The Battle of New Orleans, fought 200 years ago on January 8, 1815, was the last great battle of the War of 1812. It was also the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war, but it is remembered today mainly because Johnny Horton took Jimmy Driftwood’s gussied-up old fiddle tune, called “The 8th of January”, and turned it into a hit pop song in 1959. The war that produced the battle and the song is largely forgotten in the United States (though not in Canada). It has long been overshadowed in American public memory by the Revolution and the Civil War, which carried much greater consequences for the young republic.
Indeed, most adult Americans today cannot say what caused the War of 1812, what the outcome was, or even who the belligerents were. If the conflict is remembered at all, it is often dismissed as a small and inconclusive war of no great importance. Not so: The legacy of the war was both profound and lasting, and the Battle of New Orleans played a central role in forging that legacy.
Causes and Campaigns
The War of 1812 was a by-product of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), the latter being the final phase of the so-called Second Hundred Years War (1689–1815), when Great Britain and France fought to determine who would dominate Europe and the wider world. The Anglo-French wars were waged increasingly on a global scale, and during the final phase, the United States, as the leading neutral with a far-flung and growing international commerce, got caught in the middle. Both belligerents violated U.S rights and looted American trade in pursuit of profits and power.
Because Britain controlled the seas, its encroachments were greater, and by 1807 the two English-speaking nations found themselves on a collision course. Unable to bring Britain to heel with economic sanctions (including Jefferson’s ruinous long embargo), President James Madison reluctantly called for war in June 1812. Congress acceded to the President’s request, although it was the closest vote on any formal declaration of war in the nation’s history, 79-49 in the House and 19-13 in the Senate.
The two leading causes of the war were the Orders-in-Council and impressment. The Orders-in-Council (1807–09) were a series of executive decrees issued in the name of the British crown that sharply curtailed U.S. trade with the European Continent. Under the authority of these decrees, the British between 1807 and 1812 seized some 400 American ships and cargoes worth millions of dollars. The British practice of impressment grew out of the chronic manpower shortage of the Royal Navy. To fill out its crews, the navy stopped American merchant vessels on the high seas and removed seamen. Although nominally targeting British tars, the Royal Navy between 1803 and 1812 caught some 6,000 to 9,000 Americans in its dragnet. The American victims of this practice were subjected to all the horrors of British naval discipline—enforced with the cat-o’-nine-tails—and made to fight a war that was not their own.
The British had more than 500 warships in service in 1812 compared to only 17 for the United States. The young republic could not therefore seek redress for its grievances on the high seas. The only realistic way it could bring pressure to bear on Britain was by targeting Canada. With only 500,000 residents (many of whom were French descendants or recent American immigrants whose loyalty was suspect), Canada seemed an easy target for the far more populous United States, which boasted a population of 7.7 million in 1812. Many Democratic-Republican supporters of the war expected what antiwar critic John Randolph of Roanoke called “a holiday campaign.” With “no expense of blood or treasure on our part”, he said, “Canada is to conquer herself—she is to be subdued by the principles of fraternity.”1 And with the mother country tied up in Europe, there would be little Britain could do to save its remaining North American provinces.
Although Congress had adopted a series of war preparations before the declaration of war, these were not given sufficient time to mature. The Democratic-Republicans were so sure of victory that, in the colorful language of Congressman Robert Wright of Maryland, they were willing “to get married, & buy the furniture afterwards.”2 As it happened, events played out far differently than the Republicans anticipated.
The U.S. Army in 1812 was in a sad state, hardly up to the task of conquering Canada. The senior officers were mostly amateurs, political appointees, and relics from the Revolution, and the ranks were filled with raw recruits. In addition, the British army in Canada proved to be a formidable foe and was aided by native allies adept at scouting, tracking, and skirmishing. In fact, such was the Indians’ reputation for ferocity that their very presence on a battlefield could inspire panic and terror in inexperienced opponents. No less important was the logistical nightmare that the United States faced waging war in the borderlands of the North American wilderness.
