Over sixty years ago in August, 1941, the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association published an article entitled "The Lone Marksman." It told how one man, Lt. Ephriam McLean Brank of Greenville, Kentucky, thwarted an entire column of British soldiers at New Orleans. The story seemed so fantastic that several questions came to mind. Why wasn't Brank himself a casualty? After all, the famous 95th Regiment armed with the Baker rifle was present. From what distance did Brank commence firing? Finally, could the story be substantiated? These questions prompted inquiry, and before we present the article in its entirety here first we need to digress.
British strategy for 1814 called for isolating the New England states a la Burgoyne with one army, sacking Washington with another and a third capturing New Orleans and isolating the interior from commerce. Commanding this last army was Sir Edward Pakenham, who arrived with his Peninsular War veterans on December 13, 1815. Pakenham, along with several of his generals, were killed in this one-sided battle that helped propel Andrew Jackson into the White House. From the battle, we have this account that was previously published by an anonymous British officer who fought there:
"We marched," said this officer, "in solid column in a direct line, upon the American defenses. I belonging to the staff; and as we advanced, 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 the crowds of beings behind, their heads only visible above the line of defense. We could distinctly see the long rifles lying on the works, and the batteries in our front with their great mouths gaping towards us. We could 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 leggins and a broad-brimmed hat that fell around his face almost concealing his 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 his left hand he raised the rim of his hat from his eyes and seemed gazing intently on our advancing column. The cannon of the enemy had opened up on us and tore through our ranks with dreadful slaughter; but we continued to advance unwavering and cool, as if nothing threatened our program.
'The roar of the cannon had no effect upon the figure before us; he seemed fixed and motionless as a statute. At last he moved, threw back his hat rim over the crown with his left hand, raised his rifle and took aim at our group. 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 the gun from his shoulder. Then he reloaded and resumed 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 our glances at each other, to see which of us must die. When again the rifle flashed another of our party dropped to the earth. There was something most awful in this marching to certain death. The cannon and thousands of musket balls played 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 marched [towards] the American lines, the sulphorous clouds gathering around us, and shutting that spectral hunter from our gaze.
'We lost the battle, and to my mind, that Kentucky Rifleman contributed more to our defeat than anything else; for which he remained to our sight, our attention was drawn from our duties. And when at last, we became enshrouded in the smoke, the work was completed, we were in utter confusion and unable, in the extremity, to restore order sufficient to make any successful attack. The battle was lost."1
James Tandy Ellis of the Filson Club of Louisville, Kentucky "made long inquiry and search for the name of this Kentucky rifleman, and at last found that his name was E. M. Brank of Greenville, Kentucky, and... found his grave at Greenville."2 Ephriam McLean Brank was born in Greenville, Kentucky on Aug. 1, 1790 to Robert Brank and Margaret McLean. He studied law and after the battle, returned to Greenville. He died at age 84 in 1875 and was buried there.3
Several questions come to mind. Why wasn't Brank himself shot? Second, at what distance did Brank commence firing and finally, is there any truth to this fabulous tale?
Turning to our first question, how could the British riflemen of the Third Battalion, 95th Regiment (3/95, later stylized as the Rifle Brigade), who had bested Napoleon's finest skirmishers, overlook a solitary figure standing atop of the breastworks? It is almost unthinkable that these Peninsular War veterans would ignore a prime and tempting target. For an explanation, we turn to Sir Harry Smith, of the 95th who was, at the battle, attached to Sir Pakenham's staff: "The American riflemen are very slow, though most excellent shots."4 While marksmanship is vital, 3/95 Quartermaster Williams Surtees provides greater details: "[T]he enemy had been quite prepared, and opened such a heavy fire upon the different columns, and upon our skirmishers, (what had been formed for some time within 100 or 150 yards of the enemy's works,) as it is not easy to conceive."5 If we accept Pickles's figure of 2,232 American riflemen to 546 British or 4:1, Surtees's comment is not unreasonable.6
Furthermore, Surtees provides further insight that increases this disparity: "The right column, under General Gibbs, was to consist of the 4th, 21st, 44th, and three companies of my battalion... The left column, commanded by General Keene, was to be composed as follows, viz. - one company of the 7th, one of the 21st, one of the 43d, and two of ours."7 This further reduced the number of British riflemen facing American riflemen and increased the ratio enjoyed by the Americans to 7:1 ratio (2,232 v. 239). Corroborating Surtees we have Sir Harry again: "Never since Bueno Ayres had I witnessed a reverse, and the sight to our eyes, which had looked on victory so often, was appalling indeed... The fire, I admit, was the most murderous I ever held before or since..."8 Quite a compliment considering Sir Harry fought the Spaniards in Argentina, the Dutch, and Napoleon and after New Orleans, at Waterloo, in South Africa (Sixth Cape Frontier War) and in India where he won fame and received knighthood. Put simply, there were more American riflemen present and being excellent shots, they simply overwhelmed their British counterparts.
