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A Strange Turn of Events

This past Sunday marked an important anniversary in American history. Two hundred and two years ago, on January 8, 1815, American backwoodsmen, all volunteers, soundly defeated the mighty British army that had only months earlier defeated the armies of the mighty Napoleon. But this time, the British were not facing Europeans on the Continent; they were up against freedom-loving, hard-fighting, red-blooded Americans.

The War of 1812 perhaps should never have happened to begin with. But once one is in a war, he had better finish it as best he can, and that’s what this American army did.

The war, which had begun when Congress declared war on Britain in June 1812, had never been popular with many U.S. citizens, especially those of the New England states, and military operations had not gone particularly well for the young United States. The British had burned and harassed Atlantic coastal ports and even burned many buildings in Washington, D.C., forcing the president himself to flee the White House. The foresight of the president’s wife, Dolley Madison, saved a valuable painting of George Washington. To make things worse, the nation was nearly bankrupt.

U.S. diplomats were negotiating a peace settlement in Ghent, but until something definite was produced there, the fighting would go on. Toward that end, the British navy, commanded by Admiral Alexander Cochrane, had landed an army commanded by General Edward Pakenham south of New Orleans. The British planned to overwhelm the poorly equipped and even more poorly trained American forces, seize New Orleans, and control all trade on the Mississippi River, which would mean economic disaster for the Western farmers from the Great Lakes to the Deep South.

But a Tennessean had other plans. General Andrew Jackson, who had only recently been elected leader of the Tennessee militia, came to New Orleans with his force of Western frontier volunteers (that’s where Tennessee got its nickname as the Volunteer State) to foil those British plans.

Jackson declared martial law, enlisted the support of every able-bodied man in the region, including a band of pirates led by Jean Lafitte, and set about building fortifications. Right in the path of the proposed British line of march, Jackson’s men deepened the Rodriquez Canal from the Mississippi River 3,000 feet to a swamp, making the canal an average of 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep and filling it with murky river water. Behind the canal, they erected a wall of dirt, timber, cotton bales, and barrels of sugar. This line became known as “Line Jackson.”

And the 5,000 British professional soldiers attacked. Twice the British troops, who were still reveling in their defeat of the mighty Napoleon earlier in the year, charged, and twice they met withering fire from the frontiersmen and were forced to retreat. In the approximately 30-minute battle, they lost 285 killed, including General Pakenham. They had 1,265 wounded, and another 484 were either captured or reported missing.

The Americans’ fire was right on target. Using long rifles, they made every shot count. British officers later reported that many of the British who were killed had been hit in the head, gruesome proof of the accuracy of the American riflemen. Notable among the marksmen was Lieutenant Ephraim Brank of Kentucky, who reputedly stood on the parapet calmly shooting and reloading repeatedly and never missing his target. (A monument was built in his honor in Greenville, Kentucky, the only War of 1812 monument in that state.) The Americans’ casualties in the battle amounted to 13 killed, 30 wounded, and 19 either captured or reported missing.

The irony of the battle, however, lay in the fact that while the battle was raging, the war was technically over. Diplomats had signed the Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the war, on December 24, 1814. It took so long for the news to reach the United States, however, that neither side was aware that the war was over.

Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the acclaimed Duke of Wellington allegedly returned to England packed in a cask of rum to preserve his physical remains until he could be buried in his home country. Andrew Jackson, a rough, fiery-tempered country planter and Indian fighter, on the other hand, became an American hero and eventually was elected the seventh president of the United States.

Strange things happen in battle, and the fate of individuals and nations is often determined by what happens in the “fog of war.” The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 is just one of many examples of that truth.

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