For 100 years, the Cabildo had a loaded cannon aimed at Andrew Jackson.
“We didn’t know it was loaded until we had a base made for it,” says Polly Rolman-Smith, the Louisiana State Museum’s special projects coordinator for exhibits. “We found a cannon ball inside, along with oyster shells and broken pottery that was used for shrapnel. And all of this time, it’s been pointed into Jackson Square.”
The weapon is now empty, its bore plugged, and serves as a gateway to the Louisiana State Museum’s exhibit, “From ‘Dirty Shirts’ to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture.”
The show opens Sunday, Jan. 11, in the Cabildo as one in a line of events in and around the city commemorating the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. It will run through Jan. 8, 2016, and parts of it will remain as a permanent exhibit thereafter, with one exception.
“What won’t stay up, of course, is Andrew Jackson’s coat,” says Mark Tullos, director of the Louisiana State Museum. “That goes back to the Smithsonian as soon as the exhibit is over.”
Tullos speaks of the actual coat Jackson wore in the battle. It belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, where it’s usually a centerpiece at the American History Museum. The Smithsonian loaned the coat and Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl’s 1817 portrait of Jackson wearing it.
This is the first time the coat has been in New Orleans since it graced Jackson’s back in the battle.
“It’s like it’s coming home,” says Marvin McGraw, director of marketing and public relations. “Think about it. Things have changed in 200 years, but the buildings in the French Quarter are basically in the same places as when Andrew Jackson wore this coat here. It’s like having a piece of Andrew Jackson in this exhibit.”
There won’t be a ceremonial arrival for the coat like there was for Napoleon’s Death Mask in Baton Rouge, Tullos says.
“The Smithsonian’s in charge of the transport of both the coat and the portrait, he says, “and they don’t want any fanfare.”
The mask is a permanent exhibit in the Cabildo but is currently part of the Capitol Park Museum’s exhibit, “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn,” which focuses on the American Revolution and continues through Feb. 28. The death mask serves as a bridge between the two exhibits.
“This is the first time that we’ve brought two of our museums together like this to tell a story,” he said. “We’d like to do more of this in the future.”
Battle of New Orleans bicentennial commemorations also include exhibits at The Historic New Orleans Collection; the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Old Ursuline Convent Museum; a commemoration during the second annual NOLA Navy Week from April 23 through April 29; and a commemoration ceremony on Jan. 8, followed by a reenactment of the battle on Jan. 10, at the Chalmette Battlefield.
Actual items used by the real people who fought at Chalmette, including a copper hunting horn said to have belonged to Pierre Lafitte, brother to the pirate Jean Lafitte, will be on display in the Cabildo.
Rolman-Smith and Gospodinovich are taking a break from their work on the third floor of the Cabildo, where they are readying items from the museum’s permanent collection.
There’s a table filled with weaponry from the battle, including a British officer’s baton, a sword from the Scottish Highland Regiment, and a sword and sheath that belonged by Gen. Jacques Villere, who later would be Louisiana’s second governor.
On a shelf is a compass and an octant from Jean Lafitte’s fleet of ships, which draws interest because items directly related to the pirate are rare.
Historians argue the extent of Lafitte’s involvement in the Battle of New Orleans. It’s believed his lieutenants, Dominique You and Renato Beluche led the pirates in a fight alongside an ethnic mix of allies that included free men of color, Native Americans, African Americans and Louisiana militia.
Sharpshooting frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee also joined Jackson’s 4,500 who defeated the British contingent of 7,500 in Chalmette on Jan. 8, 1815, two weeks after the British and Americans ended the War of 1812 with the Treaty of Ghent, signed in Belgium.
“But do you really think that if the British had a chance to take New Orleans and won, they would have given it up?” Tullos asks. “Probably not.”