Remarkable Kentuckians: The Sharpshooter That Broke the British in New Orleans

Jan 6, 2015

Ephraim Brank
Credit Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The War of 1812 was considered by many Kentuckians to be their war as control over the Mississippi River was at stake. This struggle culminated in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. At the peak of this decisive American victory is one man: a western Kentuckian named Ephraim Brank of Muhlenberg County. Historian James Claypool joins us on Sounds Good to tell us the story of the Kentucky sharpshooter that broke the British resolve and promoted their retreat.

Ephraim Brank was born in North Carolina and settled in Greenville, Mulenberg County, in 1808. He held various occupations: lawyer, surveyor and farmer. Brank's uncle, a Kentucky congressman, raised three militias from Mulenberg County after the the outbreak of the War of 1812. Brank was commissioned a lieutenant and led his unit to the Battle of New Orleans. Though the war was technically over (with the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814 marking peace between the US and Great Britain) word hadn't yet reached the United States. It was believed that had the Americans lost the Battle of New Orleans, the British would have laid claim to the Mississippi Territory and potentially land to the west of the river.

Joined by troops of militia from Tennessee and other parts of Kentucky, as well as a contingent from New Orleans, Brank's men set themselves behind cotton bales in the battlefield outside of British range. At this time, many of the soldiers garrisoned at New Orleans weren't new recruits but rather hardened veterans of the Waterloo campaign. They were accustomed to using European tactics and dressed in traditional red and white with drums and bagpipes. It was considered not sporting to shoot officers, but Ephraim Brank, standing at the head of the cotton bales understood the importance of officers and advancement in command. Armed with a long rifle, he systematically picked off 21 British officers. The British could not effectively return fire because their grapeshot guns had half the distance in range. Brank, joined by other long riflemen, killed all of the officers ranked Captain and above in this battle.

General Andrew Jackson was angered by what he considered the unmilitary like tactic of Kentuckians shooting officers. Nevertheless, the British lost over 2,000 casualties in this battle and the Americans lost around 13. Historically, this victory assured that America's claims weren't challenged by the British. Ephraim Brank later went home to western Kentucky and continued his life until he died in 1875. He's buried in the Greenville city cemetery. Brank Street was named in his honor and a statue by Raymond Graf was erected at the Muhlenberg County Courthouse in 2014, titled "The Kentucky Long Rifleman."

James Claypool is an historian and speaker for the Kentucky Humanities Council.