Andrew Jackson arrives in New Orleans December 01, 1814
On December 01, 1814, Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans in preparation for the eminent attack on the city by the British during the War of 1812.
202 years later, a visitor to this city cannot take any New Orleans walking tour without hearing the tales surrounding that fascinating time. On our French Quarter tour, we visit Jackson Square, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, and the Andrew Jackson Hotel. We also visit the Andrew Jackson Hotel on our Ghost and Horror Stories Tour, and we visit the Orleans Battalion of Artillery Tomb on our St. Louis Cemetery #1 tour. It was a moment when the war was on our doorstep, when a future President of the United States led Americans to victory, with the help of pirates, gentlemen, and slaves. What a story!
The best thing about being a tour guide, most of us would agree, is sharing the stories of our unique city with visitors. However, in the interest of providing the most information in a typical two-hour walking tour, we often have to gloss over the interesting details that really make the story come alive. Sometimes I fear that the condensed story becomes the only story anyone bothers to learn.
My hope for this blog is that we are given the opportunity to go into the stories of these moments in our history more deeply, to find ourselves somewhere between the super-condensed version of the New Orleans walking tour and the researched, scholarly version of the numerous books on the subject. In other words, interesting but quick.
So let’s examine those days after Old Hickory arrived in New Orleans that day 202 years ago.
Andrew Jackson arrived in a city in which almost every one spoke French. New Orleans, almost 100 years old in 1814, had only become an American territory 11 years before and only achieved Statehood in 1812. The hordes of “Les Americains” that were to create uptown neighborhoods like the Garden District and Americanize the city had not yet arrived. Tens of thousands of refugees from San Domingue – the country we now know as Haiti- had come into the city in recent years, increasing New Orleans’ French-speaking, Catholic, Creole identity. To Jackson, who had to get an interpreter to make his speeches in New Orleans, these people were more foreign than the British he had come to fight. He did not trust them.
However, he trusted the British even less. Jackson had a deep, abiding hatred of the British that was rooted in his experiences during the American Revolution. His two older brothers and his mother died during the war, his brothers from disease while in service and his mother in an attempt to rescue her nephew from a prisoner of war camp. Andrew himself is the only American president ever to have been a prisoner of war. At the age of 14, he was cut deeply on his wrist and forehead by the saber of a British officer after the fierce teenager refused to shine his captor’s boots. An orphan and veteran at 15, Jackson’s scars and his hatred of the British remained with him throughout his entire turbulent life.
When Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans on December 1st, he did not seem like the savior the people needed at this time. Jackson, remembered to this day for his temper and non-conformity, covered with the scars of his rough life, had at least three bullets lodged in his body from duels he had fought. Doctors had recommended amputation of his arm but Jackson refused. He had suffered smallpox, dysentery, malaria, and possibly malnutrition during his impoverished childhood. He was prone to fits of coughing and chills due to one of the bullets in his chest, and, he wrote to his wife, Rachel, he had eaten nothing on the nine-day journey from Mobile to New Orleans. A witness to his arrival wrote:
“His complexion was sallow and unhealthy; his hair iron grey, and his body thin and emaciated like that of one who had just recovered from a lingering sickness . . . [a] fierce glance . . . [lighted] his bright and hawk-like eye.”
Nevertheless, he was dedicated to his assignment. Planning to stay for some time, he wrote to his wife to bring their son and join him. Jackson asked her to bring her carriage, a dozen new Windsor chairs, two beds, tables, flour and bacon, as well as 100 bushels of corn and 100 bushels of oats.
He did not have much time to settle in to his new post. The first engagement with the Brits took place on December 14 at Lake Borgne. Two days later, Jackson imposed martial law in New Orleans.
This was huge. It was the first time an American city had been put under martial law. The Constitution was new. The guys who had written it were still around, and we were at that moment fighting the empire against whom we had fought for our freedom in the first place. So now Jackson comes in, declares himself above and immune to any local authority, and starts confiscating goods from the locals. What did he confiscate? Weapons, ammunition, digging implements, and slaves. He starts drafting all the locals. Men were enlisted in The Orleans Battalion of Artillery. Women were told to prepare rooms in their homes to host the Kentucky and Tennessee Militiamen who were coming. Children were used to relay information without being detected by spies.
Begrudgingly, the locals submitted to this treatment. Several were jailed for not bending to the authority of their own government. But Andrew Jackson, realizing the great threat of the British and (probably erroneously) mistrusting the fidelity of these “new Americans” in New Orleans, believed that the guns were safer in the hands of the men he had brought in from Kentucky and Tennessee than in those of the Creoles from whom they had been taken. The shovels and pickaxes were used to dig a trench which the British would soon find it impossible to cross. The cotton bales were used to build a wall which protected the Americans while they picked off the advancing redcoats. The slaves, he promised, would fight in the Battle of New Orleans and gain their freedom (a promise he reneged on after the battle).
Jackson famously proclaimed, “Those who are not for us are against us, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
The streetlights were to be extinguished at 9pm. If you were out after that hour, you risked being arrested as a spy.
The next battle was fought on December 23rd. No one in Louisiana knew that at that very moment, the treaty to end the war was being signed in Europe. In New Orleans, the tension was escalating.
The final Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 08, 1815. It was an overwhelming victory for the Americans. The raggedy group of draftees, pirates, gentlemen, and slaves, led by a sickly half-dead general with a short fuse had fought off the greatest fighting machine in the world and had won!
By March, the city was growing tired of martial law. The war was over, the British had run away, but still the troops remained. A Louisiana state senator wrote in a newspaper editorial that the General needed to lift martial law so that New Orleanians could resume their lives. Jackson, ever sensitive to criticism, had the man arrested. A Federal judge demanded the release of the senator, so Jackson had the judge thrown in jail as well. Shortly after, Congress gave permission to General Jackson to lift martial law, all the prisoners were released, and the newly-freed judge immediately charged Jackson a one-thousand-dollar contempt of court fine. Jackson, although deeply insulted, paid the fine.
But the insult, like his scars and bullets and hatred of the British, remained with Jackson for the rest of his life. He lobbied several times to have the money returned to him, and finally, as he lay on his deathbed in 1844, it was. Some saw this as an admission that Jackson had been correct to treat the senator and the judge so harshly for speaking against martial law. Some argued that it was simply a gesture of respect for a dying American hero.
In 1840, in an elaborate ceremony, Jackson laid the cornerstone for the town square that was to be named after him. In 1856, the famous statue of the charismatic general was placed in the center of Jackson Square in the heart of our city, and is probably the most iconic image of New Orleans today.