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By late autumn 1814, the United States of America, a nation barely thirty years old, was shaky, divided, and on the verge of dissolving. The treasury was empty, most public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol, the White House, and the Library of Congress, had been burned to ashes by a victorious and vengeful British army. New England, the wealthiest and most populous section of the new country, was threatening to secede from the still fragile Union. After two years of war with Great Britain, it appeared to many Americans that their experiment in democracy—the likes of which the world had never seen—might only have been some strange, nonsustainable political trial and, worse, that a return to the unwelcome fraternal embrace of the English kings seemed inevitable.
American seaports from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico were blockaded by the British navy and the economy was in ruins because of it, with goods and crops piled up and rotting on the wharves. The U.S. Army was stymied and stalemated; the navy, such as it was, had fared little better, except on the Great Lakes. There was finger-pointing, recrimination, and torment everywhere, from the Congress to the press to ordinary citizens; no one was spared.
Then, as autumn leaves began to fall, a mighty British armada appeared off the Louisiana coast with the stated purpose of capturing New Orleans, America’s crown jewel of the West and gateway to all commerce in the great Mississippi River Basin, a misfortune that would have split the United States in two. New Orleans was as nearly defenseless as a city could be in those days, with only two understrength regular army regiments of about 1,100 soldiers and a handful of untrained milita to throw against the nearly 20,000 seasoned veterans of the British army and navy who were descending upon it as swiftly and surely as a tropical cyclone.
As word of the impending invasion reached decimated and burned-out Washington, President James Madison and Secretary of War James Monroe sent urgent pleas for the Western states to come to the aid of their stricken countrymen west of the Mississippi. Backwoodsmen from Tennessee and Kentucky were thus recruited into makeshift army units, but they were far off—as much as seven hundred miles by land and two thousand miles by water—and river transportation was mostly by slow river rafts and flatboats. It was doubtful they could get there in time. Orders from the secretary of war also went out to the legendary Indian fighter Andrew Jackson, then in nearby Mobile, Alabama, after having defeated the large tribe of Creeks who had just perpetrated the bloodiest massacre in American history. Would he go immediately to New Orleans and take charge?
Yes, of course—but of what? Jackson must have wondered. The British fleet contained more than a thousand heavy guns against the perhaps three dozen cannons New Orleans could muster, and what of powder and shot, or flints for muskets and rifles? Assuming that the British didn’t overrun them outright, to Jackson’s knowledge there was little or nothing in the way of equipment, munitions, or manpower
in New Orleans for a sustained siege. There were more than 10,000 trained, first-rate British redcoats bearing down, plus the larger roster of the British navy’s marines and sailors to support them—all this against fewer than a third that number of untrained and poorly armed Americans, even assuming the rubes from Tennessee and Kentucky did somehow arrive in time for the show. Jackson’s task was daunting, to say the least.
This was arguably the gloomiest moment in American history before or since, it being almost universally believed that Britain, still smarting from defeat at the hands of the upstart colonies three decades earlier, now seemed determined to crush, humiliate, and retake her lost possession. And as Britain at that time was the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, there was little doubt among many Americans that the British could do it—considering what they had done so far—and not a few United States citizens prepared, however grimly, to return hat in hand to the iron fists of His Royal Britannic Majesty and life again under the British lion.
“I expect at this moment,” declared Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, “that most of the large seaport towns of America are laid in ashes, that we are in possession of New Orleans, and have command of all the rivers of the Mississippi Valley and the lakes, and that the Americans are now little better than prisoners in their own country.”
As it turned out, of course, this was not to be, but no one could have known or even expected it at the time. What they hoped for, but did not count on, was the courage and tenacity of a small band of American warriors, probably the most disparate and slapdash army ever assembled on earth. It consisted of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Germans, Irishmen—and their descendants—infantry battalions of freed black men, a handful of gunboat sailors, some displanted Acadians (“Cajuns”) from Nova Scotia, a regiment of pirates and smugglers, a convent of Catholic nuns, companies of prominent New Orleans lawyers and merchants, stranded seamen of all nations, leftover adventurers and soldiers of fortune from the Revolutionary War era, numerous women of New Orleans from high society dames to prostitutes, the two small regiments of U.S. Army regulars, plus the aforesaid backwoodsmen from Tennessee and Kentucky—but what an army they became!
All of this in due time, but first let us focus on the broader picture of just what the fledgling American nation had become by that time, how its people lived, and what they thought of themselves.
By 1812 America had grown into a huge but unwieldy economic giant, shipping foodstuffs and raw materials throughout the world. In the more than two centuries since the first colonists settled at Jamestown, huts had been replaced by homes, some of them palatial, and roadways and riverways connected its great cities, which flourished at Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston, Charleston, and, of course, New Orleans—all of them busy harbor ports. A vast westward expansion had begun, carrying settlers into the fertile lands across the Alleghenies, in the process pushing the Indians out of western New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which were now becoming dotted with farms raising corn, grains, cotton, and other cash crops.
The U.S. population had doubled in the three decades since the end of the Revolutionary War, so that by 1812 there were some eight million Americans, many of them recent immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany, with a smattering of French and Spanish, many of these last settling in New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston—all adding to the simmering melting pot that was coming to define the United States.
By the standards of today, transportation and communications were rudimentary, and the sailing vessel remained the most efficient mode of travel. Railroads and steamboats had recently been invented but were not yet in any significant use in the United States. Thus, for instance, it took about a month to send a message by sea or on horseback from New Orleans to Washington City, as the nation’s capital was then called, and another month to receive a reply. The telegraph was still two decades into the future, as were the reaping and threshing machines that took so much of the backbreaking work out of farming. However, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had opened up the Southern states to widespread cultivation of that fabulous crop, and with it the widespread introduction of slavery into the region.
