This week, hundreds of war re-enactors will begin arriving in New Orleans to suit up in period garb and head to a 25-acre park near the Chalmette Battlefield to re-create the final battle of the War of 1812, one that historians say is often unappreciated for its importance to American history.
The Battle of New Orleans, fought in and around the swamps near present-day Chalmette in early 1815, repulsed an invading British army and vaulted Andrew Jackson, a charismatic but little-known frontier general, into the White House a little over a decade later.
This year, the battle’s 200th anniversary, a slew of events — including more than 1,500 re-enactors staging its five pivotal firefights next weekend — are being held around the city. Local historians hope they will bolster public appreciation of the battle’s significance beyond its place in local folklore.
“I think a lot of people know very little about the Battle of New Orleans,” said Jason Wiese, associate director of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center. “It’s fallen off the radar for most Americans, but it was a tremendously important event.”
“It actually gave the United States an identity,” agreed Timothy Pickles, chairman of the Louisiana Living History Foundation and author of a book on the battle. “I think that’s why people forget it. They assume that identity has always been there.
“Really, before the War of 1812, there was no national identity of ‘I am an American.’ The words were ‘I am a Virginian. I am a Louisianan. I am a Marylander.’ The idea of being an American actually originated on the plains of Chalmette.”
Those plains also were where Jackson cemented his reputation as a cunning and able general, though the victory often has been viewed through the lens of popular history as somewhat diminished because — unknown to anyone involved — it took place after representatives of Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty, which officially ended the war, was signed two weeks before Jackson’s ragtag band of about 5,000 men defeated British Gen. Edward Pakenham’s force of 11,000 veteran soldiers.
“What I was taught in school, like most of us, was that the Battle of New Orleans was irrelevant,” said C.J. Longanecker, a former National Park Service ranger who worked for years at the Chalmette Battlefield, a Park Service unit dedicated to the battle.
However, British war records discovered by historian and author Ronald Drez last spring revealed that Pakenham had been given orders to ignore any word of a peace treaty and continue to fight. And some scholars now believe Britain, which did not recognize the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, had designs to colonize Louisiana, had they not been defeated in the pivotal final battle on Jan. 8, 1815.
A leader of men
Pickles, who will take part in the re-enactment running Jan. 9-11 at the Louisiana Living History Park near the battlefield, said that amid the fateful decisions with unforeseen consequences that are common in warfare, Jackson repeatedly demonstrated his genius as a leader of men in wartime.
The first occasion was his decision to launch a daring night raid on Dec. 23 against 1,800 British troops led by Gen. John Keane, who had encamped on the east bank of the Mississippi River, 9 miles below New Orleans.
Keane had gotten conflicting reports from American soldiers captured in the Battle of Lake Borgne about the size of Jackson’s army, and he took the cautious approach of waiting for Pakenham and reinforcements.
Pickles said that had he attacked, Keane likely would have overwhelmed Jackson’s small forces. Instead, Jackson sent a boat down the river to fire on Keane’s men while American soldiers rushed out and engaged in brutal close-quarters combat in pitch darkness.
“It’s very confused. It’s a very hard fight with lots of hand-to-hand fighting, which is very unusual at this stage in history,” Pickles said. “But that night’s attack was critical because it convinced the British that they were not going to be able to take New Orleans easily.”
Jackson used the time to fall back to the Chalmette and McCarthy plantations, cut the levee, flood part of the plains, dig out the Rodriguez Canal and create a long, tall mound of earth that became known as Line Jackson.
Pakenham — brother-in law of the Duke of Wellington, with whom he served in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic France — then arrived to take personal command of the British invaders. While he recognized Line Jackson as a formidable tactical asset for the Americans, he knew Jackson’s smaller force was full of militia members, and “militias always run,” Pickles said.
Pakenham staged what is known as a “reconnaissance in force,” an attack designed to discover the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy. And while he decided the British were not prepared to take Line Jackson by frontal assault, some militiamen from Kentucky did in fact flee.
Pickles said that although Jackson knew this wasn’t a full-force attack, he told his men they had effectively turned back “the people that defeated Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington’s best,” and he put the Kentucky soldiers right back on the line.
