By Joe Darby
Yesterday, Jan. 8, was the 205th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.
That date holds a bit of personal significance for me also, because Jan. 8 is the date I began working for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And the year was 1965 — exactly the 150th anniversary of the 1815 battle.
There was quite a celebration going on that day at the battlefield in Chalmette. I have always loved history and I would have loved to have played a part in the newspaper’s coverage of the event. But there was no way the editors were going to entrust such a milestone event to a brand new reporter, whose ability was as yet unknown.
So while dignitaries, officials, reenactors, historians and many others gathered down in Chalmette, commemorating a battle that had happened a century and a half ago, I was stuck in the TP office, writing about a new expansion of port facilities, which was kind of important in its own right, also.
Anyway, I missed the 150th and I missed the 200th anniversary five years ago because I was unable to get down from Natchitoches to New Orleans for the latter celebration.
But why do I think the 205th anniversary — yesterday — deserves to be remembered and why should I devote a column to it? Well, because I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that your high school history teacher probably told you the battle was not really significant because by the time it was fought, on a misty, foggy New Orleans January morning, the war was already over!
But that’s not really true. The peace treaty had been signed by US and British diplomats in the city of Ghent on Christmas Eve evening, 1814. But with the slow communications via sailing ships available at that time, word of the treaty did not reach Washington, D.C. until some time after the battle. And that’s why the importance of the battle is dismissed by many historians.
But the treaty had not yet been ratified by the US Senate or the British Parliament and technically the war wasn’t over until it was in fact ratified. And if the Brits had won, they certainly would not have given up the prize of New Orleans and the Mississippi River and would not have ratified the treaty.
But before we get into that, let’s make a quick review of what happened in the battle. US Gen. Andrew Jackson and his ragtag band of soldiers pulled off what would have to be considered a major upset. He had some regular Army men, members of the Louisiana militia, both black and white, a group of pirates who helped supply artillery and other groups of warriors with varied capabilities. And they were going up against a force of British troops who had beaten the mighty Napoleon in Europe.
But Jackson stationed his men behind a ditch and a rampart of what was probably cotton bales and simply slaughtered the Brits as they lined up in perfect formation and proudly, but foolishly, marched across a flat field before the American guns. American casualties were incredibly light but the British loses were heavy.
The invaders fully expected to win. Historian John B. Boles, illustrating the British intentions, has written the following: “On board the (invasion) ships…were the staff for a complete civil government. including an attorney general, a judge, a colonial secretary, and a superintendent for Indian affairs; a proclamation proclaiming the Louisiana Purchase as fraudulent; and a plan to name Gen. Packenham the governor of a new British province. (Packenham was killed in the battle.) If Packenham had been victorious, the Americans would have been ousted from the region, the British installed, and the tide of history perhaps changed in ways we cannot imagine. So Andy Jackson’s victory did mean something.”
I’m sure that’s true. The Brits would not have given up such valuable real estate as New Orleans, and with it the control of the entire Mississippi River valley. So US territory would have been confined to east of the Mississippi and our nation would not have grown into the powerful continental power — from sea to shining sea — that it is today. As Boles said, who can guess how history would have turned out. At the least, we would likely be living in a Canada-like nation today, with continuing loyalty to the British Crown.
So, if you hear anybody talk about the Battle of New Orleans not being important (and I realize that’s not a subject that comes up every day), you can politely explain to them why they’re wrong!