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Louisiana's Military Heritage:

     Battles, Campaigns, and Maneuvers

The State of Louisiana


 

The Battle of Lake Borgne

(December 14, 1814)

 

 

It was the winter of 1814 and the United States was at war.

 

Drawn into a European conflict that was over a decade old, the fledgling republic declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, for less than justifiable reasons.  Impressment of American sailors and free trade were the grievances cited by Congress, but in truth it was an equal dose of covetousness of expansionists that prompted war; men who desired the annexation of Canada to the north and Florida to the south.  Great Britain was embroiled in its never-ending conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte and France, as was Spain.  With the monarchies preoccupied, the call of "On to Canada!" spoke more about American war aims than any official declaration.

 

Unfortunately for the United States, the country was ill-prepared for war.  Its army and navy had dwindled in the years since the Revolution.  The population was not united.  Strategy early on was non-existent.  In spite of early successes, the invasion of Canada was thrown back and the Americans found themselves defending their home soil against the combined might of the British, Canadians, and their Native American allies.  Americans saw success on the waters of the Great Lakes, however, in the form of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.  Naval frigates and sloops saw success against the Royal Navy on the oceans as well, along with privateers who pursued British merchantmen all the way into the English Channel and the Irish Sea.

 

Success, however, was to be short-lived.  On April 01, 1814, a coalition of nations occupied Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate and be exiled to the island of Elba off the western coast of Italy in the Mediterranean.  With peace in Europe, Britain now focused her full attention upon the American front.  The blockade of the American coastline by the Royal Navy tightened considerably.  Veteran British forces fresh from the Peninsular War in Spain poured into Canada.  An invasion fleet landed troops in Maryland in late August and early September of 1814, invading and burning the public buildings in Washington, D.C. (including the White House and the Capitol), before continuing to Baltimore where they bombarded Fort McHenry before withdrawing.  An invasion of upper New York from Canada was narrowly turned aside in a naval action on Lake Champlain on September 11, 1814.

 

The mobility of the Royal Navy allowed the British to strike the American coastline at almost any point with little warning.  When the fleet disappeared from Chesapeake Bay, it was anyone's guess as to where the next blow would fall.  Based on an already-existing British presence at Pensacola in Spanish-held Florida, more than a few predicted an attack against New Orleans.  Quite possibly the richest city on the North American continent at this time, it controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River and with it, all trade and commerce flowing from the western United States.  Major General Andrew Jackson, USA, suspected such an attack, but felt that it would come via a landing at Mobile or Pensacola, followed by an overland march westward toward Louisiana.  Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson, USN, however, anticipated a landing closer to home with a strike directly against New Orleans via the shores of Lake Borgne.

 

The 29-year-old Patterson was a veteran combat officer and former prisoner-of-war during the wars off of the Barbary Coast.  He had been stationed in New Orleans since his release in 1805 and had commanded the naval squadron there since the outbreak of war with Britain in 1812.  The vessels at his disposal were somewhat limited.  The USS CAROLINA was a 230-ton schooner armed with twelve 12-pounder carronades and two long 12-pounders, manned by a crew of one hundred (100), and commanded by Commander John D. Henley, USN.  The USS LOUISIANA was a 341-ton converted merchant sloop under the command of Lieutenant Charles C. B. Thompson, USN.  Unfortunately, Thompson commanded an empty ship.  The LOUISIANA had no crew at all, having sat idle since her purchase in 1812.  She was not even armed until August of 1814 when she received sixteen long 24-pounders.  The remaining warships of the squadron consisted of six gunboats:  No. 5, No. 23, No. 65, No. 156, No. 162, and No. 163.

 

Gunboat No. 156 mounted one long 24-pounder, four 12-pounder carronades, and four swivel guns.  She was crewed by forty-one (41) men and commanded by Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, USN.

 

Commodore Daniel T. Patterson commanded the naval squadron at New Orleans in 1814.  He would later command USS CONSTITUTION and the Washington Naval Yard.

Commodore Daniel T. Patterson commanded the

naval squadron at New Orleans in 1814. He

would later command USS CONSTITUTION and

the Washington Naval Yard.

Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis.

Photo courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.

