The Battle of New Orleans
It may go down in history as one of the biggest upsets of all time. Historians are still debating that one.
What we do know for certain is that this squabble, which was settled on the boggy turf of Chalmette on Jan. 8, 1815, was completely unnecessary since a treaty between the combatants – England and the toddler United States of America – had been signed two weeks earlier, declaring a cessation to the long-running conflict between the two countries.
The treaty simply hadn’t been ratified and the mail was a bit slow coming down the pike.
Other side effects of the battle included the eventual penning of what may be the worst rockabilly song of all time:
“In 1814 we took a little trip / Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip / We took a little bacon and we took a little beans / And we caught the bloody British at the town of New Orleans …”
This ditty won a 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording.
The battle also enticed legendary Hollywood producer, Cecile B. DeMille in 1938 to turn out The Buccaneer, a filmography of the Battle of New Orleans, and reprise that very same film in the late-’50s starring the perpetually scowling Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson and Yul Brynner, wearing what may have been the worst hairpiece of all time, as the pirate and Jackson ally Jean Lafitte. It is hard to believe that DeMille eventually turned to his son-in-law Anthony Quinn to direct the film, or that The Buccaneer was originally intended to be a musical.
But two centuries after the real battle, long after Chalmette Battlefield Monument key chains have fallen out of vogue, perspective serves to bring more clearly into focus the true “blood and guts” stories of those men and women involved and how their involvement had trickled down through the centuries.
“If you look back on it,” says history buff Ramon Alfaro, “you just knew the Americans would win. It had to happen as it did. And that battle, that victory, put the exclamation point on the words, ‘America is here to stay!’”
The Ursuline nuns, who had arrived in New Orleans nearly a century before the battle, take pride in the part they played in the battle and always insert the word “miraculous” in any talk of victory.
“The Ursuline sisters and many of the faithful from throughout the French Quarter gathered at the chapel (the Ursuline convent’s chapel on Chartres Street) and prayed throughout the night,” says Sister Carla Dolce O.S.U., herself a native of New Orleans, and whose brother, Carl, once served as superintendent of public education, “Every person in the chapel spent the night praying before the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. They prayed for the Virgin Mary’s intercession.”
The next morning Rev. William Dubourg, the vicar general who would later be named bishop of New Orleans, offered Mass at the chapel on an altar where the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor had been placed. As the Mass got underway, Mother Ste. Marie Olivier deVezin made a vow that, “If Jackson’s troops were victorious and the city of New Orleans were saved, a Mass of Thanksgiving would be celebrated by the bishop of New Orleans on this (Jan. 8) date every year,” says Sister Carla. “Shortly after that vow was made, a man ran into the church to announce that the British troops were defeated. ‘Victory is ours!’ he said, and for the past 199 years we have kept that promise.” This Jan. 8, 2015, Sister Carla says, Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate the 200th Mass of Thanksgiving. It will be held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor at State Street and South Claiborne Avenue at 4 p.m.
A few days after his improbable victory, General Jackson, who became a national hero and rode his military exploits into the White House, arrived at the little chapel in the French Quarter to personally thank the Ursuline nuns for their prayers and support.
“By the blessing of heaven,” Jackson said, “directing the valor of the troops under my command, one of the most brilliant victories in the annals of war was obtained.”
“Amen,” says Sister Carla.
Several miles down the road in Chalmette across Judge Perez Drive, where the battle was actually fought, battle buffs and historians are forever digging into the lore and facts surrounding their favorite skirmish.
Numbers are tossed about: Did the British have 7,000 troops or 12,000? Did Jackson face them with 2,000 troops or 5,000? Did the battle last 15 minutes or three hours?
Perhaps Dr. Emilie “Lee” Gagnet Leumas, archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans says it best: “With a minimal amount of hodgepodge troops, we were up against the strongest army in the world.”
In addition, in a recent interview Dr. Leumas said, “The estimates are that the battle lasted somewhere between 45 minutes and two hours. Most agree it was less than an hour. To beat the British troops that were the best in the world in less than two hours is pretty miraculous!”
Sister Carla Dolce likes that word “miraculous.” She is quick to correct anybody talking about a mere victory: “The miraculous victory, ‘miraculous’ victory!”
Miracles aside, not all historians are of one mind on why Jackson was so successful in so brief a battle.
Ron Chapman is a professor of history at Nunez Community College in Chalmette. He has written extensively about the Battle of New Orleans from his long-held fascination with the subject. Chapman has published a detailed account of Jackson’s success (Or was it British errors?) in his book titled The Battle of New Orleans: But for a piece of wood.
To this day, Chapman shakes his head in disbelief as he reads the words he wrote: “How was it possible that a major British expeditionary force composed of 14,500 soldiers, 3,500 sailors and an armada numbering nearly 100 ships could have failed? The force thrown against Jackson defeated Napoleon in the Spanish Peninsula Campaign. Hearty veterans seasoned by years of combat fell in Chalmette. Despite numerous opportunities for victory over several months, Dame Victory withheld her smile, allowing America to manifest its destiny.”
