…with attention to New Orleans
Russell B. Guerin
I have lately become interested once again in the book by British author George Robert Gleig about the battle of New Orleans. It is called The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans 1814-1815. A copy of this book is available online, listed as New Edition 1897. It lists the author as “Rev.” with the title “Chaplain-
General to the forces.”
Some clarifications are in order. The book was first published in London, in 1821. At the time of the battles, Gleig was a low-ranking officer, a lieutenant, but he had received substantial combat experience having served in the Peninsula War and been wounded twice. During the American adventure, he was thrice more wounded, and it seems he participated actively as a combat soldier.
Unless I have his year of birth incorrectly (1795), he was only about 19 or 20 at New Orleans. His activity as a chaplain took place later, as he was not ordained to the ministry until 1820. (Presiding over that event was the Archbishop of Canterbury.) Later, in 1844, he was made Chaplain General.
His service to his country was substantial. Not only did he serve honorably in the military, including service under Wellington at Waterloo, but he continued as chaplain for many years. In addition, he became a distinguished and prolific writer of history.
In 1834, Gleig was appointed chaplain of Chelsea Hospital. From the pulpit there was hung a flag which Gleig had captured at the battle of Bladensburg, in Maryland. It was at that decisive action which gave the British the ability to capture and burn the United States Capitol and other buildings.
I had read parts of Gleig’s account of New Orleans several years ago, but this time I thought it might be a good idea to see if he left us any insights about the areas in proximity to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Specifically, I had hoped to find particulars about the stay of the British troops on Pea Island, the seven-mile long sand island at the mouth of Pearl River. Pea Island has had several names, having first been called such by Iberville because he and his men lost a sack of peas there when they were exploring the coast. It is now referred to as Pearl River Island, and by Gleig was called Pine Island.
Actually situated in coastal Louisiana below Lake Borgne, it is significant in the comings and goings of the British army in the Battle of New Orleans. Moreover, it may be have been the locus of the disposition of some of the bodies of the Jamaican and Scottish troops who died in the action against New Orleans.
On balance, I did not find a great deal about Pea Island, and little about the Scottish troops. There is, however, a good description of Pea Island and the misery that the troops underwent while there. Mention is made of the death of some of the Jamaicans, but not a clue is given as to whether they were buried on the island. Possibly they were taken back to the troop ships on the near-empty returns of the barges.
Journal or Diary Account: a Question
Gleig’s style of writing brings into question whether his history was the result of a diary or journal kept during his experiences. His words evince either a highly educated young man or a more mature person who wrote afterward. Moreover, he did not hesitate to opine about the actions and strategy of his more experienced superiors. While it is known that his book was published several years after the war, in 1821, his detail seems to indicate that he must have made notes or kept some sort of record as time went on.
There are some indications of record-keeping, one having to do with the Jamaican troops. It shows an advance consideration, which unfortunate for them, was not taken seriously until it was necessary to bury them. That Gleig was recording at the time of the miscalculation, rather than later, is shown in this observation: “But on the black corps little reliance could be placed, especially if the climate should prove colder than was anticipated.”
Another example is found in a discussion following the burning of Washington. Gleig wrote, “In America, every man is a marksman from his very boyhood, and every man serves in the militia; but to bring an army of raw militia men, however excellent they might be as marksmen, into a fair field of regular troops, could end in nothing but defeat.” Surely, this would not have been written in the same way after New Orleans. Interestingly, it is surprising that it remained from whatever notes were used when the final book was edited and published.
Relevance to Hancock County
There is no doubt that settlers of Hancock County were aware of the British passage through their waters. About fifty foreign, ocean-going ships, most of them ships of war, docked near Cat Island. An additional fifty barges ferried several thousand combat troops to Pea Island and then across Lake Borgne to the Untied States mainland at St. Bernard, downriver from New Orleans. When the invasion came to New Orleans, some members of our local militia took part.
