Wiry and weathered, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson rode into New Orleans on the morning of Dec. 2, 1814. Jackson had made a name for himself as a colonel in command of the Tennessee militia who quelled an uprising of the Creek Indians in early 1814. His victory in that campaign garnered him a promotion and an appointment into the Regular Army and propelled him to combat the threat of a British invasion in New Orleans. Although Jackson arrived to find a city demographically divided, fortifications neglected and a military unprepared, he was able to unite the population in a common loathing for the British.
Vastly outnumbered, Jackson pulled together a small army of Regulars and volunteers (including a battalion of free people of color) to command one of the most celebrated victories in American warfare. In many quarters he was revered as “the deliverer and second saviour of the country.” In New Orleans, he was a hero. Still, despite Jackson’s local standing, he didn’t wholly trust the citizenry or the state Legislature:
On my arrival I was flattered by the greetings of all; and while I returned to all the salute of entire confidence, I must own that I manifested somewhat more than I felt … Notwithstanding the great unanimity which appears, very generally to have prevailed among the inhabitants since my arrival, I am fearful that if reverses had overtaken us, or if disaffection could have hoped for favor I should have been compelled to witness a very different scene –– I am fearful I should have witnessed it, where it ought least to have been looked for.
For three months following the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson maintained martial law over the city of New Orleans. His governance caused tensions between him and the local population, and he did not hesitate to exile dissenters regardless of their social or political statuses. Eager to reinforce the defenses and security of the city, Jackson sought to “impress on the mind of the Secretary of War the necessity of expediting regular troops to the defense of this district.”
The White House, however, was also being flooded with letters about Jackson; hero or not, he was fast wearing out his welcome. In early April, Jackson received instructions from the president that “conciliatory deportment be observed towards the state authorities, and the citizens of New Orleans.” On April 26, Jackson was reassigned and left the city to take charge of the Division of the South, which was fighting a new campaign in Florida against the Seminole Indian tribe.
In 1806, the Secretary of War wrote Gov. Claiborne, “The speediest measures, in the power of the Executive, will be taken for improving the fortifications at New Orleans and in its vicinity.” Since that time, circumstances ranging from “the great indolence of labourers” to economics and war had prevented the local administration from making significant improvements on the military defenses of New Orleans. Extensive efforts were focused on improvements at Fort St. Phillip along the river in Plaquemine and Fort St. Charles, along with new works at English Turn and Bayou St. John, but the body of local troops was still stationed at the colonial barracks.
In the years immediately following Jackson’s departure, the government was petitioned by “sundry inhabitants stating the uselessness of a garrison in New Orleans and that the ground on which these buildings stood was wanted for the improvement of the city.” Construction was set to begin on Baton Rouge Barracks (Pentagon Barracks) in 1819. The new site would be the region’s principal depot of arms and would be able to accommodate eight companies of men.
Considering the circumstances, Congress enacted legislation on April 20, 1818, granting executive decision to the property:
The president may, whenever in his opinion it shall be consistent with the public interest, abandon the use of the navy arsenal, military hospital, and barracks, in the city of New Orleans … and cause the lots of ground whereon said arsenal, hospital, and barracks, in New Orleans now stand, to be surveyed and laid off into lots with suitable streets and avenues, conforming as near as may be, to the original plan of the city aforesaid; and the said lots of ground shall be offered at public sale at the city of New Orleans on such day as the president shall, by his proclamation, designate for that purpose.
The colonial barracks were made purchasable in January 1821; Maj. Gen. Eleazer W. Ripley helped secure the sale of a portion of the property for $48,200. Soon after, the U.S. garrison was withdrawn from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.
Perhaps curiously, the colonial barracks property remained undeveloped, but shortly after the withdrawal of the troops, local and state politicians petitioned the federal government to return a garrison to New Orleans to “suppress an apprehended servile insurrection.” The government acquiesced, and the troops returned. However, the government had now sold a significant portion of the barracks and, in the absence of other quarters, was compelled to rent them from the new owner “at an exorbitant price.” The troops at this time were under the command of Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor with Maj. George Bender acting as the Quartermaster officer. Bender was frustrated with circumstances in New Orleans, and he disagreed with the reasons the troops were returned. He wrote of his concerns to the Quartermaster Gen. Thomas Jesup.
In relaying this information to Secretary of War James Barbour, Jesup wrote, “It is no part of my duty to express an opinion as to the propriety of stationing troops at New Orleans, but it is proper to remark that, whether the subject be regarded in a military or a pecuniary view, if the troops are to remain there, barracks should
Assigned to draw the plan was 2nd Lt. Frederick Wilkinson. Wilkinson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in July 1831 and was immediately promoted to brevet second lieutenant in the fourth infantry, stationed in New Orleans.
In 1832, Wilkinson was reassigned to the Pentagon Barracks in Baton Rouge where he served until he was again transferred to New Orleans, at the request of Assistant Quartermaster Maj. J. Clark to serve as his assistant during construction.
Upon completion, 15 major buildings stood within a rectangular brick masonry-walled enceinte, with four corner towers constructed with apertures through which muskets could be fired. The front of the post had a sally-port that led to a wharf on the river, and another gate at the rear of the barracks allowed access to buildings outside the walls.