Jackson, he said, “is a natural leader of men. Maybe tactically he’s not great, but in knowing his opponents’ mind and knowing his own men’s minds, he has no equal.”
Learning how to fight
Pickles said Jackson employed similar psychological tactics in the next engagement, an artillery exchange on Jan. 1. While the Americans lost some of their largest cannons before a lighter-equipped British force inevitably exhausted its ammunition, Jackson once more drilled into his troops’ minds that they had again bested a superior force.
“In effect, what he is doing is using Pakenham’s attacks to train his own men how to fight, (from) behind a defensive wall,” Pickles said.
On Jan. 8, Pakenham launched his major attack, a two-pronged offensive that would first cross the river and attack the dug-in Americans from behind, diverting their attention and capturing their artillery, and then a full frontal assault.
This was the final battle of the Battle of New Orleans, and after the rear attack got off late and was marred by misfortune, the frontal assault proved to be bloody and costly for the British, who suffered very heavy casualties, including losing Pakenham and Gen. Samuel Gibbs to grapeshot fired by American cannons.
Maj. Gen. John Lambert, now in charge of the British forces, asked Jackson for a truce to bury the dead and tend to the wounded. Jackson once again was bold in his response.
“Jackson then does one of his most brilliant moves of the campaign,” Pickles said. “He was a gambler, of course, and now he brings out one of his biggest gambles: He tells the British representatives, ‘Absolutely not. There will be no truce until you remove all the troops you have on the west bank.’ ”
Even though the British troops who had attacked Jackson’s flank had indeed managed to capture American artillery and told Lambert they could freely shell the city, Lambert, shaken by defeat on a cane field in Chalmette, agreed to withdraw.
“As ever, Jackson was absolutely brilliant,” Pickles said. “I would say with any other general, with the possible exception of Winfield Scott, with any other general, America loses. But Andrew Jackson is the one that saves the day.”
In the end, the British suffered about 2,000 casualties, the Americans about 300.
Jackson’s victory ended the War of 1812, which in many ways had not gone well for the United States, with a show of American military fortitude that served to solidify national unity.
Wiese, of the Historic New Orleans Collection, said the Jan. 8 anniversary was one of just three national holidays celebrated until the Civil War; it was on par with the Fourth of July.
“Had we lost that battle, it would have been a disaster for the country,” he said.
A disgraced Jackson would not have ascended to the presidency, the British likely would have used their control of the vital city of New Orleans to secure land for their Native American allies, and America’s westward expansion would have been dealt a blow, he said.
“American possession of the port is what made the western portion of the U.S. economically feasible,” Wiese said. “The port was critical — it was the whole reason for the Louisiana Purchase in the first place — and had we lost it, all of those western settlements would have been cut off from their markets.”
Pickles said Britain would at least have given any territory it seized to Spain, undermining the Louisiana Purchase, and “America would have effectively ended at the Mississippi.”
He also noted that unhappy Federalists in some Northeastern states, political opponents of President James Madison, had just been holding the Hartford Convention in opposition to the war, and some of them were at the time in Washington, D.C., with secession documents.
“In a couple of weeks, those states would probably have left the union and joined Canada,” he said. News of Jackson’s victory quickly ended all such talk.
In addition to the re-enactments at the Living History Park from Friday through Jan. 11, the National Park Service will host public events through next week at Chalmette Battlefield.
The Louisiana Living History Foundation will host events marking Gen. Pakenham’s “final supper” on Tuesday night and Jackson’s “call to arms” in Jackson Square on Wednesday.
On Thursday night, there will be a free concert at Jackson Square by the U.S. Marine Corps Band at 7 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. by fireworks over the Mississippi River.
Even the British are hosting a pop-up consulate in the French Quarter to celebrate 200 years of peace and friendship between the U.S. and Britain and to highlight modern ties between the two countries.
The Historic New Orleans Collection is presenting an exhibition called “Andrew Jackson: Hero of New Orleans,” and a symposium later this month will consider the War of 1812’s impact on the South and the legacy of the Battle of New Orleans, locally and nationally.
“It’s very good that people will hopefully get their consciousness raised a bit about what the Battle of New Orleans was about,” said Pickles, who thanked the philanthropists, organizations and volunteers who will help make it all happen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Chad Calder on Twitter @Chad_Calder