“In 1814, We Took a Little Trip…”

Conflict: War of 1812

The Battle of New Orleans, by Edward Percy Moran, 1910

On 27 April 1959, “The Battle of New Orleans,” sung by Johnny Horton and written by Jimmy Driftwood, made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song stayed on the chart for twenty-one weeks, hitting #1 on 6 June and staying there for six weeks. The song also reached #1 on the country single chart and won a 1960 Grammy for both Song of the Year and Best Country & Western Recording.

Album cover for “The Battle of New Orleans”

The ballad is an extremely simplified (yet somewhat exaggerated) account of the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, fought on 8 January 1815 as the last major battle of the War of 1812. The part of the song recounting the battle describes it like this:

Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
If we didn’t fire our muskets
‘Till we looked ’em in the eye
We held our fire
‘Till we see’d their faces well
Then we opened up our squirrel guns
And really gave ’em – well we

Fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they begin to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Yeah, they ran through the briars
And they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes
Where the rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast
That the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

While the Americans did defeat the British (with 71 casualties versus the British’s 2,042), and the British did withdraw, the battle wasn’t nearly as straightforward as the song presents. Quite a few things went wrong for the British from the beginning of the attack that had nothing to do with the Americans, including a dam failing, ladders and fascines being forgotten, and fog (intended to be used for cover) lifting. These factors combined with others to allow the Americans to essentially slaughter the British. After the British retreated, they received reinforcements and a siege train and could have attacked New Orleans again, but it was decided that the costs of such an attack would be too high. So the British instead sailed to Mississippi, where they successfully captured Fort Bowyer.

For the full lyrics of the song and a video of Johnny Horton performing it, visit the website http://ronny.cc.

Of course the War of 1812 is near to our hearts here at Fold3 as we work to digitize the paper pension files of soldiers who served in the War of 1812.  You can learn more about the project here.