Battle of New Orleans
BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
Although the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the peace treaty concluding the War of 1812 had been signed in Europe, it proved to be the most decisive battle of the war and the one that would live on longest in American memory. That memory and the political consequences of the Battle of New Orleans made it the seminal event of the War of 1812, a war that otherwise has been largely forgotten by the American public.
The battle itself was an impressive military victory for U.S. forces, and most especially for their commander, Andrew Jackson. Jackson arrived in New Orleans on December 1, 1814, fresh off a victory against Native Americans in the Creek War. American commanders had expected the British to attack the Gulf Coast near New Orleans for the entire duration of the War of 1812, and now that British Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Lieutenant General Edward Pakenham were massing troops in Jamaica, an invasion seemed imminent. After a series of skirmishes throughout the month of December, Jackson had successfully fortified positions in and around the city of New Orleans. Jackson assembled a mixed military force that included regular army soldiers, Southern militia forces, Creole and free African-American volunteers from New Orleans, and members of the Baratarian pirates led by the infamous Jean Lafitte. No one in North America had yet heard that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814, and the British advanced at the beginning of January.
Although Jackson commanded fewer troops than the British, he skillfully coordinated their positions, and Jackson's plans were further aided by a dense fog that confused the main British assault on January 8, 1815. After several days of nasty artillery exchanges, the main battle
action took place at the Rodriguez Canal, where the Americans cut down several advances of British troops when the fog lifted to reveal their movements. The lopsided casualty figures tell much of the tale of the battle. The British suffered over 1,500 casualties, and 484 were taken prisoner. The dead included Pakenham himself. The Americans took only seventy casualties during the entire month of January, and along Jackson's main line at the canal, only six men were killed.
The victory at New Orleans allowed Americans to claim victory in the War of 1812. Although the overall war had been, at best, a draw, and Americans had experienced severe disappointments, including the burning of their national capital, the Battle of New Orleans seemed to blot out all the dubious effects of the previous years and to promote a positive culture of victory. In his study The War of 1812, Donald Hickey quotes one congressman as declaring: "The terms of the treaty are yet unknown to us, but the victory at Orleans has rendered them glorious and honorable, be they what they may…. Who is not proud to feel himself an American—our wrongs revenged—our rights recognized!" (1989, p. 309).
By severely beating the British army, among the most impressive military forces in the world at the time, Andrew Jackson also catapulted himself into immediate fame. He had been known as an Indian fighter for some time, but now the former Revolutionary soldier from Tennessee became universally known as "the Hero of New Orleans." Jackson, and his victory, were celebrated throughout the country. American pride at having beaten Great Britain and shored up the national independence coalesced around the figure of Jackson, who was lauded in heroic poetry, biographies, and other forms of popular culture. Both the Battle of New Orleans and the martial heroism of Andrew Jackson boosted Americans' postwar sense of nationalism.
Andrew Jackson's subsequent political career was strongly influenced by the heroic reputation he won at New Orleans. He was immediately begged to run for several different political offices, and his renown helped him to dodge congressional censure for dubious actions taken during his command in the Seminole War in 1817–1818. Jackson served as territorial governor of Florida and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1823, just as a Tennessee convention nominated him for president. Jackson's reputation as the "Hero of New Orleans" boosted his campaigns for president. In 1824 he lost, after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives; in 1828 he won, and in 1832 he was reelected. Pamphlets and handbills touting the political career of the "Hero of New Orleans" helped to usher in a new style of political campaigning.
The memory of the Battle of New Orleans continued to mark a high point in American national selfrespect far after Jackson was elected to office. Jackson paid a return visit to the New Orleans battlefield in 1840, where he laid a cornerstone for a battle monument that would not be completed until the twentieth century. Residents of New Orleans celebrated the battle anniversary throughout the nineteenth century and have continued to do so ever since. The battle site is presently part of Chalmette National Historic Park, where it lies adjacent to Chalmette National Military Cemetery.
Andrew Jackson remains an icon in American history and his portrait appears on the twenty-dollar bill. He was among several presidents—George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower—whose political careers were propelled by becoming military heroes in American eyes. American culture has sought such military heroes to affirm the nation's identity and to lead the country.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Owsley, Frank Lawrence, Jr. Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812–1815. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Remini, Robert V. The Battle of New Orleans. New York: Viking, 1999.
Sarah J. Purcell
See also:Jackson, Andrew.