CHALMETTE — Minnesota is far upstream on the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Really far, actually.
But Patrick Schifferdecker made the 1,200-plus-mile trip from the Land of 10,000 Lakes down to the Big Easy this week to take part in an event that highlighted the importance of the Mississippi River to American history.
On Friday, Schifferdecker and about 100 other visitors from around the country, and even some from Canada, converged on Chalmette to re-enact a key skirmish in the battle that might very well have preserved America’s nationhood nearly two centuries ago.
Beginning at 7:15 p.m. Friday, the dozens of men and women in replica uniforms re-created Gen. Andrew Jackson’s surprise night assault on encamped British soldiers who had landed on the banks of the Mississippi south of New Orleans.
While the British repelled the unexpected American attack, which took place Dec. 23, 1814, U.S. troops were able to slow the British and throw them off guard enough to allow the Americans to bring in enough enforcements and supplies to gird their defense of the crucial city of New Orleans.
Jackson’s troops went on to defeat and repel the British in the famous Battle of New Orleans, which prevented the British from seizing control of the river, one of the young nation’s most vital transportation and shipping routes. With the withdrawal of the English from New Orleans, the U.S. essentially secured its victory in the War of 1812 and erased any doubt that the fledgling democracy was here to stay.
That’s why the 50-year-old Schifferdecker, his Minnesotan colleagues and other re-enactors took part in Friday’s commemorative battle — to bring a key aspect of American history to life and teach new generations of citizens about their heritage.
“I really enjoy studying history, and I know a lot about history, and I want to share what I know,” said Schifferecker, who sported long sideburns and a replica of the pine-green uniforms the 95th Rifles & Royal Horse Artillery wore in their only engagement of the war. “It’s important that people understand the past, and I want to get people excited about history.”
Sponsored by St. Bernard Parish, the annual re-enactment began in 2003, thanks in part to the efforts of former local Councilman Mike Bayham, who decided a decade ago that he wanted to help attract tourists to the parish and boost its appeal as a historical destination. Thus was birthed the skirmish re-enactment.
“I wanted to do something a little different,” said Bayham, who still heads the committee that produces the re-enactment. “I wanted to do something special for St. Bernard Parish.”
St. Bernard’s event, while related by history, takes place independent of the Battle of New Orleans recognition festivities offered concurrently by the National Park Service at the nearby Chalmette Battlefield, a part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical park and Preserve.
The NPS slates speaking panels, a wreath laying, living-history encampments and a lantern-guided walking tour as part of its anniversary remembrance of the ensuing Battle of New Orleans.
Ranger Kristy Wallisch, who spearheads the park’s festivities, said park officials are glad to cross-promote their offerings with those of St. Bernard Parish. It all helps to remind people of one of the most pivotal moments in American history, Wallisch said.
“This was the first battle where we had such a wide variety of (combatants) from the entire country,” Wallisch said. “In the early 1800s, people thought of themselves as citizens of their states more than their country. This was the first major victory where they all fought together as Americans. It’s not very far-reaching to say that for the former colonists to truly become a country, they had to stay a country.”
Friday’s re-enactment also included representatives from all three bands of the Choctaw Indian Nation. The Choctaws played a key support role for the U.S. troops during the battle.
Dana Masters, a re-enactor from the Jena band of Choctaws, said she and her fellow Native Americans remain extremely proud of the role their ancestors played in preserving U.S. nationhood.
“Very much so, yes,” Masters said. “Any of (her ancestors) would have tried their best to help in any way they could. It’s very important for all of the Choctaw Nation.”