Adelaide Magnolia Letter 20 - New Orleans, Land, and Race

The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans. 1910 Edward Percy Moran. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans stands as a significant and the deadliest conflict in the War of 1812. Fought on January 8, 1815 east of New Orleans near modern day Chalmette, Louisiana, this engagement occurred after the official end of the war due to communication delays, making it a concluding flourish of the conflict.

Situated along the Mississippi River, New Orleans was a crucial port city for both trade and military strategy. The British, led by Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, sought to seize this advantageous position, aiming to control the Mississippi and cut off access to the American interior. In contrast, the American forces, led by Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson, were determined to defend their territory and halt the British advance.

The battle was marked by a stark imbalance in troop strength. The British boasted a highly trained, professional army, battle-hardened from the Napoleonic Wars, while the American forces were an amalgamation of regular soldiers, militia, pirates, and Native American allies. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Jackson's ingenuity and the unique terrain of the battlefield played a crucial role in the American victory.

The British assault on January 8, 1815, aimed to breach American defenses through a frontal attack. However, Jackson had ingeniously fortified his position using a combination of earthworks, barricades, and artillery placements. As the British marched forward, they faced a withering hail of gunfire that decimated their ranks. The Americans, well-positioned and resolute, repelled wave after wave of British assaults.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Battle of New Orleans was the stunning success of the American marksmen. The skilled riflemen, many of them frontiersmen and militiamen, picked off British officers and soldiers with deadly accuracy. This disrupted British command and sowed confusion among their ranks, contributing to their defeat.

The British suffered heavy losses, including their commanding officer, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham. In contrast, the Americans experienced minimal casualties. The resounding victory elevated Andrew Jackson to the status of a national hero and bolstered American morale, as news of the triumph spread across the country.

The Battle of New Orleans, although occurring after the formal end of the War of 1812, had a profound impact on shaping the post-war narrative. It highlighted American resilience, resourcefulness, and military capability against all odds. Additionally, it set the stage for future negotiations, ultimately leading to the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war.

The Louisiana Purchase and Race in the US

Map of the Louisiana Purchase Territory, 1803-1819. 1903. Department of the Interior, General Land Office. Courtesy of the US National Archives.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was the largest land acquisition in US history. The deal nearly doubled the size of the fledgling nation and ran west from the Mississippi river and included its westward drainage basin, incorporating parts of 15 modern day states. The land was purchased from the French for the sum of 15 million dollars. This purchase significantly impacted the United States in numerous ways, including its influence on race relations. This vast land acquisition had profound consequences for the indigenous populations, African Americans, and the broader racial dynamics within the expanding country.

The land acquired through the purchase included the territories of many indigenous nations, such as the Osage, Cherokee, Choctaw, and others. Though the French did not actually occupy and control much of this land, the US purchased the right to claim such land via treaty or occupation in the future. In the decades following, the government's westward expansion policies led to the forced removal of these Native American groups from their ancestral lands, resulting in the tragic, ethnic cleansing later termed the Trail of Tears. This displacement of indigenous peoples had profound implications for these tribes and impacted them economically, socially, and physically. In fact, by the late 1800s their populations had nearly declined by half.

When the United States made the purchase of the new land, the population in the area of present-day Louisiana was made up of almost half enslaved Africans originating from the transatlantic slave trade under Spanish and French colonial rule. However, there were also many free people of color. In addition, this area was also receiving many refugees from the slave revolt in modern day Haiti. Many of these refugees were plantation owners who brought their slaves with them. This created a desire in the population of slaveholders to create laws to curb the desire of slaves to revolt as they did in Haiti and to make it lawful for them to use slave labor as they ventured into the new territory to set up new plantations and farms. This is when slavery became institutionalized in Louisiana.

As the land which made up the Louisiana Purchase was organized into states, the issue of and legality of slavery started becoming a heated topic of discussion in Congress. It became an argument between southern and northern states. Southern states arguing on behalf of slavery and northern states against. When the territory of Missouri petitioned to become a slave state, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed it to enter the Union as a slave state while Maine entered as a free state, aimed to maintain a delicate balance between slave and free states within the expanding nation.

Unfortunately, the Missouri Compromise only seemed to exacerbate tensions over the issue of slavery between slaveholders and abolitionists, fueling the growing debate over the morality and legality of slavery. This conflict ultimately culminated in the American Civil War, which was rooted in the racial divisions and tensions exacerbated by the westward expansion of the United States.

The acquisition of this vast territory opened up new opportunities for white settlers to establish themselves in regions previously inhabited by Native Americans and, in some cases, Mexicans. This westward movement of white settlers often led to the displacement and marginalization of non-white populations, contributing to a legacy of racial inequality and injustice, with residual effects that exist to this day.

While the Louisiana Purchase is celebrated as a monumental event in American history for its role in expanding the nation, it also had a profound impact on race relations. The forced removal of Native American communities, the ongoing debate over slavery, and the westward expansion of white settlers all influenced groups of people who have experienced centuries of racial inequality and injustices that have seeped into the fabric of our social landscape. Though there have been attempts and efforts on behalf of the government to make reparations for both Native Americans and Black Americans it’s hard to erase the generational traumas many still suffer the effects of today.

Learn the Vernacular:

Clod head: someone who is dull-witted

Fort San Miguel: a British fort built in 1778 in Pensacola, FL and originally known as Fort George. When the Spanish seized Pensacola in 1781, they renamed it Fort San Miguel.

Flogged: to beat someone severely with a whip or rod

Admiral Cochrane: Sir Alexander Cochrane, led naval forces for the British in North American waters during the War of 1812.

Nepotism: showing favoritism for those who are relatives, friends, or close associates

General Keane: A British Army officer leading troops to invade New Orleans in Dec 1814/Jan1815

Court-martialed: a military trial for someone who breaks military law

St. Louis Cemetery: the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, mostly consisting of above-ground vaults from the 18th and 19th centuries.