Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans
2017 Brian Kilmeade
I know precious little about the war of 1812, saved that it involved the United States invading Canada, D.C. being burned, and….something about New Orleans? That ….something is the subject of The Miracle of New Orleans, a pop-history book celebrating Andrew Jackson’s improbable victory defending that city from a British invasion. Kilmeade also reviews Jackson’s role in the Creek war, which began his military career and influenced his thinking as he rose to prominence in the early Republic. Stronger in substance than Washington’s Secret Six, and delivered with no less flash, The Miracle of New Orleans‘s mix of biography and history make the battle’s importance better known.
I’ve never been a fan of Andrew Jackson; populism, like fire, both draws and worries me — and from what I’ve read elsewhere, Jackson’s regard for the rule of law was problematic. Miracle of New Orleans introduced me to Jackson before he came to power, though, when he was struggling to make a name for himself. Made an orphan by the British during the revolution, Jackson burned for vengeance against them — and his first foray into military leadership during the Creek war made further opportunities available to him. Although Jackson is booed and hissed at today for his role in Indian removal, Miracle of New Orleans provides context that complicates summary judgement. Jackson, like many in the States, was hardened against the Creeks after hearing about the massacre of New Orleans, especially given the Redsticks’ potential threat if they worked more closely with European powers who wanted to keep the young upstart nation in its place. Jackson was especially concerned about the threat Great Britain posed; the Brits already disputed American possession of Louisiana, claiming as they did that that territory (and New Orleans, key to the entire Mississippi river) belonged to Spain, and had never been France’s to sell. If the Brits attacked New Orleans to ‘secure’ it, not only would those living between the Mississippi river and the Appalachians have their lifeline cut, but expansion across the river would be impossible.
Once the war broke out, aggravated by the British and French both harassing American shipping and conscripting American sailors into their armies, Jackson’s was one of the loudest voices urging DC to worry about the west. He was also one of the few, since DC was more interested in launching a failed invasion of Canada, and passively watching the eastern seaboard. Congress’ dithering saw Jackson march from Nashville into Louisiana (not an easy feat in the early 19th century) on his own credit and resources, and then receive orders to disband the volunteers, seize their arms, and go back east. Jackson earned the devotion of his men by keeping them together as they retreated, and it wouldn’t be the first time he proved himself a genuine leader of men, one who men gave their service to rather than demanding it as his due. After frustrating later British attempts to use Mobile and Pensacola as invasion points, Jackson waited for the British at New Orleans and planned the battle nursing a useless arm and abdominal pain that kept him doubled over. Although outnumbered and outclassed by the opposing army, Jackson’s skillful use of the terrain, audacity, and British blunders allowed him to deliver an outstanding victory to the American people. A war that had already officially ended in an ignominious stalemate now carried the aura of a triumph.
As its title hints, The Miracle of New Orleans is not dry, sober history; Kilmeade writes for a lay audience and keeps things personable and exciting. Miracle appears more adequately documented than did Washington’s Secret Six, and it squares with what I’ve read of the Creek war to date. Both the battle itself and the context in which it fit are given their due, and there’s no denying Kilmeade brings to life an often forgotten episode of history. I’m hesitant to recommend a history by a tv personality (I’m a terrible snob that way), but it presented much more than I’d expected. I’m hopeful that a more formal history of the War of 1812 will give me a better base of understanding, though.