Many notable Americans believed that securing independence of the new nation would require a second conflict with Great Britain. This position proved correct. It was only after the conclusion of the War of 1812 that Great Britain totally accepted the independence of the American colonies. In fact, even today, many Brits refer to the United States as “the colonies”.
The Battle of New Orleans marked the end of hostilities on the American mainland, with the exception of the final successful British assault on Fort Bowyer in February 1815. The magnitude of the victory forever established the fact that America was a nation to be respected and its independence secure.
That having been said, there persists several myths about the Battle of New Orleans that demand discussion:
Myth #1: The Battle was fought AFTER the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war had been signed. This is false. The treaty had indeed been signed by the negotiators on December 24, 1814. But it did not go into effect until ratified after being signed by King George III of England, President Madison of the United States, and passed through the U.S. Senate. This did not happen until February 16, 1815. The war was still on!
Myth #2: New Orleans was never in danger because of the treaty. False. General Edward Pakenham was given orders by the Earl of Bathurst to take New Orleans even if news of a treaty were announced. Why? Because the treaty included language to the effect that “all lands should be returned to their rightful owner.” Great Britain never accepted the transfer of Louisiana to the United States as legitimate. Spain sold Louisiana to France, but was never compensated for it. Technically Louisiana was stolen property. The British thus considered it Spanish territory and fully planned to return it to Spain, “its rightful owner” should they take New Orleans.
Myth #3: The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1814. That January 8th battle was only a part of a much wider British expedition that began by supplying Indians through Florida and continued with at least ten different battles before coming to an end at the last battle of Fort Bowyer. The actual gulf invasion began in April of 1814 and continued until February of 1815…eleven whole months!
Myth #4: The Battle of January 8th was a splendid, decisive American Victory. True! But only on the Eastbank of the river. On the Westbank, Colonel Thornton’s British attack proved to be a spectacular victory where he nearly captured the Algier’s Point from which position he could have attacked the city of New Orleans. Even General Andrew Jackson believed that all was lost should the British take the Westbank. British General Lambert’s failure to support Thornton led to the British defeat. Otherwise, New Orleans would likely have fallen.
Myth #5: The Battle of New Orleans determined nothing. The consequences of a loss for the Americans are almost impossible to calculate. Consider if England had taken New Orleans, repudiated the Louisiana Purchase, and returned the entire territory to Spain under protection of a British army which would have occupied the city as well as Canada and had control of the Mississippi River. The whole question of American’s western expansion would have to be reconsidered. America might never have become a continental power. The Civil War was triggered by expansion of slavery into the territories. With Louisiana gone, there would have been no western territories.
In the final analysis, the Battle of New Orleans determined the future of the United States. Furthermore, General Andrew Jackson, despite some unsavory aspects to his career, can be easily considered the hero of this great victory. The power of his leadership and personal determination inspired the strange assortment of men who composed his “army” to fearlessly confront one of the grandest armies of it day… one that had defeated Napoleon. He is the architect of modern American democracy and, in large measure, responsible for a continental United States.
Americans should recognize the importance of the Battle of New Orleans and be proud of this achievement. It contributed so much to the development of the United States as the powerful image of freedom it has become today. The determination of citizens to fight to preserve their city in 1814-1815 secured America’s future.
Ron Chapman is a college professor in Chalmette Louisiana, a businessman and an award-winning columnist