Battles in the West, Portraits of Privates, Traveling Tidbits, Women in the War

Chalmette Battlefield – Nexus of Wars

Those who know their Civil War history, will know that New Orleans was barely fought over in 1862. The city was practically handed over to the Federal Army. The same can’t be said for a battle that occurred just outside of New Orleans earlier in the century.

Made infamous by a terribly inaccurate song by Johnny Horton, the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 went down as the last battle of the War of 1812 between the US and British. I won’t go into specifics about that war. My primary interest in visiting the Chalmette National Historic Park was for its connections to the Civil War.

But first, I’ll give a brief overview of the Battle of New Orleans. The British have entered the Mississippi River, landing on Louisiana soil. Their target is the prosperous port city of New Orleans, the biggest city in the newly American Louisiana. General Pakenham led approximately 8,000 British troops across marshy, difficult terrain. New Orleans’ defense lies with Major General Andrew Jackson – a future president of the US – and a rag-tag army, the likes of which had rarely been seen in American military history up to this time. Not only were there army regulars and marines amongst the 5,700 defenders – mostly Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky country boys – there were French Baratarian pirates commanding the artillery under the notorious Jean Lafitte who had agreed to help Jackson, Native Americans from the Choctaw tribe, and Louisiana militia, a good portion comprised of Freemen of Color who were ready to defend their home against the invaders.

A previous battle had been fought at the Villere Plantation on December 23rd, 1814, but the Americans were unable to dislodge the British and fell back further toward the city. Jackson came to the plantations belonging to Rodriguez and Macarty. There, he found the perfect place to construct what would become “Line Jackson.” The Rodriguez Canal that was designed as a mill race from the Mississippi had long been abandoned and resembled more of a straight ditch leading toward a cypress swamp some distance from the west bank of the river. This mixed bag of troops deepened the canal to six feet, using the dirt and soil to build up a rampart on the defending side. The property on the assault side of the entrenchment belonged to Ignace Delino de Chalmet. To prevent its utilization by the British in anyway, the Americans loaded the house with gunpowder and set it on fire. In an exchange for the destruction of his home, the battlefield was named after the owner. Jackson utilized the upper floors of the Macarty House for his headquarters during the battle and the rest of the soldiers set up camp, ready and waiting for Pakenham and his troops.

The British general had devised a plan to attack the formidable Line Jackson, but its flaw lay in its complexity and the unpredictability of Louisiana topography. Movement toward the American defenders began on January 8th, 1815. The current of the river redirected his naval force and the pace of the numerous columns could not stay coordinated. On top of that, the ladders that were to be used to scale the ramparts were forgotten. The field in which Pakenham’s forces would have to cross to reach the line was crisscrossed by irrigation ditches. It’s believed that he launched his attacks from the First Ditch on the far side of the field. British troops under Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs led the attack. In the disorganization, without ladders, and under a heavy artillery bombardment from the skilled Baratarians, the British forces did not fare well. The 93rd Highlanders under Major General John Keane, making up the far left of the British line and closest to the river, were told to leave the safety of the road that ran parallel to the river and make a dangerous march toward the center of the American line. It would prove disastrous as the men were subject to oblique fire from the artillery and musketry. It was even worse when commanders began to fall left and right, leaving the Scotsmen without orders right when the command had been given to halt. They stood and received the onslaught dished out by the Americans before a retreat could be ordered.

In an effort to rally his troops, Pakenham had ridden within 40 yards of Line Jackson, only to be shot down with his horse. Second-in-command Gibbs was also killed. His successor, Keane, was severely wounded during his suicidal maneuver with the Highlanders. Command devolved to an officer who wasn’t even on the battlefield and was in charge of the reserves. Major General John Lambert sent forward his reserves to serve as cover and told the rest of the army to withdraw. By then, some of the British forces had reached the rampart, but could go no further without their ladders.

The battle had only lasted 25 minutes. The casualties were incredibly one-sided with about 62 on the American side, and over 2,000 killed, wounded, or captured on the British side.

Lambert, now in full command of the British forces, wisely chose to withdraw completely and by January 19th, the British were moving out. What they didn’t know was that the two sides were no longer at war. The Treaty of Ghent had been drafted and signed in late December of the previous year, though it had not yet been ratified by President James Madison. That wouldn’t happen until February 18th, 1815. There’s much debate among historians whether the Battle of New Orleans was necessary or could even be considered part of the War of 1812 because of this controversy over the treaty’s conception date. However, the point was that Jackson and his diverse bunch had successfully defended New Orleans.

So, you may be asking what any of this has to do with the Civil War. There are more than a few connections, but I’ll mention just three. The first is a fact I had mentioned earlier. Andrew Jackson was desperate for men when it became a certainty that he would have to defend the city. Pride and personal prejudices – which we know were many with Jackson – were set aside for the hope of victory. This meant he enlisted black men and natives to fight. While it’s not the first instance of negro men fighting a battle on American soil, it is one of the most notable prior to the Civil War. It could have set a precedent for both the Union and Confederate armies, proving that black men would not run from battle if the cause was right. It’s remarkable to think that over the course of less than fifty years, Americans forgot what true cooperation and diversity could accomplish. A monument was erected to honor Andrew Jackson and his troops with dedications to each of the tribes and groups of soldiers who fought in the battle. The land on which the battle took place was bought up piece by piece, beginning in 1852. By 1939, the Chalmette National Historic Park was established. The monument to this diversity is about 100 feet tall and took many years to build, but was completed in 1908.