There is a legend in Hancock County that Scottish Highlanders were buried somewhere on our grounds, specifically in the town of Shieldsboro, now Bay St. Louis. It is not a solid legend, lacking any hard evidence, but it is mentioned in a late-19th century Sea Coast Echo article. It is possible that there might have been good reason for the British to have done so. While we know that many of their dead soldiers were gathered up in a two-day truce and buried near the battlefield, the question arises as to what happened to those dead who had left the field wounded but alive, only to die in transit, either on the barges or on ships before their departure.
One proponent of the legend even names the location in detail. It is likely that they were buried somewhere, although it may have been that they were buried at sea. Although I have found little to add to or subtract from the legend, it is known that Scottish troops, the 93rd regiment called the Sutherland Highlanders, fought at Chalmette. Gleig refers to them as a fine battalion mustering 900bayonets. It is reported that in the pitched battle on January 8, they were “mown down.” Another report states that after their commanding officer was killed the soldiers held their ground and in an act of “pure bravery” they took the Americans’ concentrated fire and were decimated.
Another report, one which contradicts the legend, is that three-fourths of the 93rd were left behind and those surviving and wounded were treated in American field hospitals and later returned to Britain.
In an early comment, Gleig assesses the mindset of troops in battle: “They are in fact so many gamblers playing for the highest stake that can be offered.”
One fascinating aspect of war to which Gleig alludes has to do with why men fight wars. In some cases history records that armies were made of slaves and others were filled through conscription. In our own early history, men of appropriate ages were expected to belong to the militia; it is thought that this is the reason why census information is broken into age categories, such as males between 16 and 18, 16 and 26 including heads of families, and 26 and under 45. [Cf. 1820 Hancock County census.]
` The British infantry during the Napoleonic years were volunteers. Many may have seen it as an honor to fight under Wellington and safeguard their country from Napoleon’s conquests. But they also were willing to cross the ocean packed together like sardines and to subject themselves to the freezing horrors of Pea Island and the like.
Gleig describes the conditions well: “…exposed all day to a cold and pelting rain, we landed upon a barren island, incapable of furnishing even fuel enough to supply our fires. To add to our miseries, as night closed, the rain generally ceased, and severe frosts set in….”
One might well ask, “Why?”
Gleig does have an answer. In the early part of the action, optimism is observed: “From the General, down to the youngest drum-boy, a confident anticipation of success seemed to pervade all ranks; and in the hope of an ample reward in store for them, the toils and grievances of the moment were forgotten.” The words about reward give a hint of motivation. Over the course of his narrative, he tells in several places of the reason why men had a positive perspective. In one instance, after the failure to take Baltimore, he offers his regrets: “Indeed, the quantity of booty might have repaid the survivors for their toil, and consoled them for the loss of comrades.”
In another, he reports interviews with several American deserters, “who entertained us with accounts of the alarm experienced in New Orleans….The same persons likewise dilated upon the wealth and importance of the town, upon the large quantities of Government stores there collected, and the rich booty which would reward its capture; subjects well calculated to tickle the fancy of invaders.…” [Italics by this writer.]
Again, but this time after some serious action on the 24th of December, 1814, Gleig’s attitude reflects a change: “Instead of an easy conquest, we had already met with a vigorous opposition….In a word, all things had turned out diametrically opposite to what had been anticipated; and it appeared that, instead of a trifling affair more likely to fill our pockets….” [Italics added.]
For Gleig, realism had set in after January 8 and just before boarding the ships for evacuation from St. Bernard: “But our return was far from triumphant. We, who only seven weeks ago had set out in the surest confidence of glory, and I may add of emolument…,.” [Italics added.]
Horrors of War
Just as Gleig moves from a position of optimism to one of reality, so too his writings at first evince a glorification of war, ultimately turning to regret and depression. Descriptions of heads being shot off and his friend dying might even be maudlin
With the exception perhaps of the blacks from Jamaica, the troops may have still been positive during the period when they were parked on Pea Island. It may be that the islanders were not volunteers. They had never before known cold weather, and winter clothing had not been furnished.
