Posts Tagged ‘Battle of New Orleans’

Andy Jackson and the battle of New Orleans

November 20, 2010

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.

(more…)