The Battle of New Orleans was fought 200 years ago Thursday, so the anniversary hoopla promises to be more intense than usual.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne has announced a series of events to “commemorate this historic battle and recognize our steadfast relationship with Great Britain since the War of 1812 ended.”
The Limeys have many reasons to value that steadfast relationship, but this bicentennial will go largely unremarked over there. Yours truly confirmed as much a few weeks ago after walking into a pub and calling for a pint of beer; no research is too much trouble to undertake on your behalf.
The pub, being in an area of southwest London called Orleans Park, seemed a logical place to conduct a survey on the subject of the battle. Only two of the customers had heard of it, and they were hazy about when it took place and who the combatants were. This was a diverse crowd — it included a journalist, a cop, a retired schoolteacher, a couple of computer technicians, a cab driver and construction workers — but nobody present had heard that British troops once burned down the White House. They all received the news stoically.
It is axiomatic that winners write history, but maybe they are more inclined to read it, too. It proved impossible to hush up the American Revolution, but the War of 1812 evidently proved one transatlantic defeat too many to bear over there. A version of the song “The Battle of New Orleans” made it to No. 2 in the British charts in 1959, but nobody remembers the words now.
The British Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott will be in town for this year’s commemoration, which involves the usual wreath-layings, Masses and battle re-enactments, but the official program does not include a single member of the Pakenham family. Fifty years ago, the city was knee-deep in collateral descendants of Edward Pakenham, the British commander who was killed in the Battle of New Orleans and eulogized by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Wellington. His body was sent home in a barrel of rum.
The Pakenhams seem to have a penchant for showing up in disastrous military engagements; another scion died during the Gallipoli fiasco in World War I, exactly 100 years after the British rout in Chalmette.
The 1915 commemoration in New Orleans, organized by the Louisiana Historical Society, was a three-day affair that combined ritual with civic boosterism and was “an obvious effort” to be “ecumenical at the time of rising anti-Semitism,” according to New Orleans historian Howard Hunter, who has studied the changing nature of the Battle of New Orleans anniversaries.
Fifty years after the battle, with the Civil War not yet over, there had evidently been little appetite around here for reliving earlier conflicts, but in 1866, Hunter reports, the Battle of New Orleans was commemorated in the unlikeliest of places, New York’s Tammany Hall.
David Farragut, the Union admiral who sailed up the Mississippi in 1862 to end Confederate rule in New Orleans, appeared there at what was billed as a “semi-centennial of the great victory of a great southern hero.” The sachems’ motive for hailing an event that “united brethren in every corner of our glorious republic” was to build Southern support for the Democratic Party, which would have been a cinch without invoking the name of Andrew Jackson anyway.
By the time the sesquicentennial of the battle rolled around, commemorations took on the quality of razzmatazz. Countess Longford showed up along with a couple other members of the Pakenham family.
One of them accompanied Miss Great Britain onto the field at halftime during the Sugar Bowl, where they greeted the victor’s descendant, Andrew Jackson Donelson, who had Miss America in tow. The president of the Louisiana Historical Society, Hugh Wilkinson, delivered an address on the significance of the battle for the benefit of 64,000 spectators at the stadium and millions of TV viewers. Most of them were no doubt more interested in the game, which LSU won 13-10 over Syracuse.
Nobody around here needs to be reminded about the rag-tag collection of frontiersmen, pirates and such who mowed down the advancing British troops. We are weaned on the story, but you can dine out on it in London.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.