“You, gentlemen and ladies fair, that grace this famous city,
Come listen, if you’ve time to spare, while I rehearse this ditty.
And for the opportunity, consider yourself lucky
It is not often that you see a Hunter from Kentucky”
-The Hunters of Kentucky, 1821.
The last weekend was the bicentennial of the defeat of General Edward Pakenham and Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s British forces by General and later-President Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, Louisiana. The lengthy preparations to besiege and take the town, commencing in late December, were rebuffed on land on January 8th by a stolid defense by American forces less than half their number (11,000 to roughly 5,000), primarily consisting of American soldiers, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Free Black, Creole, and Choctaw volunteers and militiamen, and private sailors and pirates. Pakenham led an-ill advised frontal attack on fortifications at the Chalmette Plantation. There Pakenham’s forces made a blundering attack on a prepared American earthen redoubt, which threw back the British with considerable loss of life (over 2,000 casualties), while the entrenched Americans suffered less than 100 casualties.
The battle gained, due to Jackson’s populist ambitions, a certain mythology. Jackson’s outnumbered citizen-soldiers, particularly his Kentucky riflemen armed with the famous Long-Rifle, had repulsed the best troops in the world and reaffirmed the excellence of the American volunteer over the British hireling. Jackson’s later war against the Seminoles and his earlier humbling of the Creek Indians earned him a reputation as an Indian fighter, geared to protect the interest of the small settler and expansionist landowner (he was to preside over the removals of Indians from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, including the famous Cherokee Trail of Tears). He was to capitalize on both images as he swept into office on the votes of a populist majority in 1828, opening the way for cronyism and the spoils system of political appointments that has become synonymous with his political legacy.
The battle’s legacy has been bolstered by it’s being the crowning American victory of the War of 1812 (a war that had included a failed American invasion of Canada and the British seizure and burning of Washington DC). It did much to salve the rather contested results of the war: a disastrous one in military terms for the US, and a sideshow of the large Napoleonic contest in Britain. The fact that the battle occurred after the cessation of hostilities at the Treaty of Ghent in December, 1814 (news had not reached New Orleans and the Congress did not ratify the treaty until February, 1815) also has the battle as a historical curiosity, and a source of Anglo-American argument/ribbing till this day.
Perhaps nothing has secured the Battle’s legacy more than Jimmy Driftwood’s song “The Battle of New Orleans”, famously performed by Johnny Horton in 1959 (and topping the Billboard charts in 1960), which remains a seminal piece of mid-century country music. The battle had already been commemorated in the popular 1821 song “The Hunters of Kentucky”, which became a campaign song for Jackson during his presidential race, and which remained popular throughout the century as a musical standard and incidental music for stage performances. The song’s focus on the Kentucky militiamen (“every man was half a horse and half an alligator”) did much to reinforce the image of Jackson’s men as raccoon-hat-wearing frontiersmen. Horton’s song capitalized on the same myth, placing the responsibility for the victory in the hands of the Kentuckians with their “squirrel-gun” rifles.
The battle’s enduring appeal for Americans today is much the same as the appeal in 1828: the underdogs trumped the bullying British and saved the town. The city of New Orleans, a target for British attrition against the young republic, became a crucible of what America would stand for. The cotton-bale and earthern ramparts behind which the Americans sheltered were the sod and the lifeblood of the agricultural economy, while the city itself was a market hub for the Gulf and the interior of the country, and thus represented American commercial interests. The city was defended by a collection of regulars leading mostly citizen-soldiers, who brought combat weapons which were distinctly “American”, namely the Kentucky Long-Rifle, which was designed for hunting and noted for its accurate fire. The citizens defending those ramparts were a mix of a polyglot society: Led by a Scots-Irish General, soldiers and militia of English descent fought shoulder to shoulder with creoles of French and Spanish descent, freed black men, allied Choctaws, as well as sailors, privateers, and settlers of mixed races. Though later songs would portray its defenders decidedly more “redneck”, the city was defended by a cross-section of society. If there is one battle that gives itself to mythology, this is it.
