Andrew Jackson's Leadership Changed U.S. History
By CEO Howard Kittell. Published in The Tennessean on January 5th, 2014
The War of 1812 is considered America’s “second war of independence.” While the war did not end until Feb. 18, 1815, when Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent, its decisive moment occurred six weeks earlier.
On Jan. 8, a little-known Army general lacking formal military training won a decisive — and unlikely — victory against a major world power. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. This stunning victory changed the course of U.S. history and possibly that of the world. The battle lasted a mere 20 minutes.
The War of 1812 may be understood as a duel of honor between the United States and Great Britain. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, Americans had felt the British were failing to show the United States the respect a sovereign nation deserved. Trade restrictions, territorial disputes and British impressments of American seamen were part of a host of tensions between the two countries. By 1812, a group of congressmen, the “war hawks,” championed the notion that the United States could conquer Canada and bring it into the new republic. These economic, political and egotistic forces culminated with Congress declaring war in June 1812. The country was not prepared — financially, militarily or politically.
The war began along the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes border, then onto the Mid-Atlantic. It did not go well for the United States. For each victory, there were equal defeats, some tremendously embarrassing for the young nation. For Americans, the nadir of the war came in August 1814, when British forces marched unopposed into Washington, D.C. Not only did the British torch the Capitol, the presidential mansion and other federal buildings, they first ate the dinner prepared for President Madison in his own dining room.
The final phase of the British attack was to come at New Orleans. If Britain could take the city, it could move up the Mississippi, join forces in Canada and hem in the United States from the west, containing it to the Atlantic seaboard. Plus, if Britain controlled the port of New Orleans, it controlled the economy of the American West.
But awaiting the 10,000-man British force was Maj. Gen. Jackson of Tennessee and his army. Jackson’s “force” numbered about 2,200 including Army regulars, militiamen, frontiersmen, free blacks, slaves, Native Americans, Creoles and Baratarian pirates.
The weeks before the battle were like the prelude to a severe storm. Everyone knew it was coming, as increasing numbers of British troops arrived in the region and as Jackson scrambled to assemble his ragtag force. When the “storm” struck, it was fast, furious and deadly. On the morning of Jan. 8, as the smoke and fog cleared, the casualties were staggering: more than 2,000 British troops killed, wounded or captured, to the Americans’ 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing, for a total of 71 casualties.
The British never again attacked the U.S. Americans won the European respect they so desperately wanted, and Jackson was catapulted to national fame. Within weeks, he became known as the “Hero of New Orleans,” a rock-star-type figure in the minds of Americans. This victory put Jackson on a trajectory to the presidency in 1828, where he changed the course of our national history.
On Jan. 8, 2014, at Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, we will commemorate this great victory with free admission. We will welcome distinguished guests and speakers and host a special wreath-laying ceremony at Jackson’s tomb at 11 a.m. I hope you can join us in remembering our seventh president, his heroic military achievement and the 20 minutes that changed the world.
Howard Kittell is the CEO of The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson.