THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS: ANDREW JACKSON AND AMERICA’S FIRST MILITARY VICTORY, by Robert V. Remini, Viking Books, 240 pages, $24.95.
Had communications been better during the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans would likely never have been fought. American and British peace ministers had negotiated an end to the war before Major General Andrew Jackson’s motley army of militiamen, frontiersmen, free blacks, and pirates ever clashed in 1815 with crack British soldiers south of the Crescent City. However, Jackson and his English counterpart didn’t know this until after the fighting–and the dying–were done. By then, Remini writes, not only had Old Hickory become a war hero on his way to the White House, but the United States had the “great military victory” it needed to “convince the world that our independence had been fairly won and that it was permanent.”
Remini, author of several daunting biographies of Jackson and his political contemporaries, has produced a smaller book here that is still large in significance. It recalls how the British, prideful and impetuous, expected to easily capture New Orleans on their way up the Mississippi River to join a complementary force coming from Canada, essentially slicing the United States in two. But they hadn’t reckoned on Jackson, whose recent experience in the bloody Creek War had sharpened his strategizing skills. After rallying whatever forces he could find (including privateers led by the notorious Jean Laffite), Jackson promised New Orleanians that he would “drive their enemies into the sea, or perish in the effort.” And he kept that promise, his “uncivilized” troops acting courageously and benefiting from poor weather and ground conditions, British tactical errors, and more than a little good luck.
Drawing on first-person accounts, the author vividly re-creates the conflict. While it is regrettable that he didn’t put more effort into fleshing out lower-level combatants (his focus on battle commanders leaves little room to learn about Jackson’s Tennessee sharpshooters or the swashbuckling Laffite), Remini certainly makes his case that the Battle of New Orleans helped shape what we now understand as the American character.
J. Kingston Pierce is a Seattle resident currently working on a collection of essays about that city’s past.
Talking With Robert V. Remini