Friday, January 9, 2015

The War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans

Yesterday was January 8, 2015, which marked the 200th anniversary of the culminating fight of the Battle of New Orleans, where in General Andrew Jackson and his rather motley group of volunteers, militia and regulars fought off a major British attempt to capture the fairly new (since the 1803 Louisiana Purchase; it was founded by the French in 1718) American city.  In a war filled with mistakes, errors and bumbling (by both sides) it was a fair marvel to most Americans that such a battle, against such odds, could be won.  It certainly had the benefit of propelling Andrew Jackson into the American consciousness, and eventually led him to the White House. 

The war was officially declared over various infringements of our national sovereignty by the belligerents of the Napoleonic Wars, the primary agent of such being the United Kingdom, and in particular the Royal Navy.  Unreasonable searches and seizures of neutral ships and goods, the pressing of American sailors from American-flagged (i.e. neutral) ships to serve on British warships and a host of other provocations by His Most Britannic Majesty’s Government led to the slogan of “Free Trade, and Sailor’s Rights!”  Amazingly though, the most ardent supporters of this slogan were not the politicians and citizens of New England, which was the one to suffer most from these provocations, but rather from the Western “War Hawks” who, like politicians of all stripes everywhere, had other things on their agenda’s which could be conveniently benefitted by a nice little victory over Britain.  Never no mind that Britain at the time had the largest navy in the world (over 600 ships in commission, compared to our 24 or so), but also had a fairly strong interest in maintaining its colony of British North America (AKA “Canada” to you folks today). 

This is not to suggest that the Westerners had no grievances with the British, for there were certainly reasons to believe that the Western Indians (still Eastern Indians as far as we moderns are concerned, but certainly Western by the standards of someone in Kentucky or Michigan) were being armed and supplied by British agents to keep things “interesting” on the Western frontier.  There were definitely some good reasons to believe this, though the truth is probably more to the fact that the British were trading arms and ammunition to the Indians, where as the Americans were wont to believe that the supplies were made as gifts.  Whichever, the Americans were angry with this state of affairs, as a fairly constant low-level condition of border warfare existed along the frontier, which consequently led to the demand of, and then by, politicians to “do something” about it. Furthermore, said Western politicians had their eyes firmly focused on what was then called "Upper Canada", or Ontario.  Close at hand to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, it was richly endowed with fertile land and best of all, lightly populated by Anglo-Saxons.  Even Jefferson had thought that merely showing the American flag there would lead to immediate annexation, despite all local feelings to the contrary.

I’m not planning on writing a 30-page essay on the War of 1812, so I’ll instead simply make note of some of the results of the war. To begin with, it did in fact lead the British to have a somewhat higher opinion of the “Colonials”, mostly due to the outrageous effectiveness of our infant US Navy in what was referred to as “The War of the Frigates”.  When you go to war with 24 ships vs. your enemy’s 600, you have to innovate!  Thus the strong predilection of our naval officers to prefer “Guerre de Course”, i.e. a war on the enemy’s individual ships and commerce, as opposed to “Guerre de Main”, a war of big ships in big fleets against and enemy’s big ships in big fleets.  The last time anyone had tried that was in 1804, which resulted in the Battle of Trafalgar, in which the combined Spanish-French fleet was destroyed by the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson (who was himself also destroyed, by the way, setting a nice example.)  Thus the American Navy, spreading itself thin managed some astounding victories in single-ship actions against their Royal Navy foes, to the point that the Admiralty forbade their frigate captains from attacking American ships singly, requiring at least a two-to-one margin to ensure victory.  I call that a victory in and of itself!  Of course, when the Brits DID send two-to-one, usually they were successful, especially when attacking in a neutral port, such as when USS Essex was attacked in Valparaiso by HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub.  However, in the last fight of USS Constitution, she rather neatly defeated both HMS Cyanne and HMS Levant, so it wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk strategy, as it were.  In any event, the US Navy came out of the otherwise rather ugly little war with a much burnished reputation, and a well-deserved one.

