On the morning of January 5, 1815, a young American infantry lieutenant called M. McKenzie and a dozen soldiers gathered at Mobile’s public wharf. Burdened with muskets, bayonets, haversacks and provisions, they clambered into a bobbing longboat and took their places. Their mission was to reconnoiter lower Mobile Bay and the eastern reaches of the Mississippi Sound for any signs of a British attack. New Orleans was believed to be the redcoats’ main objective, but Gen. Andrew Jackson had left two regiments at Mobile in case the enemy’s plans changed. McKenzie’s squad was detached from one of these regiments.
McKenzie was a conscientious officer who kept a little journal during his nine-day expedition. He subsequently gave this to his commanding officer, Gen. James Winchester, who, like so many of Jackson’s men, was a Tennessean. Nearly a century later, the “much worn” document was found in Winchester’s papers and presented to the Tennessee Historical Society. John H. DeWitt, the Society’s president, published McKenzie’s account in the premier issue of the “Tennessee Historical Magazine” (March 1915). Several scholars have cited it since, one of whom dismissed it as “interesting … but of minor use.” While that is certainly true from a grand strategic perspective, Mobile Bay-area readers will likely find McKenzie’s tale of tense uncertainty from the fringes of an epic confrontation fascinating.
McKenzie and his men reached “Ilse Mon Louis” by the evening of their first day. Throughout their haul south, the wind was against them, and they desperately needed rest. The next morning the weather was “boisterous” according to McKenzie. That meant several more hours of frustrating delay. They finally shoved off and by nine o’clock that evening reached “Dolphin Island.” The American army had a small garrison at Fort Bowyer on Mobile Point across the Bay, and several soldiers were also stationed at Dauphin Island. McKenzie met their commander, Capt. James Roney, just after lunch on Friday, January 6. Together, the two men tramped over to the island’s south side. There, McKenzie sighted “a ship, a Brig and schooner — two first appeared of the largest class and were standing under easy sail to Southerd.” These were doubtless British vessels, part of the large fleet sent to trounce the upstart Americans. There was no immediate threat, however, since the ships were well offshore headed away. McKenzie was satisfied and set his men to cooking rations, squaring their gear and putting the longboat into better order. He determined to sail over to Pascagoula the next morning to see what more he could learn.
Pascagoula’s residents were mostly French and decidedly cool to armed Americans. Even though they were part of the infant Mississippi Territory, they professed open sympathies for the redcoats. “The general belief of the inhabitants,” McKenzie explained, “is that the enemy will cede this country to Spain, when captured — that the laws of the latter will again be re-established — which they anticipate with satisfaction.” This was no surprise, since the Spanish were Catholic like the French and noted for their light-handed rule. The Pascagoulans delighted in spreading rumors that New Orleans had fallen and that Jackson was dead. McKenzie scoffed at these assertions but fumed about possible spying. Unable to confirm anything in town, he ordered his men over to Horn Island. Headwinds made the trip difficult. Once onshore, the men were lashed by “a tremendous gale” and hunkered down in pelting rain. They heard guns all night, which McKenzie believed were “signals of distress … as the sea on the south side of Horn Island, from the quarter the wind was in, must have been very rough.” He set guards and ordered them to keep alert.
Assault on Fort
Meanwhile, momentous events were unfolding to their west. The British infantry attacked Jackson’s multicultural force on the Plains of Chalmette on January 8 and was thoroughly mauled by intense fire. Thwarted by land, the British sent a small flotilla — a sloop-of-war, a brig, a schooner and two bomb (or mortar) vessels — up the Mississippi to assault Fort St. Philip. This was a heavily armed bastion midway between the Gulf and the Crescent City, about 70 miles by the crow from McKenzie’s little party. According to an American officer on site, the British pummeled the fort “with little intermission” from January 10 through 17, discharging well over a thousand rounds. This was the primary source of the racket that McKenzie and his men heard.
McKenzie’s party shot several cows on Horn Island and butchered them to supplement their fare. The young lieutenant periodically raised his spyglass gulfside, but despite the “incessant” cannon fire “in the direction of Orleans,” saw nothing. Cannon blasts still rumbled in the distance the next morning. “I counted 25 in 8 minutes,” McKenzie wrote. Unable to do any more, he ordered a return to Dauphin Island. As usual, headwinds forced the troops to keep their oars and poles “continually going.” They made their destination at 10 o’clock that night exhausted. Roney met them and reported that the cannonading had been distinctly audible at Dauphin Island, too. In fact, he declared, it far surpassed any “he had ever heard.”
On Saturday, January 14, McKenzie returned to Mobile. He had spotted only one sail at Dauphin Island, well out to sea. His men were “pretty well jaded” by their “continual guards kept up at night and the three last days of extraordinary toil.” Per usual, they had to contend with a head wind on the trip back but were in town by 10 that night.
Only a few weeks after McKenzie’s reconnaissance, the British fleet finally loomed off Dauphin Island. Fort Bowyer was captured, and an attack on Mobile looked imminent until news of peace ended the hostilities. McKenzie’s reconnaissance made absolutely no difference to the outcome of the War of 1812. It is but a toenote to a footnote to the Battle of New Orleans. Nonetheless, he performed his duty well, and on blustery Gulf Coast nights especially, his journal can still conjure the far-off rumble of Albion’s might brought low.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”