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The Battle of New Orleans



Maybe we're too close. Right down the road from Rocky and Carlo's. And all around us with statues and talk, Jackson Square and such. Maybe we have that familiar contempt for the familiar.

Or maybe it's too far away. Almost two centuries gone, way far away from a here-and-now generation.

Things, notably sugar and cotton, were piling up in storage around New Orleans. Most exporters were afraid to risk seizure by the British Navy in the Gulf. The Barataria pirates were a notable exception, and they were able to sell slaves at one-third the market value and, say, a dozen silk stockings for $9.

The British were convinced that they would meet light opposition when they invaded Louisiana because the indigenous French-speaking population detested the English-speaking Anglos. By 1810, the population of New Orleans had doubled since the Louisiana Purchase, but of the 24,000 inhabitants, only 3,200 were Anglos. And most of the one disliked most of the other. But most of the Creoles were Bonapartist and so hated the British even more than they hated the Anglos.

The other British miscalculation involved pirates and blacks. In August 1814, a colonel in the Royal Army contacted Jean Lafitte and offered him a $30,000 bribe and amnesty to join the invasion. Lafitte stalled and contacted Gov. William C.C. Claiborne. His overtures were coldly received by the American commander, despite pleas from such prominent New Orleanians as Bernard Marigny and Edward Livingston. It wasn't until Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre ran into Gen. Andrew Jackson near the corner of St. Peter and Royal that they were able to persuade him of their loyalty, they whom the general had previously referred to as "hellish banditti."

Blacks were another matter. The invaders promised slaves their freedom, and some had crossed over. But most stayed put and helped their masters build breastworks. Good thing. The Brits promised their masters retention. To the free people of color, Gen. Jackson urged participation in "the glorious struggle for national rights," promising equal rewards for enlistment ($124 and 160 acres).

The man who made these bold promises and about-faces had the thoughts of a lion and the tongue of a wasp. He was 48 and his body feathery, except for the bullets laid therein by a gambler and a senator. Hearing rumors that the Louisiana Legislature had approached the British about a separate peace, he dissolved the Legislature. When a delegation of New Orleans merchants visited to ask if he would burn the city if forced to retreat, he did not reply at first. Finally, he said he had no answer to give.

He did have something to say to Gov. Claiborne: "By God, if you don't send me ammunition, I'll have your head cut off and have it rammed into one of those cannon!"

Somehow the city -- Creoles, Anglos, pirates, blacks -- rallied around this unshakeable will. The ladies of the town saw that a large detachment of Kentucky volunteers had arrived in town without winter clothing. Within a week, flying fingers had cobbled together 1,200 cloaks, 275 coats, 1,127 pants, 800 shirts and 410 shoes.

There were other forms of logistical support from the city under siege. New Orleans musicians were always in attendance behind the American lines in Chalmette and played throughout the battle on its climactic day, first "Yankee Doodle Dandy," then "Hail, Columbia." And city churches were open round the clock for days; the astute Ursulines happily noted that the military showdown would take place on the Feast of St. Victoria.

The American troops were anchored by irregulars from Tennessee and Kentucky, the famous "Dirty Shirts" who incensed their opponents with their distinctly un-European tactic of slipping up on pickets in the dark and cutting their throats.

What Europeans found equally abhorrent was the egalitarian pragmatism of these frontier types. Take the case of Gen. Jean Humbert, former general with the French revolutionary army who had retired to New Orleans. He had, however, difficulty in putting his past completely behind him, never appearing in public without his sword and full uniform. When the British appeared on Bayou Bienvenue, Humbert offered his services and proved to be a fearless reconnoiter. But on one foray, a party of Tennesseans refused to follow his commands under fire. Their commander later asked one why.

"Well, general, not understanding French and believing our commandant was a man of sense, we construed his orders to retreat out of reach of the cannonballs and so we just kinda countermarched."

But the Tennesseans were lethal enough on the day of the big dance and so were the pirates, the Creoles, the free men of color, the Indians. At the cost of eight men dead, the Americans could count thousands of His Majesty's best. "Some had their heads shot off, some their legs, some their arms," one witness wrote. "Some were laughing, some crying, some groaning and some screaming. There was every variety of sight and sound."

All on Jan. 8. The first great land victory by an American army over an invading army -- and the last. The Battle of New Orleans.


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