For nearly two and half years the Gulf Coast remained a backwater in the War of 1812, most of the fighting in that conflict occurring well to the northward along the U.S.-Canadian frontier and along the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay. All that changed in December of 1814 with the arrival in Gulf waters of a large British expeditionary fleet carrying more than eight thousand troops. The objective of this force, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, was the capture of New Orleans. Seizure of the Crescent City would not only give the British control of the Mississippi River but would prove a useful bargaining chip in the peace negotiations then underway in Ghent, Belgium.
Because of its proximity to numerous navigable waterways (lakes, bayous, and the Mississippi River) New Orleans offered an attacking army a variety of avenues by which it might be assaulted. After some deliberation, Cochrane chose to approach the city from the eastward via Lake Borgne and Bayou Bienvenu. But before Cochrane’s invasion force could safely enter Lake Borgne, it had to eliminate the American flotilla guarding its entrance. This force, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, and consisting of five gunboats and two tenders, had been stationed on the Lake since early December to reconnoiter the enemy’s movements and challenge his entry onto Borgne’s waters.
On the morning of 13 December, Lieutenant Jones spied an enemy force of forty-five oar-powered barges carrying 1200 sailors and marines bearing down on his squadron at the eastern entrance to the Lake. In the face of this overwhelming force, the twenty-four-year-old officer wisely decided to withdraw to the westward, but his squadron’s progress was hampered by contrary winds and tides. During the retreat, one of the American tenders was set afire to prevent its capture. In the early hours of the 14th, the lack of wind and a strong ebb tide rendered Jones’s little squadron becalmed and unmanageable. Faced with a choice either to fight or surrender, Jones prepared to repel the advancing foe, placing his vessels “in the most advantageous position to give the enemy as warm a reception as possible.”
The engagement commenced shortly before 1100 with the American ships exchanging fire with the bow guns of the approaching barges. Jones’s men delivered their shot with telling effect sinking a number of enemy barges and wreaking general havoc among their crews. Despite the spirited American resistance, British weight of numbers ultimately carried the day as barge crews fought their way alongside each gunboat, swarmed over its bulwarks, and carried it in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Casualties among the Americans were heavy with six killed and thirty-five wounded including Jones himself. The carnage among the British crews was even greater, totaling ninety-four killed and wounded. One American sailor reported seeing three to four inches of standing blood in the bottoms of some enemy barges.
Though the loss of the American flotilla on Lake Borgne was a heavy blow to U.S. forces protecting New Orleans, the sacrifice of Jones and his men was not in vain. Their courageous and determined defense of Lake Borgne delayed the British landing on the western shore of the lake by several days, enabling General Andrew Jackson at a critical juncture to strengthen his lines and reinforce his army before engaging a vastly superior foe. Thus, in an important way, Lieutenant Jones and his sailors contributed to the great victory of American arms at New Orleans on 8 January 1815.