“There was a time when the United States had heroes and reveled in them. There was a time when Andrew Jackson was one of those heroes, along with the men who stood with him at New Orleans and drove an invading British army back to the sea.” So begins Robert Remini’s The Battle of New Orleans, which attempts to recover the history of one of America’s greatest heroes.

Before the War Between the States, the Battle of New Orleans was celebrated nearly on a par with Independence Day, each anniversary commemorating the triumph of American liberty over the British monarchy. Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans capped his campaigns against the British and the Indians in the Southeast, ensuring American control over the region. Without the new cotton-producing states of Mississippi and Louisiana, slavery might have withered in the 1830’s and 40’s, rather than expanding. It is understandable, therefore, that postbellum America lost interest in the events of 1815. But today, slavery is long gone from the United States. The time has come for Andrew Jackson and his brave army to reclaim their place in the American pantheon.

To the extent that junior high school history textbooks mention the Battle of New Orleans, they insist that it was irrelevant, since it was fought on January 8, 1815, and the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed on December 24, 1814. However, had the British captured New Orleans—upon which the economy of almost all of the Louisiana Territory depended—it is doubtful that they would have relinquished it, despite what the treaty stipulated. Indeed, the British had violated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, by refusing to evacuate their forts east of the Mississippi.

Before conveying the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, France had acquired the territory from Spain in the 1800 Treaty of San Idelfonso. Under that treaty, Spain had the right of first refusal before France could sell the territory to any third party. The Louisiana Purchase was a plain violation of Spain’s rights, and if Britain could have gained control of Louisiana it would have had a strong legal case for conveying the territory back to Spain.

There would have been more immediate consequences, too. As noted in the song “The Hunters of Kentucky” (celebrating the Battle of New Orleans, the song became the Jackson presidential campaign’s theme song). New Orleans is “famed for wealth and beauty.” British Gen. Packenham had promised his soldiers “beauty and booty”—meaning that they could rape the women and pillage the city.

The British army was fresh from its triumph over John McCain’s childhood hero Napoleon: The forces invading New Orleans were veterans of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain. Against the best-trained, best-equipped army in the world, the Americans lacked even sufficient weapons. Remini quotes a contemporary observer: “From all the parishes the inhabitants could be seen coming with their hunting guns” because “there were not enough guns in the magazines of the United States to arm the citizens.” The Tennessee militia, with their rough clothes, unshaven faces, and raccoon caps, hardly looked like a professional army. The Kentucky militia was even worse, arriving in rags and disappointed to find that there were no blankets in the city for them. The Redcoats called them “dirty shirts.” Yet, as Remini explains, “most of these men could bring down a squirrel from the highest tree with a single rifle shot. Their many years living in the Tennessee wilderness had made them expert marksmen . . . ” The ladies of New Orleans, meanwhile, armed themselves with daggers in case the men lost and the British rapists entered the city. When Andrew Jackson was a child, his mother had admonished him not to cry; crying, she told him, was for girls. When he asked what boys were for, she replied, “fighting.” But at New Orleans, the women, too, were prepared to fight; not a single lady fled the city. Instead, they busied themselves with sewing, making new field blankets, shoes, shirts, and pants for the men.

If “diversity” really were highly valued in our schools (rather than being a code word for “hate America first”), then the Battle of New Orleans would be known by every student in the nation. The men who fought on January 8, 1815, were a magnificent combination of professional soldiers, militia, irregulars, free blacks, Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Indians, Anglos, lawyers, privateers, farmers, and shopkeepers. When objections were raised to arming the free blacks of Louisiana, Jackson replied: “place confidence in them, and . . . engage them by every dear and honorable tie to the interest of the country who extends to them equal rights and privileges with white men.”

There were many heroes at New Orleans, not Jackson alone. When the British army captured the plantation belonging to Gabriel Villere, he made a sudden break, fleeing with British soldiers close behind yelling, “Catch him or kill him.” Concealed in an oak tree, he was forced to kill a favorite dog which had followed him in order to prevent it from revealing his hiding place. Villere eventually reached a neighboring plantation, hastily rowed upriver, and conveyed the news that the British army had arrived. After the British landing, Jackson spent four nights without sleep, as he rode about the American fortifications—ordering improvements in the defenses, receiving reports about British movements, and inspiring his men. He never even dismounted to eat.

As the British maneuvered outside the city, nightly raids by the “dirty shirts” killed British sentries, took their equipment, and kept the whole army off balance. During an engagement by the Cypress Swamp on December 28 (11 days before the main battle), the Tennesseans waded though the muck and leapt from log to log like cats, driving off the British beefeaters. The “Hunters of Kentucky” song would later boast that “every man was half a horse, and half an alligator.” In one encounter on the day of the main battle, a dirty shirt took aim at a wounded British officer who was walking back to his camp. “Halt Mr. Red Coat,” yelled the American. “One more step and I’ll drill a hole through your leather.” The officer complied, sighing, “What a disgrace for a British officer to have to surrender to a chimney-sweep.”

Although the British greatly outnumbered the Americans, January 8, 1815, turned into one of the worst days in British military history. Over 2,000 British soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded. Only seven Americans were killed and six wounded, although their total casualties from skirmishes on other days reached 333.

As news of the battle spread throughout the United States, the American inferiority complex with regard to the British began to lessen. The Americans had smashed the best that Britain could throw at them. Newspapers quoted Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “Advance our waving colors to the wall, / Rescued is Orleans from the English wolves.” Jackson’s upset victory was as important for America’s future as Joan of Arc’s was for France.

Remini’s compact book focuses almost exclusively on the battle and the preceding weeks. He summarizes in a few pages, but does not detail, the battle’s larger significance in American life. I wish he had done more in this respect; even so. The Battle of New Orleans is a major step toward reviving the memory of January 8, 1815—one of the most glorious days in American history—when Americans of both sexes and many races, creeds, and colors united to fight for freedom and defeated the most powerful standing army of the greatest empire in the world.


[The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory, by Robert V. Remini (New York: Viking) 226 pp., $24.95]