When the Saints won the Super Bowl last February, I tabulated the number of weekends that New Orleans has experienced since its founding in 1718 and came up with a figure of roughly 15,184. Of that number, I concluded, that weekend, Feb. 6 and 7, was certainly the city’s greatest ever, not just because of the Super Bowl but also because of city elections the day before that showed strong popular support, across racial lines, for a new mayor and City Council. Never had the city been as united as it was by the time the fireworks went off that Sunday night, never had the city received so much favorable global attention over a 48-hour period.
Having committed myself that far, I wondered what the second-greatest weekend might have been and came up with the weekend of Jan. 8, 1815. Like the Super Bowl, the Battle of New Orleans was fought on a Sunday. Both were wins for the city. Whenever the Battle of New Orleans is the topic, the discussion usually includes the observation that, unknown to the battle’s participants, a treaty that officially ended the war had been signed weeks before, on Christmas Eve 1814, in the Belgian port city of Ghent. Ending a war on that particular date should have allowed for an extra dose of joy to the world, except that as 1815 began, tension was building near an American port city. There, a British force, under the command of Gen. Edward Pakenham, was eyeing New Orleans as a prize.
That the battle was fought over a war that no longer existed has caused an occasional ironic footnote although a skirmish in which 2,000 young British men were killed or wounded is not easily dismissed to irony.
“Pakenham’s assault was doomed from the beginning,” A. Wilson Green, the former manager of Chalmette National Historical Park once wrote. “His men made perfect targets as they marched precisely across a quarter mile of open ground. Hardened veterans of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain fell by the score, including nearly 80 percent of a splendid Scottish Highlander unit that tried to march obliquely across the American front. Both of Pakenham’s senior generals were shot early in the battle, and the commander himself suffered two wounds before a shell severed an artery in his leg, killing him in minutes.
“His successor wisely disobeyed Pakenham’s dying instructions to continue the attack and pulled the British survivors off the field.”
This week marks the 196th anniversary of what is surely one of the most descriptively confused battles in military history: The War of 1812 ended in 1814, but its last battle was fought in 1815, and although it would be known as the Battle of New Orleans, the battlefield was in Chalmette.
As the anniversary is once again celebrated, it should be noted that for whatever peculiarities the Battle of New Orleans might have had, it nevertheless had its geopolitical importance. First of all, the encounter underscored American military might and may have done much to discourage thoughts of future entanglements. The force that defeated the British under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson reflected the spunky and heterogeneous character of the young nation: “Never has a more polyglot army fought under the Stars and Stripes than did Jackson’s force at the Battle of New Orleans.” Green wrote. “In addition to his regular U.S. Army units, Jackson counted on dandy New Orleans militia, a sizable contingent of black former Haitian slaves fighting as free men of color, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen armed with deadly long rifles and a colorful band of outlaws led by Jean Lafitte, whose men Jackson had once disdained as ‘hellish banditti.’ This hodgepodge of 4,000 soldiers, crammed behind narrow fortifications, faced more than twice their number.”
Secondly, the Battle had a major impact on American politics, launching the career of Jackson, for whom a public square would be named in New Orleans, toward the presidency. As chief executive, Ol’ Hickory would get mixed reviews, but his arrival in the White House signaled the expansion of American political power to include the frontiersman and not just the East Coast elite.
America was strengthened militarily and broadened politically by the Battle of New Orleans. And just as time had run out for the war so too had the clock mercifully struck on Anglo-American hostilities. In the future whenever the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack were on the same battlefield, they would be side by side. A century later the two nations would be called upon to save Europe, not once but twice.
All battlefields, however, whether at Normandy or Chalmette make their mark. History remembers the glory and the triumphs of generals and politicians. Off the path, however, are tombstones with faint names. Jackson’s name would, from that day on, reverberate through American history. No longer a military Who Dat, he had won the big one.
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Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival- Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e-mail at email@example.com or (504) 895-2266).
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