Unable to overcome these challenges, the United States made little headway in its Canadian campaigns in 1812 and 1813. About the only things it had to cheer about were: Oliver H. Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, which was followed by his remarkable after-action report, “We have met the enemy and they are ours”; the ensuing defeat of an Anglo-Indian force in the Battle of the Thames east of Detroit; and a string of single-ship naval victories on the high seas, especially by the U.S.S. Constitution.
By 1814, the character of the war had changed dramatically, but not mainly because of anything that had happened in North America. That spring Napoleon was defeated, and for the first time in more than a decade there was peace in Europe. This meant the British could redeploy forces to America and take the offensive, and the United States, which had undertaken war two years before with such high hopes, found itself on the defensive, hoping now only to avoid having to surrender any rights or territory and to escape with its honor intact. The battle cry, which had been “Don’t give up the ship!” (the admonition of dying American naval Captain James Lawrence shortly before the U.S. frigate Chesapeake surrendered to the British frigate Shannon) now became “Don’t give up the soil!”
The British launched a multipronged offensive against the United States in 1814. It targeted upstate New York, where a naval defeat on Lake Champlain had forced them to withdraw. It also aimed at coastal Maine, a hundred miles of which the British occupied for the rest of the war. And it targeted the Chesapeake, where they burned public buildings in Washington, including the White House itself on August 24. But the British campaign was rebuffed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Their final offensive was on the Gulf Coast.
As early as 1812 Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, the Royal Navy’s commander on the American station, had suggested a Gulf coast campaign to draw American forces away from Canada. The principal target would be New Orleans. With 25,000 people, it was the largest city in the West and the outlet for western produce floated down the Mississippi River and its tributaries in flatboats and barges.
The Crescent City was expected to offer little resistance. Its defenses were known to be weak, and few of the residents had shown much enthusiasm for the war. Most were of French and Spanish descent and had never become reconciled to American rule, and British warships in the Gulf had shut down the export trade, leaving New Orleans’ warehouses bulging with unsold produce and many people out of work.
The British planned to recruit Indians on the Gulf Coast and runaway slaves (much as they did in the Chesapeake), and this could threaten New Orleans’ fragile social structure, which consisted of a mix not only of different nationalities but of whites, free blacks, and slaves in about equal numbers. Another potential British ally was the large band of freebooters known as the Baratarian pirates living on Grand Terre Island. The pirates, numbering more than a thousand at peak, could field a small army and possessed intimate knowledge of the lower Mississippi River’s complex geography. They had shown little respect for U.S. tax and trade laws, routinely selling in New Orleans the booty they had taken from foreign-flagged ships.
The apathy and disloyalty of much of the population were no secret. “The War of the U.S. is very unpopular with us”, reported John Windship, a transplanted New Englander, in early 1814. The French and Spanish residents were called up for militia duty but “absolutely refused to be marched” and “declared themselves liege subjects of Spain and France.” If the British attacked, Windship concluded, “there is no force competent to repel them.”3
Prior to 1814, the British could ill afford the men and ships needed for a Gulf Coast campaign, but with Napoleon’s defeat that changed. By then officials in London also had received a steady stream of reports from the governor of the Bahamas (who got his information from British merchants) on the vulnerability of New Orleans and the disaffection of its residents. Approval for the campaign finally came in the summer after Warren’s successor, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, assured his superiors that as few as 3,000 British regulars were needed to do the job.
By the time that British officials made their decision, however, the character of the War of 1812 had changed so dramatically that the objective of the campaign had to change with it. With the balance of power in North America shifting in their favor, the British no longer needed to draw American troops away from Canada. Instead, they sought a bargaining chip to use in the peace negotiations that would soon be under way with the United States in Ghent, in modern-day Belgium.
The man chosen to head the campaign was Major General Robert Ross, one of Wellington’s successful subordinates in the Peninsular War, and the man who had overseen the burning of Washington. The War Office instructed him “to obtain a Command of the Embouchure [mouth] of the Mississippi, so as to deprive the back Settlements of America of their Communication with the sea” and “to occupy some important & valuable possession, by the restoration of which we may improve the Conditions of Peace, or which may entitle us to exact its Cession as the price of Peace.”4
When Ross was killed in the British assault on Baltimore in September 1814, the War Office chose 37-year-old Major General Edward Pakenham as his successor. Like Ross, Pakenham was a respected officer who had demonstrated ability and earned respect in the Peninsular War. He was not only one of Wellington’s finest, but he also had the additional distinction of being the Iron Duke’s brother-in-law.
