Pakenham was dead and better yet, the brother-in-law of Wellington, whose star rose even higher in the summer of 1815. Absolution by association rendered his friends unassailable in both public and professional spheres. Cochrane, up to this point, had a solid professional resume, but he could be difficult, whiny, and insecure to the point of paranoia about enemies real and imagined. His family too, did him no credit. While one brother had been indicted for stock exchange fraud, his famous nephew, Captain Thomas Cochrane, was implicated in the same scheme and forced to flee to South America where he continued his exploits with the Chilean and Brazilian navies. Alexander himself had fallen foul of the abolitionist William Wilberforce who remained a powerful figure in government and kept a close eye on Cochrane after his shady dealings with African recaptives on Tortola in 1808. 47  In short, Cochrane was an obvious and easy target to shoulder the blame for the unsatisfying end to the American war. He was the architect and, until Pakenham’s arrival, the overall commander of the complicated and physically grueling campaign for New Orleans. Even so, there should have been plenty of blame to go around. 

Failure at New Orleans was the product of many factors, only some of which had to do with Cochrane. First, Bathurst, Wellington, and Melville constantly altered the nature and size the Louisiana campaign, which began as a full-scale military operation. Weeks later it was slashed to an outsized raid before finally being resurrected as a half-baked invasion force, minus elements essential to its success. These fluctuations in grand strategy were partly dictated by speculation as to Napoleon’s willingness to cooperate in his own exile, partly in answer to criticism from the Whig opposition at home, and partly in accordance with pressure from European negotiators in Vienna. Among Britons, public support for the government foundered as demands grew for tax reform, an end to British involvement in Continental policy, and cessation of the war against an enemy whom many now embraced as their “American cousins”. 

Napoleon at Fontainebleau (

The second factor affecting New Orleans was the way in which British war aims in North America seesawed, between the conquest of territory for punitive purposes and the desire for a quick, conciliatory end to the war. Both were, in many ways, driven by the push and pull of Continental politics after Fontainebleau and domestic unrest. Territorial conquest in the north sought a more defendable border for Canada but Prevost’s military failures necessarily shifted the focus south. Now all hopes for a better solution in Canada rested on the acquisition of New Orleans, a prospect that raised so many possibilities that British goals were muddied to the point of obscurity. The capture of New Orleans would have provided a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with the Americans, and likely altered the terms of the signed treaty. Possession of Louisiana was a hammer to hold over the heads of the U.S. Congress, to nail home claims of the illegality of the Louisiana Purchase and in doing so, threaten American expansion and stymie challenges to Anglo commercial dominance in the Western hemisphere. In this vein, New Orleans might have been ma for a new northern border or neutral zone. 48  It might also have been ceded in exchange for special trading and commercial privileges that would bear fruit for decades to come and satisfy the demands of British mercantilists in the West Indies. 

Simultaneously, such claims would add weight to British demands in Vienna. As the apparent defender of Spanish interests, Britain could, in return, demand Spain’s acquiescence on anti-slave trading policies which Liverpool, under pressure from Wilberforce, emphasized as a critical part of negotiations. 49  All possibilities, however, guttered in the aftermath of the January 8 battle.

Just as the campaign for New Orleans formed in the confluence of three simultaneous events in April 1814, it ended in a series of three related actions in the last two weeks of February 1815. First, Cochrane left the Gulf Coast in defeat and disgrace despite having no part in the events that handed a British victory over to Jackson. Second, Madison ratified the peace, leaving his nation bankrupt but whole. Threats of Federalist secession faded with the end of the war as blue-water commerce resumed. Jackson’s success against the might of Great Britain provided the foundation for claims of an American victory in the war itself which ignored years of crushing defeat and focused on the frigates, the fort, and New Orleans to frame a new, nationalist narrative. Success at New Orleans also secured a status quo antebellum peace, guaranteeing the security of Louisiana as U.S. territory and paving the way for rapid expansion. The removal of Native Americans was an immediate consequence of the peace as Britain’s ability to support her allies or press for an independent Indian territory sank in the mud of the Chalmette battlefield. Finally, on February 26, Napoleon made his break from Elba, triggering a new war for Britain and her Continental allies. In contrast to the factionalism and infighting at Vienna, Bonaparte’s Hundred Days galvanized a new coalition which came together in a true Concert of Europe to defeat a common foe. 

