Dec 30, 201309:09 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Understanding a Battle on the Eve of Its Bicentennial
The Battle of New Orleans had a big impact on U.S. history.
Next week, Jan. 8, 2014, marks the 199th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, meaning that during the new year we should be hearing a lot about the battle’s upcoming bicentennial.
Whenever the battle is the topic, the discussion usually ends with the ironic note that, unknown to the battle’s participants, a treaty that ended the war had been signed weeks before. Word had not yet been received from Belgium that in its port city of Ghent, the War of 1812 had been brought to a close once the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty there on Christmas Eve 1814. Ending a war on that particular date should have allowed for an extra dose of joy to the world, except that the news was slow in reaching the lower Mississippi. There, a British force, under the command of General Edward Pakenham, was eyeing New Orleans as a prize.
That the battle was fought over a war that no longer existed has caused an occasional chuckle, although a skirmish in which 2,000 young British men were killed or wounded is no laughing matter.
“Pakenham's assault was doomed from the beginning,” A. Wilson Green, the former manager of Chalmette National Historical Park, once wrote. “His men made perfect targets as they marched precisely across a quarter mile of open ground. Hardened veterans of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain fell by the score, including nearly 80 percent of a splendid Scottish Highlander unit that tried to march obliquely across the American front. Both of Pakenham's senior generals were shot early in the battle, and the commander himself suffered two wounds before a shell severed an artery in his leg, killing him in minutes.
“His successor wisely disobeyed Pakenham's dying instructions to continue the attack and pulled the British survivors off the field.”
Descriptively, the battle is surely one of the most confused events in military history: The War of 1812 ended in 1814 but its last battle was fought in 1815, and although it would be known as the Battle of New Orleans, the battlefield was in Chalmette.
As the anniversary is once again celebrated, it should be noted that for whatever peculiarities the Battle of New Orleans might have had, it nevertheless had its geopolitical importance. First of all, the encounter underscored American military might and may have done much to discourage thoughts of future entanglements. The force that defeated the British under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson reflected the spunky and heterogeneous character of the young nation.
“Never has a more polyglot army fought under the Stars and Stripes than did Jackson's force at the Battle of New Orleans,” Green wrote. “In addition to his regular U.S. Army units, Jackson counted on dandy New Orleans militia, a sizable contingent of black former Haitian slaves fighting as free men of color, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen armed with deadly long rifles and a colorful band of outlaws led by Jean Lafitte, whose men Jackson had once disdained as ‘hellish banditti.’ This hodgepodge of 4,000 soldiers, crammed behind narrow fortifications, faced more than twice their number.”
Secondly, the Battle had a major impact on American politics, launching the career of Jackson, for whom a public square would be named in New Orleans, toward the presidency. As chief executive, Ole Hickory would get mixed reviews, but his arrival in the White House signaled the expansion of American political power to include the frontiersman and not just the east coast elite.
America was strengthened militarily and broadened politically by the Battle of New Orleans. And just as time had run out for the war, so too had the clock mercifully struck on Anglo/American hostilities. In the future whenever the stars and stripes and the union jack would be on the same battlefield, they would be side by side. A century later, the two nations would be called upon to save Europe, not once but twice.
All battlefields, however, whether at Normandy or Chalmette, take their toll. History remembers the glory and the triumphs of generals and politicians. Off the path, however, are tombstones with faint names. We’ll never know what creative talent was cut short. The soldiers buried there might have had an even greater impact on the world had they not been driven into the fires of war.