In accordance with the decision made in London, a large British force was assembled in Jamaica. It was impossible to keep these preparations secret, and American diplomats in Europe and sympathetic merchants in the Caribbean sent reports to the United States. By late November, Cochrane was ready to set sail with 5,500 regulars in some fifty warships and transports. Pakenham was still in transit from Europe, as were additional troops that the British government decided to send to support the campaign. Cochrane arrived on the Gulf Coast in early December and subsequently made camp on Cat Island, 85 miles northeast of New Orleans.
The man charged with defending New Orleans was Andrew Jackson, who began the war as a major general in the Tennessee militia. He had recently won a string of victories over a large band of hostile Creeks, culminating in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, that had shattered the resistance. Then, in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, he had carried out one of the largest land grabs in American history, forcing the Creeks—friend and foe alike—to surrender a staggering 36,000 square miles of their territory. Jackson’s success in the field was achieved in part by sheer force of will, keeping his army of independent-minded militia and volunteers together and combatting acute and recurring food and supply shortages. He also showed an intuitive grasp of strategy and tactics and built an outstanding intelligence network of native and white spies.
Tales of Jackson’s prowess in the field made him a national hero, and although the Madison Administration had never much cared for this outspoken and often critical Westerner who had a penchant for lecturing his superiors, it could hardly ignore his success. Hence, he was rewarded with a commission as a major general in the U.S. Army and command over the Seventh Military District, which embraced the entire Southwest, including the Gulf Coast.
Having completed the devastation of the Creek nation, Jackson sailed down the Alabama River, reaching Mobile on August 22, 1814. Although his reputation had preceded him, “Old Hickory” (as he was now called) hardly looked imposing. He was 47 years old, over six feet tall, and had lost none of his erect military bearing. But everything else about him suggested poor health. Although normally he weighed 140 pounds, he was now far below that weight. The dysentery that had afflicted him throughout the war left him not only emaciated but with a sallow, ghost-like complexion. In addition, Jackson carried one musket ball in his chest from an 1806 duel with the best shot in Tennessee (whom he killed) and two other slugs in his left arm and shoulder from a brawl in 1813 at a Nashville hotel with the two Benton brothers, Jesse and Thomas Hart. The shoulder wound never healed properly. It periodically festered and caused Jackson considerable pain until the ball was finally removed nearly twenty years later.
Jackson beefed up the defenses of Fort Bowyer, the decrepit post that commanded the entrance to Mobile Bay, and this enabled the fort to beat back a small British amphibious operation in September 1814. Jackson next turned his attention to Pensacola in Spanish Florida, marching an army into the city in November. The Spanish offered only token resistance, and the British, who had occupied the city with a small force since August, were forced to withdraw, although they blew up the harbor forts upon their departure. With Pensacola neutralized, Jackson returned to Mobile and then marched to New Orleans, arriving in the Crescent City on December 1.
Jackson lost no time in preparing New Orleans for the expected British attack. After studying the region’s geography, he ordered all the approaches to the city blocked and set up an intelligence network to keep abreast of enemy movements. Jackson had a small regular force, which he beefed up by recruiting free blacks. He also accepted the services of an independent unit of free blacks who were refugees from Haiti, and he struck a deal with the Jean and Pierre Lafitte and the Baratarian pirates, who decided that it better served their interests to side with the United States than to join the British. Governor Charles Claiborne ordered out the Louisiana militia, and the response was much better than it had been in early 1814. In addition, the administration in Washington ordered militia and volunteers from Tennessee and Mississippi to head for the Crescent City.