Chalmette Monument (author photo)

The second has to do with another feature of the park that visitors to the battlefield will see upon their visit. The plantation style home just a short walk from the museum and visitor center is not a reconstruction of the home belonging to Chalmet, Macarty, or Rodriguez. In 1817, the St. Amond brothers (Hilaire and Louis) bought Chalmet Plantation and began the work of rebuilding. The brothers, Freemen of Color, owned several other plantations in the area (yeah, you read that correctly). They had utilized it for sugar planting and benefited from the agricultural boom in Louisiana. By 1832, they had parceled out the land. One of the buyers of the piece of land that included the old Rodriguez Canal was a widow named Madeleine Pannetier Malus. She built a French Colonial style home a couple of years before her death in 1835. The estate was bought up by another woman, Caroline Fabre Cantrelle and she remodeled the home into the Greek Revival style. It’s the last owner of the home that draws the most intrigue. Rene Beauregard, the son of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was the last civilian to own what is now referred to as the Malus-Beauregard House. Rene purchased the property in 1880 and it stayed in the family until 1904, when it was taken over by the New Orleans Terminal Company.

Malus-Beauregard Home (author photo)

The style of the home is unique, for the fact that it’s only one room deep with four rooms on each floor and eight columns across the front and back. Even more interesting were the two fireplaces that converged in the center to come out a single flue. Two additions had been built onto the wings of the house, but were later removed. The house was in a terrible state when it came into the hands of the park, but was restored in 1965 from donations made by the communities within St. Bernard Parish. As it’s seen today is how it might have looked around the time of the Civil War, a piece of mid-century antebellum architecture on a War of 1812 battlefield.

Grave of unknown Battle of New Orleans soldier (author photo)

The third connection to the Civil War – and my personal favorite – is along the “back side” of the battlefield. A walking trail takes visitors around the entire perimeter of the battlefield, wayside markers explaining the progress of the fighting as they go. But at the British flagpole, the trail diverts to the attacking/British side of the field toward a brick wall. Through the little gate, one finds themselves in a cemetery. Established in 1864, Chalmette National Cemetery was intended to serve as the resting place for Union soldiers who had died in the Gulf Area, especially during the Red River Campaign. Four US veterans from the War of 1812 are also buried here, but the only unknown of them was believed to have participated in the Battle of New Orleans (grave #1240, section 23). Chalmette is the final resting place for over 15,000 veterans, 6,773 of which are unknown. A remarkable number of United State Colored Troops are also buried here.

Chalmette National Cemetery (author photo)

One soldier that is worthy of recognition is known and was one of my biggest reasons for visiting Chalmette in the first place. In section 52, grave 4066, one will find a simple headstone with the name “Lyons Wakeman”, a soldier of a New York regiment. The true identity of this soldier happens to be Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, born January 1843 in Bainbridge New York. The eldest of nine children, she grew up helping on her family’s farm. Because of her gender and the pressure to both marry and provide for her family, Sarah left home disguised as a man and became a boatman on the Chenango Canal. She enlisted as Lyons Wakeman in the 153rd New York State Volunteers, unable to resist the lure of the $152 bounty for signing up. Her military career would take her to Louisiana and she fought during the Red River Campaign, still hiding her true identity as a woman. If she should be found out, she would be disgraced and kicked out of the army. All the while, she wrote home to her family, telling of her experiences. Her story is better told by Lauren Burgess in her book, An Uncommon Soldier, published in 1994.

Grave of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (author photo)

Sarah/Lyons did not die in battle, but succumbed to another fate all too common among Civil War soldiers. She contracted chronic diarrhea and died on June 19th, 1864 in the Marine USA General Hospital in New Orleans. Her secret was kept until the moment of her burial, but her headstone still reads the name she enlisted under.

The Chalmette Battlefield is incredibly well preserved and easy to interpret. One can walk the field in a little less than an hour, if they read all the signs, and the museum does an excellent job of telling the full story of the battle with artifacts, models, and a few short films that take you through the battle from start to finish. There’s also a great selection of books in the giftshop to satisfy the curious bibliophile. Apart from Wakeman’s grave, the battery positions along the preserved “Line Jackson” are a great photo opportunity. Whether you stand on the British or the American side, one can fully grasp how truly one-sided this battle had become. It’s a lesson that would be learned decades later, as armies rediscover the usefulness of entrenchments.

I recommend visiting when it hasn’t rained for a while, but if you don’t have this convenience, bring shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. What remains of the Rodriguez Canal floods easily in heavy rain, spilling onto the sidewalk. The area around the gate to the cemetery can also get pretty marshy, but you can also enter by car off Battlefield Road.

Front sign at Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery Visitor Center (author photo)

Please do your research ahead of time to see if the park is open and what mask/safety regulations have been mandated. At the time of this blog, here’s the most up-to-date information regarding the site.

Battlefield touring is FREE

Site/Gate Hours:

Everyday, 9am – 4pm

Visitor Center:

Friday – Sunday, 10am – 2:30pm

Talks USED to be given to the public about the battle, but have been temporarily cancelled in light of Covid restrictions. Check their website for updated info:

https://www.nps.gov/jela/chalmette-battlefield.htm

Address: 1 Battlefield Rd, Chalmette, LA 70043

Phone: (504) 281-0510

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