General John Coffee
Transcribed and Contributed by Patricia Hartley, January 8, 2017
Source: Northern Alabama Historical and Biographical, 1888 (Sketch was written by Col. James E. Saunders)
(Continued from Page 3)
"General Coffee, in charge of the left division, had, before the signal, taken the position assigned him. When he believed he had gained the enemy's right, he wheeled his column and advanced with front face to the river. Beale's Rifles on his left, extended in open order, penetrated to the center of their camp. Soon the British Eighty-fifth rushed forward, and the two lines became warmly engaged. Coffee seemed to be in every part of his extneded lines at the same time. Cool and self-possessed, he kept his men well together, and restrained, within the bounds of prudence, the natural impetuosity of the frontier-fighter, which is continually pushing him on to fight 'on his own hook.' A fog settled over them and the battle still raged firecely, but it was not of much order or system. Friends could not be distinguished from foes. The British Rifles among Lacoste's negro cabins, kept up a running fire on Coffee's right companies. The Tennesseeans, however, learned to distinguish the crack of their rifles, and directed their particular attention to them. Concealing themselves behind the huts, the British waited until they got into the midst of them. They rushed forward and engaged them hand to hand. Neither party having any bayonets, they were forced to club their guns. But the more cautious of the Tennesseeans preferred their long knives and tomahawks. The Ninety-fifth Rifles fell back before Coffee's steady advance, rallying, however, whenever they received fresh reinforcements. At last they gained the old levee, and took refuge behind it on the river side, preferring to stand the artillery of the Carolina to the rifles, knives and tomahawks of their assailants. This position, Coffee thought, was too strong to be assailed, and moreover, his men were exposed to the fire of the 'Carolina.' Accordingly, he sent a dispatch to General Jackson, acquainting him with the position, and received in return an order to join the right division. As the Ninety-third Highlanders were expected every moment to reach the field, Major Mitchell, who commanded in the fog the Ninety-fifth Rifles, about this time thought he saw the Highlanders coming. But he mistook the hunting-shirt for Scotch, and was made prisoner. This was a great mortification to that rising officer, who had won great distinction in heading the storming party of Ciudad Rodrigo, and in other actions in the Peninsula. The Highlanders did arrive on the field a few moments afterward, captured a large proportion of Beale's Rifles, and they were ordered by Keene to push forward with bayonets on coffee's division, but they did not succeed in reaching it. Coffee, after delivering a heavy fire, continued to oblique until he joined Jackson's division. Seven hundred British soldiers were in this action at the close--more than commenced it. [The above is a condensed account of the of General Jackson battle of the 23d of December, taken from the pages of Walker's Life of General Jackson. The author of it (a journalist of high order) resided in New Orleans, and had intercourse, for many years, with with [sic] the most intelligent survivors of the campaign of New Orleans, and his book is one of great merit.]
"A few days after this battle General Keane was superseded in his command by Lieu.-Gen. Hon. Sir Edward Packenham, the hero of Salamanca. He was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington; but he did not owe his promotion to his noble birth or to his friends. He had fought his way up through every grade. For every grade he had a scar; and ere he had reached his meridian his body was all scrolled over with such insignia of his gallantry. In the Peninsula he was in constant service by the side of the Duke of Wellington, and was brigadier of that impetuous Welshman, General Picton. Since the death of Wellington and the publication of his papers, it has come to light that in the British Cabinet the project was seriously considered of placing him in command of the expedition to New Orleans. He did not, from his letters, seem to be unwilling to take the command; and expressed the opinion that the troops then being embarked for America must be very badly handled if not victors in any contest in which they might be engaged. What would have been the result upon the destinies of Europe if the Duke had accepted the command and shared the fate of Packenham? Waterloo would then have been fought without a Wellington!
"Packenham for the first time found himself at the head of an independent command. He brought with him as reinforcements the Seventh Fasiliers (Packenham's 'Own') and the Forty-third, both under the command of Major-General Lambert, a young but promising officer. Packenham ran his eye over the list of his regiments with pride. They consisted of ten thousand of the best soldiers in the world, all veterans under Wellington, except the Ninety-third, which had gained distinction in Africa, and was the strongest one in the army, membering 1,050 Highlanders. His second in command was Major-General Samuel Gibbs, a very active officer who had greatly distinguished himself at the storming of Fort Cornelius, on the Island of Java, and in the Peninsula War.