Jackson was constantly active, eating on the fly, often on horseback, and relying on catnaps rather than regular sleep. His energy, confidence, and command of the situation inspired nearly everyone. “General Jackson”, wrote one contemporary, “electrified all hearts.” Said another: “His immediate and incessant attention to the defense of the country soon convinced all that he was the man the occasion demanded.”5 The defeatism that earlier had been so evident disappeared, and talk that had once prevailed of surrendering the city to save it ended. Instead, as one witness put it, “The streets resounded with Yankee Doodle, the Marseilles Hymn, the Chant du Depart, and other martial airs.”6
To keep an eye out for the British, Daniel Patterson, the naval commander on the New Orleans station, dispatched a flotilla of five gunboats armed with 23 guns and manned by 185 seamen under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones to the eastern end of Lake Borgne. When the British spotted the flotilla, Cochrane ordered Captain Nicholas Lockyer to attack with 42 small barges armed with 43 guns and manned by 1,200 sailors. In the Battle of Lake Borgne that ensued on December 14, the British overwhelmed the U.S. flotilla, leaving Jackson without any eyes on this important approach to New Orleans. Having disposed of the U.S gunboats, the British spent almost a week moving their base from Cat Island to barren and swampy Pea Island, which was located at the mouth of the Pearl River just thirty miles east of New Orleans and thus within striking distance.
When the news of the defeat on Lake Borgne reached New Orleans, Jackson redoubled his efforts to prepare for the expected attack. He ordered all troops nearby or en route to race to New Orleans, and he asked the state legislature to suspend habeas corpus. When it refused, he declared martial law. This transformed the entire city into a military camp and gave Jackson control over all of its resources, enabling him to regulate the movement of people and information. At the time, there were few objections, but later Jackson was hauled into a Federal court to answer for his arbitrary rule.
Jackson was confident that his preparations would make it difficult for the British to attack and that his intelligence network would provide plenty of advance warning. He was mistaken. The British discovered a route from Pea Island across Lake Borgne to Bayou Bienvenu and then Bayou Mazant that brought them to Jacques Villeré’s plantation on the east bank of the Mississippi River just eight miles below New Orleans. Jackson had ordered the route blocked, but Villeré evidently did not want to lose the use of the route and was confident that the British would not discover it. It was thus not blocked.
An advance party of 1,600 British soldiers headed by Colonel William Thornton arrived via boat at Villeré’s plantation around noon on December 23. On the way they captured a small militia party that was supposed to be monitoring the route and another thirty citizen soldiers at the plantation. Soon after Major General John Keane arrived to take command. For the rest of the campaign, the British used Villeré’s plantation as their headquarters.
The British had arrived at Villeré’s undetected, a rare failure of Jackson’s normally efficient intelligence network. Villeré’s son Gabriel managed to escape from the plantation, however, through a back window and reach Jackson with the news. Jackson had received similar reports from other sources. Although stunned, Jackson, never at a loss for action, resolved to attack immediately before the British advance was reinforced. Assembling some 1,800 men, he headed for the British camp, determined to catch the enemy by surprise that night. He was supported by two U.S. warships, the Louisiana (22 guns) and the Carolina (16 guns), which quietly slipped downriver within range of the British camp.
Although there had been some skirmishing earlier in the day, the British were confident that the “Dirty Shirts”—as they called Jackson’s motley force—would never attack. They were therefore caught by surprise when first one and then the other U.S. ship opened fire and Jackson attacked overland from two directions. In the confused fighting that ensued, known as the Night Attack, there were numerous bayonet wounds in the close combat and casualties from friendly fire. The British lost 275 men, the Americans 215 before Jackson broke off the engagement. The attack stunned the British and served notice that they faced a worthy foe.
Jackson considered renewing his attack the next day, but he decided instead to order the construction of a defensive line behind the Rodriguez Canal that ultimately stretched from the river in the west deep into an impenetrable cypress swamp to the east. Arsène Latour, a skillful local engineer and architect, oversaw most of the work; he later wrote the first history of the campaign. The earthen line was ultimately four to eight feet tall and as much as twenty feet thick, and it was protected by eight artillery batteries. Jackson’s line and artillery firepower would make the difference in the ensuing battle.
