Americans celebrate an idealized version of their militia

The notion that it was the “Hunters of Kentucky”—loosely-organized citizen-soldiers—who won the Battle of New Orleans does not stand up to historical scrutiny.  In fact, it was the regular army artillery gunners who turned the tide of battle. But a belief in the effectiveness of militia troops proved an appealing notion in a country with a deep suspicion of professional soldiers and a standing army.

“I could see him cramming heavy bags of musket shot into the muzzle of a thirty-two pounder, and sending certain death to hundreds at every discharge.” British soldier recalling an American artilleryman at the Battle of New Orleans

Cannonball sitting on wood stand
Cannonball from the War of 1812

National Park Service

The ballad “Hunters of Kentucky” celebrates the American victory at New Orleans as a contest between untrained but self-reliant Kentucky riflemen and British regulars. The lyrics played to the popular imagination, which envisioned the militia an effective fighting force capable of defending the nation with little aid from a standing army. But the ballad’s depiction of the battle does not hold up to historical scrutiny. In fact, it was General Andrew Jackson’s artillery gunners—United States Army regulars, not militia—who were most responsible for the lopsided casualties among the British redcoats.

In truth, the Kentucky militia performed quite badly. Poorly armed, they took flight during the battle from a position they were supposed to defend. Afterward, a furious Jackson wrote to Secretary of War James Monroe that “The Kentucky reinforcements, in whom so much reliance had been placed, ingloriously fled.” Some historians argue that Jackson may have refrained from counterattacking the British at New Orleans because he lacked confidence in his militia infantry in general.

Why did the myth of the militia’s heroic, decisive role persist?  Part of the reason was the rise of partisan bitterness between two emerging political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. The rising Democratic Party found appeal among Americans—many dwelling on the frontier—who viewed themselves as individualistic, self-reliant, and agrarian. For them, the  Kentucky rifleman was a powerful symbol embodying those virtues. Whigs, on the other hand, seemed to embody the characteristics of the regular army establishment: class privilege, hierarchy, mechanization, technical expertise, and industry.  

The lyrics to “Hunters of Kentucky” extol the frontier virtues of the militia without reference to their shameful performance at the actual battle. It became an enormously successful campaign song for the Democratic Party’s leader Andrew Jackson during his presidential run in 1828. Though Jackson profited politically from the mythology honoring the Kentucky militia, he remained to the end of his days one of its harshest critics for its performance at the Battle of New Orleans.