"General Jackson made the most effective perparations to meet the enemy. General Coffee he placed in command of his extreme left. It was not exactly 'in the air,' or on the earth, but terminated in a swamp. At first, such awful tales were told to the British about men who had ventured into it, having sunk down, gone out of sight, and never been seen any more, that they regarded it as a barrier equal to the Mississippi River on the other flank. But in the affair of the 28th December the fearless Colonel Rennie (who lost his life on the 8th of January in sealing a redoubt) entered the swamp and came very near turning our left. After that General Jackson had Coffee's men constantly employed in extending the ditch and works into the swamp; but still the condition of this flank rested uneasily upon his mind.
"In the final struggle between the two armies on January 8, 1815, the British came into view and their signal rocket pierced the sky with its fiery train, the band of the Battalion D'Orleans struck up 'Yankee Doodle,' and thenceforward during the action it did not cease to discourse all the National and military airs, in which it had been instructed. About one-half of Coffee's Brigade were in the open field, and united with Carroll's men, in repelling the attack of the British right column. But Coffee's left were denied the luxury of firing into the solid column, and through the leafless trees of the forest, had an indistinct view of the magnificent spectacle. They were mad with vexation, when they reflected that for two weeks they had been ditching in the mad of days, and sleeping on boat gunnels and logs at night; without even clean water enough to wash their faces. A detachment, however, under Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, composed mostly of black troops, from the West Indies, was sent in to turn Coffee's left. They came quite near his line, when the leader became tired and was killed, and most of the white soldiers who were with him, and the rest were captured by the Tennesseeans, who astonished the British by the squirrel-like agility with which they leaped from log to log. The prisoners were mostly black, and were greatly comforted in their forlorn condition by the idea that they were captives of their own color and race; deceived by the appearance of the Tennesseeans. The unfortunate red-coated Africans soon discovered their error, when they were required, by their facetious captors, to 'dance juba,' in mud a foot deep.
"The Legislature of Louisiana passed a resolution of thanks to General Coffee for the services he had rendered during this campaign. He modestly answered that the splendid victories they had achieved were chiefly due to his commander, General Jackson.
"General Coffee was made Major-General after the battle of New Orleans. He was several times associated with General Jackson as Commissioner to treat with the Indian tribes.
"In 1817 he was appointed Surveyor-General of Alabama, and moved to Huntsville. In 1819 he moved to Lauderdale County, and the Land office for his district was removed to Florence. He held the office of Surveyor-General during the remainder of his life. If he had been ambitious he could have had from the people of Alabama the highest office within their gift.
"General Coffee was a robust man, six feet two inches tall, weighed two hundred pounds, rather dark skin, with brilliant black eyes. A handsome steel plate engraving of him embellishes this chapter, and is copied from an oil painting, the work of the celebrated Earle, who lived in General Jackson's family and was intimately acquainted with the subject.
"General Coffee lies buried in the little family cemetery at his old home, three miles north of Florence. Upon the large gray stone, which marks his resting place, is the following epitaph written by General Jackson:
'Sacred to Memory of General John Coffee, who Departed this Life 7th Day of July 1833; Aged 61 years.
As a husband, parent and friend, he was affectionate, tender and sincere. He was a brave prompt and skillful general, a distinguished and sagacious patriot, an unpretending just and honest man. To complete his chracter, religion mingled with these virtues her serene and gentle influence, and gave him that solid distinction among men men which detraction can not sully, nor the grave conceal. Death could do no more than to remove so excellent a being from the theatre he so much adorned in this world, to the bosom of the God who created him; and who alone has the power to reward the immortal spirit with exhaustless bliss.'
"The children of General Coffee are: Mrs. Mary Hutchings, John Donelson Coffee, Elizabeth Coffee, Andrew J. Coffee, Alexander Donelson Coffee, Mrs. Rachel Jackson Dyas, Catherine Coffee, William Donelson Coffee, Joshua Coffee. Those were all living when their father died."**
**Transcriber's note: John and Mary Coffee had ten children; Emily Coffee was born in 1828 and died in 1829.