Another reputation which was somewhat burnished by the war was one then-Brigadier General Winfield Scott.  Accepting a commission in the Regular Army in 1807, he, through dint of exceptional abilities in both administration and leadership in the field, rose to the General Officer’s ranks by 1814.  During one of our ill-fated invasions of British North America/Canada, a large British force advanced on Scott’s brigade on the 5th of July.  Due to the Army Quartermaster’s lack of blue cloth for uniforms in their theatre, Scott’s men were uniformed in “militia grey” cloth.  (Scott wasn’t one to stand on ceremony when it came to logistics.  When informed that the Quartermaster only had grey cloth, he accepted it, as it was better to have his troops in the wrong colour than be naked or in rags.)  This colour difference led the British commander, who had assumed that the grey clad Americans were mere militia, to supposedly exclaim, “Those are Regulars, by God!” as Scott’s soldiers both maneuvered well and held firm under punishing British volleys. Scott, a stickler for drill and efficiency, and drilled his men 10 hours a day for months to ensure that level of discipline, and it showed when it counted. Scott not only continued to be a general in the US Army for a LONG time, leading American forces to conquer Mexico City in 1847, but was also still in uniform, and in fact commanding general of the US Army in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War! Over fifty years in uniform must be some sort of record by anyone’s reckoning.

Back to New Orleans though, the man who no doubt made the most of his fame and glory won in the War of 1812 would have to be Andrew Jackson. Slapped in the face with a riding crop by Major Patrick Ferguson of the British Army (on his way to die at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780) for refusing to shine Ferguson’s boots, and demanding to be treated as a Prisoner of War (at the ripe old age of 13…).  He was shortly there-after orphaned, when his mother died of “gaol fever” while tending to his sick father and older brother (both of whom also died from it) who had been languishing in a prison-hulk as POW’s in Charleston Harbour.  Raised by another older brother, Jackson may safely be assumed to have harbored a bit of a grudge against the British.
Somehow Jackson managed to acquire a rather good education, and passed the Bar exam in the new State of Tennessee, with its rip-roaring capital of Nashville being the center of politics, business and society as a major frontier metropolis.  Jackson was the sort of man who made connections and encouraged strong emotions in his associates.  They either loved him dearly and were devoted to him, or hated him with a passion.  His record of a meteoric rise in politics on one hand, and duels on the other speaks volumes.  Suffice it to say that he managed to wrangle the political plum of “Major General of the Tennessee Militia” as one of his fruits of political victory, and through that all of his other fame came to be.

Lots of things were coming to a head in 1814, two years into the struggle with Great Britain.  In the North, a mounted cavalry charge by Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Riflemen under Richard Mentor Johnson managed to break the 41st Regiment of Foot at the Battle of the Thames, and according to some, Johnson was responsible for shooting the great Indian leader Tecumseh during the battle.  (Johnson later rose to political fame and became the 9th Vice President of the United States).  To the South, the frontier broke out in warfare with the Creek War, where Jackson first made his name as a military commander.

The Creek War started out as a civil war within the Creek Nation, but one faction of the so-called “Red Sticks” made the error of massacring some White militia-men and settlers at Fort Mims in Alabama (along with far greater numbers of opposing factions of Creeks).  The Red Sticks were firmly against any sort of accommodation with the Whites, and thus were happy to accept arms and supplies from the British-allied Spaniards in Pensacola. Attempts at halting this trade not only were unsuccessful, but also met with disaster.  Peter McQueen and William Weatherford (I love this, leaders of the “anti-White” faction had Scottish grandfathers…) led their followers into battle against the now-aroused foe in the form of Jackson’s Tennessee and Alabama militia (along Cherokee and Creek allies, and the 39th US Infantry Regiment).
In brief, Jackson followed the Red Sticks to a fortified “ox bow” or loop in the Tallapoosa River.  In a direct, full-on frontal assault, the militiamen swarmed over the defenses and proceeded to slaughter the Red Sticks.  William Weatherford got away, and Jackson put a “dead or alive” price on his head.  In response, Weatherford, full armed, walked right into Jackson’s command tent, placed his rifle, pistols, tomahawk and knives on Jackson’s desk and surrendered.  Jackson was so impressed with this act of bravery that he pardoned Weatherford, and gave him parole.  On the other hand, in the subsequent treaty with the Creeks, he not only took land from both the insurgent Creeks and the Allied (to Jackson) Creeks, but from the allied Cherokees as well!  A very, very complex man indeed.  (One may suppose that he could be generous with an individual, but when it came to paying off his political backers, he couldn’t be so kind and thus annexed much of Georgia and most of the State of Alabama from the Indians, both those fighting against and those fighting for him. To be fair, he DID give some of the land annexed from the Creeks to the newly-dispossessed Cherokee, but only on a “temporary” basis, as he then expelled them from THAT land a generation later, to Oklahoma, aka “Indian Territory”).