Major General Pakenham arrived on Christmas Day to take command. He was accompanied by Major General Samuel Gibbs, several staff officers, and additional troops. Pakenham first probed Jackson’s defenses on December 28 in what is known as the Reconnaissance in Force. When this failed to dent the U.S. defenses, he brought up naval artillery and on January 1 engaged in another action known as the Artillery Duel. But unable to bring up enough ammunition to do the job right, the British got the worse of the exchange. In ten days the British had lost three engagements to the Dirty Shirts, and Pakenham had to decide what to do next.
Unwilling to call off the campaign or to withdraw to attack from another direction, Pakenham decided to launch a frontal assault against Jackson’s line. But he waited several days until additional troops arrived under Major General John Lambert. This raised his frontline force to about 5,000 men. But Jackson was also receiving reinforcements, and his main force was about the same size.
Pakenham’s plan was to send a small force under Thornton across the river to overrun the inexperienced and poorly armed Louisiana and Kentucky militia there, seize the three U.S. naval batteries they were protecting, and turn the guns against Jackson’s line. At the same time he would launch his main attack on the east bank. Pakenham planned to send a detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rennie against a small redoubt in front of Jackson’s line near the river. This would serve as a diversion and would also prevent any U.S. battery there from enfilading the main British force, which would concentrate on the weakest part of Jackson’s line near the swamp.
Thornton achieved his objective, but a shortage of boats and an unruly river put him so far behind schedule that his success came only after the main battle was over. That battle began at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 8, 1815, when Pakenham ordered a Congreve rocket fired into the air, which was the signal for the British to advance. Jackson had been up since 1:00 a.m., riding up and down his line to make sure all was in readiness. His sources told him the British planned to attack that morning, and the noise the enemy made moving men and material to forward positions was distinctly heard on the American side of the line. The attack therefore came as a surprise to no one.
Thornton’s tardiness on the west bank was not the only problem that hampered the British attack. Because of a failure of communication, the fascines and ladders that were supposed to allow the British to get across Rodriguez Canal and scale the American wall did not reach the front line until too late, although it probably did not matter. Initially the British advance was covered by fog, but this soon lifted, although the smoke that quickly engulfed most of the battlefield from the black powder then in use, coupled with the dim early morning light, still made it difficult to see very well.
Rennie’s detachment managed to overrun the U.S. redoubt near the river, but when Rennie mounted the American wall, he was cut down by small-arms fire. His men took such heavy casualties from fire from both sides of the river that they had to withdraw. At the other end of the U.S. line, artillery crews had to contend with the fog, but they could see well enough to open up on the advancing British columns when they were 500 yards out. Their fire became increasingly effective as the fog lifted and the British advanced. Alexander Dickson, head of the British artillery, expressed regret that the attack had not begun earlier when it was still dark “as the Enemy would not have directed their fire with such certainty.”7 As it was, the effect of this fire was devastating. One round of canister (a large can of musket balls) from the big 32-pounder in one of Jackson’s batteries swept away the entire center of the attacking force, reportedly causing some 200 casualties.
When the British got within 300 yards, they were hit with rifle fire, and when they got 150 yards closer they received musket fire. Many of the muskets were loaded with “buck and ball”—two or three buckshot and a musket ball. This made it more likely that they would find a target, although the fire was less lethal. The Americans firing small arms were arranged in two to four ranks, so that when one rank fired, it could withdraw to reload while another rank stepped forward to fire. Once the battle began, however, most Americans fired at will.
In those parts of the line that were more than five feet high, many Americans simply remained under cover and raised their weapons above their heads and fired blindly without looking. Even when the fog lifted, it was still not very light out, and smoke now covered much of the battlefield. Hence, even those Americans looking over the line were often firing more or less blindly. As one Kentucky soldier remembered it, “It was so dark that little could be seen until just about the time the battle ceased. The morning had dawned to be sure, but the smoke was so thick that everything seemed to be covered up in it.”8
Although the artillery fire did more damage, the combined effect of the big guns and small arms was so devastating that one British veteran of the Napoleonic Wars claimed it was “the most murderous [fire] I ever beheld before or since.”9 General Gibbs was mortally wounded trying to rally his men, and Pakenham fell soon after. The units on the British right—especially Gibbs’ brigade and the 93rd Scottish Regiment—took particularly heavy casualties. They could do little damage to the Americans in response because of Jackson’s protective wall. After less than half an hour, the carnage was so great that the British withdrew. American small arms fire continued for another hour and a half until Jackson ordered a ceasefire around 8 a.m.
