On this day, 200 years ago, General Andrew Jackson and a ragtag assortment of American soldiers, militia, pirates, and volunteers successfully defended the City of New Orleans against the British Army. For modern Americans, the Battle of New Orleans has become a nearly forgotten engagement in a forgotten war, kept faintly alive in the minds of older Americans as the topic of a popular 1959 Johnny Horton song.
However, in the 19th century, Americans honored the January 8 Battle of New Orleans anniversary at the same level as Independence Day on the 4th of July. The War of 1812 was perhaps the greatest test of American independence after the Revolution; it was an important early trial for the world’s first true constitutional republic.
It is said that when Benjamin Franklin heard a fellow American call the American Revolution of 1776 the “War of Independence,” he exclaimed “No, this is the War of Revolution. The War of Independence will come later.” The “Second War of Independence,” as the War of 1812 is sometimes named, began with American anger toward British violations of American rights on the high seas and escalated into a full-blown war between the countries. The conflict often went poorly for the American military—Washington D.C. was virtually razed to the ground by British troops—but the nation endured and won a stunning, vital victory in the final days of fighting.
The improbable triumph of Jackson and his troops, dubbed nearly a miracle by newspapers of the day, had a monumental impact on the future of the United States and the world. Revisionist historians have wrongly downplayed the significance of the battle, which was fought several days after a peace treaty was signed between Great Britain and the United States. But when examining the political and military circumstances of the time, it is apparent that defeat at New Orleans might have permanently damaged the future power of the United States and made a permanent crackup of the union nearly inevitable.
The peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain had not been passed by either Parliament or the Senate and could have been easily been reneged upon, a frequent occurrence in 19th century international politics. New Orleans had been recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase with France, a deal that was considered illegal by the British government. Had the British Army defeated Jackson and the brave defenders of New Orleans, it is quite possible that the powerful, hegemonic British Navy could have held it as essentially an American rock of Gibraltar. The British would then be able to restrict American shipping on the Mississippi River that relied on access to the Gulf of Mexico. A closure of New Orleans could have easily devastated the American economy, especially the southern states.
Yet the international conflict was just one part of the equation. Domestic politics were also spinning out of control, as northerners who relied on trade with the British empire were apoplectic about the damage the war had done to their economic interests. Many New Englanders were on the edge of rebellion and some spoke about possible reunification with England. Extreme members of the pro-British faction of the Federalist Party met in Hartford, Connecticut and drafted a list of demands for constitutional changes along with the threat of secession. The future of a united, independent United States was fading fast; the republic was on life support.
The United States’ economy, international reputation, and very existence as a nation were at stake in the days before Jackson was tasked with defending the ethnically diverse, recently acquired City of New Orleans at the edge of American civilization. Arrayed in opposition to the defenders of New Orleans were British Army veterans of the successful Spanish Peninsula campaign against Napoleon and his French Army. They were led by General Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the legendary Duke of Wellington, the general who later won the Battle of Waterloo.
General Andrew Jackson, a patriotic frontier lawyer, judge, and businessman of Tennessee with no formal military training, but an impressive record of Indian fighting, channeled his lifelong anger toward the British—who had left him an orphan as a teenager. He crafted a remarkable defense of the vulnerable Gulf Coast city.
Jackson cobbled together a makeshift and hodgepodge force to counter the elite British soldiers. He had a small number of professional soldiers at his disposal, a larger number of militia mostly from western states like Kentucky and Tennessee, a number of free blacks, and a few local pirates led by the charismatic Jean Lafitte who brought badly needed artillery to the battle.
Jackson set up an amazing line of defense with his highly diverse force and precipitated one of the worst defeats in the history of the British Army. General Packenham’s overly-complicated plan of attack went poorly. Thousands of British were killed and wounded, including many officers and General Packenham himself, who died shortly after being wounded by an artillery blast. The Americans suffered a mere handful of casualties and drove the British back into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a total victory.
In an 1855 ceremony accepting Jackson’s sword used at the Battle of New Orleans as a gift to the United States, Sen. John Bell of Tennessee spoke about Old Hickory’s leadership during the battle.
General Jackson found assembled around him a force of five thousand men, of all arms—all save two regiments of the regular army, being volunteers and militiamen—and with this hastily assembled army, on the 8th of January, he met, and, in a sanguinary battle, overcame more than double their number of veteran troops, led by experienced generals, flushed with victory on the battlefields of Europe, and closed the war in a blaze of glory.
Robert Remini, the great Jacksonian-era historian, wrote in The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory that the battle was one of the “great turning points in American history.” He wrote that the “country had gone to war with England in a desperate effort to prove that its independence won in the Revolution was no fluke, no accident, no grant by a reluctant mother country to her rebellious colonies.”
Remini wrote that “everything changed with New Orleans. In that one glorious moment the nation had demonstrated that it had the strength, will, and ability to defend its freedom and prove to the world that it was here to stay.”
News of the outcome at New Orleans reached England on the same day that word was received that Napoleon had escaped exile on Elba. The British press tried to use this development as a way to divert attention away from the disaster.
British pamphleteer William Cobbett wrote, “Bonaparte had landed from Elba, and the battle of Waterloo soon succeeded. Both the Government and the people were glad to forget all about this unmerciful beating in America.” However, he continued, “This battle of New Orleans broke the heart of European despotism. The man who won it did, in that one act, more for the good and the honor of the human race than ever was done by any other man.”
In America, most citizens were merely hoping that the war could be concluded with dignity. When news of the victory got out there was incredible elation throughout the country. In a single blow, the honor of the United States had been upheld and its greatest enemy had been humiliated and defeated; all anti-union, secessionist feelings evaporated.
News of the victory was announced at the same time that a delegation from the Hartford Convention arrived in Washington D.C. with its threatening list of demands. The New England Federalists were denounced as unpatriotic and almost instantly lost all credibility. The Federalist Party completely vanished within a few years.
The Battle of New Orleans, far from being a meaningless victory after the conclusion of an unsuccessful war, was one of the most important events in the history of the United States. The nation demonstrated that it could stand toe to toe with the most powerful European countries and achieve victory, it held together through the burning of the capitol and political fracturing, and brought to the nation’s attention an individual who would rise to become a consequential president of the United States. Most importantly, the victory proved that the United States would remain an independent country, that the experiment of constitutional government could endure through incredible adversity, and that Americans could be both free and strong.
Sen. Bell finished his 1855 commemoration by saying that the Jackson’s New Orleans sword, worn by a “ man of stern resolve and iron will,” should in future ages “send a thrill through the heart of every true American.” Two-hundred years after the battle, Americans would do well to take a moment to appreciate the leadership, courage, and strength that it took for citizens and soldiers of the young republic to find victory at New Orleans and secure our nation’s invaluable independence.