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the Forgotten Conflict the Defined the US

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The 'Forgotten Conflict' That Defined the U.S.

Britain's greatest military defeat launched a number of historical myths and the age of Jackson.

By Don Hickey, Contributor |Jan. 8, 2015, at 12:00 p.m.      


Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, the last great salvo in the War of 1812, also known as our “forgotten conflict.” If you know anything about the conflict, it’s likely that it is some of the famous events that led up to the end of the war, such as the burning of the White House and the successful defense of Fort McHenry (which inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner”).


But our “forgotten conflict” left an indelible mark. The War of 1812 not only launched America, then a fledgling republic, onto the world stage as a force to be reckoned with, but also made famous our nation’s seventh president, then Major General Andrew Jackson, who led a modest group of volunteers to victory against abattle-tested British army in the Battle of New Orleans. The War of 1812 was fought to win greater respect for American rights at sea, which the British routinely violated in their search for victory against France in the Napoleonic Wars. But the European contest ended in 1814, and thereafter the British were able to concentrate on the United States and had the young republic on the ropes.


The aim of Britain’s Gulf Coast campaign was to occupy territory that might be used as a bargaining chip in the peace negotiations then underway at Ghent in modern-day Belgium. The main target was New Orleans, the largest city in the West and the outlet for virtually all farm commodities produced for export beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Confident that they could easily defeat the “dirty shirts,” as they called Jackson’s army of amateurs, the British were eager to bring matters to a head. But Jackson, who had an instinctive grasp of military strategy and tactics and an iron will, slowed the British down in three preliminary battles before they launched their main attack on Jan. 8, 1815.


At 6 a.m. on that cold and misty January morning, a Congreve rocket fired into the air south of New Orleans was the signal for some 5,000 British troops to advance against Jackson’s army, about the same size, behind a well-fortified line that was stretched from the Mississippi River in the west to an impenetrable cypress swamp in the east. The battle lasted less than 30 minutes, and the result changed America and stunned the world. By the time the smoke had cleared, the British had sustained2,000 killed, wounded, missing or captured. Jackson’s own losses were only 71. This was the most lopsided defeat ever suffered by a British army. News of the battle spread like wildfire across the United States and immediately transformed the entire war into a glorious American victory.


For the rest of the century, many Americans celebrated Jan. 8 as much as July 4, and Jackson’s triumph quickly became encrusted in myth and legend. One myth held that the U.S. victory had produced a favorable peace settlement, although the peace treaty, which did not mention the maritime issues that had caused the war, was signed two weeks before, on Dec. 24, 1814. Later this notion was replaced by a more plausible (and persistent) myth that the battle was fought after the war was over. But this, too, was untrue because it took six weeks for the treaty to cross the Atlantic, and the war ended only after it was ratified by the United States on Feb. 16, some five weeks after Jackson’s victory.


Other myths have been equally persistent. Among these are the notion that the Kentucky rifle won the battle (it was mainly artillery); that Jean Lafitte and his piratesplayed a central role (an exaggeration based on a combination of the romantic appeal of pirates and a fake Lafitte diary that surfaced in the 1950s); that the British planned to sack the city if they won – known as the “beauty and booty” myth – (there is no credible evidence for this); and that the British would not have surrendered southern Louisiana if they had prevailed (again, no evidence). These myths have endured because they endow the victory with greater meaning, foster an appealing self-image and promote a notion of unconventional Yankee success that Americans still find attractive.


The real significance of the battle is not that it spared New Orleans or preserved Louisiana but that it shaped how Americans remembered the war. In celebrating Jackson’s victory, Americans have chosen to ignore that the peace treaty was silent on the neutral rights for which they were contending. They have also forgotten how close the young republic came to military defeat, economic collapse and national bankruptcy (the Treasury having defaulted on the national debt in 1814). Instead, Americans prefer to remember how Jackson’s ragtag frontier army that included free blacks as well as French and Spanish residents decisively defeated the conquerors of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas.


The victory made Jackson the hero of the age, catapulted him into the presidency and launched a buoyant postwar era that is still called the Age of Jackson. The victory boosted American self-confidence and gave added meaning to a war whose legacy was destined to be profound and lasting. The War of 1812 opened the door to territorial expansion, marked the birth of the American military establishment, shaped the political landscape until the Civil War and forged a national identity. “Don’t give up the ship” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours” entered the American lexicon. “The Star-Spangled Banner” became a popular tune that Congress made our national anthem in 1931. The war also produced an iconic ship, the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), and gave the Kentucky rifle an inflated reputation as a war-winner and game-changer.


The War of 1812 may have seemed a small and inconclusive contest, and Jackson’s great victory may have had no impact on its course; but both the battle and the war played a central role in shaping the nation.



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