As a side-note, a couple of interesting political/mythological characters came out of this campaign.  Davy Crockett was a scout for Jackson, and Samuel Houston, another up-and-coming politician, was a junior officer who was wounded in action at Horseshoe Bend.  Both became stout allies of Jackson in both Tennessee and later in Washington, though Crockett had a falling-out with Jackson over the expulsion of the Cherokee.  Houston, who actually had LIVED with the Cherokee, had no such challenges of conscience.  Both were, of course, later to become famous in the Texas Revolution of 1836.
When word came to Washington City (“District of Columbia”, but generally known at the time as simply “Washington City”) of a major expedition from Britain with the express intention of taking New Orleans, Jackson was the only real candidate available to take the job.  He was experienced (to some degree), very popular both locally and nationally, and most important, fairly close to the scene of the operations.

Arriving in New Orleans in the waning days of 1814, Jackson began to set up defenses and organize troops to hold them.  He utilized the Navy to defend Lake Borgne under the command of a young officer later to gain fame in California (by capturing it four years too early) Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby-Jones.  Likewise he was, eventually, moved to accept the volunteer efforts of the pirate Jean Lafitte (the pirates came complete with their own cannons and crews, so that probably swayed Jackson’s views as to the morality of accepting their offer of help), as well as the local militia’s of the French-speaking population as well as of free Blacks. In a battle best known for the efforts of the “Kentucky Riflemen” (who thus gave a name to a rifle which had always before simply been known as the “American Rifle”), as it turns out Jackson himself gave most of the credit to his artillery, both Regular Army and pirate.  In a frontal assault against a prepared, entrenched position, artillery tended to do most of the slaughter, what with the use of solid shot at range, and then canister and “grape” at closer range.  1” iron balls hurtling downrange at somewhat over the speed of sound tend to do a lot of damage to mere flesh and bone. 

The British commander, General Edward Packenham, a favorite officer of the Duke of Wellington (who had refused command of the expedition himself) was killed during the assault, leaving him to be stuffed into a keg of brandy (much as Nelson had been) to preserve his body for interment in England.  Jackson on the other hand, was lionized throughout the United States as a Great War Hero for his victory, seeing as most of the other aspects of the war had been less than successful for the most part. Canada was definitely not taken, and most of the other rational for entering the war had been dealt with prior to the actual declaration of war anyway.  The treaty ending the war was signed on December 14 of 1814, citing “status quo anti bellum”, in other words, nothing had changed from prior to the war’s beginning.  The one codicil to it that mattered, however, was that anything that either party got prior to the ratification of the treaty/end of actual hostilities, they got to keep.  Thus the Battle of New Orleans was important, for the British were hardly going to hand it back over had we lost it.  Having a foreign (and hostile) government in charge of the only egress for almost all of our Western commerce would have been a major catastrophe for the US, to say the least.  For these reasons the 8th of January was celebrated far more heavily with “rocket’s red glare” and firecrackers, gunfire and other festivities than the 4th of July up to the Civil War.  In many ways, it was just as important, and one of the reasons that the War of 1812 was often referred to as “The Second War of Independence”, since it certainly secured that which the first had attempted to secure, but kind of left in the air.

Jackson of course rode the wave of popularity to first the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville, and then (eventually) to the White House. His administration, like himself, could be seen to contain both marvelous acts of bravery (vetoing the charter of the 2nd Bank of the United States, and early attempt at a private, i.e. British-owned central bank for the US that was put off until the FED was created in 1913 with all of its disastrous consequences) to incredible acts of knavery (the expulsion of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi. The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to do so, but Jackson is purported to have said “when the Supreme Court has an army at its beck and call, they can do as they please”).

For all that however, Jackson also ushered in “Jacksonian Democracy”, a celebration of what would be referred to as the Common Man.  No longer was  democracy a thing for only the ruling class to toy with, but became a thing of power for the masses (of free White men, at least)… and for demagogues as well, who could learn to sway them.