General Lambert, now in command, refused to renew the attack. The Battle of New Orleans was therefore over. The casualties were staggering and one sided. The British lost over 850 men killed or mortally wounded out of a total of 2,000 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Jackson’s losses were only 71, and only 13 in the main battle on the east bank. “The vast disparity of loss”, said a Washington newspaper, “would stagger credulity itself, were it not confirmed by a whole army of witnesses.”10
General Lambert asked for a cease-fire to tend to the wounded and bury the dead, to which Jackson agreed. Doctors from both sides looked after the wounded, while most of the dead were buried in mass graves. “The bodies [were] hurled in as fast as we could bring them”, recalled a British officer.11 Rain later washed away what little soil covered the bodies. A few senior officers—Pakenham, Gibbs, and Rennie—were entitled by their rank to be buried on British soil. Hence their disemboweled remains were shipped home in casks of spirits.
The British withdrew ten days after the battle, but they were not yet done on the Gulf. The Royal Navy tried to reduce Fort St. Philip on the river below New Orleans, but despite being pounded with seventy tons of ammunition over ten days, the fort held out. A large British amphibious assault on Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay reduced that fort on February 11, but the British suspended operations three days later when they received news that a peace treaty had been signed (although not yet ratified by the United States).
Jackson continued to harass the British until he received the same news, but he refused to release his grip on the militia or on New Orleans. He allowed the execution of six Tennessee militiamen convicted of mutiny and or desertion in Mobile on February 21, although their only crime was stealing food and going home when they thought their tour of duty was over. This story was lost amidst the joy of Jackson’s victory and the end of the war, but it came back to haunt him during the presidential election of 1828, when his enemies printed a series of “coffin handbills” that publicized his ruthlessness.
Jackson also refused to lift martial law until March 13, when he finally heard that U.S. ratification of the peace treaty had ended the war. Long before that, he had jailed a Louisiana legislator who protested and a Federal judge who sought to free him. Judge Dominick A. Hall was subsequently released but ordered out of the city. When he returned, he hauled Jackson into court, charging him with contempt. Jackson was found guilty and fined $1,000 (although Congress refunded the money with interest—$2,733 in all—in 1844 when the aged and ailing hero of New Orleans and former President had fallen on hard times).
The Madison Administration was not happy with Jackson’s arbitrary rule but had to settle for a private reprimand of its now immensely popular general. By the time the reprimand caught up with him, Jackson was back in Tennessee, already moving on to the next phase of his public career. Many years later, in connection with a Civil War case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to proclaim martial law if the regular courts were still operating. “Martial law can never exist”, the court ruled in Ex parte Milligan in 1866, “where the courts are open, and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction.”12
News of Jackson’s victory reached Washington on February 4. Ten days later news of the peace treaty arrived in the nation’s capital. The juxtaposition of these two reports later produced the belief that the former had led to the latter, that Jackson’s victory was responsible for a favorable peace settlement. Although the treaty did not mention the maritime issues that had caused the war and merely restored the status quo ante bellum, by 1816 Niles’ Register was claiming that “we did virtually dictate the treaty of Ghent.”13 Jackson’s victory, in other words, helped promote the myth of American victory in the war, and thereafter Americans freely boasted how they had defeated “Wellington’s invincibles” and “the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe.”14
The Canadians also thought they had won. After all, they had successfully beat back the American invasions. The immediate impact of the war was to strengthen their loyalty to the mother country, but after the Dominion was established in 1867 Canadians looked back and realized that the War of 1812 was a defining moment in their history. For all practical purposes, it was their war of independence, and it therefore still looms large in their public memory. In fact, a poll taken in Canada in 2000 rated the war as the third most important event in Canadian history after the creation of the Dominion and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (which linked western Canada to the rest of the Confederation in 1885).
