“My country men…look too intently to the Triumphs, & turn their eyes too lightly away from their disasters.” John Quincy Adams
Winter 1815: Americans win a stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans
Once they gain a foothold in our collective national memory, the persistence of national myths becomes part of our history.
Britain’s failed attempt to capture Mobile, Alabama in September, 1814 convinced General Andrew Jackson that his opponents planned to further intensify military pressure along the Gulf Coast region. Doing so would relieve pressure from the Canadian front, and might snatch additional territory that could be used as a bargaining chip in the unfinished peace talks at Ghent.
Correctly predicting that Britain’s next target was the strategically vital port city of New Orleans, Jackson quickly dispatched his forces. Arriving in the city on December 1, 1814, Jackson had ample time to prepare his defenses along the waterway. Those preparations paid off for the Americans. The main battle on January 8 was a calamitous defeat for the British and a lopsided victory for the Americans. Though outnumbered more than two-to-one, the Americans nonetheless inflicted nearly 2,500 casualties (including 386 killed) while suffering only 55 deaths of their own. It seemed like the kind of smashing victory that could decide the war.
Unbeknownst to anyone at New Orleans, however, was the fact that American and British diplomats had signed a peace treaty two weeks before the battle. However, the Treaty of Ghent would only go into effect – and officially end the war – if it was approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president. This occured one month after the Battle of New Orleans. Thus the American victory ensured that the war would actually end when the treaty arrived.
The crude nature of communications in the 1800s meant that news traveled slowly, particularly across the ocean. Word of the American victory at New Orleans arrived in Washington first, and the offer to end the war on agreeable terms came some ten days later. It was immediately approved by Congress and the president.
Jackson’s triumph thus came to be viewed as a turning point in the war, one that tipped the scales at Ghent in America’s favor. That was factually inaccurate; a treaty that could end the war had been signed some two weeks prior to the battle. Republicans and the partisan press saw no reason to repudiate this idea. However, had Americans lost possession of New Orleans during the time the treaty was in transit, the war may not have immediately ended. Long after the facts about timing came out, the Niles Register continued to proclaim that the Americans “did virtually dictate the treaty of Ghent.”
Though the truth was far murkier, envisioning the Battle of New Orleans as a strategic triumph served to erase from the national memory all the bungled disasters and domestic dissent of the past five years. The Americans’ lopsided success at New Orleans replaced all the reversals of the war with a more celebratory and uplifting national myth of unqualified victory.