When I woke up this morning, my Facebook feed was full of pictures of people dressed in colorful uniforms that naval or military units wore 200 years ago. Many of these pictures are of personal friends, who have made their way from the cold snowy north down to New Orleans and are now dressed up like pictures in a book or actors in a movie. No, my friends are not crazy, at least I don’t think they are. When I’m not working for the American Folklife Center, one of my hobbies is singing historical songs and ballads with a reenacting group, and my many reenacting friends have a big event today, the bicentennial of the famous Battle of New Orleans.
The Battle of New Orleans is really a name given to a series of engagements between American and British forces, which began on December 24, 1814, and which ended with the final withdrawal of British forces on January 18, 1815. As its name suggests, the battle resulted from a British attempt to capture the strategically crucial city of New Orleans. It was the last major battle of the poorly-named “War of 1812,” and, in a sad quirk of history, it was an unnecessary one: the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, effectively ending the war, but the news had not traveled over the Atlantic to reach the troops or the U.S. Senate, which still had to ratify the treaty.
The most significant clash of armies and navies in the battle occurred on January 8, 1815: two hundred years ago today. This day’s events are often informally referred to as “The Battle of New Orleans.” In the day’s fighting, Major General Andrew Jackson led a small, poorly-equipped army to victory against eight thousand British troops. The British had gained their position on December 23rd, but had failed to exploit their tactical victory. By waiting for reinforcements, they allowed Jackson to build earthworks, known as “Line Jackson,” and to fortify the line with eight artillery batteries.
On January 8, the British attacked. Partly due to British blunders, and partly due to his troops’ stalwart courage, Jackson decisively repulsed them. The day resulted in over two thousand British casualties, and less than a hundred on the American side. Although the British took several other actions in the days that followed, they never again came close to capturing New Orleans or any other American city. The victory made Jackson a national hero, and helped lead to his election as President of the United States in 1828.
The Battle of New Orleans had a small but significant impact on American folklore, especially in the area of songs and fiddle tunes. One particularly interesting tune and its attendant story comes from Virginia fiddler Henry Reed (1884-1968), who had it from his mentor, Quince Dillion. Dillion, who was born in about 1826, was a fife player as well as a fiddler, and played the fife in the Civil War. He had a specific claim about one of the tunes that he taught to Reed, as explained by AFC’s former director, Alan Jabbour:
This and the following tune (“Santa Anna’s Retreat,” AFS 13035a33) are both marches that Henry Reed learned from Quince Dillion, an elderly fiddler and fife player from whom Henry Reed acquired many tunes as a boy. These two were specifically identified as fife tunes, and a trill at one juncture–not a normal feature of Henry Reed’s fiddling–must be an echo of the fife original. In calling this piece “British Field March,” he said that it was the march used by the British to retreat in the Battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson and his American forces routed the British contingent.
As Alan points out, the tune is in fact an old British or Irish air, and it shows up in various early manuscripts…but there’s nothing to say it couldn’t have been adapted and played at the Battle of New Orleans. Here is Reed’s 1966 rendition of “British Field March”:
Another fiddle tune is strongly associated with the battle, although like “British Field March,” it might actually predate 1815. As the anniversary of an important battle, January 8 was widely celebrated with parties and dances during the nineteenth century, especially in the South. During this period, a widely-played fiddle tune now known as “The Eighth of January” was probably renamed for the event. AFC has several versions of this tune online, including the following recording of J.D. Allen and Tommy Rhoades, made by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1940:
Another version, recorded by Todd and Sonkin the following summer, makes up for its low fidelity by capturing the atmosphere of the dance where it was recorded. This version is played by unidentified musicians on harmonica and guitar:
The collection includes two more recordings of the tune; you can hear all four of them at this link.
There are two songs about the battle that had long periods of popularity. “The Hunters of Kentucky,” which celebrates the Kentucky Riflemen among Jackson’s army, was popular during all of the 1820s and 1830s. According to Donald R. Hickey, it was written in 1821 by Samuel Woodworth, and first sung, to the tune of The Unfortunate Miss Bailey, in New Orleans in 1822 by Noah M. Ludlow. The song continued to be printed on broadsides for twenty years, especially during Jackson’s political campaigns of 1824 and 1828. The lyrics describe Jackson as a courageous figure taking decisive action against a superior and better equipped force:
But Jackson he was wide awake,And was not scar’d at trifles,For well he knew what aim we take,With our Kentucky rifles:So he led us down by Cypress swamp,The ground was low and mucky;There stood John Bull in martial pomp,And here was old Kentucky.
They also describe “Line Jackson” and the soldiers there in very colorful terms:
A bank was rais’d to hide our breasts,
Not that we thought of dying,
But that we always like to rest,
Unless the game is flying.
Behind it stood our little force,
None wished it to be greater,
For ev’ry man was half a horse,
And half an alligator.
We don’t have an audio version online, but folksinger Tom Roush has shared his own version on YouTube.
Probably the most famous song about the battle, “The Battle of New Orleans,” was written by James Morris, a history teacher and school principal from Arkansas who performed his original pop and country songs under the name Jimmie Driftwood. Driftwood used “The Eighth of January” as the tune, and added brand-new lyrics. He recorded the song in 1958 on the album Jimmie Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, Victor RPM 1635. [Note: Driftwood usually spelled his first name “Jimmy,” but on this album and some others he spelled it “Jimmie.”]
In 1959, Johnny Horton recorded a cover version of Driftwood’s song on Johnny Horton Makes History, Columbia 1478, and the song rose to the top of the hit parade that year.
Jimmy Driftwood later became friendly with Alan Lomax, and recordings of him are available in the Alan Lomax Collection. Some are online at Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity, which has also created this biographical essay on the songwriter. Driftwood’s song is protected by copyright, so we can’t post an audio version here. Like “The Hunters of Kentucky,” it was obviously inspired by the great American tradition of tall tales. A brief quote from the lyrics will give you a sense of the song:
We fired our cannon ’til the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannon balls, and powdered his behind
And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind
Driftwood’s enthusiastic depiction of the battle notwithstanding, it was an important event in the history of the young United States. It allowed the American public to end the War of 1812 (which in many ways had been a futile and unpopular conflict) with a feeling of victory. To this day, there are differing interpretations of who won the war, but there can be little doubt that Andrew Jackson and the United States prevailed on the Eighth of January.
You can find more resources on the battle at the Library of Congress Today in History page for January 8.
You can find out more about the War of 1812 from the Library’s War of 1812 Web Guide.