“There was no reason for them to lose thing,” Chapman says. “They had the men, position and the officers. They just brought the wrong equipment and just suffered an unbelievable number of mishaps along the way … unbelievable bad judgments.”
Bad judgments like bringing cannon with small wheels designed for the wooden decks of their ships onto the bogs of Chalmette. “Their cannon sunk!” Chapman says.
Like carrying rifles with short ranges while the Kentuckians with their long rifles could pick off a man in a brilliant red uniform at up to two miles away.
How about total confusion when one officer after another was killed by the Americans?
And that “piece of wood” in the title of Chapman’s book?
“All they had to do was throw a stick in the river and they could have seen the strength of the current in the river, and realize how quickly it could pull them downriver.” Chapman says. “No! They just loaded their men into boats and crossed the river.”
All of which means by the time British soldiers disembarked, ready to do battle in Chalmette, they were somewhere around Port Sulphur.
“Even that many mistakes by one side can be called a ‘miraculous victory’ by the other side,” says Sister Carla.
“Amen!” comes a voice of affirmation from the back of the room.
Ole Hickory: The Statue
The bronze statue of Andrew Jackson astride his prancing steed is perhaps the most widely recognized landmark in the French Quarter. This monument commemorates the United States triumph over the British invasion of 1815: the epic struggle, known as The Battle of New Orleans, which took place at what’s now known as the Chalmette Battlefield on Jan. 8, 1815.
At the time (and still today) it seemed an impossible task: Jackson led a ragtag group of regular army units, New Orleans militia, Haitian refugees, frontier volunteers from Tennessee and Kentucky, Jean Lafitte’s pirates and gutsy shopkeepers from the French Quarter to victory over numerically superior British forces.
Despite the military significance of the improbable victory and the personal prominence of General Jackson, many specifics of the statue are not widely appreciated.
Long before any plans were formulated to erect a monument, Andrew Jackson laid its first cornerstone on Jan. 13, 1840. He had been invited to New Orleans for an extravagant celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The festivities included a procession to the Place d’ Armes (it didn’t become known as Jackson Square until 1851) where Jackson placed the cornerstone containing a copper box near the center of the square
Unlike any other monument in the city, the person being honored had actually participated in its construction.
On Jan. 11, 1851, the Jackson Monument Association was formed to garner the necessary funds and to contract with a sculptor. Two artists, Clark Mills and Achille Perelli, a renowned local Italian artist, both submitted equestrian models. Ultimately, Mills won the bid. The initial contributions totaling $4,140 were a far cry from Mills’ staggering estimate of $28,000. Interestingly, Baroness Pontalba was in Paris at the time and didn’t contribute to the fund.
While negotiating with the New Orleans Monument Association, Mills started to research and experiment with his materials. While working at his foundry in Washington D.C., he successfully completed this undertaking and produced the first statue at a cost of about $30,000 which he received from Congress.
In 1853, the statue was unveiled in Washington, D.C. It was the very first equestrian statue created in the United States and still stands across from the White House in Lafayette Square.
From Mills’ cast, two more statues were turned out, which included the one that stands today in Jackson Square and a third in Nashville.
Charles Gayarre, the renowned historian and author of The History of Louisiana, was completing his last year in office in 1853 as Secretary of State. Gayarre was instrumental in appropriating funds for the monument. He also served as a member of the monument committee and published A Sketch of General Jackson, a pamphlet to help raise money for its completion.
When adequate funds became available in the state of Louisiana, the association ratified a contract with Mills in 1854. On Oct. 30, 1855, Jackson’s original cornerstone was dug up and re-set at the monument’s current location. Because of unexpected delays in shipping, the initial date for the formal unveiling of the statue had to be rescheduled from Jan. 8, 1856 to Feb. 9.
The statue isn’t only an incomparable work of art, but also an engineering marvel. At one-third larger than life, the statue weighs about 15 tons and is balanced upon the two slender legs of the general’s charger. Mills explained how he achieved this: “The mode in which the statue sustained itself on its hind legs, is on the simple principle of equipoise drawing a vertical line from the front of the hind hoofs upward; the amount of metal on one side of it is equal to that on the other.”
Interestingly, although the statue appears completely solid, it is in fact comprised of about 60 independent pieces that fit together with pins.
It seems questions regarding the tipping of Jackson’s hat date back to its very inception. Clark Mills, who was present at the dedication, addressed the crowd: “I have thought this explanation necessary, as there are many critics professing not to understand the conception of the artist.” Mills went on to explain, “General Jackson is there represented as he appeared on the morning of the 8th…
He has advanced to the center of the line in the act of review; the lines have come to present arms as a salute to their commander, who is acknowledging it by raising his chapeau, according to the military etiquette of the day.”
So there you have it: the statue of General Andrew Jackson, familiar to countless native New Orleanians and tourists alike, should serve as a reminder of the rich heritage that was first entrusted to us on a cold, misty January 200 years ago.
– Robert Jeanfreau M.D.
Dr. Jeanfreau’s book, The Story Behind the Stone is available at Barnes and Noble and can also be purchased online through Amazon.