Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans

Aug 7, 2006

War is nearly the perfect subject, as Tolstoy and Hemingway, to name a couple, have shown. And the War of 1812, in particular, is a fine choice.

Right from his first book, Winston Groom has been taking his readers on a march through America?s wars, from the Civil War through the war in Vietnam. I am told that there is another book coming set during the war with Mexico. That will leave Groom only the American Revolution and the Spanish American War, of our major wars, to hit for the cycle.

Groom?s writerly instincts are sound, of course. War is nearly the perfect subject, as Tolstoy and Hemingway, to name a couple, have shown. And the War of 1812, in particular, is a fine choice. It is a conflict about which most people know little. The setting, events, and characters were colorful and exciting, downright picturesque, in fact, and the war was far more important than almost anyone realizes.

It is known among the knowing as The Second War of Independence, since we fought the British again, after a hiatus of only thirty-some years, and if the British had won this rematch, or even if they had won only the crucial Battle of New Orleans, they might have controlled all North America west of the Mississippi. But we Americans won and that ?forever settled the question of whether democracy could work, and . . . confirmed that the United States was a legitimate sovereign nation.?

The victory was by no means a sure thing, and Groom is given a perfect opportunity to ride one of his favorite hobbyhorses: American unpreparedness. Because of ?pacifists? such as Jefferson and Madison, the United States at the start of the war, as at the start of World Wars I and II, had no standing army to speak of and almost no navy at all.

To the Battle of New Orleans, the Brits sent an experienced, hardened army, comprised in large part of the veterans who had recently defeated Napoleon. The Brits also had a powerful navy, in fact they did rule the waves, literally. How then, did the rag-tag Americans, mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee, whom the Redcoats called, quite accurately, dirty shirts, manage to defeat Britain?s disciplined, experienced army?

An almost miraculous combination of personnel and circumstances made victory possible. Although the Battle of NO was a land battle, the pirate/privateer Laffite had a band of men who were expert at shooting cannons from the pitching decks of small ships. Killing redcoats in rows, on still land, must have seemed child?s play.

Second, Andrew Jackson really hated the British, loathed them. He had lost his brother Robert during the Revolution and had seen the Brits rape and pillage in the Carolinas. He would never, never surrender. And since the British intended to take New Orleans, steal all possible booty, and rape all the females, and everybody knew it, even the lawyers and businessmen of the city fought like tigers at Jackson?s rampart.

And that rampart made all the difference. Jackson chose a narrow piece of ground south of the city, between the east bank of the Mississippi River and a swamp, on the north side of a dry canal. The British, out of habit, perhaps, "agreed" to fight there. It was a slaughter.

The redcoats attacked along a narrow front. The Americans with shot, shell, and rifle fire killed them by the thousands. In the Brits? main assault, they forgot to bring their scaling ladders, so when they got directly in front of Jackson?s rampart, they couldn?t get any further.

The British had muskets which fired accurately for one hundred yards, while the Tennesseans and Kentuckians had rifles which fired three hundred yards. American General John Adair spoke to one of his Kentucky marksmen. ?See that officer on the gray horse? Snuff his candle!? The British officer, one Major Whittaker, ?toppled from his horse, dead,? shot in the head. The Kentuckian had practised for years on squirrels, which were smaller, and didn?t wear red coats.