 

 

Gunboat  No. 23 was manned by a crew of thirty-nine (39) and was armed with one long 32-pounder, six long 6-pounders, two 5-inch howitzers, and four swivel guns.  She was commanded by Lieutenant Isaac M'Keene, USN.  Gunboats No. 5 and No. 163 were similarly armed with the first crewed by thirty-six (36) men and commanded by Sailing Master John D. Ferris, USN, and the second manned by a crew of thirty-one (31) and commanded by Sailing Master George Ulick, USN.

 

Gunboat No. 162 was crewed by thirty-five (35) men and commanded by Lieutenant Robert Spedden, USN.  She was armed with one long 24-pounder, four 6-pounders, and four swivel guns.

 

Other vessels under Patterson's command included USS ALLIGATOR, a sloop that was used as a tender for the other vessels and armed with one 4-pounder.  Sailing Master Richard S. Sheppard, USN, commanded her crew of four (4).  USS SEAHORSE was a schooner armed with one 6-pounder.  She was crewed by fourteen (14) men and commanded by Sailing Master William Johnson, USN.  USS BULL DOG was a 2-gun felucca with a compliment of fifteen (15) men.  USS ETNA was a 220-ton brig armed with six 6-pounders, two 8-pounders, and two 6-inch howitzers and commanded by Sailing Master J. D. Ferriss.  USS TICKLER was a 50-ton sloop used as a dispatch boat.

 

One vessel that would have been a great asset to Patterson at this time was USS TCHIFONTA.  A large, shallow-draft vessel being built at the village of Chefuncte on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, she was described as "a cross between a frigate and a ship sloop."  Similar in design to the WEST FLORIDA, a British vessel captured by the Americans during the Revolution which had plied the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, the TCHIFONTA was to be armed with twenty-six 32-pounders and sixteen 42-pounders.  She would have been a formidable presence in the shallow lakes bordering New Orleans.  However, Secretary of the Navy William Jones had halted her construction earlier in the year.  Thus, at the hour when she was most needed, she remained incomplete on the ways.

 

 

Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forester Inglis Cochrane, RN, commanded the British fleet off of New Orleans during the invasion of Louisiana in 1814-15.

Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forester Inglis

Cochrane, RN, commanded the British fleet off of

New Orleans during the invasion of Louisiana

in 1814-15.  Photo courtesy of

La Marine Dans L'Epopee Imperiale.

 

While Jackson and Patterson did their best to anticipate the enemy, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forester Inglis Cochrane, RN, arrived at Negril Bay in Jamaica on November 22, 1814, aboard his flagship HMS TONNANT where he began assembling a fleet to carry a British expedition to New Orleans.  Jackson and Patterson had guessed correctly as to the target.  In fact, the British had commissioned a report on the feasibility of taking the city as early as January of 1814.  Units for the attack had assembled from all parts of the globe:  Spain, France, Italy, South Africa, and Jamaica.  Overall command for the campaign rested with Major General  Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, RA, who was still in transit from England.  Pakenham arrived in Jamaica only to find that the fleet had sailed just hours earlier on November 26.

 

The 56-year-old Cochrane had served on the North American station under Admiral George Brydges Rodney, RN, during the American Revolution.  He had a distinct dislike of the United States after a good friend of his was killed at Yorktown.  He later served for a time in the West Indies under the command of famed Admiral Horatio Nelson and was a veteran of Britain's numerous conflicts with France.

 

Major General Andrew Jackson had originally feared a landing at Mobile or at Spanish-held Pensacola.  In a preemptive strike, he attacked and seized Pensacola—against his standing orders—on November 07 and sent reinforcements to Fort Bowyer at Mobile Bay.  Three weeks later, the British landed a detachment of Royal Marines at Mobile, dropped anchor, and began a bombardment of the fort.  The bombardment and landing proved indecisive with the loss of HMS HERMES after being raked by the fort's guns, running aground, and being burnt to prevent capture.  Vice Admiral Cochrane cut his losses and moved on to New Orleans.

 

Patterson, meantime, had not been idle.  He worked to have to the shallow bayous and canals leading from Lake Borgne to the Mississippi River blocked by trees and other obstructions.  Jackson's arrival and subsequent orders to the local populace aided in these efforts somewhat, though widespread complicity in the smuggling trade by many New Orleans natives resulted in the dragging of feet where this was concerned.  No one wanted their secret routes to the Gulf exposed to the government.  The lack of preparedness by the local militia infuriated Jackson to the point that he threatened impressment of seamen to help Patterson crew the unmanned LOUISIANA—one of the very items the United States had gone to war to stop.  The point came across, though, and the state legislature voted to provide $6,000 in bounties for Commodore Patterson to use in recruiting able-bodied men.

