Imagine dragging a 2,000-pound cannon, cannon balls, guns and supplies several miles across swampy land (when you have had very little to eat) and then having to fight a battle as the British army did in 1815.
Military experts say an opposing army needs three times as many soldiers to overcome an entrenched force, but the British general sent just 7,000 troops to fight Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s feisty contingent of 5,400 French, German, English and Choctaw Indians.
“Historians are still trying to come to terms with what happened,” said Ove Jensen, a National Park Service ranger who annually participates in reenactments of the Battle of New Orleans, fought on January 8 in present-day Chalmette.
“The British did not hold the American forces in high regard,” Jensen said.
The less battle-ready Americans surprised them, sustaining 20 casualties while the British lost 2,000 soldiers in less than two hours. (Napoleon had warned against a frontal assault.)
To relive these events, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve will host the 199th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, one of the pivotal battles in the War of 1812, on Friday, January 10 and Saturday, January 11, featuring an assortment of military drills, weapon demonstrations, skirmish reenactment and living history demonstrations.
The purpose of the Battle of New Orleans Anniversary is educational, said Kristy Wallisch, a park ranger who coordinates the event.
“We want people to come away with why this battle was important and what sacrifices were made,” she said.
In addition, the Louisiana Institute of Higher Education, supported by the Greater New Orleans Foundation Exxon-Mobil Fund, will present a two-day symposium on Friday, January 10 and Sunday, January 12, examining the finer points of military strategies, international politics and the effects on United States’ history.
More than 100 living history experts will descend upon Chalmette Battlefield to illustrate what Americans might have been doing while waiting for the British to arrive. A sandbar at the mouth of the Mississippi River had forced British ships to approach from Lake Borgne and travel north towards New Orleans over land.
Women, children and soldiers wearing period costumes will provide cooking and craft demonstrations while interacting with park visitors. At various intervals, cannons and muskets will be fired across the field. Visitors are challenged to imagine “a wall of red and a lot of smoke,” Jensen said.
Jackson enlisted every able-bodied man to fight – white, free men of color, Native American and even Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates.
“Initially, Jackson was not enthusiastic about teaming up with a pirate,” Wallisch said. But Lafitte’s men knew how to operate cannons and brought powder and flint.
Choctaw Indians from Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma will be traveling to Chalmette this year to underscore the contributions their ancestors made in turning the tide.
“Because the battlefield is considered sacred ground where blood was spilled, we don’t simulate battles,” said Steve Abolt, U.S. Commander for the Battle of New Orleans Anniversary and a member of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association. Abolt lives in Georgia, yet returns every year to relive the events.
“I’ve been sleeping on that field 25 years,” he recalled, adding that the ground is always damp.
Many believe that the Battle of New Orleans was unnecessary, since the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed on Christmas Eve, but the treaty stated that it was not binding and fighting would continue until the treaty was ratified and final signed copies exchanged.
Americans at the front viewed the important battle this way, Wallisch said: “If we fail, the British will be at my house tomorrow.”
This story originally appeared in the New Orleans Advocate.