One Kentucky Rifleman at the Battle of New Oorleans

The defeat of British forces, on January 8, 1815, at the Battle of New Orleans by an American army less than half its’ size has been credited to many monumental miscalculations and incompetent strategies. One relatively unknown episode about Lt. Ephraim Brank and his heroism atop the breastworks seems to have contributed as much, or more, than any of the generally accepted, well known, reasons for this loss. An eyewitness account by a British officer describes, in vivid detail what he and his comrades faced as they led their men toward the twenty foot thick, earth and timber defenses of the Americans. “We marched in solid column in a direct line, upon the American defenses.  I belonged to the staff; and as we watched through our glasses the position of the enemy, with that intensity an officer only feels when marching into the jaws of death.  It was a strange sight, that breastwork, with a crowd of beings behind, their heads only visible above the line of defense.  We could distinctly see their long rifles lying on the works, and the batteries in our front, with their great mouths gaping toward us.  We could also see the position of General Jackson, with his staff around him.  But what attracted our attention most, was the figure of a tall man standing on the breastworks, dressed in linsey-woolsey, with buckskin leggings, and a broad-brimmed felt hat that fell round the face, almost concealing the features.  He was standing in one of those picturesque, graceful attitudes peculiar to those natural men dwelling in forests.  The body rested on the left leg, and swayed with a curved line upward.  The right arm was extended, the hand grasping the rifle near the muzzle, the butt of which rested near the toe of his right foot.  With the left hand he raised the rim of the hat from his eyes, and seemed gazing intently on our advancing column.  The cannon of the enemy had opened on us, and tore through our works with dreadful slaughter; but we continued to advance, unwavering and cool as if nothing threatened our progress. “Our eyes were riveted upon him; at whom had he leveled his piece?  But the distance was so great, that we looked at each other and smiled.  We saw the rifle flash and very rightly conjectured that his aim was in the direction of our party.  My right hand companion, as noble a fellow as ever rode at the head of a regiment, fell from his saddle. “The hunter paused a few moments without moving his gun from his shoulder.  Then he reloaded and assumed his former attitude.* Throwing the hat rim over his eyes and again holding it up with the left hand, he fixed his piercing gaze upon us as if hunting out another victim.  Once more the hat rim was thrown back, and the gun raised to his shoulder.  This time we did not smile, but cast glances at each other to see which of us must die. “When again the rifle flashed, another one of our party dropped to the earth.  There was something most awful in this marching on to certain death.  The cannon and thousands of musket balls playing upon our ranks, we cared not for, for there was a chance of escaping them.  Most of us had walked as coolly upon batteries more destructive without quailing, but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us, and its bullet sprang from the barrel, one of us must surely fall; to see it rest motionless as if poised on a rack, and know, when the hammer came down, that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this, and still march on, was awful.  I could see nothing but the tall figure standing on the breastworks; he seemed to grow, phantom-like, higher and higher, assuming, through the smoke, the supernatural appearance of some great spirit of death.  Again did he reload and discharge, and reload and discharge his rifle, with the same unfailing aim and the same unfailing result; and it was with indescribable pleasure that I beheld, as we neared the American lines, the sulphurous cloud gathering around us, and shutting that spectral hunter from our gaze. “We lost the battle; and to my mind, the Kentucky rifle man contributed more to our defeat than anything else; for while he remained in our sight our attention was drawn from our duties; and when, at last, he became enshrouded in the smoke, the work was complete; we were in utter confusion, and unable, in the extremity, to restore order sufficient to make any successful attack - the battle was lost.”

*Tradition says E. M. Brank did not load the guns he shot from the breastworks.  He used flintlocks, and fired them as rapidly as Mike Severs and Robert Craig reloaded and handed them up to him.

  
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