 

As the General toured the city's defenses, Patterson began to deploy his small fleet to give early warning of any British approach.  The CAROLINA and LOUISIANA were placed on station in the Mississippi at New Orleans.  Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones was placed in command of the gunboat flotilla and sent with No. 5, No. 23, No. 156, No. 162, and No. 163 to patrol Lake Borgne along with the ALLIGATOR, the SEAHORSE, and a dispatch boat.  Gunboat No. 65 was sent downriver to patrol in the vicinity of Fort St. Philip.  Unfortunately, the brig ETNA had been found to be unfit for naval service just weeks before, making her unavailable for the defense of the city.  The activities of the BULL DOG and the TICKLER cannot be found in any surviving records and thus are not known to this day.

 

On December 08, Vice Admiral Cochrane arrived aboard the TONNANT and anchored off of the Chandeleur Islands.  Word had not yet reached New Orleans of the attack on Fort Bowyers at Mobile.  But Patterson's foresight paid off.  Lieutenant Jones was waiting and two of the gunboats fired on the 38-gun frigate HMS ARMIDE as she accompanied the frigate HMS SEAHORSE and the brig HMS SOPHIE toward the anchorage.  The rest of Cochrane's fifty-vessel fleet slowly gathered on December 10-12, with the larger 74-gun vessels dropping anchor off the Chandeleur Islands while the frigates and smaller vessels lay between Cat Island and the mainland at the entrance to Lake Borgne.  The British observed Jones' flotilla cruising the lake the entire time, reconnoitering their gathering forces.

 

The shallow waters of Lake Borgne played to Jones' and Patterson's advantage.  The American vessels could never hope to go toe-to-toe in combat with the massive British men-of-war.  But the shallow-draft gunboats could move relatively easily while Cochrane's ships-of-the-line would run aground should they attempt to enter the estuary.  And any amphibious landings of troops would have to take place directly under the guns of the vigilant Americans.

 

Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones commanded the gunboat flotilla that delayed the British invasion during the Battle of Lake Borgne.

Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, USN,

commanded the American gunboats during

the Battle of Lake Borgne. 

Photo obtained from New Orleans—1815

by Tim Pickles; Osprey Publishing (1993).

 

 

It had been only thirty years since the British had controlled West Florida, so they were somewhat familiar with the surrounding waters and shoreline.  The contemplated disembarkation point for the troops was Bayou Catalan (or Bayou Bienvenu), located approximately sixty-two (62) miles from the anchorage at Cat Island.  As the ships could not approach any closer, the troops would have to be ferried.  Cochrane was no fool and read the situation accordingly.  Therefore, forty-two (42) launches armed with a carronade in the bow (8-pounders, 12-pounders, or 24-pounders) were prepared along with three (3) unarmed gigs.  The expeditionary force of 980-1,200 sailors and marines that manned the longboats were placed under the command of Captain Nicholas Lockyer, RN.  The force was split into three divisions, commanded by Lockyer and Captains Henry Montresor and Samuel Roberts of the brig-sloop HMS MANLY and the bomb-vessel HMS METEOR.  On the night of December 13, they pushed off from HMS ARMIDE with the intent of eliminating the threat of the American gunboats.

 

A store of supplies had been cached away by the Americans at Bay St. Louis.  The schooner USS SEAHORSE was dispatched on December 13 to destroy the stores.  While this task was underway, she was spotted by the British and Lockyer dispatched several of his launches to cut her off.  Her commanding officer, Johnson, moored her in such as way as to fall under the protection of two 6-pounders on shore.  The SEAHORSE repelled two attacks that night, raining down "very destructive fire for nearly half an hour."  Fearing greater opposition was forthcoming, Johnson beached her and set her ablaze to prevent her capture.

