Friday, August 9, 2013

Battle of New Orleans

Fig.1: Andrew Jackson failed to check his text messages to see if the war was over.
There are battles that help decide wars, give one side the momentum, or become so significant in the long run that it takes on a life of its own and enters into the national consciousness. And then there are battles that are rather pointless and are actually fought after the peace treaty to end the war is signed. The Battle of New Orleans in the winter of 1814-5 is one of the latter. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom, was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, the soldiers in New Orleans didn't get their copy of USA Today in time, and the major fighting took place on January 8 of the next year. Imagine the look on their faces when they eventually found out the war was over! It really is a fantastic long as you look past the fact that over three thousand people were killed, wounded, or missing. Other than that, what a knee-slapper!

Fig.2: War is hell.
The only thing more pointless than the bloodshed at the Battle of New Orleans was the bloodshed of the overall war. I'm going to say it: the War of 1812 is one of the stupidest conflicts in history. First of all, it doesn't even have a good name! While it started in 1812, most of the battles of note were fought in 1813 and 1814. Why couldn't we call it "The-Two-and-a-Half Years War" or "American Revolution 2: Electric Boogaloo?" Secondly, the origins behind the war are really just asinine. The Brits were in the middle of fighting that French guy with a severe Napoleonic complex (his name might have been Napoleon), and were protecting their interests on the seas. The Americans didn't appreciate the British not letting them trade with France, nor the practice of impressment, where British sailors captured American naval merchants and forced them to regale the crew by performing sea shanties or putting on an early production of H.M.S. Pinafore (fig.2). But it was all just good, harmless fun!

Also, the United States was just licking their chops to continue expanding after buying the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon on a Blue Light Special, and saw the opportunity to snatch Canada away from the British. The only practical advantage that I see from this is that the USA would eventually win more gold metals in the Winter Olympics with Canadian talent in hockey, curling, and icicle fencing (that's a sport, right?), but really, what's the point to that? Finally, Americans were looking to boost their pride by re-declaring their independence and kicking some British butt once more. If anything, this is the most credible reason to pick a fight (can't have the hood thinking you're weak), but is it really worth starting a War of 1812 over? Many congressmen thought so, and it's was because of their innate desire to fight the British, as well as their diet of small game easily scooped up using their talons, that they were designated as Warhawks. The Warhawks eventually got their way: President James Madison issued a declaration of war on June 18, 1812, and then led a pep rally shortly thereafter to pump up the nation.

Fig.3: Move along, nothing to see here...
Then a bunch of stuff happened. Like Tecumseh. And the Battle of Lake Erie. And Laura Secord. And the Burning of Washington (fig.3). And the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. And the first example of plastic surgery, which I know doesn't have anything to do with the War of 1812, but is still pretty amazing (and even more amazing that it wasn't Joan Rivers that it was being performed on). I'll get around to writing histories about all those things eventually, but the less I think about the War of 1812, the more brain cells I'm able to hold onto.

But now let us go to 1814 and take a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip. The Americans knew the British would attempt to attack the southern coast, so they hastily prepared a defense force on the South's largest port and party hotspot: New Orleans. And I mean hastily. The army consisted of everything from farmers, shoemakers, African-American freedmen, pirates, local tribesmen, and even a one-eyed Albino midget chocolatier or two. Even their commander, Andrew Jackson, was constantly ill and not as spry as a military leader should be; he wasn't even able to do that thing where you hop and clap your feet together twice in midair, which has been basic training for all officers for centuries. On the other hand, their adversaries were crack British troops that had been hardened in Europe fighting against Napoleon, led by the young and capable officer Edward Pakenham, who could do one-armed pushups like nobody's business. It was pretty much a matchup between the New York Yankees and the Idaho Falls Chukars.

Fig.4: The delegates for the Treaty of Ghent may have 
believed that the combating armies would magically 
disappear with the stroke of a pen. Wacky wig-wearing 
But Jackson and his troops fought valiantly in minor skirmishes. While they lost control over the lakes that border New Orleans in mid-December, they successfully launched a surprise night attack on the 23rd that caught the British unawares in their footie pajamas. Of course, the American and British delegates meeting in Ghent, Belgium would be signing the treaty to end the war the next day (fig.4), but that's really not important to the story. The armies would be too busy preparing the earthworks and getting reinforcements to worry about that political nonsense.

The big battle finally took place on January 8, 1815. The Brits planned to use a newly dug canal to bring their navy into the fray, but unfortunately they only had sporks to dig with, and it collapsed rather quickly. This put all of the pressure on the infantry to break through the American defenses and capture the city, and Jackson was banking on that. Regiment after regiment of British troops attempted to march through the American earthworks at Chalmette Plantation, but Jackson perfected the system of rotating fire, where one soldier would shoot, and another would tap in and take his place while he ducked down to reload (and possibly sneak in a quick Sudoku). A French engineer in the American army would write of a "constant rolling fire, whose tremendous noise resembled rattling peals of thunder," while a Louisiana-born private would write something similar just as eloquently: "Dat dun wat alotta noise!"

Fig.5: This painting was done by engineer Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte based on his memory of the battle. Looks like somebody should have dropped his degree in engineering and gone for something a little more practical and lucrative like art!
The British were eventually forced to retreat, with the strapping, young Pakenham being shot several times and succumbing to his wounds (I guess doing all the pull-ups in the world wouldn't have helped him there). The British army actually did gain a tactical victory in a separate engagement on the opposite bank of the Mississippi, but the disaster at Chalmette negated all of that, and they were forced to walk away with their head down in shame. New Orleans was saved! Even though it would have been anyway because the stupid war was over. But it was saved! Andrew Jackson would be rewarded by becoming President of the United States in another 14 years, and he in turn would thank the Native Americans who fought in his army by removing their right to hold land, forcing them out west, and spreading pollution all down the trail to ensure they would be crying the whole time. Classy gentleman.

And so the War of 1812 ended fittingly: with a battle that didn't need to be fought. Sure, you can argue that because the British Parliament and American Senate didn't ratify the Treaty of Ghent until after the Battle of New Orleans that the war wasn't technically over, but what are you, some sort of War of 1812 fanatic? Do you people even exist? Go get lives already! Do something more fulfilling, like make bricks at Colonial Williamsburg! My goodness, even the Cola Wars have more relevance than the War of 1812! I'm starting to feel an aneurysm coming on now, so I'm going to soothe my brain and think about more meaningful conflicts, like the War of the Austrian Succession. Yeah...much better...

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