The sorrows of Boney, or meditations in the island of Elba!!! (LOC Image #PC 1 – 12223)

The entanglement of international politics and diplomacy that played out on the world stage in the months between Napoleon’s first abdication and his ill-fated return to power provided both the motivation and the means by which naval and military events unfolded in North America. Connectivity between world powers and its effect on both foreign policy and domestic affairs in Britain directly influenced wartime decision making which, in the case of New Orleans, yielded decisive results. 

Ironically, the Anglo-American war appeared anything but decisive in its outcome, with both sides presenting implausible arguments for victory. Britain claimed success in what it had fought as an economic war, although the distraction provided by Napoleon’s return provided cover for the unfulfilled political and military ambitions that had taken shape in the last year of the conflict. America claimed victory for repelling an invader, despite having lost most of the battles and failing to achieve any of its war aims. Merchant shipping was devastated and the massive debt incurred by Madison’s wartime policies helped destabilized the economy for the next two decades. 50  

The end of the War of 1812 ultimately enabled Britain to reassert its dominance in Continental affairs from a military, diplomatic, and economic standpoint. The final defeat of Napoleon allowed Britain to maintain its leading role in European reconstruction and laid the foundations of the Pax Britannica. In the process, the links between Britain, France, and the United States were reestablished, this time creating a path to peace that endured through the nineteenth century and beyond. 

