Louisiana's Military Heritage:
Battles, Campaigns, and Maneuvers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources used in the compilation of this article:
The American Pagent by Thomas A. Bailey & David M. Kennedy. D.C. Heath & Company (1987).
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).
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**