In Great Britain, the public quickly forgot the war, but government officials did not have the luxury of following suit because they still had to provide for the defense of Canada. The Treaty of Ghent had settled none of the outstanding issues, and few people on either side of the Atlantic thought this would be the last Anglo-American war. British officials soon realized that the best way to defend Canada was to accommodate the United States, even if that meant occasionally sacrificing other imperial interests. This policy ultimately paid off. Despite continued U.S. interest in acquiring Canada and considerable Anglo-American tension over a range of other issues, by the 1890s the two nations had forged a genuine accord. This set the stage for co-belligerency in World War I and a full-fledged alliance in World War II, an alliance wrapped around a special relationship that persists today.
For the United States, the legacy of the war was even more profound. The apparent outcome promoted national pride and patriotism, and the victories over the Indians in the Northwest and Southwest gave a huge boost to territorial expansion. The battle truly opened the West in a way it had not been opened before. In a way, however, it also prefigured the Civil War, for it was bitter disagreement about the expansion of slavery, more than its existence in the Old South, that sowed the seeds of that disaster.
The war also had a significant impact on the military establishment. The nation embraced peacetime military spending in the postwar years, and both the army and navy emerged from the contest with a strong commitment to professionalism. In addition, those who had served in the war dominated the army and navy until the Civil War.
The results were similar in the political arena. No fewer than seven of the 11 Presidents between Madison and Lincoln got their start in public life or boosted their public careers during the War of 1812.
The war also gave the young republic a host of enduring sayings and symbols that helped forge a national identity. “Don’t give up the ship” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours” entered the American lexicon. The defense of Fort McHenry not only elevated the profile of, and public reverence for, the national banner; it also produced a popular patriotic song that in 1931 Congress named the national anthem. The nickname “Uncle Sam” came into general usage during the war; the U.S.S. Constitution earned a well-deserved reputation and a nickname (“Old Ironsides”); and the Kentucky rifle emerged with an enhanced (if inflated) reputation as a game-changer and war-winner. These symbols and sayings helped people understand what it meant to be an American and where the nation was headed.
The memory of the Battle of New Orleans played a special role in forging the nation’s identity. Besides fostering the myth of American victory, it made all the other victories sweeter and helped Americans forget the setbacks and defeats in the war. It rather confirmed Shakespeare’s notion that all’s well that ends well. This explains why until the end of the 19th century many Americans celebrated January 8 as much as they did July 4. Without the victory in New Orleans it is unclear how the war would have been remembered or whether the sayings and symbols would have endured or had the same impact. Johnny Horton may not have understood the full significance of New Orleans, but he was right to remind Americans of a battle—and a war—that had played such an important role in shaping the nation’s history.
1Speech of John Randolph, December 10, 1811, in U.S. Congress, Annals of Congress: Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789-1824, 42 vols. (Washington, DC, 1834–56), 12th Congress, 1st session, p. 447.
2Quoted in William A. Burrell to Wilson Cary Nicholas, May 23, 1812, in Nicholas Papers (University of Virginia).
3Windship to William Plumer, March 20, 1814, in Plumer Papers (New Hampshire Historical Society), microfilm edition, reel 2.
4Lord Bathurst to Robert Ross, September 6, 1814, in Admiralty Records 1/4360 (transcript supplied by Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC).
5Arsène Lacarrière Latour, Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-15 (1816; edited and expanded by Gene A. Smith, Gainesville, Florida, 1999), p. 59; François-Xavier Martin, The History of Louisiana, From the Earliest Period, 2 vols. (New Orleans, 1827–29), vol. 2, p. 340.
6Latour, Historical Memoir, p. 59.
7Alexander Dickson, “Artillery Services in North America in 1814 and 1815,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (July 1929), p. 161.
8“A Contemporary Account of the Battle of New Orleans by a Soldier in the Ranks,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly (January 1926), p. 11.
9G.C. Moore Smith, ed., The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, 2 vols. (London, 1901), vol. 1, p. 247.
10National Intelligencer, February 7, 1815.