Last year, in early February, I spent a delightful week in the City of New Orleans. It was my first visit and also the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. I was urged to bring my “walking shoes and an umbrella.” Indeed, that was very good advice!
The old town part of the city, where the fabled “French Quarter” is located, is flat and made for walking and taking in all the carnival-like fun New Orleans is famous for. There was sure plenty to absorb – like street parties, huge rolling floats, marching bands, parade horses, colorful costumes, and much more.
New Orleans sits on the Mississippi River just upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. One moment it can be sunny and the next it’s raining cats and dogs. It was just my good luck that the town, aka, “Crescent City,” was celebrating its 300th birthday.
I made it a point to visit the town’s acclaimed National WWII Museum, located down on the waterfront. It made my day! I also took in the Audubon Museum right next door. It included a documentary, with actress Meryl Streep narrating, about the vanishing wetlands that surround the city. A combination of “Climate Change and poor planning,” she said, continued to put the fast-fading wetlands, and the city, at risk.
Since I’m a history buff, one of the places on my must-see list was the battlefield at Chalmette. This is where American troops, including “free blacks,” on January 8, 1815, under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson gave the invading British Imperial forces a resounding defeat. It was America’s first military victory after the founding of our Republic.
Chalmette is located about ten miles outside the city. I had to board a paddlewheel boat to get there. Jackson had labeled the British as the “common enemy of mankind.” That magnificent victory launched Jackson, later known as “Old Hickory,” on the path to the White House (1829-1837). It also eventually led to a popular ballad about the battle penned by Jimmy Driftwood. My favorite rendition of it is by Johnny Horton.
When that battle was fought, the combatants didn’t know that the war was already over! The Treaty of Ghent, ending the conflict, was approved by the U.S. Senate on February 17, 1815.
Baltimore patriots played an important role in convincing the British to throw in the towel. At the battles of Fort McHenry and at North Point, (09.13.1814), they successfully repelled the invaders. Keep in mind, that earlier that same year (08. 24.1814), the British, using terrorist tactics, had torched our White House, the Capitol, and many other important buildings.
When Americans heard of Jackson’s stunning victory at New Orleans, it helped “to restore their self-respect,” according to the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. How did Jackson pull it off? For the answer to that question we have to turn to the book, “The Battle of New Orleans,” by author Robert V. Remini, who had also penned a three-volume biography on Jackson.
The historic battle pitted “roughly eight thousand discipline regulars of the British Army, and sailors from their fleet anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, against American forces, consisting of about “four thousand frontiersmen, militiamen, regulars soldiers, Indians, pirates and free men of color…,” wrote Remini.
In preparing for the British invasion, Jackson took the precaution on December 16, 1814, of declaring “Martial Law in New Orleans.”
The rough terrain around the city, mercifully, favored the Americans. In order to prevail, the British had to fight the difficult natural elements surrounding their target. This included swamps, alligators, canals, streams, bayous, prairies, lakes, canebrakes and “sheets of reeds eight or nine feet high.”
“On December 22, 1814, despite those obstacles, some of the British forces made it, to Villere’s Plantation, just 12 miles south from the city,” Remini continued. After a fierce battle, Jackson’s troops were able to stop the invaders. Over the next few weeks, the British and Americans exchanged gunfire on various fronts setting the stage for the final clash at Chalemette.
It turned out the British attack was directed at that part of the American line fortified by over 3,000 men. As Remini saw it, the British commander, the “arrogant Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Pakeham, couldn’t conceive of a ragtag collection of misfits, defeating the greatest army on the continent.” His mistaken assumption not only brought him defeat, it also cost him his life. “The carnage,” Remini underscored, “was simply frightful.”
It took the British Army a few months to admit that they couldn’t get their act together to risk another attack on New Orleans. They sailed for England on March 15, 1815.
When Baltimore heard the news of the great victory, the “Niles Weekly Register” proclaimed: “Glory be to God that the barbarians have been defeated. Glory to Jackson, the Militias, the Sons of Freedom…benefactors of your country…all hail.”
Top photo: Jackson Square, New Orleans (Wikipedia)
Bill Hughes is a native of Baltimore. He’s an attorney, author, professional actor and hobbyist photographer. In his salad days, he worked on the docks as a longshoreman. Bill also played on three championship soccer teams: sandlot with Jules Morstein; high school at Calvert Hall; and college at the University of Baltimore.