Review by David B. Kopel
First published, in slightly different form, in Chronicles magazine, July 2000, pp. 28-29.
Book review of: The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory. By Robert V. Remini. Viking. pp. xiv, 226. $24.95.
"There was a time when the United States had heroes and reveled in them. There was a time when Andrew Jackson was one of those heroes, along with the men who stood with him at New Orleans and drove an invading British army back to the sea." So begins Robert Remini's excellent book The Battle of New Orleans, which aims to recover America's history and one of its greatest heroes.
Before the War Between the States, the Battle of New Orleans was celebrated nearly on a par with Independence Dayeach anniversary commemorating the triumph of American liberty and virtue over the British monarchy.
Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans capped his campaigns against the British and the Indians in the southeast, ensuring American control over the region. Without the new cotton-producing states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, slavery might have withered in the 1830s and 1840s, rather than expanding. So it is understandable that postbellum America lost interest in the events of 1815.
Today, however, slavery is long gone from the United States (although slave labor products pour into the United States from China). The time has come to Andrew Jackson and his brave army to reclaim their place in the American pantheon.
To the extent that junior high school history textbooks mention the Battle of New Orleans, they insist that the Battle was irrelevant, since the battle was fought on January 8, 1815, and the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed on December 24, 1814. But this just isn't so.
Had the British captured New Orleansthe key to the economy of almost all the Louisiana Territory--it is doubtful that they would have relinquished it, despite what the Treaty of Ghent required. Indeed, the British had violated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, by refusing to evacuate their forts east of the Mississippi.
Before conveying the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, France had acquired the Territory from Spain in the 1800 Treaty of San Idelfonso. Under that Treaty, Spain had the right of first refusal before France could sell the Territory to any third party. The Louisiana Purchase was a plain violation of Spain's rights under the Treaty of San Idelfonso, and Britain would have had a strong legal case for conveying Louisiana back to Spainif Britain had been in control of Louisiana.
There would have been more immediate consequences too. As noted in the song "The Hunters of Kentucky" (celebrating the Battle of New Orleans, the song became the Jackson presidential campaigns' theme song), New Orleans is "famed for wealth and beauty." British General Packenham had promised his soldiers "beauty and booty"meaning that they could rape the women and pillage the city.
The British Army was fresh from its triumph over John McCain's childhood hero Napoleon, and the forces invading New Orleans were the best in the worldthe victors of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain. Against the best-trained, best-equipped army in the world, the Americans did not even have enough weapons for their forces. Remini quotes a contemporary observer: "From all the parishes the inhabitants could be seen coming with their hunting guns" because "there were not enough guns in the magazines of the United States to arm the citizens."
The Tennessee militia hardly looked like a professional army, with their rough clothes, unshaven faces, and raccoon caps. The Kentucky militia was even worse, arriving in rags, and disappointed to find out that there was no blankets in the city for them. The Redcoats called them "dirty shirts." Yet, as Remini explains, "most of these men could bring down a squirrel from the highest tree with a single rifle shot. Their many years living in the Tennessee wilderness had made them expert marksmen…"
The ladies of New Orleans, meanwhile, armed themselves with daggers, in case the men lost, and the British rapists entered the city. When Andrew Jackson had been a child, his mother had admonished him not to cry; she told him that crying was for girls. When he asked what boys were for, she replied, "fighting." But at New Orleans, the women too were prepared to fight; not a single lady fled the city. The busied themselves with sewing, making new field blankets, shoes, shirts, and pants for the men.
If "diversity" were really highly valued in our schools, then the Battle of New Orleans would be known by every student in the nation. The men who fought on January 8, 1815 were a magnificent combination of professional soldiers, militia, irregulars, free Blacks, Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Indians, Anglos, lawyers, privateers, farmers, and shop-keepers.
When objections were raised to arming the free blacks of Louisiana, Jackson replied: "place confidence in them, and engage them by every dear and honorable tie to the interest of the country who extends to them equal rights and privileges with white men."
There were many heroes at New Orleans, not just Jackson. When the British army captured Gabriel Villeré's plantation, he made a sudden break, fleeing with British soldiers close behind, yelling "Catch him or kill him." Hiding in an oak tree, he was forced to kill a favorite dog which had followed him, and which would reveal his location. Villeré eventually got to a neighboring plantation, hastily rowed upriver, and conveyed the news that the British army had arrived.
After the British landing, Jackson spent four nights without sleep, as he rode about the American fortificationsordering improvements in the defenses, receiving reports about British movements, and inspiring his men. He never even dismounted to eat. As "The Hunters of Kentucky," later put it: "For Jackson he was wide awake, he was not scared of trifles. Full well he knew what aim we'd take with our Kentucky Rifles."
As the British maneuvered outside the city, nightly raids by the "dirty shirts" killed British sentries, took their equipment, and kept the whole army off balance.
During an engagement by the Cypress Swamp on December 28 (eleven days before the main battle), the Tenneesseans waded though the muck, and leapt from log to log like cats, driving off the British beefeaters. "The Hunters of Kentucky" would later boast that "every man was half a horse, and half an alligator."
In one encounter on the day of the main battle, a dirty shirt took aim at a wounded British officer, who was walking back to his camp. "Halt Mr. Red Coat," yelled the American, "One more step and I'll drill a hole through your leather."
The officer complied, sighing, "What a disgrace for a British officer to have to surrender to a chimney-sweep."
Although the British greatly outnumbered the Americans, January 8, 1815 turned into one of the worst days in British military history. Over two thousand British soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded. The Americans lost only seven killed, and six wounded, although their total casualties from skirmishes on other days amounted to 333.
As new of the battle spread throughout the United States, the American inferiority complex to the British began to recede. The Americans had smashed the best that Britain could throw at them. Newspapers quoted Shakespeare's Henry VI: "Advance our waving colors to the wall, Rescued is Orleans from the English wolves." Jackson's upset victory was as important for America's future as Joan of Arc's was for France.
Remini's compact book focuses almost exclusively on the battle and the preceding weeks. He summarizes in a few pages of the conclusion, but does not detail, the battle's larger significance in American life. I wish there had been more, but even so, Remini's book is a major step towards re-remembering one of the most glorious days in American history. Next January 8, tell your children about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, and teach them how Americans of both sexes, and all races, creeds, and colors united to fight for freedom, and defeated the most powerful standing army of the greatest empire in the world.