 

Jones, meantime, had attempted to maneuver his flotilla's vessels so as to plug the narrows of the Rigolets, one of the channels leading from Lake Borgne to Lake Pontchartrain.  Fort Petit Coquilles lay there and could assist in the defense of the gunboats.  Contrary winds and shallows prevented this, though.  At 1:00 a.m. on the morning of December 14, the winds died down and he was forced to anchor in open water in the mile-wide gap between Malheureux Island and Point Claire on the mainland.  He ordered the gunboats moored with springs on their cables in order to be capable of bringing his larboard broadsides into action.

 

 

A map depicting the Battle of Lake Borgne.

A map depicting the Battle of Lake Borgne.  Obtained from New Orleans—1815 by Tim Pickles; Osprey Publishing (1993).

 

 

Dawn saw the British longboats approaching the grounded American gunboats.  The tender ALLIGATOR was observed attempting to join her sisterships.  Lockyer ordered Captain Roberts and several boats to take her.  The sloop was cut off and quickly captured.  Having arrived just out of range of the Americans' weapons, Lockyer brought his boats to a halt and allowed the crews to rest and take their breakfasts.  At this point, they had rowed approximately 36 miles in distance; a large part of the way had been against the current of the out-going tide.

 

The attack commenced at 10:30 a.m. with the British boats closing in on the American vessels in three columns.  Jones' gunners laid down a heavy punishment in the form of round and grapeshot.  The longboats continued to row head-on into the broadsides returning fire from their bow chasers.  Lockyer himself led the attack on Gunboat No. 156, Jones' flagship.  At approximately 12:00 noon, Lockyer's boat and that of Lieutenant George Pratt, RN, closed with the No. 156 and succeeded in boarding her.  Hand-to-hand fighting with muskets, bayonets, pikes, and cutlasses followed during which time the majority of the officers and men of Lockyer's boat were either killed or wounded.  But despite a gallant and spirited defense, the outnumbered Americans were overpowered and the British took the ship.  Both Lieutenant Jones and Captain Lockyer were among those severely wounded.

 

The other two columns of longboats under Captains Montresor and Roberts, meantime, continued to close on the remaining American gunboats.  The guns of the captured No. 156 were now turned upon her sisterships and, one by one, they were boarded and captured.

 

The Battle of Lake Borgne had lasted approximately two hours.  On the British side, losses suffered included 17 killed and 77 wounded, many of whom later died.  Two of the longboats were sunk outright.  The Americans saw six to ten killed (numbers vary), 35 wounded, and 86 captured.

 

Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones would not make his official report on the action until three months later after he had been exchanged.  He received honors for his

 

Commodore Patterson's gunboat flotilla fights a delaying action against 42 British longboats on Lake Borgne on December 14, 1814.

Commodore Patterson's gunboat flotilla—under the command

of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones—fights a delaying

action against 42 British longboats on Lake Borgne on

December 14, 1814.  Oil painting by T. Hornbrook.

Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

 

bravery at Lake Borgne and later made the rank of Captain in 1829.  He signed a treaty with King Kamehameha III of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1826.  Attaining the rank of Commodore, he twice commanded the U.S. Pacific Squadron, from 1841 to 1844 and again from 1848 to 1850.  In 1843, he crossed paths with a young Herman Melville and some believe that he may have partly inspired characters in both Moby Dick and White-Jacket.  He served with the U.S. Navy until he was placed on the Reserve List in 1855.

 

Commodore Patterson and Vice Admiral Cochrane still had roles to play in the coming Battle of New Orleans.  But for those in Jones' gunboat flotilla, the war was now over.  Lake Borgne was now clear for the British to begin landings.  Though word had reached New Orleans of the gunboats' defeat and though their sacrifice had bought him precious time in procuring reinforcements and ammunition, Major General Andrew Jackson's "eyes" on the lakes had now been blinded.  The battle for New Orleans had only just begun.

 

 

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Sources used in the compilation of this article:

The American Pagent by Thomas A. Bailey & David M. Kennedy.  D.C. Heath & Company (1987).

The National Park Service.

The Naval History of Great Britain:  From the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of

          George IV,  Vol. VI, by William James.  Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street (1837).

The Naval Historical Center.

New Orleans—1815, by Tim Pickles.  Osprey Publishing (1993).

Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Commodore of Manifest Destiny, by Gene A. Smith.  Naval Institute Press (2000).


**Copyright 1997-2007 by Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission**