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Jackson Arrives to Defend a Divided Louisiana

Jackson Arrives to Defend a Divided Louisiana
AI visualization of British soldiers invading the Louisiana coast during the War of 1812.

The Louisiana in which a young Yankee transplant named John Windship found himself in 1813-14 had only recently been admitted to the Union (in 1812, just before Congress declared war on Great Britain, which would find the lower Mississippi River a tempting target). Many residents already regretted that change in status. Life as a territory had been comparatively cushy, with the federal government assuming most of the costs, and the diversity of the population wasn't just demographic (French, Spanish, Anglo-American, Creole, African American, Native American, etc.) but reflected conflicting loyalties. "The truth is we are not Americans and the policy of our admission to the Union will soon be tested," Windship, a Harvard graduate, wrote a friend back in New England.

Windship's surviving handful of letters to his friend, William Plumer Jr. of New Hampshire, are available to read online for free and are well worth the perusal. I learned of them through H.W. Brands's biography of Andrew Jackson, which quotes from Windship's letters to set the stage for what awaited Jackson as he approached New Orleans near the end of 1814 to square off against the British. Brands writes:

The British owned the sea, which gave them mobility [Jackson] lacked. The army they were bringing—from the Chesapeake, with reinforcements from the Caribbean—substantially outnumbered his. They possessed the advantage of the offensive, being able to choose their approach to the city. And given the restiveness of the population of New Orleans and Louisiana, they had reason to expect support or at least acquiescence from the locals.
Jackson couldn’t change the balance of power in the Gulf or the geography of the Mississippi delta. But he could hope to alter the mood of the people he was charged to defend. He reached New Orleans on December 1 and discovered that John Windship was right about the irredentist and seditionist tendencies of the French and Spanish inhabitants. (He didn’t have a chance to meet Windship, who had just died of one of the endemic diseases to which he thought he had become inured.) A few of the foreign-born openly hoped for defeat, circulating stories that a British victory would restore Louisiana to Spanish control. Others disguised their desires in defeatism, contending that Jackson's pitiful force of militia and volunteers could never defeat Britain's battle-hardened troops. The negative feelings of those who hoped for the worst spread, provoking fear among those who wished for better.
Jackson confronted the issue, and the populace, with characteristic boldness. “The Major General commanding has with astonishment and regret learned that great consternation and alarm pervade your city,” he proclaimed to the citizens. He didn’t deny that there were grounds for concern. “It is true the enemy is on our coast and threatens an invasion of our territory.” But proximity and threat were hardly the sum of the story. “It is equally true, with union, energy, and the approbation of heaven, we will beat him at every point his temerity may induce him to set foot upon our soil.” Jackson said he had heard the rumors that a victorious Britain would restore Louisiana to Spain. “Believe not such incredible tales. Your government is at peace with Spain.” Jackson couldn’t say how long the United States would be at peace with Spain; news of his raid on Pensacola was still crossing the Atlantic. But for now the danger came from Britain—“the vital enemy of your country, the common enemy of mankind, the highway robber of the world.” Jackson hoped good sense would prevail against the seditious rumors. But he was prepared to supplement sense where its effects fell shy. “The rules and articles of war annex the punishment of death to any person holding secret correspondence with the enemy, creating false alarm, or supplying him with provision. . . . The general announces his unalterable determination rigidly to execute the martial law in all cases. . . . He will separate our enemies from our friends. Those ‘who are not with us are against us, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
Jackson might have waited for exhortation to have its effect, but on the very day the papers of New Orleans published his proclamation, word arrived that British vessels had captured American gunboats on Lake Borgne. As the lake was less than a day’s march from the outskirts of New Orleans, this severely compressed Jackson's schedule for sorting the sheep from the goats.
He responded, as decisively as ever, by seizing complete control over the city and all within it. “Major General Andrew Jackson, commanding the Seventh United States Military District, declares the city and environs of New Orleans under strict martial law,” a new proclamation read. It specified what martial law meant. “Every individual entering the city will report at the Adjutant General's office, and on failure, to be arrested and held for examination. No person shall be permitted to leave the city without a permission in writing signed by the General or one of his staff. No vessel, boat, or other craft will be permitted to leave New Orleans or Bayou St. John without a passport in writing.” A strict curfew took effect. “The street lamps shall be extinguished at the hour of nine at night, after which period persons of every description found in the streets, or not at their respective homes, without permission in writing as aforesaid and not having the countersign shall be apprehended as spies and held for examination.”
Jackson complemented martial law by taking charge of the Louisiana militia. His experience with the Tennessee militia had taught him the difficulty of making soldiers out of ordinary young men. But the Louisiana militia presented a challenge of a different order. He reviewed the militia companies in the Place des Armes on December 18, and as he gazed out across the square he must have wondered how he was going to defend the city with such a motley bunch. The ranks included Americans and Frenchmen and Spanish, whites and blacks and persons of mixed race, poor and middling and rich. Some mustered willingly, others with great reluctance. Some hoped for success, others for failure. Most simply hoped to survive whatever Jackson had in store for them. All knew they’d be fighting British regulars, the best battlefield soldiers in the world.
The sight of his new troops hardly inspired Jackson's confidence—which simply meant that he had to inspire confidence in them. The Creek campaign had already shown Jackson to be a capable tactician; the defense of New Orleans would prove him a master, and a brilliant organizer as well. But what truly set him apart from other generals was his ability to motivate his men. Many of them loved him, starting with those who named him Old Hickory on the march home from Natchez. Nearly all of them feared him, including the would-be mutineers he threatened with cannon fire ... .

