Thursday, March 19, 2009

Old Hickory Secures the Louisiana Purchase

The War of 1812 was mostly fought in the East. But the biggest American victory of the war took place in the West: New Orleans. The Battle of New Orleans should never really have taken place since a peace treaty between America and Britain had been signed 15 days earlier in Ghent, Belgium. News of it, however, had not yet reached the Crescent City and the surrounding lands of Louisiana by January 8th.

It was on January 8th, 1814 that British forces assaulted the Americans in an attempt to take New Orleans. Before that date the two sides maneuvered themselves for the battle. Admiral Alexander Cochran sailed in with a British force of more than 50 ships and almost 10,000 troops. These troops were led by Edward Pakenham. South Carolina’s own frontier backwoodsman, General Andrew Jackson arrived in the city in late fall 1814 after a resounding victory over the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. Old Hickory immediately took control of the American forces and began to create and shore up the defenses for the city.

After several skirmishes, Jackson built a fortified position from mud, wood, and cotton bales at Chalmette Plantation, just three miles from New Orleans. Jackson manned his position with a thin line of defenders made up of American troops, New Orleans Creole militia, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen, former Haitian slaves, and pirates. There was almost 4,000 men facing nearly 8,000 British troops.

The British assault began at dawn on January 8th and they had hoped to use the morning fog to their advantage. But the assault was delayed until well after dawn and the fog lifted to reveal the British advancing on an open field toward the American fortification. The British had also hoped to get over the fortification wall with ladders but in the confusion of the morning the ladders had been forgotten.

The British were mowed down in the open field and never really made a dent in the American position. Pakenham was mortally wounded in the assault. His successor called retreat and the British hurried off the field leaving more than 2,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. The Americans had 71 casualties with 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The victory was complete. Within a week the large British force had withdrawn and sailed to Biloxi. It was here that the British learned of the new peace treaty that ended the War of 1812. They promptly packed up and sailed for home.

So what did this battle that should have never been fought mean? It meant that Britain had to abide by the terms of the peace treaty. They had been turned back from New Orleans and so Americans had in a sense secured the Louisiana Purchase. The Mississippi River was now a safe, American artery of trade. American products shipped down Old Man River from all along its course had a free port of entry and an unblocked outlet to the wider world. This important natural resource was not controlled by any foreign government. This meant that the way was cleared for new migration and settlement along the Mississippi, as well as beyond in the West. There was a new sense of nationalism kindled in the breasts of Americans. Pride that they had once again defeated Britian. And Americans had a new hero. He was a man born on the South Carolina backwoods frontier who had a new western sense of focus. He was Andrew Jackson and he would first be elected president in 1828, and then again in 1832. After he served his terms as President he would become an advisor to later Presidents. In this capacity he would call for the annexation of Texas and give other advice on matters dealing with the West. On the 25th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans he would lay the cornerstone for what would later be called Jackson Square in that city. There a famous statue of him on horseback would be placed and become a landmark in the Crescent City.

I visited the Chalmette Battlefield by steam paddle boat in the spring of 1999 when I was in New Orleans for a conference. It was a nice, sunny day. On August 29, 2005, however, Hurricane Katrina brought no smiles to New Orleans or anywhere near it. Chalmette Battlefield was partially flooded and the visitor’s center was destroyed by the hurricane. Since then, the park has been reopened. It is an important national site dedicated to a place where Old Hickory stood tall and made sure that Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase would remain American.

Andy Thomas

No comments:

Post a Comment