Monday, May 05, 2014

Monday Reading: The Battle of New Orleans

I've been looking for another book that might capture my attention like the last one. I've hit on a Pulitzer Prize winning historical book called What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. It's part of a series of books that make up the "Oxford History of the United States." I thought I might try to do a chapter a week on Mondays for the next few months.

1. The book begins at the end of one war, the War of 1812, and ends with victory in the war with Mexico over Texas in 1848. In between, some vast changes had taken place. For example, the title, "What hath God wrought," is what Samuel Morse telegraphed from DC to Baltimore in 1844. Daniel Walker Howe, the author, drives home how significant a moment in history this invention was.

Think about it. For all of human history, the fastest news had ever been able to travel was smoke signals or signs that could be seen from a distance. Most of the time, news traveled by foot or horse. We run marathons in honor of the runner who brought news of the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490BC. Later in the century, the short lived Pony Express was an attempt to send mail long distances quickly in the US.

But suddenly in 1848, Morse could send a message 40 miles in less than a second. It would change the world. Howe didn't want to title these years, Jacksonian America. Was democracy the chief characteristic of those years? Blacks couldn't vote. Women couldn't vote. Native Americas were being marched west. No, Howe didn't like that label.

He also didn't want to call those years the market revolution because the market forces that extended in those years were already in play before the War of 1812.

Far more significant, in his view, was the communications revolution. The telegraph and the railway would change the world fantastically. "The history of the young American republic is above all a history of battles over public opinion" (6).

2. The prologue of the book dips back to the end of the War of 1812. The end of the war is a great illustration of the significance of the telegraph. The War arguably wouldn't have even started if Congress and President James Monroe had known that, two days before declaring war, the British Parliament had announced that it would suspend restrictions on American commerce. Two days wasn't long enough for news to make its way across the Atlantic Ocean.

The prologue treats the final battle of the war, which began eight days after the treaty ending the war was already signed. Then Major General Andrew Jackson was pitted against the British. Jackson had a rag tag group of soldiers--Tennessee militia, black freemen, French speaking Louisiana militia (remembering that Napolean had only recently sold Louisiana to Jefferson in 1803). Some Kentucky militia reinforcements arrived for the biggest battle.

Military tactics can be interesting and Howe does a good job of making it so. His analysis is that the British General Pakenham didn't have a bad (if complicated) plan but that some mistakes and a key failure by those under him lost him the battle (and his life). Jackson also had some mighty powerful artillery.

What Howe disputes is what people at the time celebrated as the reason for the victory. It wasn't the untrained, sharp-eyed militia men from Kentucky, many of whom deserted, came to the scene late and poorly armed, and who actually lost their position on the west bank of the Mississippi to the Brits. Meanwhile, the Tennessee militia men lost a target contest with the middle class French speaking citizens of New Orleans and were ordered to hold their fire while cannon artillery swept the center of the British attack force into eternity.

But cannon balls weren't good PR. In Howe's words, "A predominantly rural people wanted heroes from the countryside" and "cannons seemed not altogether satisfactory as a patriotic symbol" (17). The fiction of the untrained huntsman conquering the arrogant British was a far more compelling narrative for early 1800s America... and it sold.

But Howe is clear. New Orleans was not the victory of back woods individualists under charismatic leadership. It was won by technical expertise and good luck, Howe argues.
For the record, in 1815:
  • My great-great-great grandfather William Schenck was 11 years old and living in New Jersey. (Dutch descent)
  • On my mother's side, my great-great grandfather Eli Shepherd was seven and living in Indiana.
  • Another great-great-great grandfather, Champion Shelburn, was about 15 and apparently living in Nelson, Kentucky. (English descent)
  • Another great-great-great grandfather, James Walls, was apparently living in Wilkes, North Carolina and about 17 years old.
  • David Miller was 6 years old and living in Montgomery County, Ohio (German descent)
  • George Rich was 18 and living in Orange County, North Carolina. (Irish descent)

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.