In the large cities, gas lighting for homes and streets was just being introduced. Among the wealthier classes, most furnishings, fancy dress, and other high-end items were still imported from Europe and England; the less affluent used cheap local goods or made their own. Newspapers and broadsheets thrived as the principal means of information and a number of magazine-type publications of opinion such as the Niles Weekly Register and Debow’s Review were also widely circulated.
The cities had immediately become hotbeds of political activity, much to the disappointment (and even disgust) of George Washington, who had consistently warned against it. After the Revolution ended, Americans had quickly divided up into two “factions,” or political parties, as they are now called, which reflected—as they do today—the same two natural divisions of liberal and conservative human philosophy that have dominated political thought ever since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Federalist party, exemplified by the first U.S. treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, a transplanted New Yorker, arguably more closely resembled today’s Democrats, advocating big government and federal involvement in regulating the economy, including government sponsorship of manufacturing, industry, and public works, as well as a national monetary system and a standing army—in short, more federal control—and, of course, higher taxes to support it all.
On the other hand, the Democratic Republican party, as it was known and defined by Thomas Jefferson and the other Southern presidents, wanted as little government as possible from Washington and, instead, preferred that the various states assume the brunt of governmental activities, including national defense, banking, and, of course, little or no taxation from authorities in Washington. (Plus, there was the ever vexing question of slavery, which Southern states were beginning to suspect was becoming target zero of the small but growing abolitionist movement in the North.)
To that end, members of both factions had conducted for years a relentless discourse in the nation’s newspapers, treating the reading public to snide, confrontational, and often libelous “letters” published anonymously and signed with pen names usually taken from Greek and Roman classics. This practice sometimes led to duels in which either the offender or the offended was often dispatched to his reward.* In truth, Americans have always been such a fractious people that it remains something of a wonder democracy has survived at all.
Those citizens who tired of political controversy during the era could indulge in a wealth of literary works by the famous authors and artists of the day. The poems of Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley found their way across the Atlantic and into American parlors and libraries. So did the novels of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. If Americans wanted to read the literature of their own countrymen, Washington Irving was widely known—he was America’s first internationally acclaimed author—and soon thereafter arose James Fenimore Cooper. For those who craved the visual arts and could make the transatlantic voyage, there were the latter-day European masters Francisco Goya and William Blake, or, if not, there were American artists and portrait painters such as Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Singleton Copley.
Americans of the 1812 era ate pancakes, which had been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and mayonnaise was popular, but they ate no tomatoes, which were widely regarded as poisonous. There were, of course, no potato chips, Wheaties, hamburgers, or hot dogs, and much of the main-course table fare was still wild game: turkey, duck, deer, quail, and squirrel; there was domestic pork, chicken, mutton, beef, and seafood as well. They drank tea and coffee when they could get it and otherwise washed down their meals with wine, cider, or whisky.
Sudden death was an omnipresent reality, and medicine was in its primitive stages (“bleeding,” for example, was still a widely accepted medical practice, as were blood-sucking leeches, and, as a sort of cure-all for many ailments, patients were commonly fed mercury, one of the most dangerous elements on earth for human ingestion). The average American life span in the early 1800s was forty years or so; frightful epidemics of typhoid and yellow fever ravaged the country every year, as did scourges of cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza, smallpox, dysentery, measles, and uncontrollable staph infections—not to mention things like shipwrecks, horse throws and kicks, house fires, the sudden and unpredictable arrival of natural disasters such as hurricanes, and, of course, duels. If you ventured outside the cities there was always the chance of getting eaten up by bears or mountain lions or being scalped by Indians. All in all America was a fairly dangerous place, and many if not most families lost a heartbreaking number of children before they had even reached their teens. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth were the leading causes of death for women of childbearing age.
Nontheless, by 1812 those eight million Americans—except for the dwindling population of Indians and the ever increasing number of slaves—had surrounded themselves with eight million pleasurable dreams of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in their brave new world. They believed that they were part of a land of progress and bounty unknown across the far reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Since the end of the Revolution the U.S. merchant shipping fleet, like the population, had doubled in size, and American exports had tripled. Grain and corn from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and the newly opened lands to the west were transported across the North Atlantic to feed the peoples of Britain. Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and North Carolina provided Europe’s nicotine-addicted with tobacco aplenty. The vast cotton plantations of the Deep South were churning out hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton to stoke the looms of the New England states, and those of Manchester, England, and the coastal millworks of France. (Always a bit oddball, New Orleans had become a major supplier of refined sugar from its great sugarcane plantations.) Beneath all this ebullience and prosperity, however, by the time 1812 rolled around America seethed.
The cause of its indignation was the flagrant and long-standing depredation and bullying by the British, who had not forgiven the upstart American colonists for defeating their army at Yorktown thirty years earlier and setting up their own sovereign nation. All this became exacerbated with the rise of Napoleon and the subsequent war between Britain and France. That decade-old conflict had drained Britain of manpower, and especially of trained seamen, so in order to make up the losses the British navy, acting on orders from London, began intercepting American merchant ships and searching their crews for “British subjects,” whom they then “impressed” into their navy. This immediately became a sore point with the Americans, since the British policy was that anyone who had been born in Great Britain was still a British subject and always would be, whether he was now an American or not.
* One of the most infamous of these being the 1804 confrontation between former U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the New Jersey Palisades, resulting in Hamilton being shot to death by the vice president of the United States.