The War of 1812 was a profoundly complicated war. It began over a mixture of British naval harassment as part and parcel of blockade policies in its European wars, as well as supposed (and not wholly imaginary) British agitation and armament of Native Americans who were resisting American expansion into their homeland. The war, as noted, went very badly for the smaller and poorly-organized United States. Outside of a few notable, but small, victories, American forces achieved little against the defenders of Canada, the British Navy, or the invading British Army. The war hardened Canadian opinions against the United States in the aftermath of the failed invasion, it saw the British openly agitate and recruit black slaves to desert to the British Army and rebel against white slave owners (former slaves served in regiments with the British at New Orleans), and it was disastrous for Native Americans in the Ohio Valley and the Deep South, who, as a result of American fears and the defeat of the religious pan-native coalition at Tippecanoe, were forced to accept removal and subjugation.
At the time, Americans generally remained positive, thanks in part to the victory at New Orleans. The War was followed by the “Era of Good Feeling” which saw a rebirth of American nationalism and a re-dedication to the growth of American institutions. However, the war widened divisions between Americans as much as it unified them. Many Northern mercantile and trading states, adversely impacted by the British blockade and the loss of Canadian markets, refused to send their militias to fight the British. Southern hawks who supported the war pushed for expansion of American settlement, both encouraging more statehood for enfranchised white settlers and their support for the continuation of slavery. This issue was brought to a head, several years later, in the clash in cultures between North and South which led to the Civil War. Likewise, the war sounded the first call to American interventionism in the subsequent Monroe Doctrine, a justification behind which America began an aggressive foreign policy to wrest control of the Western Hemisphere from European domination, ostensibly in the name of liberation and national self determination. Yet this too opened the door to further expansionism and the beginning of oft-controversial interventionism in Latin America, leading then further afield.
Jackson’s triumph too is shrouded in myth. For one, the triumph of the American forces had little to do with the famous long-rifle. The majority of militiamen, uniformed volunteers, fought with smoothbore muskets (which also did frightful execution) while the long-rifle was unreliable for repeated firings (due to primitive rifling techniques). Only a small portion of the militiamen were Kentuckians. While certainly wielded at New Orleans, the Kentucky long-rifle was better for skirmishing then it was for the intense fire that destroyed the British assault on the breastworks (aided by emplaced cannons).
Similar images of Americans as earnest rifle-wielding patriots were already familiar from the Revolutionary War, and, in 1812 as in 1776, the myth was overwhelmed by disciplined British troops when the militia riflemen proved unable to stand up to the British on open ground. As in other battles, American militiamen relied heavily on breastworks to steady their lines at New Orleans, and this was not always enough. The British did overrun the breastwork entirely at one section when its militia defenders fled, and were only driven off by a counterattack by Regular US infantry. This war had famously seen an entire American army dissolve at Bladensburg as its untrained militia took flight, and this unreliable behavior would form arguments for the expansion of the full-time Army well over a century later. The staunch performance of the professional soldiers at New Orleans (including Jackson himself) had much to do with the successful defense, as did British mistakes (especially that of forgetting the ladders to assault the American parapets) and plain bad fortune, especially with the weather.
Jackson’s Kentucky Hunters at New Orleans remain a national myth that some, particularly those writers who doubted the capabilities of the militia (notably Emory Upton) and who despise Jackson (and there are many), are quick to criticize. It cannot be doubted however, that the Battle of New Orleans had important resonance in the narrative of the young republic. Once again, American forces had won a battle against great odds and had proven the resilience of citizens against British professional soldiers and the tyranny they represented. New Orleans became a symbol of resiliency, a symbol it still upholds as the city works to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (including to the battlefield site). It is important, whatever the facts, to recognize New Orleans as a crucible of American national resolve to overcome great challenges.