A Low Point
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in summer of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s political career was at a standstill, his social standing had fallen, and his finances were still in shambles. Jackson was disillusioned not only by the state of his own life, but with the inability of his country to protect its citizens and their property. However, the war with Britain offered Jackson renewed hope for the future of the United States and the opportunity to turn around his personal fortunes through his position as Major General of the Tennessee Militia. Jackson, like his country, had a deeply ingrained need to prove himself.
Earning "Old Hickory"
Jackson offered his services, but President Madison’s administration hesitated to call on him because of his reputation for rashness and his friendship with Aaron Burr. Finally, in December 1812, Madison commissioned Jackson Major General of U.S. Volunteers and ordered him to lead 1,500 troops south to Natchez and eventually to defend New Orleans. Jackson led his troops to Natchez, but in March the War Department, believing the threat to New Orleans abated, ordered the immediate dismissal of Jackson’s force and made no offer to compensate the troops or provide for their return to Tennessee. Outraged, Jackson decided that he would march his force home intact through hostile Indian lands even if he had to pay the expense himself. Jackson successfully led his poorly provisioned army back to Tennessee sharing in all the hardships his troops faced and encouraging them by his example. His troops compared Jackson’s toughness to that of the hickory tree and nicknamed him “Old Hickory.”
Leadership Amidst Duels and Resistance
Tennesseans greeted Jackson with new found respect for his actions to preserve the honor of its volunteer fighting men. At last, Jackson had begun to move out of the shadow of his past, but his temper once again got him in trouble. Jackson chose sides in a dispute between two of his officers when he should have acted as a peacemaker. As a result, the argument expanded leading to a gunfight in the streets of Nashville that left Jackson horribly wounded in the upper left arm. While recovering from his wound, word reached Tennessee that settlers at Fort Mims (in present-day Southern Alabama) had been massacred by a hostile faction of the Creek Nation. Jackson received orders to put down the Creek uprising. Despite his health, Jackson gathered his forces together in October 1813 and marched south. In November, Jackson won significant battles against the Creeks at Tallushatchee and Talladega.
Jackson’s initial successes left him hungry for further victories, but supply problems and disagreements over the length of service that many of his militia signed up for, led much of his force to attempt desertion. Twice Jackson prevented mass desertion by his troops at gunpoint. However, when his troops reached the end of their terms of service Jackson was compelled to let them go. Jackson appealed to the governor of Tennessee to send him more troops. Finally, in January, new troops began to arrive and by March 1814, Jackson’s army reached 5,000 men, which greatly outnumbered the Creek warriors. At Horseshoe Bend, Jackson’s army surrounded the Creeks and inflicted a punishing defeat effectively ending the Creek War.
Jackson Becomes a General
The victorious Jackson returned to Tennessee where he was greeted as a hero that had not only defeated the Creeks, but also at the same time provided for the future security of the region by building military roads and forts. Jackson’s successes were lauded across the country at a time when the War of 1812 was going poorly. Even the Madison Administration recognized that in Jackson they had a man, despite his lack of military training, who stood out on the field of battle where others had failed miserably. In May, the War Department rewarded Jackson with a commission as Major General in the U.S. Army over the 7th Military District, which included Tennessee, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory. Jackson’s immediate orders were to negotiate a peace treaty with the Creek Nation. In August 1814, Jackson met with chiefs of the Creek Nation and imposed the Treaty of Fort Jackson that forced the Creeks to give up nearly 23 million acres and remove their settlements to a smaller area of land that American forces could more easily patrol.
Leading Motley Troops to Victory
Britain’s war with France ended in 1814 and the British turned their attention to the United States. Fresh troops were sent to invade the U.S. and secure Canada. In August 1814, the British burned Washington, but were repulsed at Baltimore. Jackson meanwhile learned of a rumored invasion of the South through New Orleans or Mobile. Jackson acted quickly to repair the defenses at Mobile and then with questionable authority he invaded portions of Spanish Florida to eliminate threats from British forces and Indians hostile to the United States. On December 1, 1814, Jackson entered New Orleans to strengthen its defenses and pull together a truly unique American Army. Regular U.S. troops, volunteer militia from Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory, free blacks, Indians, and even a band of pirates comprised Jackson’s force. However, Jackson’s army was greatly outnumbered and inexperienced compared to the superior British force that threatened New Orleans.
The British invasion of Louisiana began on December 14 with light resistance from Jackson’s army. On December 23, Jackson attacked the advancing British troops and halted their progress. For the next two weeks, the two armies squared off as the British probed for a way through Jackson’s defenses. Finally, on January 8, 1815, the British conducted a full-scale attack on Jackson and the defenders of New Orleans. To the amazement of the world, Jackson’s army handed the British attackers a crushing defeat that forced them to withdraw from Louisiana.
The General Becomes a Hero
Word of Jackson’s victory set off a wave of celebration and national pride in the young United States. Although the signing of a peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain actually preceded the American victory in New Orleans, neither army knew it due to slow communications. Even after learning of the Treaty of Ghent, the importance of the Battle of New Orleans was undiminished for the Americans. Jackson’s string of military successes despite the obstacles he faced, the poor showing by other military leaders during the War of 1812, and his stunning victory at New Orleans made him a celebrated national hero revered above all others except Washington.
FIghting British and Indians for Florida
In the peacetime army that followed, U.S. forces were divided into northern and southern divisions with Major General Jackson in command of the latter. Jackson would use this post to secure the southern borders of the United States. In Jackson’s eyes, the southern United States suffered from two security problems, the Indians and Spanish Florida. Jackson used his reputation as a fierce fighter and the threat of force to get the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Choctaws to sign treaties ceding huge tracts of land and confining the tribes to much smaller territories. For the Indians these treaties proved disasters and were the first steps in their eventual removal to the west.
For Jackson, Spanish Florida threatened American security because it did not have the military might to defend itself. The British had seen it as a possible route of invasion and the Seminole Indian tribe conducted raids in the United States then fled to the refuge of Spanish Florida. In 1818, Jackson once again acting with questionable authority from Washington invaded Spanish Florida to attack the Seminole Indians. After three months, Jackson declared the Seminole threat over and withdrew. The Spanish realized that Jackson and the United States were determined to take Spanish Florida. In 1819, Spain and the United States agreed to the Adams-Onís Treaty that turned over Florida to the United States and advantageously settled the boundaries between the respective governments’ holdings in North America in favor of the United States. In June 1821, Jackson hesitantly resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to become Governor of the Florida Territory.
Talk of Presidency Begins
From 1812 to 1821, Jackson’s military career made him a national hero and brought him increased wealth and opportunities. For the United States, Jackson’s actions secured its southern lands, acquired millions of acres of lands for settlement that fueled the cotton boom, and gave Americans a newfound confidence or “go ahead” spirit that began an unbridled expansion in agriculture and manufacturing. Soon, Jackson’s countrymen would mention him as a candidate for President of the United States.