New Orleans Barracks, or United States Barracks, as they were known until the name was officially changed to Jackson Barracks in 1866, have been widely appreciated for their architectural design since their completion. Brevet Brig. Gen. Robert C. Wood, who had direction of the general hospital at Jackson Barracks during the latter part of the Civil War, was reported to have observed, “It has the greatest charm of any post I have ever visited.”
In 1914, the Times-Democrat reported: “Do you know that it is considered the finest arrangement and setting of purely colonial architecture in the country. That in all the United States there is only one court at all like it in style –– the University of Virginia.”
More recently, in 1966, Louisiana architectural historian Samuel Wilson Jr. wrote that the barracks were “perhaps the finest complex of Greek Revival buildings existing in Louisiana, equaled as a group by few in the United States.”
Aside from its notable design, since completion, Jackson Barracks has played an active role in all of this country’s military campaigns. Beginning in 1836, the barracks became a temporary post for troops during the Seminole War, which had begun the preceding year in Florida. Throughout the ensuing period of Indian Removals, more informally known as the Trail of Tears, the barracks was used as a point of embarkation. It is not known exactly how many Native Americans were moved through the barracks at this time, but at one point, some 250 indigenous people, “some of each tribe that had ever been in Florida,” were assembled at the barracks at New Orleans to start their journey to Arkansas. Among these was Thlocklo-Tustenuggee, a prominent chief also known as Tiger Tail, who died while at the barracks. Another recorded death was that of the Seminole chief, Jumper. The Army and Navy Chronicle of 1838 carried the report of his death and burial:
The distinguished Seminole chief, Jumper, died at the New Orleans Barracks on the 18th of May, and was buried in the afternoon. In his coffin were placed his tobacco, pipe, rifle, and other equipments, according to his people’s custom. The military, and a number of citizens, attended his funeral, which was conducted with all the honors or war.
Interestingly, recent archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of some American Indian burials at the barracks. Whether any of these are Chief Jumper or Chief Tiger Tail is unknown, but research continues regarding the historically and culturally significant presence of these peoples at Jackson Barracks.
As the Seminole Indian War was winding down, tensions with Mexico were beginning to escalate. Brig. Gen.
Zachary Taylor was charged with organizing an Army of Observation in Texas in 1845. Taylor used Jackson Barracks as a post to organize and funnel through his troops and supplies. During the summer of 1845, U.S. Grant, who was then a lieutenant serving under Zachary’s command, was temporarily stationed at the barracks. He wrote in his memoirs of the experience:
The yellow fever was raging in New Orleans during the time we remained there, and the streets had the appearance of a continuous well-observed Sunday. I recollect but one occasion when this observance seemed broken by the inhabitants. One morning about daylight I happened to be awake, and hearing the discharge of a rifle not far off, I looked out to ascertain where the sound came from. I observed a couple of clusters of men near by, and learned afterward that “it was nothing –– only a couple of gentlemen deciding a difference of opinion with rifles, at twenty paces.”
Some years after the fact, Brig. Gen. Horace Brooks also reminisced on his movement through the barracks at this time, which was fraught with corralling his men from the temptations of the city:
There is generally much trouble with recruits left in transit for a few days at the New Orleans barracks. I was greatly worried for fear I would lose a part of my men, but after much exertion I succeeded in getting them aboard a Red River steamboat, and had a quick passage up the river to the landing from whence we were to march to the camp.
Following the United States’ formal declaration of war on Mexico in 1846, fewer troops were kept on base, as the barracks was increasingly used to treat the sick and wounded. By 1848, only an officer with a small guard remained at the post as all the soldiers’ quarters were used for hospital purposes. At the end of the war, Congress enacted for appropriations in the amount of $100,000 “to the erection at or near the United States barracks, below New Orleans, of a wooden hospital … temporary quarters … and for the purchase of additional ground.” Shortly thereafter, the first significant additions to Jackson Barracks were made as land was purchased and a general hospital was erected.
On Jan. 14, 1861, Collector Francis Hatch of the Port of New Orleans wrote to Secretary of the Treasury John Adams Dix, “I have the honor to inform you that the United States Barracks below the city have been taken possession of in the name of the State of Louisiana.”
When New Orleans surrendered to the Federal Army on April 30, 1862, the barracks reverted to their control. It seems that for the duration of the war, the barracks was largely without garrison but was used as temporary quarters for troops in transition to campaigns such as Vicksburg or the Red River. In September 1862, Lt. Col. Willoughby Babcock and the 75th New York Volunteers were temporarily assigned to the barracks. Upon reaching his new quarters, Babcock wrote:
You would be amused to see how quick our men supply themselves with comforts and accommodations here, and everywhere they go. Tables, stools, bedsteads, mosquito bars, and all sorts of furniture which can be used, seem to come out of rough lumber by magic. I trust I have learned to look out for myself well. I have, today, besides my military duties, got me a new table, stool, bedstead, and a frame for my mosketo [sic] bars. I have got a table for [Lt. Lewis E.] Carpenter nearly made. I got up a stove and was able to invite several officers to dinner –– an excellent dinner at home in my own quarters.
As casualties piled up on the battlefields of Louisiana and Mississippi, the barracks was once more converted into a general hospital, in which capacity it was maintained for the remainder of the war. Among the sick and wounded being treated at New Orleans Barracks was an inconspicuous private named Lyons Wakeman. Although Wakeman’s true identity was not discovered until later, “he” was actually Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York state who joined the 153rd New York Volunteers and, dressed as a male, fought in the Civil War’s Red River Campaign. Suffering from dysentery, Wakeman was admitted to the general hospital at New Orleans Barracks on May 22, 1864. Although her condition was acute, she managed to maintain her secret and passed away at barracks on June 19, 1864. She is buried at Chalmette National Cemetery as Lyons Wakeman. Her letters, which were found by a relative in the attic of the family farmhouse, are the only known correspondence of a woman fighting the Civil War under the guise of a man.
New Orleans Barracks was officially renamed Jackson Barracks on July 7, 1866. The name was inspired by Andrew Jackson, the victorious general of the Battle of New Orleans and the president who had overseen the establishment of the base.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. government reorganized its regiments of “colored troops” into two regiments of cavalry and four regiments of infantry. In 1869, two of these regiments of black infantry, the 39th and 40th, were reorganized as the 25th, which was headquartered at Jackson Barracks. Together, these regiments were known as the Buffalo Soldiers and served the United States during the Indian wars and Spanish-American War. The 25th Infantry remained at Jackson Barracks until May 1870. During this time, the regiment’s chaplain, D. Eglinton Barr, established a school for the men to improve literacy. Barr held classes after hours at his own residence.
Although yellow fever was a prominent concern through the summer, the wiles of the city were an issue the rest of the year, as approximately 10 percent of the men serving at Jackson Barracks between 1870 and 1874 were reported to be suffering from syphilis, gonorrhea and alcoholism.
In 1882, Gen. William T. Sherman recommended that Jackson Barracks be discontinued as a post. It is not known if this recommendation was made as a result of the “unhealthy climate” to which the troops were exposed, but certainly it must have proven logistically difficult and expensive to relocate troops each summer. The recommendation was considered for a number of years until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The index of blueprints in the repository of the National Archives shows significant plans for improvements and new construction at the barracks between 1895 and 1905. The 1905 report by the War Department with regard to Jackson Barracks reads: “This post is in process of reconstruction. Several sets of officers’ quarters at Jackson Barracks in unstable condition –– one reported as unsafe, instructions given to remedy defect by iron rods as braces and anchors.”
The report further suggests that, in the event the barracks are rebuilt, “the old wall, corner towers and building over sally-port fronting Mississippi River be left standing as historical memento.” Ultimately, Frederick Wilkinson’s barracks proved sufficient and adaptable to modern needs and remained largely unchanged. However, other challenges loomed.
The Louisiana National Guard was given authority to use the barracks in 1921, though the federal government retained control, and the possibility existed that the base would be sold to private interests as surplus. In 1930, the state of Louisiana obtained a 25-year lease on the post, and in 1931, Jackson Barracks became the headquarters of the Louisiana Adjutant General. Among other things, the lease stipulated the post be maintained in the condition in which it was received.
From 1936 to 1941, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, began extensive renovations and construction projects at Jackson Barracks. This work included the addition of new roads, repointing of cracked mortar joints, replacement of rotted wood and slate roofs, room additions to the original officers’ quarters, the addition of screening on porches, and the construction of numerous outbuildings and quarters, as well as a large three-story brick administrative building.
At the outbreak of World War II, the barracks was repossessed by the federal government and used by the New Orleans Port of Embarkation. At the end of the war in 1946, the Louisiana National Guard resumed charge, and in 1955, the state acquired ownership of the post.
By the 1960s, the needs of the National Guard justified expanding the facilities of the base, and maintenance was required on the posts’ historic buildings. Although some of the renovation techniques were ill-advised, few changes were made as the historic portion of the base remained well-suited for continued use.
In 1976, Jackson Barracks was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but despite the recognition of the barracks complex as an architectural treasure, its preservation has faced some significant challenges.
In 2005, portions of the barracks took on up to 22 feet of water as a result of catastrophic flooding following Hurricane Katrina. A significant number of buildings were razed over the following years, including most of the WPA-era quarters and outbuildings. As rebuilding efforts are taking place throughout much of the base, the National Guard has begun taking steps to ensure the documentation and preservation of the largely intact historic portion.
In 2009, a portion of the barracks was the focus of an ambitious Historic American Building Survey undertaken by Tulane University’s Preservation Studies Program with support from the National Park Service, the state of Louisiana and the National Guard. Surveying the barracks from the levee, Lt. Col. Thomas Ryan, base historian, points out that if a soldier stationed at Jackson Barracks during the 19th century walked onto the parade ground today, he would know right where he was and would feel perfectly at home. It is that vision that affords us the opportunity to appreciate the true historical and cultural significance of Jackson Barracks. To step onto that parade ground today is to catch a glimpse through the eyes of that same soldier, across the years and into history, once upon a time in New Orleans.