By Chuck Springston
"The Battle of New Orleans," painting circa 1910 by Edward Percy Moran.
"The Battle of New Orleans," painting circa 1910 by Edward Percy Moran.
When Rosanne Cash graduated from high school in 1973 and joined her father on the road for the first time, Johnny Cash made a list of 100 essential country songs she should learn. One of them was “The Battle of New Orleans.”

     In her memoir, Composed (Viking, 2010), Rosanne Cash said the “wide-ranging selection” included “classics like Hank Williams’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’” and  “old history-lesson songs like ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’” which honors Andrew Jackson’s victory against British invaders 200 years ago this month in the last major battle of the War of 1812.
     The lyrical lesson, written around 1945 by Arkansas school teacher Jimmie Driftwood to make history more fun for his students, begins with this verse (which may differ slightly in various versions):   

     “In 1814 we took a little trip,
     Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip,
     We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
     And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.”

     The song is indeed a fun introduction to the Battle of New Orleans, but if it’s the only history you know about the battle, you are misinformed. For starters, at the time of the battle Jackson was a U.S. Army major general, and he did not take the Mississippi River to the Crescent City.

     The history behind the song

     Jackson (1767-1845) had been elected major general of the Tennessee militia in 1802. After the war with Britain started on June 18, 1812, President James Madison asked Tennessee in October 1812 to raise a force of volunteers, and the governor put Jackson in command of his state’s units as a major general of the Tennessee volunteers.
     Jackson’s men were sent to fight a group of Creek Indians, known as Red Sticks, who in August 1813 had killed settlers at Fort Mims in what was then the Mississippi Territory but is now Alabama. The Red Sticks had received supplies and arms from the British and Spanish-held West Florida, officially neutral in the war but in fact an ally of Britain. Jackson destroyed the Red Sticks' band during a battle at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, in March 1814.
     Madison rewarded him on May 28 with a promotion to major general in the U.S. Army, in command of the 7th Military District, which included Tennessee, the Mississippi Territory and Louisiana.
     Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, the British had begun planning an attack on New Orleans that would give them control of the entire Mississippi Valley up to Canada.
     Under the plan, British troops would land in Spain’s Pensacola region to lay the groundwork for an assault on nearby Mobile, a city that had been claimed by both Spain and the United States until American troops settled the matter by capturing it in April 1813 and building a fort there. Once onshore, the British troops would travel by land to Baton Rouge and then march down to attack New Orleans from the north.
     In early May 1814, a group of British marines landed at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, east of Pensacola, to provide Indians with guns, supplies and training for raids on Americans. In June, Jackson learned about the Apalachicola actions from a spy, and in early August he began moving his army to Mobile’s Fort Bowyer, which the U.S. government saw as the likely place for a British invasion.
     Also in August, a second contingent of British marines landed in West Florida with arms and supplies for the Indians. In addition, the Spanish governor in Pensacola gave the British permission to station troops and ships in the city.
     Jackson arrived in Mobile on Aug. 22 and issued instructions to strengthen Fort Bowyer’s defenses. The British struck on Sept. 15, hitting the fort with gunfire from ships in Mobile Bay and artillery manned by marines on land. But Jackson’s forces repelled the attack, destroying one of the British ships in the process. The others returned to Pensacola.
     Now it was Jackson’s turn on the offense. After connecting with reinforcements coming down from Tennessee, he marched toward Pensacola and attacked the town on Nov. 7. The Spanish defenders quickly surrendered. Jackson planned to attack British troops stationed at nearby Fort San Carlos de Barrancas the next day, but before he could make his move the British blew up the fort and sailed away. Jackson gave Pensacola back to Spanish authorities on Nov. 9 and departed.
     Jackson’s victories at Mobile and Pensacola “forced the English to change their invasion plans and target New Orleans directly as the point of invasion—probably the worst site they could have chosen,” wrote Robert V. Remini in The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory (Viking, 1999).  Instead of moving over firm ground to the city, the attacking British force now faced "a frontal assault up the Mississippi River with its bayous, creeks, and soggy ground, which could play havoc with the movement of heavy equipment and a large army.”
     Jackson got back to Mobile on Nov. 19 and left on horseback for New Orleans on Nov. 22. He entered the city on Dec. 1.

    They fired their guns

     British ships sailing from the Gulf of Mexico collected at the entrance to Lake Borgne, just east of New Orleans, between Dec. 8 and 12 and anchored there. On Dec. 14, American gunboats guarding the lake were attacked and forced to surrender.
    The British began unloading their troops at the lake’s Pea Island on Dec. 16, then transported them by barge a week later to the mainland. The troops went ashore during the late night-early morning of Dec. 22-Dec. 23, about a dozen miles from New Orleans, and began their march to the city. They came to the Villeré plantation, owned by a general in the Louisiana militia, and easily took control of the property.
     When the news reached Jackson on the afternoon of Dec. 23, he immediately gathered a large force and commanded a nighttime attack that surprised the British camp at the plantation.
      After an approximately two-hour battle that included hand-to-hand fighting, Jackson withdrew amid concerns that a rising fog and the increasing confusion of a smoke-filled dark battlefield endangered too many of his troops. But he had achieved an important objective: slowing the enemy’s advance.
     The American general pulled back behind a canal—basically a ditch 4 feet deep and 10 feet wide that stretched eastward from the Mississippi River to a large swamp. Jackson widened and deepened the ditch. Earthen ramparts and cotton bales behind the canal added to the defense, and a levee was cut to soak the ground the British would have to cross.
     The British attacked with artillery and men on Dec. 28, but were stopped by American artillery. They tried again with heavier artillery (and no attempt at a major troop assault) on Jan. 1, 1815, but failed to crush the American defenses.
     Finally, the British commander, Lt. Gen. Edward Michael Pakenham, decided to launch a massive frontal attack on the morning of Jan. 8 with so many men that the Americans would not be able to withstand the onslaught. It was roughly 8,000 against 4,000, according to Remini.  

     “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin'
     There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago
     We fired once more and they begin to runnin'
     On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.” 

     When the firing stopped, about two hours after it began, 291 British troops were dead, including Pakenham. The American count was 13 dead. The British wounded totaled 1,262, compared with 39 American wounded.

Back to the music

     A traditional fiddle tune was often played to commemorate the battle and came to be called “Jackson’s Victory” or “The Eighth of January,” according to the Library of Congress. Driftwood (1907-1998) picked up that tune for his song, as he would sometimes explain when singing it. The website Songfacts gives this account of Driftwoods’ explanation:
     “After the Battle of New Orleans, which Andrew Jackson won on January the 8th eighteen and fifteen, the boys played the fiddle again that night, only they changed the name of it from the battle of a place in Ireland to the ‘Eighth of January.’ Years passed and in about nineteen and forty-five an Arkansas school teacher slowed the tune down and put words to it and that song is “The Battle of New Orleans.’
     Driftwood, whose real name was James Morris, had developed a career as a folk singer to accompany his teaching profession and was signed by RCA in 1957. His first recording was “The Battle of New Orleans,” on an album released in 1958. But the song never really took off until country music singer Johnny Horton (1925-1960) did a version of it in January 1959.    
     Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” soared to the top of both the country and pop charts in 1959. Driftwood won a 1959 Grammy Award for best song, and Horton got a Grammy for best country and western performance.    
     The song has been covered by the likes of Pete Seeger, Dolly Parton and, of course, Johnny Cash. 



     The great movie the War of 1812 needs

     Francis Scott Key, land of the free and slavery 

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