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. The Embargo Act, 1807; Non-Importation Acts, 1806 and 1811; Non-Intercourse Act, 1809; 2nd Embargo Act, 1813. The last, along with the 1811 Non-Importation Act, was repealed on April 14, 1814.
  2. Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011), 165.
  3. William Hull’s proclamation upon invading Canada in 1812 quoted in Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies (New York: Vintage, 2011), 414.
  4. Arthur, How Britain Won, 97, 101-106.
  5. Cochrane to Warren, correspondence covering Feb. and Mar. 1814, National Library of Scotland (NLS) 2326, ff. 11-55.
  6. For most of the war, the North America Station under Admiral Warren included the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States, Bermuda, Bahama, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands stations. Such a massive area of authority was deemed unwieldy. When Cochrane took over in 1814, the North America Station was reduced to the American coast, Bermuda and Bahama, essentially everything north of the Tropic of Cancer.
  7. Castlereagh would sign the subsequent Treaty of Chaumont, March 1, 1814. John Bew, Castlereagh: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 345.
  8. Katharine MacDonogh, “A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba, and the British,” History Today, 44, no. 2 (Feb. 1994): 29-35. MacDonogh notes that there were at least sixty Whig visitors, of various social ranks, who gained audiences with Napoleon on Elba. Among them Lord Ebrington; later Earl Fortescue, the Viceroy to Ireland, was the most illustrious. John G. Alger, Napoleon’s British Visitors and Captives, 1801-1815 (London: A. Constable & Co., 1904), 297.
  9. Troy Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 206-07, 220-28.
  10. Kevin McCranie, Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 254.
  11. By Dec. 1814 the number of vessels on station was between 80 (Arthur, How Britain Won, 225-26) and 106 (McCranie, Utmost Gallantry, 250-51).
  12. Donald Graves, “The Redcoats are Coming! British Troop Movements to North America in 1814,” Journal of the War of 1812, 6, no. 3 (2001): 12-18.
  13. Cochrane to Melville (draft) April 1812, NLS, 2574, ff. 3-6.
  14. Bathurst to Ross, Sept. 6 1814, The National Archives (TNA), ADM 1/4360, ff. 58-65.
  15. Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812 (New York: Putnam, 1974), 164.
  16. Bathurst to Ross, Sept. 6, 1814, ADM 1/4360, ff. 58-65. Bathurst’s suggestion came with no promises that Britain could deliver on either of these options.
  17. Cochrane to Croker, June 20, 1814, ADM 1/506, ff. 390-93.
  18. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12,
  19. Cochrane to Bathurst, July 3, 1814, TNA, WO 1/141, f. 3.
  20. Cochrane to Croker, June 20, 1814, ADM 1/506, ff. 775-76.
  21. Melville to Dommett, July 23, 1814, WO 1/142, f. 519.
  22. Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba: The Fall and Flight of Napoleon, 1814-1815 (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1982), 161-62.
  23. Croker to Cochrane, Aug. 10, 1814, WO 1/141, ff. 7-9. Not all these reinforcements would arrive for the start of the New Orleans campaign.
  24. Pigot to Cochrane, June 8, 1814, ADM 1/506, f. 738. Pigot’s report included an accounting of Creeks friendly to the English totaling 3255 men.
  25. The Leeds Mercury, October 1, 1814 quoted in Bickham, Vengeance, 221.
  26. Wellington to Castlereagh, October 4, 1814, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Supplementary Dispatches, Correspondence and Memoranda (WSD), 9 (London: 1858-1872), 314-15.
  27. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12.
  28. Liverpool to Bathurst, September 11, 1814, quoted in WSD 9, 240.
  29. Bickham, Vengeance, 252.
  30. Edinburgh Star, June 7, 1814 in Bickham, Vengeance, 253.
  31. Bickham, Vengeance, 236.
  32. Bickham, Vengeance, 258-59. Goulburn was the voice of conscience when it came to providing for Native American allies at Ghent. He was disgusted with Liverpool’s willingness to cave to the Americans. For territorial gain as a means of securing a better border for Canada see, Liverpool to Canning, December 28, 1814, in WSD 9, 513-15.
  33. Cochrane to Prevost, October 5, 1814, ADM 1/508, ff. 131-135.
  34. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12.
  35. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815, in Lady Bourchier, ed., Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, 1 (London: Longmars, Green & Co. 1873), 338.
  36. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815, in Bourchier, Memoir, 338. Codrington only wrote about the artillery problem after the fact and noted in the same letter that both the artillery and its transportation arrived in the Gulf Coast on January 18, ten days after the Battle of New Orleans. The only guns used at New Orleans were naval guns on truck carriages which “cost us so much toil” and required “Herculean labor” to transport and move through the muddy swamps.
  37. Cochrane to Melville, December 7, 1814, ADM 1/508, ff. 395-97.
  38. National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich, UK, MAL/104, ff. 23-25, 50-51.
  39. All the guns used at Chalmette were naval guns on truck carriages, ill-suited to moving across swampy ground. Most would be lost during the campaign. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815 in Bourchier, Memoir, 338.
  40. William Anthony Hay, Lord Liverpool: A Political Life (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2018), 161-63.
  41. This was Liverpool’s stipulation, Liverpool to Castlereagh, December 23, 1814, in WSD 9, 495.
  42. Hay, Liverpool, 163.
  43. “But if France had been well governed, if the French had been content, my influence would have been at an end, I was history, and no one in Vienna would have dreamed of moving me on.” Napoleon quoted by Le Comte de Las Cases, in Peter Hicks, “Napoleon On Elba – An Exile Of Consent,” Napoleonica, La Revue, 1, No. 19 (2014): 53-67.
  44. Croker to Cochrane, December 30, 1814, TNA, ADM 2/1381, ff. 92-95.
  45. Cochrane to Lambert, February 17, 1815, ADM 1/508, ff. 561-63.
  46. Codrington to his wife, February 13, 1815 in Bourchier, Memoir, 340.
  47. S.A. Cavell, “Abolition, the West India Colonies and the Troubling Case of Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, 1807-1823,” The Mariner’s Mirror, 107, 1 (Feb. 2021): 23-39.
  48. Bickham, Vengeance, 244.
  49. Hay, Liverpool, 158.
  50. Arthur, How Britain Won, 205-08.

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