Andy Jackson and the battle of New Orleans

When I was a boy learning American history in grade school 60 or so years ago, we were taught how in 1815, Andrew Jackson and his unlettered Tennessee militia in the Battle of New Orleans defeated the British regulars through their superior marksmanship.

Our imagination was captured by the story of how American common sense and self-reliance defeated European training and discipline.  The song by Jimmy Driftwood became popular later, but it expressed how we boys saw things.

Recently I learned what Paul Harvey would have called “the rest of the story” in the opening chapter of a Pulitzer-winning history entitled What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 by David Walker Howe.  The marksmanship of the Tennessee militia was not especially accurate or devastating.  The mass slaughter of the British troops was from the superior accuracy of the American artillery.  The cannons, firing grapeshot, were cast in government armories and fired by expertly trained gunners.

The Tennessee militia were not particularly accurate in their shooting, not because they were bad marksmen, but because most of them carried muskets instead of rifles.  Members of the Tennessee militia lost an informal marksmanship contest to New Orleans city militiamen because the New Orleans marksmen had rifles.  There also were Kentucky militia who were even more poorly armed, and they broke and ran in the face of the British troops.

We Americans remember the battle of New Orleans because it was our only victorious major land battle in the War of 1812.  During most of the war, the trained, professional British army marched up and down the country at will, easily defeating the untrained, amateur American militia.  On the other hand, as Howe noted, we Americans more than held our own in the war at sea because of the superior American gunnery – in other words, because of our industrial and technological capability.

We celebrate the frontier marksmen over the trained artillery gunners because we conflate education and training with aristocratic privilege.  Of course the artillerymen didn’t win the battle all by themselves either.  The Tennessee militia’s hardihood and General Jackson’s forceful leadership were admirable and important – just not substitutes for professionalism and expert technique.

Another aspect of the Battle of New Orleans that I didn’t learn in school was its multi-racial, multi-ethnic character.  We were taught about Jean Lafitte’s pirates and the Louisiana militia, but the American side also included Choctaw Indians, an Irish-American regiment, Mississippi dragoons (mounted troops who could fight on foot), a battalion of black Haitians and an African-American battalion, the last composed mostly of free black men but also including slaves on loan from their masters.

General Jackson’s orders had to be translated into French, Spanish and Choctaw.  The black slaves were promised freedom and all the troops, black and white, were promised land grants, but the promises to the black troops were not kept.

On the British side were British troops, Irish troops and black West Indian troops.  One reason the British attack faltered was that the commander of the Irish troops held back, thinking they were going to be sacrificed to reduce casualties among the British.

I was taught American history both in high school and college as the history of white people.  The version I was taught just assumed, without explicitly saying, that we white Americans were history’s actors, and African-Americans and native Americans were part of the scenery.  It is important to correct this view, not so much because of hurt feelings of black people, as because we cannot understand the present and the future if we have an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the past.

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