CHALMETTE — After growing up in Tennessee, Chalmette High School junior Kameron Hill said he thinks it’s more than a coincidence that for the past three years he has been reenacting the role of a soldier in the Tennessee militia volunteers who, nearly two centuries ago, bolstered Gen. Andrew Jackson’s troops in the Battle of New Orleans.
“I find it kind of ironic,” Hill, 16, said Saturday. “It was a lot more fun than I had thought. It’s been amazing.”
Hill is among a group of Junior ROTC students at Chalmette High who each year gather at the Chalmette Battlefield, which is now part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, to train as reenactors in the crucial battle during the War of 1812.
The reenactment training took place Saturday and Sunday under the National Park Service’s Recognizing Our Roots program.
The students work with park rangers to learn history, research the lives of men and women during the War of 1812, and develop skills such as musket firing, drilling, and cooking over a campfire.
This year’s program included the addition of Junior ROTC students from Joseph F. Clark Preparatory High School in New Orleans and Choctaw Indian youth from Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
The Clark students played the part of the New Orleans “free men of color” battalions that bolstered Jackson’s forces, the park service said, while the Native-American students played the part of Maj. Pierre Jugeat’s Choctaw Indian volunteers.
The addition of the Clark and Choctaw teens was funded by a grant from the National Park Foundation aimed at increasing the involvement of underserved youth in the Recognizing Our Roots program, said Lafitte Park ranger Patricia Corral, who spearheaded this weekend’s event.
“We try to make it more relevant to them,” Corral said. “(The grant program) is really important, especially here in New Orleans where we have lots of underserved communities. The national parks have had problems bringing in underserved youth to the parks.”
Corral said the grant efforts will not only teach children about history, but will also encourage them to bring that newfound knowledge back to their communities and spread it to others.
On Saturday, Corral and a handful of female students wore billowy dresses and bonnets as they cooked red beans and rice over a fire and baked cornbread.
One of the girls, 15-year-old Eliza Work, came to the Lafitte Park on Saturday from Choctaw Central High School in Philadelphia, Miss., to join the reenactment. She said it gave her a sense of cultural pride to explore the role her tribe played in the Battle of New Orleans.
“It’s great to learn how our ancestors helped win the War of 1812,” Work said. She participated in the festivities for the first time Saturday. “We get to cook and learn about the way they lived.”
The Battle of New Orleans took place on Jan. 8, 1815, which was about two weeks after the United States signed a treaty ending the war with the invading British. However, the battle was a decisive and crucial victory for the Americans, who kept their primary port and shipping route, the Mississippi River, out of British hands.
The triumph also signaled the arrival of the United States as a major player on the world political, military and diplomatic stage.
That’s why programs such as Recognizing Our Roots are so crucial, said Nathan Hill, another park ranger at the Chalmette site. Dressed in a blue uniform reminiscent of the ones American officers wore during the 1815 battle, Hill instructed a group of students on how to load period muskets and led them in marches.
Nathan Hill said he hopes some of the students who engaged in reenactment training this weekend will be inspired to take part in the park’s actual re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans, which takes place each year near the January anniversary of the clash.
“We want some of them to come back to be reenactors,” Nathan Hill said. “Our goal is to encourage people to continue to be part of the park’s programs.”
Kameron Hill, the Chalmette High School student, said he’s already decided to do so and plans to take part in future reenactments after three years of training.
Like Eliza Work, Kameron Hill said the Recognizing Our Roots youth program helped stir pride within him by teaching him the importance of the Battle of New Orleans in American history.
“It’s one of the reasons we’re still here (as a nation),” he said. “If it wasn’t for Gen. Jackson’s guys, we wouldn’t be here. It was like our second war of independence. If (the British) had won control of our shipping system, we’d be under their rule.”