Gleig’s observations were honest, not betraying a ability to see some things as they were, regardless of whether his army may have been responsible. “Upon this miserable desert the army was assembled, without tents or huts, or any covering to shelter them from the inclemency of the weather, and in truth we may fairly affirm that our hardships had here there commencement….To add to our miseries, as night closed, the rain generally ceased, and severe frosts set in, which, congealing our wet clothes upon our bodies, left little animal warmth to keep the limbs in a state of activity; and the consequence was, that many of the wretched negroes, to whom frost and cold were altogether new, fell fast asleep, and perished before morning.”
According to Robert Remini’s history of the battle, about 200 men “died or were so ill that they could not be transported from Pea Island.”
The description of the death of his good friend is no less realistic. “I had at first found him, shot through the temples by a rifle bullet so remarkably small as scarcely to leave any trace of its progress….I beheld him pale and bloody….I threw myself on the ground beside him and wept, like a child…and having dug for a grave at the bottom of the garden, I laid him there as a soldier should be laid, not in a shroud, but in a uniform.”
Hand-to-hand combat was not glorified: “…in one or two places and English and American soldier might be seen with the bayonet of each fastened in the other’s body.”
There are also descriptions of battlefields strewn with naked bodies; everything had been stripped from the fallen for the purpose of replacing supplies.
Eventually, Gleig decided that what he had experienced was “this detestable system of warfare.”
The British had not expected, and in fact resented, night attacks. Such were not considered “civilised warfare.” The British were more than annoyed that their sentries were attacked in the dark. Gleig wrote, “Thus was the entire might spent in watching, or at least in broken and disturbed sleep slumbers, than which nothing is more trying, both to the health and spirits of the army. With the piquets, again, it fared even worse. For the outposts of an army to sleep is at all times considered as a thing impossible; but in modern and civilised warfare they are nevertheless looked upon as in some degree sacred….But the Americans entertained no such chivalric notions….[The Americans] stealing as close to each sentinel as a regard to their own safety would permit, acted the part of assassins rather than that of soldiers, and attempted to murder him in cold blood.”
Gleig had seen things through a different lens after Washington. “I saw several men hanging lifeless among the branches of trees, and learnt that they had been [American] riflemen, who chose, during the battle, to fix themselves in these elevated situations, for the combined purposes of securing a good aim and avoiding danger….Our men soon discovered them, and, considering the thing unfair, refused to give them quarter, and shot them on their perches.”
In another passage, his regret was stated in a way to reveal his frustration about he lack of customary respect for the enemy: “Attacked unexpectedly, in the dark, surrounded, too, by a numerous enemy, and one who spoke the same language with ourselves, it is not to be wondered at if the order and routine of civilised warfare were everywhere set at nought.”
Contrary to his distrust of his enemy’s humanity, Gleig nevertheless allowed that it was on one occasion necessary to entrust British wounded to the Americans when it was not possible to remove them. In that case, the “best arrangements” were made “for their comfort and to secure for them, as far as could be done, civil treatment from the Americans.”
In another story, Gleig came across an American soldier with a broken leg. He offered him help, and taking him to the British field hospital he was treated along with British wounded. However, the leg had to be amputated.
It appears the British officers had not considered that people like Jackson and those from Kentucky and Tennessee were more accustomed to guerilla fighting because of the competitions with the Indians.
In a civilized, gentlemanly way, a truce of two days was arranged after the main battle, on January 8. Gleig took to his horse and was in humiliating shock: “Within the narrow compass of a few hundred yards were gathered together nearly a thousand bodies, all of them in British uniforms. Not a single American was among them; all were English, and they were thrown by dozens into shallow holes, scarcely deep enough to furnish them with a light covering of earth.
Discourteous, according to Gleig, was an American officer who “stood by smoking a cigar, and apparently counting the slain with a look of savage exultation, and repeating over and over to each individual who approached him, that their loss amounted only, to eight men killed and fourteen wounded.”
