In the War of 1812, or America’s Second Revolutionary War, the British had burned Washington DC to the ground but had been stymied in Maryland, New York, Michigan and the Western frontier. The war was at an impasse. The British knew they needed to stop America’s westward momentum (or Manifest Destiny, they recognized it before we did). The key to doing that was New Orleans which controlled trade on the Mississippi river.
In early January 1815, Gen James Pakenham’s eight thousand battle hardened British veterans, fresh from defeating Napoleon in Spain, approached New Orleans from the south. Between the British and New Orleans stood four thousand strongly entrenched American troops under MG Andrew Jackson or “Old Hickory” to his men. But Pakenham and the other British leaders were contemptuous of the ramshackle nature of America’s small army. Jackson’s command was the first virtual American melting pot. It consisted of Kentucky riflemen and Tennessee volunteers, Mississippi dragoons, a company of US Marines, the 1st and 7th US Infantry Regiments; French, Spanish, Creole and free African American militia from Louisiana, Choctaw Indians, a battalion of US Navy seamen, and even two hundred of Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates. The British scorn for Jackson troops was misplaced. Before Packenham and his main force arrived, Jackson’s troops had defeated the British vanguard twice: once on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day (because if you mess with us, we’ll kill you on our holidays. Just ask the Hessians). Additionally, most of the American army participated in the hard fought Red Stick War/Creek Civil War the previous summer. And finally, Jean Lafitte’s pirates were arguably the best cannoneers on the gulf coast. Pakenham, like the British generals of the American Revolution, thought that the Americans would break under a disciplined bayonet charge. Most of the British wouldn’t get close enough.
The British attacked under cover of fog on the morning of 8 January 1815. But Pakenham’s plan was complicated and suffered from poor staff planning. The five uncoordinated British columns attacked piecemeal and suffered from numerous planning errors including the boats to cross the Mississippi River and the location of scaling ladders for the assault troops. The American penchant for shooting enemy officers first destroyed any cohesion left in the British attack. American sharpshooters and riflemen, especially the New Orleans businessmen who shot for sport, killed almost the entirety of the British leadership, including Pakenham. Still, sheer British determination and bravery allowed some to storm the earthworks on the right, a complement to the successful British attack across the river. But the assault eventually failed in the face of America’s own bayonets of the 7th Infantry Regiment. Any local successes were untenable. Less than two hours after the first shot was fired, Gen John Lambert, the senior surviving British commander, ordered a withdrawal…down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
It was a decidedly lopsided American victory: the United States had 13 killed and 40 wounded while the British had 330 killed, 1200 wounded and 400 captured. The news of the Treaty of Ghent, and the end of the War of 1812, would arrive a few weeks later and the Battle of New Orleans forced the British to adhere to the terms of the peace treaty (which they had no intention of doing prior to the battle).
America had taken on the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world and survived, again. And it would send a surge of pride in the young American nation. The Battle of New Orleans permanently forged an American national identity. After the battle citizens would stop saying. “I am a Louisianian”, “I am a Kentuckian”, “I am New Yorker” or “I am a Free Man of Color”, but would instead say, “I am an American”.
After the fall of Ft Detroit to the British on 16 August 1812, Indians all along America’s western frontier began raiding in earnest. On 3 September 1812, a Shawnee war party descended upon the small settlement of Pigeon’s Roost (in modern day Indiana just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky). The attack was a complete surprise and many inhabitants were killed before they could make it to the Collings family blockhouse. The scalps of 15 children (including 2 infants), 6 women and 3 men from Pigeon’s Roost were eventually presented to the British commander at Ft Detroit.
Most of the men from Pigeon Roost were away in the militia, including some at Fort Harrison, in present day Terra Haute, Indiana.. On the same day Pigeon Roost was attacked, 600 Miami and Potawatomi Indians approached the fort demanding its surrender. Captain (and future President) Zachary Taylor asked for a parley in the morning which the Indians agreed to. CPT Taylor had 50 soldiers and militiamen, but unfortunately 30 were ill and bedridden. During the night, one Indian scout set fire to the blockhouse, and while the healthy members of the garrison tried to put out the fire, the Indians attacked. The situation looked grim and two of the garrison immediately deserted.