Next, Brands underscores the military chieftain's political acumen in tailoring his message to the various populations he had to enlist to the city's defense:

Jackson had already threatened the Louisianians; now he appealed to them. To the native-born Americans, he described the enemy in terms of the American Revolution. “They are the oppressors of your infant political existence with whom you have to contend,” he said. “They are the men your fathers conquered whom you are to oppose.” To the Frenchmen he cast the challenge differently. “They are the English, the hereditary, eternal enemies of your ancient country, the invaders of that you have adopted, who are your foes.” To the Spanish: “Remember the conduct of your allies at St. Sebastian’s, and recently at Pensacola, and rejoice that you have an opportunity of avenging the brutal injuries inflicted by men who dishonour the human race.” He appealed to them collectively, as free citizens of a republic. “Remember for what and against whom you contend: for all that can render life desirable, for a country blessed with every gift of nature, for property, for life, for those dearer than either, your wives and children, and for liberty, dearer than all.”
Jackson took special note of the black militia. The planters and other whites who initially resisted his call to arm free men of color had changed their collective mind, fearing the approach of the British, or perhaps the wrath of Jackson, more than they feared the idea of black troops. “Soldiers!” he addressed the black militia. “From the shores of the Mobile I called you to arms. I invited you to share in the perils and to divide the glory of your white countrymen. . .. I knew that you could endure hunger and thirst, and all the hardships of war. I knew that you loved the land of your nativity and that, like ourselves, you had to defend all that is most dear to man. But you surpassed my hopes. I have found in you, united to those qualities, that noble enthusiasm which impels to great deeds.”
Jackson's authority to declare martial law and seize control of the militia was debatable at best. But he hadn’t possessed authority to invade Spanish Florida, and to the extent he worried about reprimand or other sanction from Washington, he could assume that his sin against civil liberties in New Orleans ‘would probably appear less grave than his waging war on a country the administration wished to keep neutral. In any event, Jackson rarely respected authority per se. If the end was worthy—and he knew no end more worthy than the preservation of American liberty—most means were, too.
He let the lawyers argue while he prepared the defenses of the city. “The lakes in complete possession of the enemy will give me a large coast to watch and defend, and the difficulty of finding out their point of attack is perplexing,” he wrote on December 16. “But I trust with the smiles of heaven to be able to meet and defeat him at every point he may put his foot on land.”

Heaven did indeed smile. Although its significance has faded in recent decades, Jackson's crushing victory on January 8, 1815, turned that date into a second Independence Day for generations to come, and helped pave the way for his status as the first truly popularly elected President.

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