Some Fascinating Accounts
One interesting account has to do with the Choctaws, who we know fought with Jackson’s forces at New Orleans. To the contrary, according to Gleig, “The warriors of these tribes put themselves under the command of Colonel Nicholls, of the Royal Marines, and continued to harass the Americans by frequent incursions.”
If this was so, it is not known by me. Gleig was referring, it seems, to members of both Choctaw and Cherokee tribes in the Mobile area, who had suffered some losses in combat there and had become dissatisfied. However, they apparently were close to the Pea Island area when a British cutter was sent to carry to them presents, rum, clothing and arms.
Gleig wrote, “…for the purpose of restoring them to good humour, or at least discovering their intentions…the ambassadors found very little difficulty in bringing back the fickle Indians to their wonted reliance upon British support. Several of the chiefs and warriors, indeed, requested and obtained permission to visit our Admiral and General, and to follow the fortune of our troops; and a very grotesque and singular appearance they presented as they stood upon the quarter-deck of the Tonnant….Whilst they gazed upon everything around them with a look expressive of no astonishment whatever, they were themselves objects of eager curiosity to us; and they bore our close inspection and somewhat uncourteous deportment with the most perfect philosophy.”
While truly a fascinating account, it is certainly not the product of imagination. It cannot be read without a conviction that it happened as described. Whether it was these Choctaws who fought with Jackson or not, there is no evidence that there were Choctaws who fought with the British. We may not be able to divine their thought processes two hundred years later, but my own assessment is that they took advantage of an opportunity to see the inside of a warship and to witness the actions of the top commanders of the British forces.
In fact, it may have been the Indians who were “discovering the intentions….”
Today, downriver from New Orleans, on the natural levees of the Mississippi River, some of the finest oranges and Satsumas in the country are grown annually. It is interesting to see primary evidence that “groves of orange-trees presented selves” two centuries ago, and attracted the attention of a passing British officer. Besides sugar cane, apple and other fruit trees were “scattered over the plain.”
While in Jamaica on the way to New Orleans, Gleig observed the slaves of the sugar and coffee plantations. He decided that his previous conclusions about their huts, food and health care had been under the influence of prejudices, that his notions of the wretchedness of the Negroes were utterly erroneous. “In the abstract,” he said, it is a grievous evil, and should be abolished. “But it is an evil of long standing, authorized in the Bible, and therefore, we may presume, not without its counterbalancing benefits.” He wrote that most stories of mistreatment were gross exaggerations, “if not absolute fables.” Nonetheless, he acknowledged that there were Maroons, meaning free Negroes, who were compensated well by the government for rounding up and delivering run-away slaves back to their masters.
The Treaty of Ghent
The agreement to end the war was signed and ratified before the battle at New Orleans, but the news was late in coming. I have contended that had the British won at New Orleans, the treaty would have been abrogated. The spoils of war and the control of the commerce on the Mississippi would have been too great to give up.
I have told my grandchildren that we would in fact be speaking English today.
Gleig concludes with an analysis of several errors made by those planning the conquest, believing that had British General Keane been able to assemble his entire army on the morning of December 23 “He would have reached New Orleans without firing a shot, before nightfall….That the failure is to be lamented no one will deny, since the conquest of New Orleans would have proved beyond all comparison the most valuable acquisition that could be made to the British dominions throughout the whole western hemisphere.”
In his summary paragraph, he shows at least his own sentiment: “I humbly conceive that a second attempt might be hazarded upon New Orleans, because the importance of the conquest would authorize almost any sacrifice for its attainment, and once gained, it could easily be defended….and the same advantages which it holds out to its present defenders would, of course, be afforded to us.”
A few lines earlier, he had speculated that a nation ruled by a king would be more humane to non-combatants in time of war, whereas if the constituents in a democracy are made to experience the hardships and privations of war, their representatives would vote for peace. His argument is perverse: “So it is with a democracy at war. Burn their houses, plunder their property, block up their harbors, and destroy their shipping in a few places; and before you have time to proceed to the rest, you will be stopped by entreaties of peace.”
Gleig had not learned the horrors of war.