The other question concerned the distance from which Brank commenced firing and again Sir Harry provides a clue. Detailed to a fatigue party tasked with burying their dead, Sir Harry notes: "A more appalling spectacle cannot be conceived than this common grave. The Colonel, Butler, was very sulky if I tried to get near the works. This scene was not more that about eighty yards away from them..."9 A British column marching at ordinary pace covers 62.5 yards per minute (30" pace at 75 paces per minute).10 It would take over six minutes for a column to advance over 400 yards. The column however, stopped to return fire. Sir Harry again: "[H]ad our heaviest column rushed forward in place of halting to fire under a fire fifty times superior, our national honour would not have been tarnished, but have gained fresh lustre."11 It was at this distance that most soldiers fell and were buried. Furthermore, 80 yards is beyond effective range of a musket armed soldier who lack marksmanship training.
With the exception of Brank, the Americans weren't offering a "figure of a man" and only their heads were visible from behind the earthworks. Like at Breed's Hill during the American Revolution, the British column stopped to fire when it should have rushed forward. While it is possible that Brank commenced firing from 400 yards distance, that isn't as plausible considering he was firing from an offhand position. For steadiness, rifle shooting at 300-400 yards is generally done either prone or laying upon one's back. Recall during the American Revolution when the bugleman whose horse was both behind and between that of Lt. Cols. Banastre Tarleton & George Hanger was shot from 400 yards by a rifleman who "laid himself down on his belly; for, in such positions, they always lie, to make a good shot at a long distance." Given that Branks fired at least four times and that it takes about a minute to reload, or three minutes altogether for three reloads, the column would have, at ordinary pace, advanced 187.5 yards. Add the 80 yards where most soldiers fell and we attain a minimal distance of 267.5 yards. Since Brank "resumed his former attitude" after his first shot, some distance must be added and how much more is left to conjecture.
We turn now to the final question, that is, whether a solitary rifleman could wreak such havoc. Surtees who, "was not in it... but I was so posted as to see it plainly," provides corroboration: "[T]he right column never reached the point to which it was directed; but from the dreadful fire of every kind poured into it, some of the battalions began to waver, to halt and fire, and at last one of them completely broke, and became disorganized."12 That battalion was the 44th Foot and our anonymous British officer was most likely among them. Before the battle Smith noted: "The soldiers were sulky, and neither the 21st nor the 44th were distinguished for discipline - certainly not of the sort I had been accustomed to."13 Seeing the 44th break, Pakenham cried out to an aide, "Lost for the want of courage," and rode off to rally them and while doing so, was fatally wounded.14
Clearly Brank did not repel the entire column single-handedly and he enjoyed the support of cannons as well over 2,000 fellow riflemen. This does not belittle Brank's achievement but places it into proper perspective. His was the "influence on the mind" that broke the officers' resolve. With its officers terror stricken, the men leaderless and demoralized from artillery and rifle fire, it is easy to see why the 44th broke. British casualties being over 33% (2,100 killed or wounded and over 500 captured), the prowess earned by the Revolutionary War American rifleman was not tarnished by those at New Orleans.
Gary Yee is finishing his research on the blackpowder sharpshooter and will have his book, Sharpshooters, released soon. Sharpshooters examines the blackpowder sharpshooter from the French-Indian War through the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Era, American Civil War and other wars up to the Boer War.
This article first appeared in the August 2003 edition of Muzzle Blast magazine. It is republished with their permission.