Taylor quickly assessed the situation and left three able-bodied defenders to fight the fire, including one woman who lowered herself into a well to fill buckets faster. Once he dispelled the confusion through sheer force of will, Zachary l shouted “Taylor never surrenders!” and then led the other 15 healthy defenders and every invalid who could walk in a charge to clear the palisade. After brutal hand to hand fighting along the wall, the Indians broke off the attack and settled into a siege. The defenders lost all of their food in the fire but fortunately COL William Russell was at nearby Vincennes with the 7th US Infantry, a ranger company, and a company of militia including a few Pigeon Roost men. They lifted the siege on 12 September and gave America its first victory on land in the War of 1812.
By 1826, the American “Era of Good Feelings” that came about after its perceived victory in the War of 1812 was over a decade old. The underdog victory over the British, the collapse of the Federalist Party after the treasonous Hartford Convention, and the defeat of Native Americans at Tippecanoe, Fallen Timbers, and Horseshoe Bend, which opened up the West, led to an era when the people referred to themselves not as “Virginians” or “Pennsylvanians”, but as “Americans”. The American System survived the Panic of 1819, the worst of America’s early recessions, stronger than before. Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was being sung in taverns across the country to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. But the Era of Good Feelings among Americans was not destined to last.
Some people in America still believed they were entitled to the fruits of other men and women’s labor and expertise without just compensation. Moreover, they believed that those same people were considered property and that their Natural and Unalienable Rights were the product of a man made government, not the Providence of God or whatever deity they worshiped. Ergo, these slaves did not benefit from the Rule of Law as promised in the US Declaration of Independence and codified in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The issue of Slavery (and to a lesser extent initially, the treatment of Native Americans in this vein) would dominate politics for the next thirty years.
By the mid-1820s, many of the American Founding Fathers had passed on. And most could not reconcile “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” with the institution of Slavery. The divisiveness was personified by two men, the best of friends and sometimes the worst of enemies, who were both on their deathbeds in July of 1826.
John Adams was America’s 2nd President and the product of strong independent rural Massachusetts’ farmers who saw human bondage as repugnant. John Adams never owned slaves, and he felt that slavery was economically inefficient (free men are always more productive than slaves) and would eventually cease. Nonetheless, he was not an abolitionist because he felt that abolitionism was antithetical to American unity.
His friend, Thomas Jefferson, the ironic author of the above passage in the Declaration of Independence and America’s 3rd President, was the product of an “enlightened” Virginia aristocratic class and a slave owner. A self-described racist, Jefferson felt that freed slaves had no place in American society, simply because of the cognitive dissonance of the passage of “all men are created equal” and the issue of Slavery. Jefferson believed that that inherent problem would cause freed slaves to become embittered with their masters and lead to the dissolution of the Union. He favored colonization of the inevitably freed slaves or their reparation back to Africa or the West Indies, as done by James Monroe and the creation of Liberia.
Both men wrestled with the issue of Slavery their entire lives. They led America through her most trying times, and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen despite overwhelming odds, not once but twice. But they could never agree on the issue of Slavery. For nearly six decades, they shepherded the nascent American state to the point where it could defend itself against any external threat. Unfortunately, they could not solve its most serious internal threat.
On 4 July 1826, two of America’s greatest proponents were near death, one 83 years old in Monticello Virginia, and the other 90 years old in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Exactly 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on the steps of Pennsylvania State House, and printed for distribution at John Dunlap’s printing shop, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.
Despite all of their accomplishments, there was much work left to do. Care for the American experiment passed to a new generation. The children of the Revolution, epitomized by the Tennessean adventurer, politician and soldier Andrew Jackson, would have to tackle the issue of Slavery. The children of the War of 1812, personified by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, would have to settle it.