The legend of Kentucky’s lone marksman at the Battle of New Orleans

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

An estimated 2,700 Kentuckians served under Gen. Andrew Jackson against the British Army in the Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1815. 2019 marks the 204th anniversary of the last battle of the War of 1812. (Courtesy Photo)

January 8, 2019, marks the 204th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, considered by many as the last battle of the War of 1812.  Though never becoming a Federal holiday, the eighth of January, was for many years celebrated across the country, with commemorations and firing of salutes in honor of the great American victory over the British.

On October 14, 1814, Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby issued a call for men to join Gen. Andrew Jackson’s command for the New Orleans campaign, and under that call three regiments of Kentucky Detached Militia were brought into the field and organized, namely: Lt. Col. Gabriel Slaughter’s Regiment; Lt. Col. Presley Gray’s Regiment, who resigned and was succeeded by Lt. Col. John Davis; and William Mitchusson’s Regiment, resigned and succeeded by Lt. Col. Samuel Parker.

These troops were commanded by Maj. Gen. John Thomas, with Brig. Gen. John Adair as his Adjutant General. The total strength of the Kentucky militia raised for the New Orleans campaign was 2,256. To these must be added the officers and men of the Seventh Regiment of United States Infantry (who were recruited in Kentucky), at that time 465-strong, bringing the grand total of Kentucky troops up to 2,721. Of these troops, 1,640 were on the firing line, and engaged in the Battle of New Orleans. One thousand and eighty-one of the Kentucky militia did not take part in the battle because they could not be furnished with arms.

Of Andrew Jackson’s force of 4,600, almost one-fourth were Kentuckians.  There are many books and articles written concerning the battle, considered the most one-sided victory of American arms in U.S. Military history.

Years following the epic battle, an article appeared in an 1832, edition of a Boston Newspaper, The Republic.  The story, by an unidentified British Officer, told of a lone Kentucky marksman at the Battle of New Orleans:

“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.”

Who was this lone marksman that had caused such destruction, confusion and dismay to the British military leadership at the Battle of New Orleans?  Did the incident actually happen or is it just a legend?  There is no official record or account of this incident documented in after action reports of either of the armies engaged in the battle.

However, there are a couple contenders for the title, their stories and claims having been handed down through the generations and published in various local histories.  The first is Ambrose Audd, of Nelson County, who served as a private in Capt. Leonard P. Higdon’s Company:

“The preservation of this article is due to the fact that the preserver had often in his childhood heard the story from some of the older generations of his native village, and to whom the writer is indebted for the following additional facts: the name of the unknown rifleman was Ambrose Audd, and he lived near the village of Fairfield, Nelson County, Kentucky. Tradition relates that he was a quiet and inoffensive man, who preferred wandering, rifle in hand, in the solitudes of the forest to the labors of the field or the social intercourse of his fellows… Being ordered down by Capt. Higgins he replied, patting fondly the stock of his old gun: ‘Never mind, Sukey knows what she’s about Gen. Jackson… passed down the line; the officer reported the conduct of the hunter, saying that he was an independent volunteer and had refused to come down from his exposed position. Whereupon Jackson replied: ‘Let him alone. If he wants to stay there, let him stay.’

      “…the name of the brave hunter and his heroic deeds are well-nigh forgotten. His mortal remains lie buried in a humble grave (maybe unmarked) about midway between Bardstown and Bloomfield and about a quarter of a mile from the public road, on the south side. Will justice ever be done the memory of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans?'”

The second individual considered the Kentucky rifleman was Ephraim McLean Brank, of Muhlenberg County.  Brank served as a lieutenant in Capt. Almy McLean’s Company.  Brank, his life and his involvement in the 1815 fight at New Orleans has been better documented and published than that of Private Audd.

Otto A. Rothert’s, A History of Muhlenberg County, states:

“Ephraim McLean Brank’s heroic act on the breastworks in the battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, is one of the most thrilling incidents recorded of any Muhlenberg man, as it is a fine one in national history.  To his family and friends he seldom described the part he played in this battle.  However, his friends and comrades, John Shelton, Mike Severs, and others, frequently told the story, . . .

A bronze statue of Lt. Ephraim McLean Brank stands on the grounds of the Muhlenburg County Courthouse in Greenville, Ky. The statue was dedicated in 2015 in honor of the local Soldier who, as legend has it, was the “Kentucky rifleman” at the Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1815. (Courtesy image)

“Brank was born in North Carolina, Aug. 1, 1791, and died in Greenville, Kentucky, Aug. 5, 1875.  He came to Muhlenberg County about 1808.  A lawyer by profession, but devoted most of his time to surveying.  Brank was a man of stately proportions and wonderful physical constitution.  He was a ‘crack shot’ and an enthusiastic hunter; a well-read and a resolute and systematic man, and very kind to all those whom he came in contact.”

A monument, dedicated in 2015, honoring Lt. Ephraim McLean Brank as the Kentucky rifleman at the Battle of New Orleans stands on the grounds of the Muhlenberg County Courthouse in Greenville.